An ethics of care to self as anthropologist

As a student of anthropology for over 6 years I rarely, if ever, encountered discussions around an ethics of care to the self as an anthropologist. My undergraduate and postgraduate studies had acquainted me well with the ethics towards research participants as well as my duty of care to the discipline as a representative of the field (AAA guidelines, ASA guidelines). Yet, there had been an almost complete silence on what an ethics towards the self as an anthropologist might be, why it is so integral that we incorporate such an approach to ourselves, and what impact a radical reimagining of ethics may have for the discipline.

Though I had begun to conceptualize such an ethical approach to myself as an anthropologist through my tentatively new and blossoming relationship with works by disabled, feminist, queer and writers of colour, it wasn’t until I spoke at the bi-annual European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference that I began to solidify my thinking around an ethics of care to myself as an anthropologist.

I had been invited to speak on a roundtable, ‘doing ethnography ethically in the digital age’, based on a previous paper I had given on the ethics and methodologies of digital research. Initially I had prepared further reflections on how the ethics and methodologies of digital research had evolved throughout my PhD research with video game players and developers – what it means to do digital research when the researcher is obscured by the screen (Piia Varis, 2014, how to maintain participant anonymity in an age of googlability (Varis), how anthropologists can approach studying single-player video games as opposed to only focusing on massively-multiplayer online role-playing games and why we should.

Yet, as I began to prepare my paper, I could not ignore the impact the series of global crises’, rising alt-right rhetoric, and personal crises’ was having on myself and my research. An impact that was so deeply felt within my own body and mind that I had to make a difficult decision to unofficially step back from my fieldwork. Starting fieldwork in March had raised new ethical dilemmas for me to consider as a result of covid-19, racial violence and Black Lives Matter, and transphobia (among other issues). An abundance of people turned to gaming as a way to spend their time during lockdown which, in theory, provided the perfect environment for my research. However, rather than being overjoyed, I felt conflicted, exhausted, depressed, lonely and afraid.

My anthropological training had focused on what it means and why it’s vital to show an ethics of care towards my research participants, colleagues and the discipline but it had never touched upon ethical concerns related to myself, beyond basic “safety” in the field. It didn’t cover the mental health breakdown I was having as a result of the first round of lockdowns in the UK, the unimaginable stress of being a student doing fieldwork at a time of global crisis, my disintegrating personal relationships and home, nor how these impacted me as an intersectionally marginalised person. I struggled to adapt to a climate of fear and change, ignoring my own needs and forcing myself to “take advantage” of this opportunity.

2 months later, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, preceded by the murder of Breonna Taylor. Police violence escalated, statues dethroned, black lives matter protests took to the street around the world. In May/June, vitriolic transphobia and transphobic violence erupted on twitter. Shockingly high numbers of people were dying from covid-19. I refused to keep pushing for fieldwork to happen, I made the call that it was no longer ethical for me to conduct fieldwork with participants, many of whom have greatly suffered under these acts of violence, nor ethical to myself. Though it was a difficult and terrifying decision to make, I believe that it was without a doubt the right call to make.

The ethical dilemmas I faced since the start of my fieldwork and the decisions that I subsequently took in an effort to protect myself have raised so many further questions for me about the ethics of care towards self as anthropologist which I am eager to continue thinking with and through. One of the key things that has come out for me is how unethical the discipline is towards anthropologist students and researchers.

The focus on the practicalities and theoretical aspects of the discipline within our training and research inadequately prepares researchers for the reality of life in the field. It does not prepare us for navigating complex interpersonal relationships, does not touch upon how to set boundaries with participants, doesn’t offer any training or support around hearing or witnessing trauma or the very real damage this can cause us, experiencing discrimination such as sexual harassment/violence, racism and transphobia, or coping with isolation and poor mental health in the field.

Another instance where we see this lack of ethics towards researchers is the failure to see fieldwork as field work. Given anthropology’s long-term interest in political organising, labour and unionisation, it seems astounding that anthropology students are taught that when we “do fieldwork” we are always switched on as anthropologists because data could happen anywhere and at any time in the field. If we are to conduct fieldwork for 12-15 months, are we therefore supposed to be working 24/7 for that entire period? What are the ethical implications of this? These blurred boundaries of self and work as an anthropologist raise further concerns for those of us who conduct digital anthropology where we are, in many ways, expected to always be online.

This is an issue that was raised during our roundtable discussion at EASA where a fellow anthropologist researching a social media platform shared their experiences of the complicated relationship between herself and her research participants. These participants would frequently contact her around the clock on social media for someone to talk to or because they were seeking help. The anthropologist spoke about how conflicted she felt given our ethical duty to reciprocate where possible to our participants and this was further complicated by the sensitive nature of research with vulnerable participants. If we wish to minimise the extractivist nature of ethnographic research, must we always be available to give back to our participants? Where do we draw the line in this exchange? Can we ever draw the line, even once we have “returned” from the field (Sanjek and Tratner, 2015)?

If anthropology is to take ethics seriously then an ethics of care to research participants and to ourselves must be embedded in every aspect of our training, research and guidance, and further work must be done that radically reimagines the discipline, what fieldwork is and what it should be.

Scholar-activists are already doing this work in many ways, such as the incredible work that The Fieldwork Initiative does on seeking to prevent and offer support to students who have experiences trauma, racism and gendered violence in the field, as well as the powerful and transformative works of black, indigenous and people of colour, disabled, feminist and queer thinkers which urge us to care for ourselves and others even more lovingly and radically in the face of exploitative systems. The wider discipline however is yet to embed such vital work as a core part of the discipline and the training students receive.

As a second year PhD student, connecting with this radical work, thinking and thinkers is a crucial part of my learning and unlearning, and “becoming” as an anthropologist. It is their strength, love and hope which stands with me when I show an ethical commitment of care towards myself as a student of anthropology, as a disabled, trans, queer and working class person. It is my hope that in continuing to have these conversations and have them out in the open, we can bring about a new way of doing anthropology.

In closing I ask: what does it mean to show an ethics of care towards ourselves as anthropologists? What does an ethics of care to yourself look like? How can we embed this into our training, our research, our thinking, the very foundations of our discipline?

Bibliography

American Anthropological Association, 2012. AAA Statement of Ethics. Available at: https://www.americananthro.org/LearnAndTeach/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=22869&navItemNumber=652 [Accessed on: 7th November 2020]
Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth, 2011. Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice. Available at: https://www.theasa.org/downloads/ASA%20ethics%20guidelines%202011.pdf [Accessed on: 7th November 2020]
The Fieldwork Initiative, 2020. Available at: http://fieldworkinitiative.org/ [Accessed on: 7th November 2020]
Piia Varis, 2014. Digital ethnography. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies 104
Roger Sanjek and Susan W. Tratner (eds), 2015. e-Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in a Digital World. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia

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