Fieldwork as location of politics

Convenors: (EHESS – Centre national de la recherche scientifique),  (EHESS – Centre national de la recherche scientifique) & Mariella Pandolfi (Université de Montreal)

Human sciences generally tend to look at engagement as taking sides with the disadvantaged, sometimes risking uncritical praise. Patterns of engagement with dominant actors, whose social interests are not shared by the researcher, are rarely taken into account. These fieldwork situations are much more frequent today. On the one hand, ethnographers venture into territories that had not been acknowledged as pertinent until recently. On the other hand, they are often led to defend their work within a reticent, if not outright hostile, social environment.

Ethnographers discarded the idea of a dominant point of view and intangible othernesses, and opted for a bottom-up approach that is necessarily positioned. Some ethnographers are therefore led, throughout their meetings, to conduct specific studies in order to develop diversified forms of engagement.

The ethnographer is constantly pushed into social configurations that she cannot fully master, and on which she has equally unpredictable effects. Her presence questions her respondents, who ultimately find her a place, even if the latter is not necessarily the object of an explicit agreement. On the field, the ethnographer is caught into power relations that are destabilizing, and at the same time are destabilized by her own presence and questions. She always feels uncomfortable, and at the same time it is exactly this unease that produces critical knowledge. Each field condensates a singular political question that the researcher will try to focus on through reflective working. The point is to clarify the way this critical knowledge is elaborated.

We start from the principle that fieldwork position is never defined once and for all. On the field, the point of view of the ethnographer evolves according to the encounters she makes, and those that define her. Very often, she is led to endorse stereotypes she disagrees with, she is called names, she feels lost, she constantly feels her limits. The ethnographic relations that are the backbone of her fieldwork are never crystal-clear, but rather shifting and charged with tensions. There are phases of identification and disidentification. There are emotions that are put to test in the analytical effort. Each time, it will be a matter of finding the correct distance in order to describe what is at stake in these encounters, and seize what is intrinsically political.

We welcome all proposals that can grasp this dimension, irrespective of the research area. We are not only addressing those who usually work on institutions and analysis of political power.

Thinking at the ethnographical fieldwork as a “location of politics” has metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological consequences at the same time. We strive to explore these three domains in order to better grasp what the engaged ethnographies of the 21st century will be like.

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