Thick Description in 1500 Words or Less
Although my fieldsite, Argentina, is over 5,000 miles away from where I am now, like many other anthropologists I never fully leave the field, and I remain connected to my research subjects through email, Facebook, and phone. My fieldwork focused on the politics of Jewish memory in Buenos Aires, and I worked with survivor groups who engaged memory as a central arena for political activism and for rebuilding their communities in the aftermath of violence. The politics of memory often plays out in urban sites, including through memorials and protests in public squares and streets; but with the advent of new technologies and social media, virtual spaces are also now quite important memorial landscapes. And it is through Facebook that I first noticed someone post about an event in Buenos Aires—a counter-protest that took place in the city’s main cathedral in November 2013, during the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Windows (a pivotal moment in the history of the Holocaust, marked by the burning of synagogues and destruction of Jewish property in Germany).
For many years, interfaith commemorations of this night—also known as the November pogrom—were convened in churches in Argentina, and just one year ago then-Archbishop Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was in attendance in Buenos Aires’ Metropolitan Cathedral. This year, however, a protest staged by the far-right Catholic group, the Society of St Pius X, erupted at the annual commemoration. They found it to be a “profanation.” These protests reveal the complex politics of memory still at work in Argentine society.
On the night of the commemoration, I was at home, in New York, far from the cathedral. An Argentine friend posted an image on Facebook that generated a slew of comments—visually arresting, the image depicted young Catholic men praying fervently in protest as an older woman seemed to be arguing with them with her fist raised. I immediately felt compelled to understand what was happening, and then, after reading accounts of these protests in the media, to write something for a public audience and position the commemoration and the protests within a more complex framework. Building on the knowledge and understanding I had cultivated over years of fieldwork. I wanted to challenge the more flattened understanding of the events emerging in the international press and on social media.
The Argentine and international papers reported what happened—protesters disrupting a commemoration. But we can ask, as anthropologists, what might a distant reader take away from such a description? To borrow Geertz’s analogy of the eyelid from The Interpretation of Cultures, is it enough to know that the eyelid retracted, or should we try to understand the difference between a blink and a wink? As anthropologists, we are trained to make that distinction meaningful, but that understanding is predicated on our work, our presence, in the field. I wondered, how can we stay engaged and relevant and “be there” anthropologically when we can’t be there in person?
One option is to participate in shaping public representations of our fieldsites in the media. Indeed, our fieldsites are not bounded any longer, and “there” has expanded to include the many representations in the public sphere. Although I wasn’t “there” when the protests took place, I spent the last decade being there, and being there gave me the ethnographic foundation from which to distinguish between the blink and the wink, to place these protests within a context of contestations over memory and Jewish belonging in Argentina. That eventually led me to write for a more public audience in Tablet magazine.
There was a lot at stake in how this particular event was framed and understood—was this a story about the new Pope and the power struggles between the Vatican and radical traditionalist groups? Or, was this a story about Holocaust memory and the ongoing complexities of Jewish belonging in Argentina? Memory is fundamentally political in Argentina, as in many other places, and often the terrain where struggles over power and citizenship develop. How the broader public understood and consumed these events would then become part of this landscape, and I wanted the insights gained through my years of fieldwork, along with the voices of my subjects, to become a part of these contestations over meaning as well.
My writing for Tablet would have to be based on virtual fieldwork—conducted over skype, telephone, and Facetime. This technology enabled me to share time, if not space, with my subjects, thus “be there” in a different way. First-hand observation and encounters with subjects cannot be replaced by telephone and skype interviews from afar, but I do believe we can build on our years of being there in person to move within the temporalities of public media.
Despite my reservations about this new form of “being there,” I found it an important way to bring my subjects’ voices to a new public. But writing is inevitably a struggle over meaning, and the editorial process underlined some important differences between journalism and anthropology—in the small negotiations over language, what was necessary to include and not. As my first public piece of writing, I was excited to imagine a broader audience reading my work, but it was also clear that certain nuances and theoretical complexities did not have a place—or space (given the strict word limits)—in this forum. Yet my anthropological training provided another important level of insight, because I cared about my relationship with my subjects and that what I wrote could immediately impact their lives and struggles. Moreover, this relationship with our subjects—an ethical one based in mutual reciprocity—allows us to understand the difference between the blink and the wink as ethnographers. This can be the foundation of a thicker description of events that contributes something valuable to the public sphere.
Even if I couldn’t be there in person, my years of being there and my relationships with my subjects allowed me to create this thicker description, contributing ethnographic insight to contestations over meaning—what some would define as culture—that are increasingly more public, even if I had to do it in 1500 words or less.
Please send ideas for future columns to the contributing editors, Leo Coleman at Coleman.firstname.lastname@example.org and Allison Fish at email@example.com.