Doing Fieldwork among People We Don’t (Necessarily) Like

Last year’s Annual Meeting of American Anthropological Association (AAA) took place in a cold and wintry Minneapolis, less a week after the global shock that was the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. It was only natural and that talk in the corridors and in quite a few panels and roundtables should be about Trump. As it was in my own roundtable on anthropological publics and public anthropology.

I first started discussing the idea to organize a roundtable on the rise of the far-right and right-wing populism in Europe and the United States with my Danish-German colleague, Heiko Henkel, for this year’s Annual Meeting in Washington DC.

As we started work on identifying and contacting prominent international anthropological scholars who had actually undertaken ethnographic work on far-right and/or right-wing populist activists, leaders or sympathizers in various nation-state contexts in Europe and in the US for two roundtables, we were struck by how few anthropologists had actually dedicated ethnographic attention to this phenomenon. Although there are exceptions—Douglas R. Holmes by now standard-setting monograph, the work of Don Kalb,

Marcus Banks and Andre Gingrich, and Cathrine M. Thorleifsson —they remain few. As Hugh Gusterson has rightly noted, “The anthropological analysis of such movements…is still embryonic.”

I have been thinking a great deal about why this should be so. Marcus Banks and Andre Gingrich have suggested that we as anthropologists tend to investigate topics and work with individuals and groups whom we are able to sympathize with. And relatively few anthropologists (though there certainly are some exceptions; if we are honest about anthropology’s checkered past, we should also realize that we have what Didier Fassin has aptly described as a “dual legacy” to contend with here) tend to sympathize with populist right-wingers. In line with this, Joel Robbins has argued that anthropologists since the 1980s have replaced the proverbial “savage slot” with the “suffering slot.”

Anthropologists, in other words, have tended to study those people who in some way or other can be said to “suffer.” When we speak of “suffering,” images of white male populist right-wing sympathizers are perhaps not the first images that cross our anthropological minds though some of them both feel and are marginalized and suffering.

Furthermore, a common enough story about anthropology and anthropologists tells us that ethnographic fieldwork—especially of the long-term variety—entails the establishment of relations of familiarity and a profound sense of ethical commitment to one’s informants. We can’t all have the kind of deep entanglement with and sense of moral responsibility towards our informants that Lila Abu-Lughod describes in the case of her informants among the Awlad ‘Ali.
Most of us will in the course of our ethnographic encounters have found informants with whom we develop bonds of empathy, friendship and affection, but also informants whom we grow to resent. In my own first ethnographic fieldwork experience in a township south of Cape Town in South Africa at the age of twenty-seven, I struggled enormously with my ambivalent feelings about the personal tragedy of Muslim man who, as a former member of a Muslim-dominated vigilante movement in the mid-to-late 1990s, was charged and later convicted on rather flimsy evidence to fifteen years imprisonment for allegedly having been an accomplice to and accidental killing of a six-year old child. The killing had taken place two years prior to my arrival whilst my informant and other members of PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) had chased a local drug-lord in an attempt to assassinate him. The child that was killed was a bystander who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the druglord was later found murdered in his own bed. My ambivalence stemmed from the fact that my informant, who I meet practically every week in the local mosque in the course of his trial for murder in 2000, emerged on national television surrounded by PAGAD members and supporters shouting ‘takbir’ and ‘allahu akhbar!’ outside a local magistrate’s court when his first trial ended with a verdict of community service. The mother of the murdered six-year old girl, who happened to be from a Christian family, appeared sobbing and heartbroken in the same footage. I knew my informant as a sensitive, ambitious, yet ultimately misguided and troubled family man with small children of his own. Whatever I thought of his involvement in what had happened on that fatal night, I found myself in deep and profound resentment of his and his PAGAD friends’ shocking insensitivity towards the mother of the slain child on the steps of the magistrates’ court that day, and struggled really hard for weeks not to give public expression to that resentment in the township where I lived. It was my informant’s theatrics that day which led the public prosecutor in Cape Town to appeal the verdict, leading to his eventual fifteen year’s prison sentence in the appeal case.

