The vulnerable ethnographer

The drive was twenty hours. Long straight stretches of bitumen and heat-hazed horizons, interspersed with the occasional dirt road and the odd truck stop. At the end I’d begin my fieldwork. Partly to stay awake, and partly to stave off my sense of dread (what the hell does ethnography even mean? What do I do when I stuff up? What if I’m not emotionally tough enough? What if I end up hating my research participants? Is it too late to bail? Why didn’t I study something like the effects of beach towel symbols on the taste of mojitos instead?), I started to listen to an audiobook a friend had recommended.

“It’s kind of self-help, but not really self help”, my friend had said when she’d told me to read Brené Brown’s The gifts of imperfection. She was, perhaps, rightfully intuiting my suspicion of a book that bid me to ‘let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are’. But I’d seen Brown’s beautiful Ted talk on the power of vulnerability, loved her humorously honest approach to academia, and was intrigued by her use of qualitative techniques in researching tricky emotions such as shame.

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The fool from the Rider Waite tarot deck, a symbol of new beginnings and reckless optimism.

So, as I drove towards an uncertain field, I listened with interest to Brown’s discussion of the key finding of her study: the importance of vulnerability.

Brown argues that a key component of shame resilience is embracing vulnerability. It’s being open to emotions and experiences where we can’t control the outcomes. This got me wondering, what does vulnerability mean for an ethnographer? Could the level of vulnerability the researcher experiences be what sets ethnography apart from other research methods?

We all know that being vulnerable is part and parcel of ethnographic fieldwork. Allowing ourselves to be present and active (“participate”) in social life means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to the whole array of human emotions that comes with social life: the inadequacy of not knowing what’s happening, the empathy required for bearing witness to another’s experiences, the anger when an interlocutor expresses a belief that challenges one’s own moral view, the visibility of being ‘other’ in a strange culture.

As anthropologists, we demand of ourselves a double vulnerability: we do not merely participate, we “observe” deeply. We read between the lines of situations, scrying the gaps and silences for the belief structures that underpin action, and this means we must make ourselves fully open, fully vulnerable to the complex paradoxes of inner worlds, including our own.  We make ourselves vulnerable by seeing the validity of opinions that may undermine our own. We ask for further explanation, must say “I don’t understand”, even when—especially when—we think we do.  And in doing so, we must be willing to critically examine and questions and the assumptions that we, as researchers, bring into the field.

This, of course, is not news. With the rise of postmodernist thought and the accompanying reflexive turn in social science, anthropologists have come to examine their own experiences and emotions in the field as influencing ethnographic evidence. Emotion is now seen as a form of evidence in its own right. But what interested me most about Brown’s book in regards to anthropology is her argument that an aversion to feeling vulnerable has created a culture of numbing—‘all good here’, we say, as we shove our sense of being anything other than a cool cucumber under a blanket of booze, and business, and bitching. Brown suggests that it’s natural to try to take the edge of our vulnerability. But when we engage in numbing activities we need to honestly acknowledge what we’re doing and why we are doing it. The problem, Brown writes, is that “when we numb the dark, we numb the light”. Life is the dialectic of joy and vulnerability: “there is no such thing as selective emotional numbing”.

This brought me to wondering: what might this mean for researchers? Might this mean that if we stick to writing and analysing the ethnographic situations and topics that make us feel good, then we miss out on half the spectrum of data? Might the ‘darkness’ of what we as researchers experience in private help us make sense of and better appreciate the ‘lightness’ of the out-in-the-open quotidian activities we study?

In her paper “Enmities and introspection”, Emma Varley highlights that often ethnographic narratives of researcher vulnerability are highly sanitised, playing out from the foibles of early fieldwork to eventual understanding and redemption. These narratives gloss over the truly ugly parts of what a researcher experiences and what a researcher inflicts. That is, most ethnographies omit the moments of true vulnerability.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a researcher disrupting this trend is Renato Rasaldo’s essay “Grief and a head-hunter’s rage”. Rasaldo writes that only after the devastating loss of his wife, and subsequent sense of rage, blame, and abandonment, could he understand what the Ilongot men in the Philippines had repeatedly told him about what compels them to headhunt.

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Salvidor Dali’s illustration 1947 for a volume of Michele de Montaigne’s essays.

Varley too draws upon her intense and ‘dark’ emotions to yield new understanding of the field. She reflects on her own experiences of feuding with another woman during her fieldwork. She speaks of how she participated in eye-for-an-eye gossip, voiced prejudices against other cultural groups, and was the victim of dark magic. Varley highlights these experiences, including her own morally murky actions, provided a particular lens for understanding events in the field.

Timm Lau’s writings on “Understanding Tibetan shame through emotional experience in fieldwork” addresses the very topic of Brown’s study: shame. Lau writes about how, during his research on the Tibetan diaspora to India, he witnessed a fight between a prominent Tibetan man and an Indian man. His own cultural upbringing compelled him to try to break up the fight. However, his interference was met with scorn as ‘shameless’ behaviour because he had transgressed hierarchical boundaries. Through Lau’s subsequent sense of embarrassment and confusion, he came to gain an understanding of Tibetan hierarchy he would not have otherwise.

The key aspect of Rosaldo, Varley, and Lau’s findings is not in their actions or emotions alone. It is in their willingness to return to and carefully re-examine these dark moments to see what might be found there. For these researchers, harnessing the vulnerability required to critically analyse one’s own past vulnerabilities was a form of ethnographic evidence. Indeed, as Varley argues, this process is crucial in illuminating and overcoming blind or hidden prejudices in the researcher’s interpretations. As Varley reflects, “conceptualising my fieldwork fallibilities (whether inadvertent weakness or disingenuous foibles, resolved or unresolved) as evidence permits my re-exploration of even contentious aspects of ‘self’, such as hatred or cultural myopia, as interpretative platforms”.

By the time I arrived in my field I was no less anxious or confused than when I’d started driving.  But I was somewhat more aware of my vulnerabilities. And ready to ask the question: how is this experience, this feeling, this thing I feel ashamed of, affecting my ethnographic encounter or interpretation? And am I brave enough to take a closer look at, to learn from, and–in the words of David Whyte–“inhabit” vulnerability?

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*This article was originally commissioned and published via the Australian Network of Student Anthropologists.