Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Anthrodendum welcomes guest editors Beatriz Reyes-Foster and Rebecca J. Lester.

Beatriz Reyes-Foster (Twitter @BeatriAnthro) is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida (USA).  Her research focuses on medical interactions, the production of health disparities, and mental health in Mexico. She currently serves as co-chair of the Anthropology of Mental Health Interest Group, an SMA Interest Group. She is the author of Psychiatric Encounters: Madness and Modernity in Yucatan, Mexico (Rutgers University Press, 2018).

Rebecca Lester (Twitter @psychanthro) is associate professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis (USA) and a practicing psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, trauma, personality disorders, and self-harm.  Her work sits at the intersections of anthropology, philosophy, and psychology, coupled with a strong commitment to engaged practice.  She is the author of Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent (University of California Press, 2005) and Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America (University of California Press, 2019).

Over the next several weeks they will present a thematic series of posts composed by diverse authors. This blog series is initiative of the Anthropology of Mental Health Interest Group (AMHIG), a forum for anthropologists, scholars from other disciplines, and practitioners whose work focuses on the socio-cultural dimensions of mental health. In particular, AMHIG offers an organizational structure for scholars and practitioners engaged in this topic area to network, share resources, and develop new ideas.

Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Cultural anthropology has long prided itself on eschewing formal methodological training. When we were in graduate school, ethnographic methods were rarely discussed as part of our education (aside from “take notes on everything”), and fieldwork was treated as a sink-or-swim proposition. Good ethnographers would succeed, bad ones would fail. And while we were pushed to pursue an anthropology “with stakes” — that is, an anthropology that studied problems that mattered in some way, to some one — nobody talked about what it might mean to do this. What might an anthropology of genocide, or violence, or other forms of human suffering do to the ethnographer’s psyche?

It never came up.

In passing conversation, I [Beatriz] would learn from fellow graduate school colleagues that they were in therapy. After fieldwork, a good friend of mine described the gut-wrenching feeling of prying an orphan’s arms off herself when she visited an orphanage. Another talked about ending his field research when he became suicidal. And I, too, experienced moments in the field that could only be described as traumatic.

My [Rebecca’s] work in eating disorder clinics brought different kinds of challenges.  Spending time with emotionally devastated people on the verge of dying from starvation, others who were actively suicidal or who craved the sensations of self-harm, and those who recounted horrific instances of child sexual abuse or sexual assault created a daily onslaught of experiences, sensations, and emotions that at times could be overwhelming.  I often cried in the car on my way home just so I had some sort of release of the negative affect before I engaged with my children.  And as a survivor of a long-term eating disorder myself, steeping myself in the world of eating disorders for research brought up difficult and painful memories of my own history that I had to explore and attend to.

Ethnographic fieldwork can be, and frequently is, emotionally difficult for fieldworkers, who may experience either direct or vicarious/secondary trauma while in the field. Even under the best of circumstances, navigating a new field setting with little if any training on how to emotionally manage the many challenges inherent in fieldwork can be significantly destabilizing, and the effects of such experiences can be long lasting. And yet, a culture of silence about the emotional toll of fieldwork and the importance of mental health has remained prevalent throughout our field. At the same time, anthropology remains a primarily white space, and Black and Brown anthropologists face additional structural obstacles and challenges that compound with the naturally fraught nature of (white) academic culture and fieldwork in general.

These realities exist alongside a core paradigm in our discipline reflective of its colonialist origins: a fetishization of the dangers of the field as a wild and untamed space coupled with the proposition that this “wildness” can, with the proper courage and skill, be conquered, domesticated, and made legible to others back home by the intrepid lone fieldworker.  This history has led to a paradoxical push towards ever more dangerous/challenging/extreme research projects coupled with a disciplinary disavowal of the challenges and human costs of doing fieldwork.

We conceptualized the Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork series as a way of opening a much-needed and long overdue conversation about the need to consider mental health as part of the anthropological experience from a variety of different perspectives. Posts in this three-part series will feature stories of both trauma and resilience (broadly conceptualized) from contributors writing across a wide variety of topical and regional specialties and representing a range of career stages, backgrounds, and life experiences. These posts are meant to provide authors with a platform from which to share their stories of emotional struggle or trauma in the field, but also to highlight the ways in which these struggles were met or overcome: how did contributors deal with their experiences of trauma? What worked and what didn’t? What sorts of social and institutional supports did they use? The series will also contain information and resources for faculty advisors preparing to send students into potentially traumatizing situations.  This goal of this series is to highlight the reality of trauma and emotional stress in ethnographic fieldwork, as well as provide faculty and students with resources on best practices for emotional care prior, during, and after fieldwork.

The First Three

In this first installment, we bring you three accounts of fieldworkers grappling with tensions between expertise and humility, pressures to silence trauma as the price of membership in certain intellectual cultures, and challenges of engaging in research that can unexpectedly come to resemble ones private life, sometimes in profoundly heartbreaking ways.  In each of these posts, we encounter scholars whose research led them to radically interrogate not only their own deeply held assumptions and commitments but to question the very foundations of our discipline.

