The Docile Ethnographer?

On Self-Censure and Fieldwork

“Looking forward to reading more in this series. Would have liked to retweet it, but I’m not touching anything critical until I’m done with fieldwork and out of the country. Some informants follow me on twitter. So, yeah…”

This was one of the several messages I received following the publication of my previous op-ed in this series. What intrigued me about this one in particular, aside from coming from an old friend, was that it touched an open wound I suspect may be shared by other ethnographers: self-censure.

While contemporary ethnographies speak of healthy and happy relationships between the ethnographer and research subjects, rarely do we get to hear how ethnographers position themselves vis-à-vis confrontational conversations while trying to maintain the much-celebrated “rapport.”

For this reason, we should think more about the overarching gaze of the field and problematize how effective a machine it becomes in producing ethnographers—including docile ones. Regulating one’s public presence surely helps to ensure continuity of fieldwork and prevent potential confrontations. One could argue that a social scientist’s main task is to seek answers to questions raised in the proposal and if some conformity is needed to answer research questions, so be it! If tweaking your public presence is necessary, so be it! To that end, some anthropologists even open up auxiliary research-only social media profiles. While they argue that they do so to keep their private and professional lives separate, this separation appears to me tactical as it helps to hide the past, which, in an age where our online biographies surpass our offline characters, might work against us in the field.

Serving tea to frequenters of the far-right nationalist Grey Wolves’ Idealist Hearth, Strasbourg. One of the many locales that Turkish men hang out after work.

Take the example of the summer that I spent in the Central Anatolian town of Kayseri in 2014, looking at how Turks from Strasbourg spent their summer vacations in the “homeland,” a seemingly innocuous research topic. Yet, two events that colored my stay in the highland villages proved otherwise: Israel’s bombing of Gaza, and killing of four children playing on a beach in mid-July, which led to mass protests in Turkey, and Turkish Presidential elections in early August, which turned the streets into a political collage. These two events put me to the test. Was I, a Turkish born and raised but US-educated graduate student, siding with the West, with the Jews and Americans? Was my research funded by the Rothschilds and Rockefellers? Was I sent to this particular village to report on their flaws? Was I a betrayer like the imam in Pennsylvania (referring to Fethullah Gülen, who, even before the 2016 coup attempt, was seen as a betrayer and dissenter, and a spy working for the Americans to undermine Turkey’s rise to power)? Was I voting for Erdoğan in the elections? I should be, otherwise I would be voting for the terrorists (referring to the Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtaş, the already detained but now also imprisoned member of the Parliament from the HDP/People’s Democratic Party).

Such questioning also followed me to Strasbourg (2016). This time, it was not Israel, but the coup attempt, and through that, the Gülen community that I was interrogated on. Most of the time, laughter accompanied my informants’ questions, though jokes felt more demeaning than comforting. “We are just messing with you, Oguz!” Were they? I had to explain that the US was larger than Pennsylvania (where Gülen lives), and there were many Turks who had nothing to do with the Gülenists. Yes, Gülenists were active in the US. They had many schools. Yes, I was approached by them a number of times. Yes, I even did some research on them while living in Chicago. But no, I was not a coup-sympathizer. I did not receive money from them. Yes, I was not happy with the Turkish government’s recent policies. I would not count myself an Erdoğan supporter. We disagreed on that account. But there was common ground too: the international media was not always fair in their portrayal of the Turkish president, and France and the US should stop lecturing Turkey about democracy. Certainly no, I would not want terrorists to take over my country. But no, I did not care about politics. I found it divisive and distractive. I was interested in their lives instead. No, please, let us not talk about Turkish politics….

Many things happen outside of our control in the field. For me, the coup attempt of July 15 last year was one of them. Overnight, it initiated a witch-hunt in Strasbourg. I was told to avoid certain people and institutions. Trust, which was already waning amongst the members of the community, was next to non-existent now. Why would anyone still talk to me? But they did, because there was more to life than a coup. And there was more to life than politics. There was unemployment. There were drugs. There were families broken apart. There was backbreaking labor with little pay. There was racism. There was resentment. There was lack of love. Lack of being cared for and appreciated. Lack of respect, mercy and understanding. But perhaps these were too grave to talk about, and politics was not. And my informants felt more comfortable talking about politics, not minding how uncomfortable this conversation made me feel. They had Erdoğan on their side, a President who spoke their language. They found comfort in his discourse, which I considered to be populist. Many were proud to support him, and proud to have elected a man, who, even after 15 years in power, could continue to address them in ways that instilled in them hope for a better tomorrow. And for many of my informants who had little to hold onto in life, this hope was golden.

 I had to carry with me two hats, one for the field, and the other for the academic community. Today, the post-field Oguz seems to be wearing the latter…
Given the nature of the field, politics continued to be brought up in my conversations even though I did not have the slightest interest discussing “the internal and external enemies of Turkey.” Hence, I had to be extra careful in focusing on research alone, and let go of public writing, social media presence and articles in newspapers and magazines in Turkish and English. This was my self-censuring, my way of presenting myself as a likable and approachable ethnographer: a poor graduate student my informants could sympathize with, not some US educated urbanite, who envisioned a different Turkey.

In the field, I realized that I had to carry with me two hats—one for the field, where critical thinking can get you in trouble, and the other for the academic community, where critical thinking is (and continues to be, for now at least) the norm. Today, the post-field Oguz seems to be wearing the latter, and I am not sure how I feel about it…

Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.


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