When I returned to do more ethnographic fieldwork in Cape Town three years later, I encountered ultra-conservative members of the Deobandi proselytizing movement the Tabligh Jama’at (TJ) whose views on appropriate gender relationships and child-rearing I can in hindsight only describe as being reprehensible to me on a personal level. Yet for the most part, my informants in Cape Town are people to whom I owe a tremendous personal debt for all the friendship, hospitality and love they have so unselfishly offered me over the years.

If we look at the anthropological record, anthropologists have not always only taken interest in working with people we are sympathetic toward. Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi’s nuanced and courageous account of the ideas and passions of the far from sympathetic murderous Hindutva nationalists in Gujarat in 2002 comes to mind.

So does Joshua Oppenheimer’s uncomfortably close and meticulous ethnographic-cinematic portrayal of the silences of Javanese political mass murderers.
A recent and to my mind brilliant example is the work of my colleague Nitzan Shoshan on neo-Nazis in East Berlin.
As an anthropologist, Shoshan, on both personal and political grounds clearly does not like most (if not all) of his neo-Nazi informants. – many of whom have criminal records for violence against immigrants as well as antiracists. Yet that has not stopped him from writing a richly textured and informative ethnographic account of their lives, ideas and modes of identification under exceptionally challenging circumstances for any anthropologist. For not only would it be difficult for any anthropologist to work with neo-Nazi informants – in Shoshan’s case there is the added layer of his Jewish background and having to present himself to his informants under a pseudonym and a fabricated identity. As Shoshan has pointed out, it is not as if anthropologists have not historically taken an interest in the seemingly marginal, abnormal and occult.

There is an albeit small window of opportunity now for anthropologists to come to ethnographic grips with the rise of far- and populist right-wing formations in both Europe and the US and what their rise tell us about the changing nature of our lives, societies and politics at the moment. We could do worse than stepping up to this challenge here and now at a time when what was once on the fringe in our own societies have all of sudden and quite disturbingly turned mainstream.

Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist and an associate researcher at KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion and Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway. His most recent book is Anthropology of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology.

Laila Badawy

Cite as: Bangstad, Sindre. 2017. “Doing Fieldwork among People We Don’t (Necessarily) Like.” Anthropology News website, August 28, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.584

Comments

Here in Canada, anthropologists have long critiqued the dominance of the ‘suffering” paradigm (long before Robbins etc.) In part, this is due to our close collaborative relationship with Indigenous peoples, who largely resent being seen as passive sufferers of settler colonialism. And several years ago I organized a SPA panel on working with people who are often seen as “problematic.” I would draw your attention to Hinton’s book “Why Did They Kill,” and my own book, “Hound Pound Narrative: Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention” for examples of this sub-current.
Jim Waldram

The point that anthropologists need to consider doing research with communities of people they might not like, or whose politics they might adamantly reject, is so important. Back in 1986, Vincent Crapanzano’s “Waiting: The Whites of South Africa” offered a brilliant and sensitive ethnography of diverse white South Africans who supported apartheid in the years before the regime fell. (I take that work as a model of the sort of difficult research proposed here.) I once spoke with several ANC leaders who said they might fight more effectively if they understood the motives, fears, and world views behind their racist countrymen and women. At the time, Crapanzano hadn’t done his research; I often wondered if apartheid might have ended earlier if he had. Fast-forward to 2016: in the US, one of the reasons Trump won (beyond Russian collusion) is that Hillary entirely underestimated the impact of Trump’s appeal, especially among working-class white women; if we’d had anthropologists doing ethnography with such women, and if they had figured out ways to communicate the urgency of Clinton’s miscalculation with her campaign (another big “if”), dare I imagine that the outcome of the election could have been different? In the UK, the same might have been true of the Brexit vote. I think these difficult times are an important wake-up call to our discipline that it’s time we relinquish our widespread disciplinary prejudice against doing research with people whose opinions we might find odious. If we want to speak to contemporary issues and be relevant in today’s world, that reluctance is a luxury we no longer have. Yes, there are serious ethical issues involved with such research, and those must be approached thoughtfully. But, ALL research with humans involves ethical challenges, and that doesn’t stop us from doing research and trying to forge the most ethical approach possible to the challenges that arise. If we want to avoid ethical issues entirely, we need to find another profession. (Or, in fact, just stop being human–since, recognize them as such or not, we face ethical issues daily in our ordinary lives, anyway.)

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