Engagements with Ethnographic Care

On care and self-care as an anthropologist and rape crisis advocate.

I came to my work with survivors of sexual violence, initially, out of care. Care about the individuals who endure the physical, psychic, and social wounds of sexual violence and its attendant traumas, and a desire to provide care for individuals who identify as survivors. Indeed, like my colleague Scott Ross, my fieldwork at a rape crisis center would not have been possible if I hadn’t first dedicated 60 hours of training and a year of service as a hotline advocate for the organization. The decision to inhabit the overlapping roles of anthropologist and advocate emerged when it became clear that the rape crisis center needed data driven support after they lost considerable funding, a level of instability that has become all the more acute in recent weeks. Ethnographic fieldwork is never embarked upon in a carefree manner, but I was especially attentive to the risks and disciplinary quandaries implicated in studying survivors of sexual violence as vulnerable individuals already embedded in regimes of privacy, especially those organizational systems which aim to work on their behalf.

 Demonstrators at the Women’s  March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Emma Louise Backe

The consideration of care in my own case leads me to question the place of care in ethnography more broadly. How do anthropologists enact care during their ethnographic fieldwork? What methodological orientations does caregiving require? How do anthropologists perform self-care to cope with emotionally fraught subject matter and issues in the field, particularly when those very issues are legitimized by popular culture and politics?

To enact care on the 24/7 rape crisis hotline means to engage in the fraught dynamic of feelings elicited by violence. As a hotline advocate, you attend to the spirals of suffering and subjectivity that survivors articulate, while recognizing and accounting for your own emotional responses to the content of the calls. “How are you feeling today?” a hotline advocate might ask, using the question to promote an impression of intimacy for the 30 minutes of allotted call time. Advocates are trained to use language that reflects the experiences of callers in order to affirm the validity and veracity of survivors’ emotions. One of the consequences of the “perfect victim” narrative that pervades popular understandings of sexual violence is that survivors often question the legitimacy of their own responses to violence. If there are “right” and “wrong” ways to enact and embody the role of a survivor as are often portrayed in the media, then survivors might ask whether it’s ok or “normal” to feel angry or even numb about their experience. Part of the hotline advocates’ job therefore relies on our ability to authenticate the multifarious, complex truths of callers and reinforce the value of survivors’ subjectivities, particularly when they do not fit within the model of a strong, heroic, optimistic survivor many expect they should inhabit. This can be challenging when we receive back-to-back calls during a shift—each deferred call feels like a missed opportunity for care, but my job is to remain present with callers and allow them to set the tone of the call. Sometimes that tone is silence. In these moments, I often say, “I’m here, I’m with you, I’m listening.” Sometimes the story is in the absence of the telling.

How do anthropologists perform self-care to cope with emotionally fraught subject matter and issues in the field, particularly when those very issues are legitimized by popular culture and politics.
Yet hotline advocates are also called upon to enact what Lisa Stevenson (2014) refers to as “anonymous care”—confidentiality and anonymity are ensured on both sides of the call, for both the caller and for the advocate. While this system is meant to ensure the safety of callers, it also fundamentally alters the way that advocates can practice care. Advocates want to connect with their callers and provide them with short-term, contingent forms of support within the crisis intervention model, yet they cannot develop close relationships with callers due to the anonymity of the hotline. How to care for survivors within the institutional limitations of the hotline structure and center policies is complicated by the boundaries of intimacy and personal information that render the resource confidential. Within the crisis model, advocates are trained to help callers determine safety plans, deescalate a panic attack after a triggering episode, or activate certain resources after an incident of sexual violence. Once the call ends, however, advocates have no way to follow up or find out whether the caller received the help that they needed. The internal contradictions of these expectations were not lost on the advocates I spoke with. As one advocate, who had been volunteering for the hotline for over five years, put it, “You’re offering emotional presence and it’s sort of unnatural for people sometimes to feel the sharp boundaries of anonymity and confidentiality.”