Greg Beckett’s piece thinks with and through anthropology’s tradition of cynicism and even callousness with regards to fieldworker vulnerabilities, contributing to a disciplinary ethos of, as Beckett describes it, “cruelty that masquerades as intellectual rigor.”  By “staying with the feeling,” Beckett tells us, we can reconceptualize ethnography as a particular kind of care work, where intellectual hubris can and should be rejected in favor of an ethos of humility in the face of the very real effects of human suffering.

Chelsey Carter’s post foregrounds the challenges and opportunities entailed in doing what she calls “homework,” or fieldwork conducted in the ethnographer’s home culture.  As a queer woman of color studying ALS among black individuals living in the racially fraught atmosphere of St. Louis, Carter expected to encounter some issues related to race during her fieldwork.  What was less expected, however, were the more nuanced ways that her fieldwork experiences paralleled those in her personal life, transforming her understandings of herself, her relationships, and her work along the way.  She offers specific recommendations for how to manage the unique challenges of “homework” that are extendable to those working outside of their home cultures as well.

Sreepana Chattopadhyay’s selection is a powerful account of how intimately personal issues can shape and be shaped by our encounters in the field.  Juxtaposing her observations during a third-trimester abortion and a cesarean section birth, Chattopadhyay interrogates how what constitutes “trauma” is less the specific events observed but the meanings those different events have for the individual fieldworker.  She describes her reactions to these two events as intellectually as well as psychologically traumatic in that they provoked an “affective dissonance” for her regarding her own feminist commitments.  Ultimately, the resolution of this dissonance led Chattopadhyay to a series of insights about fieldwork that she shares with us at the end of her piece.

Taken together, these three posts speak to the enormity of the task we, as fieldworkers, undertake, a task that extends far beyond collecting data on a given topic.  Anthropology is indeed, as Beckett suggests, as form of care work.  But it is care work with a deeply existential and self-reflective bent that is predicated on purposefully dislocating ourselves—geographically, intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually—and entering a state of suspended unknowing.

Taking trauma seriously in anthropological fieldwork does not mean we should not do this research or that we should only choose projects that will be “safe” and unthreatening to our senses of the world and ourselves.  Quite the contrary.  But it does mean that we need a concerted disciplinary and pragmatic shift in how we go about doing this work and how we care for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves in the process.  It means recognizing and validating new kinds of writing and scholarship that take seriously the human dimensions of this work without sacrificing intellectual quality or rigor.  And this is a key point: humanity and rigor are not mutually exclusive, despite our disciplinary traditions to the contrary.

As fieldworkers, we may experience various forms of trauma, including complex trauma, vicarious trauma, and even direct trauma.  But we are not only traumatized.  We also endure.  It is not the trauma itself that validates a fieldworker’s claims to knowledge, but how we experience and make sense of it in ways that guide deeper and more attuned engagements with our work, our relationships, and ourselves.  And this, as all of the posts in this series demonstrate, cannot be accomplished alone.  It happens through relationships, through building networks, and through speaking what our discipline historically silences.  These are the motivating aims of this series.

10 Replies to “Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork”

  1. Thanks for this very interesting blog.
    I would like to extend the discussion from the trauma experienced by the “researcher on his field”, as it seems here the main preoccupation, to the trauma produced by the researcher on the field participants who do not always expect or understand what it means to be part of a field. As generous or humanitarian her/his project maybe, the ethnographer often exerts a form of power over their informants/participants/observed, etc. whose potential violence, basically epistemic, develops in an asymmetric relation on the “field”, that appears to be uneven (and revealing as such the colonial conditions of the birth of ethnography). In my opinion, the field is not just a data production device but merily a complex human situation composed of transforming relations among its participants… My question would be then : who experienced in the construction of its research object to be in a double bind position, and in a true doubt, legitimate in the view of the institutions that supports the research but illegitimate in the eyes of the persons object of the research ?

  2. This is a needed contribution but I find it intriguing that Malinowski’s diaries don’t come up more often in this context. Representing the original struggle against the colonial core of the discipline.

    There are are also many studies of culture shock that I’m surprised anthropology does not reach out to.

  3. Interesting article, following a trend in recent years of paying attention to the experience of fieldwork and its effect on our mental health. I wonder if you are familiar with The New Ethnographer? They run a blog specifically devoted to exploring the impacts of challenges in fieldwork – I wrote about the impacts of sexual harassment during fieldwork on my mental health for them last year ( Might make for interesting comparisons!

  4. Thank you for your contribution to this field. I am very happy to read you and understand many thoughts and events that happened to me in my last trips to Colombia and Uganda. Can we have a conversation? I am finishing my master in Techno-Anthropology in Denmark and u have some ideas for collaboration.

  5. Awsome. Anxiously waiting for the upcoming three first posts.

  6. Thank you for writing this. For many of my architecture research colleagues (during PhD and post-PhD) whose work involves elements of social and cultural issues, these challenges are often shared and exchanged only among close-knit friends instead of being addressed within the institutions we are affiliated with. Looking forward to seeing more of this type of discussion.