On Not Being Seen

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.

That’s me on the right, turning away from the camera to hide my face. Photo by United Workers Media Team, December 2015. Chloe Ahmann

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.

Managing appearances

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.

Where do we draw the line between tactical machinations and dishonesty parading as a methodological obligation?
The previous December, when I’d marched alongside activists who occupied the street outside a state agency, I asked to be excluded from group pictures; I didn’t want to be identified as a part of the campaign. (Indeed, I’d regularly offer to take pictures rather than pose in them, and when that didn’t succeed I’d quickly duck outside the frame.) Over 24 months of fieldwork, I frequently “untagged” myself from overtly positioned posts on Facebook. And when I’d drive students like Destiny around from place to place, I’d often dawdle to avoid our entering together. I worried that appearing too attached to their work would limit my access to other groups—that a perceived bias toward the campaign would make it more difficult to conduct a balanced investigation. Vigorously patrolling my appearance seemed like the simplest way to leave lines of communication open with multiple communities. But it often felt dishonest and, like most methodological decisions, it affected the data I was able to obtain. Like my demeanor, my transcripts reflect a comfort with those groups around whom I felt less obliged to manage my opinions or control my behavior.

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?

Destiny leads a march outside a state agency; I’ve just stepped outside the frame. Photo by United Workers Media Team, December 2015. Chloe Ahmann

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.

Comments

One of the risks of “not being seen” as a risk management practice in ethnographic fieldwork is that it tends to reinforce public suspicion that you may be a police or intelligence agent or other form of spy because it fits into the general stereotype of how people think such people will act. That is, what might be seen as “skulking around on the fringes” tends to make you look suspicious. It is well known that perhaps the most common risk those conducting fieldwork face is the suspicion that they may be a spy. I have long advocated that a better danger ameliorating practice is generally just the opposite; that you practice a high visibility open public presence and try to not act like a spy. What Chloe calls “managing appearances” I called “impression management” after Irving Goffman’s classic “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959).

There is no single “master” strategy for managing risk and danger in fieldwork. It is more art than science, and involves adapting to the particular circumstances at hand. There may be some circumstances where “not being scene” is appropriate, but it is well to recognize the potential for the practice of “not being seen” to generate a suspicious public “impression.”

Sluka, Jeffrey A.
2015 “Managing Danger in Fieldwork with Perpetrators of Political Violence and State Terror.” Conflict and Society: Advances in Research. 1:1, 109-124.
1995 “Reflections on Managing Danger in Fieldwork: Dangerous Anthropology in Belfast.” In: Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival, ed. by Carolyn Nordstrom & Antonius Robben. University of California Press. Berkeley. Pgs.276-294.
1990 “Participant Observation in Violent Social Contexts: Managing Danger in Fieldwork.” Human Organization, 49:2, 114 126.
1989 “Prologue: I’m Alive and Well, My Kneecaps are Still Intact, and My Research is Coming Along Fine.” In: Hearts and Minds, Water and Fish: Popular Support for the IRA and INLA in a Northern Irish Ghetto. JAI Press, Contemporary Ethnographic Studies series. Greenwich.

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