The anonymous nature of the crisis services also added an extra ethnographic furrow to my fieldwork. The confidential mechanisms of the hotline were put in place to protect survivors and prevent their narratives from being co-opted by others. Interviews about calls therefore had to be conducted carefully. In skirting specifics about callers and their conversations, however, advocates would subtly cast callers into particular roles and flatten the variety of experiences callers bring to the hotline. The limitations associated with the institutional boundaries of the organization also meant that I had to shift my ethnographic focus from survivors to advocates. Anonymity begets a different kind of accountability, for the callers and the application of my fieldwork. As one advocate reflected with a wistful sigh, “I wonder, you know, would it need to be anonymous in a perfect world? Well in a perfect world no one would get raped. If resources, if the systems were perfect at supporting people, would we need an anonymous hotline?”

Demonstrators at the Women’s march on Washington, January 21, 2017. Emma Lousie Backe

The care that advocates enact on the hotline also represents a form of emotional labor of a sort that anthropologists regularly engage in. In a quest to attend to the hidden sites of violence, spaces of friction, and microcosms of marginalization, anthropologists increasingly work in precarious, perilous, and emotionally freighted sites. As both an ethnographer and an advocate, I was tasked with holding the stories of sexual violence disclosed on the hotline, the iterations of violation and the grinding prosaic struggles to survive with trauma. Trauma can be viral—it’s known to spread, infecting those who engage with it. For advocates and health practitioners, burnout, secondary or vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue are not uncommon. There is therefore an element of self-reflexivity at work among caregivers that anthropologists would find familiar. You can’t help someone if you’re hurting: you need to recognize your own emotional limits and take time to invest in personal practices of self-care. Yet anthropologists also travel along what Ghassan Hage (2010) calls the “emotional borderlands”—we are encouraged to feel for our informants, but to feel like our informants involves an entirely different praxis.

Although I’ve worked on sexual violence issues for years, I sometimes worry about my own emotional involvement in the field. To a certain extent, one has to learn how to separate oneself from the violence and the horror of survivors’ narratives so as not to allow the sadness and desperation to overwhelm. This critical distance is necessary to ethnography, yet I was concerned that such practices of dissociation might inure me to the plight of survivors. After the results of the US national election last November, however, the carefully cultivated emotional ramparts I’d constructed to maintain hope in the face of violence crumbled. Donald Trump’s misogyny and cavalier attitude toward sexual assault represented in the “Pussygate” video (released in October of 2016) triggered innumerable survivors, resulting in an increased volume of calls to rape crisis hotlines around the country. When you embed yourself within a vulnerable community, their struggle becomes yours. As an ethnographer, objectivity is less important than maintaining a critical sensibility, even in a space of solidarity. I found myself deeply affected by Trump’s comments and the realization that in the 21st century, allegations of sexual assault could still be dismissed as “locker room talk,” that our country could rationalize electing a president proud of committing sexual misconduct.

Anthropologists also travel along what Ghassan Hage (2010) calls the “emotional borderlands”—we are encouraged to feel for our informants, but to feel like our informants involves an entirely different praxis.

Essentially, what many survivors heard is that the country doesn’t care enough about sexual violence as a national issue. To serve as an advocate on a rape crisis hotline in the wake of the election involved reckoning with these conditions of crisis and my own ability to intervene. Emotional separation allowed me to perform my duties as advocate and ethnographer; without that affective composure, I felt too unstable to handle calls, let alone grapple with how these roles would change come January 20, 2017, particularly given Trump’s plans to eliminate grants through the Office on Violence Against Women.

The rape crisis center encourages the practice of self-care, cautioning that an advocate’s ability to help is also contingent upon their own sense of well-being. For ethnographers who spend years of their lives in the field, who straddle the divide between activism and ethnography, the ethos of self-care should be critical. Our methodological training elevates self-reflexivity, attention to power and positionality, and a number of techniques to facilitate “deep hanging out.” But we are not primed to handle the emotional eventualities of fieldwork. Just as we investigate the kinds of health conditions and forms of suffering that deserve ethnographic care, we need to be attuned to how we care for ourselves and hold space for our own emotions in the field.

Emma Louise Backe is a master’s candidate in medical anthropology and global gender policy at George Washington University. She conducts research on gender-based violence for the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and manages the blog The Geek Anthropologist.

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.