Visibility in the field can be fraught with methodological and ethical dilemmas.
“Go ahead inside. I need to get a few things from the trunk,” I told Destiny as I dropped her off outside the recreation center on a cold, March night last year. She understood the subtext: we shouldn’t be seen coming in together. It wasn’t as though, once inside, we would pretend to be strangers. We would talk, even hug; we would probably sit at the same table. But I didn’t want to be visibly attached to Destiny’s activism. That night, I wanted to enter alone—to be viewed from the start as an independent agent.
Destiny leads a coalition of students, teachers, environmentalists, and other committed citizens fighting to keep the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project out of Curtis Bay, an industrial community in south Baltimore. If built, the Project will be the largest trash incinerator in the nation, burning 4,000 tons of waste each day to generate “clean,” “green,” “renewable” energy, while at the same time releasing thousands of pounds of lead, mercury, and fine particulate matter annually into Maryland’s most polluted neighborhood. As a political flashpoint, the incinerator has drawn residents, environmental activists, government officials, and industrialists into tense debate. As an ethnographic object, it demands a delicate maneuvering between these groups—a demand that I have struggled to navigate.
Here, I discuss one of my strategies for staying above the fray: in order to maintain relationships with multiple groups-in-conflict, I developed a habit of not being seen, of patrolling the appearance of my ties to certain people and my presence in certain situations. Nevertheless, while managing my ethnographic visibility seemed a necessary part of my research, I often questioned its ethical implications.
Being an “independent agent”
My work, which focuses on the fight to stop the incinerator in Curtis Bay and on the five generations of environmental degradation that inform it, has forced me into the center of this volatile debate. And though I am committed to engaging all sides, my research tends to tilt toward resident activists, since their work is the core object of my investigation. Research questions always position ethnographers in the field. They betray our interests and shape our methods. They dictate how we spend our time. They invite asymmetries in proximity and prioritize certain pathways of communication. The questions that I brought with me to Curtis Bay meant that I spent several hours each week studying and strategizing alongside the anti-incinerator coalition, whose members became my friends and whose concerns shaped my research. And though I allocated a considerable amount of time in the field to industry professionals and government agents, it was less time, and we maintained more professional relations.
In most contexts, I felt comfortable with my independence as a scholar and my movement in and out of the campaign, so much so that I’d occasionally offer to translate one group’s perspective for another: “People in the neighborhood are concerned about X,” “The state seems to be working through this frame,” “It sounds to me like the company is concerned with such-and-such a regulation.” But in light of the groups’ hostile associations, my comfort was tenuous and my impartiality frequently strained. At times, I was asked to divulge data in unethical ways—to share transcripts, disclose campaign strategies, or identify the source of information—and perform the unscrupulous role of anthropologist-as-spy. While it was relatively easy to deny such requests, asymmetrical patterns of alignment also invited questionable behavior. So as to not arouse suspicion among officials about my scholarly intentions, I sometimes feigned a social distance with activists that felt curated, even fake.
That March evening, in particular, I was faced with the uncomfortable task of performing neutrality among groups that viewed themselves as adversaries. Representatives from the waste industry had come to defend the billion-dollar project that Destiny and her colleagues had fought for years; they accused one another of deception and manipulation. While residents, activists, and experts engaged in inimical debate, I sat at a table on the room’s periphery, straining to control the look on my face. In other contexts, I’d comfortably interacted with people on every side of the incinerator campaign. But it was not until that night that I realized how much those conversations had hinged on my conscientious self-presentation.
In short, I began my fieldwork knowing that many skills would contribute to my project’s success. But no one suggested that monitoring my own visibility might be a prerequisite for navigating ethnographic space.
The politics of ethnographic visibility
Anthropologists have a tradition of hand-wringing over the politics of visibility, but it’s more-or-less confined to ethnographic text: Should we write from a position of advocacy or seek neutrality? Should we wax at length about our own positionality? To what extent should we be narratively present or authoritatively aloof? Thirty years after Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986), these debates remain rife with dispute. But as a discipline, we spend far less time considering how visibility applies to the labor of fieldwork. Particularly when studying groups in direct conflict with one another—when alignments can limit access—when should the scholar be seen, and with whom? And when it comes to managing appearances in these contexts, where do we draw the line between tactical machinations and dishonesty parading as a methodological obligation?
Is it unethical, in other words, to seek entry into certain ethnographic spaces by disguising one’s rootedness in others—by evading cameras, lingering in cars, or strategically sitting on the opposite sides of tables?
I’m not prepared to offer answers. But when I raised these questions at the roundtable that inspired this collection, I was surprised by the responses: “Yep,” “So it’s not just me,” “I try to stay out of pictures, too.” In that honest and at times confessional space, there was a palpable relief at the admission that, yes, we occasionally duck, dally, and hide to manage how others perceive our ethnographic relations. In spaces of explicit political conflict, like Curtis Bay, and amidst more quotidian quibbles in the field, we all do work to manage our alliances and avoid confrontation (see articles in this series by Emma Backe and Scott Ross).
Nevertheless, the silent ubiquity with which so many of us go about not being seen suggests we need a more robust conversation about ethnographic visibility and, ultimately, its ethical implications. And we ought to collectively acknowledge that our maneuvering—as awkward and even silly as it is—hints at an uneasy identity politics that many scholar-advocates play.
Chloe Ahmann is a PhD candidate in anthropology at George Washington University studying risk, social movements, toxicity, and governance in the post-industrial United States.