Introduction to “Ethnographer as Activist”

Grappling with ethnography and advocacy in the field.

What follows is a transcribed conversation between the authors. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Haley Bryant: When we began this discussion it took the form of a conference panel designed to work through some of the challenges associated with bridging the gap between ethnography and activism. There is a unique element of scale and time to doing ethnography of a social justice movement or issue at a moment when the threat of violence or war is very present and very immediate—locally or globally. We wondered if this shifts the discussion around what social scientists can do for activist causes, as ethnography is a time-based practice. In order to be true to the nature of ethnography and not slide into the realm of journalism, you have to acknowledge that there’s an element of long-term investment. What is productive about ethnography is the combination of the observation of the everyday with historiography and a critical eye.

Emily Cain: So where do we make room for the influence of anthropology on the political dialogues that are happening in the US? And how does one inhabit the roles of ethnographer and activist simultaneously and with integrity? This series explores those questions through the experiences of several ethnographer-advocates, all at different stages in their careers and research. Hugh Gusterson analyzes his attempts to influence public discourse, Scott Ross reflects on the ways his work emerged out of his activism, Chloe Ahmann examines her tactical use of in/visibility in the field, and Emma Backe calls for closer attention to care among anthropologists. These four themes—audience, communication, visibility, and care—emerged through our discussions around this series. While each contributor addresses an individual theme, the series illuminates the ways in which these concepts are intertwined and co-constituting.


Haley Bryant: Something emerging from each piece is how we negotiate the ways we frame the numerous targets of our discourse or products as ethnographers.

Emily Cain: And in traditional anthropological settings, we tend not to spend much time discussing audience. It’s generally once you step outside of the academic voice or readership that you realize how complicated and multivalent your audiences can get.

Haley Bryant: Scott Ross talks about finding your audience as a gateway into ethnographic work, which many ethnographer-advocates should relate to. Personal activist work and relationships with NGOs can actually serve as the entree to ethnographic work. Hugh Gusterson, on the other hand, ruminates on the moment that work is complete—how do you talk back to your interlocutors? The intermingling of activism and ethnography often demands that we speak beyond the academy, which poses its own challenges.


Haley Bryant: Thinking more about who we’re talking to, Scott introduces the idea of ethnography as activism—he asks who we write for or on behalf of and questions if this is even a useful interrogation. That really is the crux of our discussion about activism; the way we label and perceive audiences impacts the way we frame our discourse and how we present our work.

Emily Cain: The idealistic tendencies of activism can impact the way we communicate as well. Hugh discusses a certain level of naiveté in his early work—his attempt to reframe public debate is met with hostility by nuclear activists, and he reminds us that the way we choose to communicate impacts our relationships with interlocutors. In choosing to engage with activist work, we perform a balancing act: when are we obligated to speak up, and when do we sit back and observe?

Haley Bryant: Right, we can’t always assume that our work is going to change public discourse or argue with the underdog. Ethnographic work traffics in nuance and layers and intricacies and complexities, our conclusions often don’t necessarily trend toward whatever cause we may wish to advocate for.

Emily Cain: As ethnographer-activists we begin with a particular type of passion for the people and causes we’re working with. This means that we come with different assumptions and personal biases than you would in a traditional ethnographic setting, and have to decide the extent to which we let those influence our work.


Haley Bryant: Chloe really brings that point home in her discussion of visibility. It’s not just physical visibility we need to be cognizant of, but also the visibility of our data. These pieces illustrate just how much we need to consider and judge our situation while embedded in the field. This series also leads me to think about the privilege that comes with being visible safely. Our position as social scientists from recognizable institutions means that we enjoy a level of safety that our interlocutors may not. With that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility.

Emily Cain: The fact that you’re tied to an institution could in some ways make you a target for those who want to silence certain views, and that could put your interlocutors in danger as well.

Haley Bryant: One example of ways we can put our influence to work is the political education Chloe does in her research community of Curtis Bay, Maryland, which she says is a lot about teaching the history of the city’s disenfranchisement and the environmental degradation there. So she has been able to access certain resources and to put historical facts in conversation with the very real, felt, and remembered experiences of community members.


Haley Bryant: It seems there is a reluctance to associate the ethnographic process with care because it is affective, not methodological. But the long arc of anthropology as a discipline is actually a testament to care. You look at how the discipline has evolved from its colonial, imperialist roots to the present day. Anthropologists have thought and rethought the way we care for our work, ourselves, our interlocutors, and our fellow anthropologists.

Emily Cain: Emma also introduces the concept of self-care in an ethnographic and activist context. Here, suffering isn’t just a form of disillusionment, confusion, or homesickness in the field—it’s a sustained encounter with the aftermath of violence.

Haley Bryant: Yes, the importance of mental health in the labor of anthropology is part of what we’re calling attention to here.

Emily Cain: It can be true that the deeper you get into activist work, the more you are affected by trauma, so practices of self-care —which include monitoring your own visibility, the communities you work with and weave between, and the modes of communication you engage in—can be imperative.  Sustained ethnographic effort is only possible if you’re paying attention to your own needs and caring for yourself in a way that allows that work to continue.

Haley Bryant is a museum anthropologist hails from Nashville, Tennessee and currently lives in Washington, DC. She can typically be found researching community archiving practices, thinking about being a better advocate, coordinating a visual ethnography film group at George Washington University, or contemplating the ethnographic potentials of popular culture phenomena (such as street magic). Drop her a line at
Emily Cain is a museum anthropologist based in the Washington, DC area. She is currently exploring the topics of museum-community collaboration, ethnographic activism, and multimedia digital ethnography. Her greatest interest is in using ethnography to reconnect with and contribute to her West Virginian heritage. Say hello!

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