Staying with the Feeling: Trauma, Humility, and Care in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Staying with the Feeling: Trauma, Humility, and Care in Ethnographic Fieldwork

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Greg Beckett. He is assistant professor of anthropology at Western University (Canada) where his work focuses on crisis, disaster, and humanitarian intervention in Haiti. He is the author of There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince (University of California Press, 2019).

Staying with the Feeling: Trauma, Humility, and Care in Ethnographic Fieldwork

by Greg Beckett

I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point, I began to respond to questions about my research with a feeling of dread. I wanted to say that it was going badly, or that the research was good but the situation was horrible, that I was sad and angry and that many of my friends and informants in Haiti were in worse shape. Many of them were dead. I wanted to say all of that, but I didn’t. I had come to think of fieldwork as something anthropologists were supposed to love doing, and I felt that if I dreaded going back there must be something wrong with me. I had internalized what might be one of the most self-destructive aspects of our discipline—the idea that fieldwork is a baptism by fire from which only the strong survive.

Staying with the Feeling

It is only recently that I have come to think of my fieldwork experiences in the language of trauma. I had been studying crisis and disaster in Haiti for years, studying how crisis feels to those who live with it every day. That meant I was absorbing countless stories of trauma, while also living through disastrous events. Yet, I avoided any acknowledgment of this reality. Avoidance is, after all, a key symptom of trauma, and I sought refuge in the defensive posture of intellectual rigor and high theory, and when that didn’t work, in numbness or in the pseudo-safety of shutting down.

Everything changed after I began to think of my experiences in the language of trauma in the context of therapy. This reframing helped me come to terms with my own experiences. It is a long journey, and like many who live with PTSD, I still have images I cannot shake. But reframing also helped in another way: it forced me to rethink my fieldwork as a whole, not just my personal experiences, but the stories of those with whom I worked too. I began to hear and see—to feel—in my notes a much deeper, more profound record of existential struggle. My therapist would often encourage me to “stay with the feeling,” and the more I did that with my fieldnotes, the richer the material became, and the more I began to understand—to really understand—about how crisis felt. This in turn made me rethink ethnography, as method and genre.

The Virtue of Humility

I came to therapy late. I don’t know why I didn’t seek help sooner, although it is probably because avoidance is such a powerful force. I did have concerned committee members and colleagues who expressed worry about my physical safety while in the field. I don’t know what they would have said or done if I had spoken to them about my traumatic experiences. I imagine that they, too, have probably internalized the disciplinary hubris that casts the anthropologist as an intrepid hero, the same habitus that generated all those whispers and rumors about people who couldn’t cut it in the field or that led fellow graduate students to clap me on the back and talk about all the “cred” I would have for working in a place like Haiti. So many of us have fallen for this cruelty that masquerades as intellectual rigor. It was a cultivated disposition at the University of Chicago, where I trained, and where the same hubris now drives a willful rejection of the very idea of trauma, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. In anthropology, this same hubris can lead to silencing or outright stigma about trauma and the related experiences of anxiety and depression, despite evidence of the high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

When I first began therapy, I warned my therapist, whom I will call David (not his real name), that I would probably respond with a lot of intellectual resistance. I had taught psychoanalytic theory for years as part of the college core curriculum at the University of Chicago and I knew enough to know about resistance and repression. I doubt I needed to tell him; I’m sure he could read my resistance easily. At any rate, he responded by giving me a homework challenge of sorts: he asked me to leave and to practice what he called the “virtue of humility.” I won’t lie; it was hard. I had been trained to see humility, or at least certain versions of it, as a kind of weakness and to mistake an aggressive form of argumentation and assertiveness as its own kind of virtue. Yet, learning to practice humility opened up for me a whole new way of thinking and feeling. Over the course of my therapy, I got better at naming emotions and at reframing my experiences and the actions and expressions of others. Humility also helped me as a writer, and it gave me a new point of entry into my fieldnotes and research, letting me see and feel the deep intimacies at play in the stories and conversations I had recorded and observed.

Complex Trauma and Care Work

David said I had complex PTSD, which is a bit different from the most common idea many people have of trauma. Most people think of trauma as tied to a single catastrophic event, usually a near-death-experience in times of war or disaster. Yet, this eventful kind of trauma is not the most common one. It is much more common for people to suffer from a wide range of traumatic experiences, including: developmental or childhood trauma, complex trauma, and vicarious or secondary trauma. These last two are especially important for anthropologists to understand.

Complex trauma is processual and is the result of many traumatic experiences taking place over an extended period of time. It is a much better way of thinking about the traumas suffered by people living with the legacies of colonial domination or the degradations of war, military occupation, political violence, or extreme inequality. Indeed, some psychologists now reject the frame of trauma to explain these experiences, preferring instead to focus attention on the political dimensions of social suffering. Whatever name we use, this kind of suffering may be quite prevalent in a wide range of fieldwork locations.

Vicarious trauma is “the emotional residue of exposure.” This kind of trauma also accrues over time and spreads through social networks of care and empathy. In recent decades, there has been much attention paid to secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue, all of which are prevalent among those who work in the caring professions, including emergency responders, humanitarian aid workers, social workers, nurses, and teachers. This “high cost of caring” affects those whose work requires empathy and emotional labor. Think of it as the emotional cost of bearing witness and of hearing stories of repeated stress, trauma, suffering, and violence. Given the central place of empathy, intimacy, and thick relationships in fieldwork settings, it might be worth considering ethnography as a kind of care work and reflecting more on how vicarious trauma might take hold as part of the emotional costs of fieldwork.

The Art of Resilience

I am aware of the dangers of generalizing from an individual case. I am also aware that psychological classifications like trauma and clinical practices like social work and talk therapy are culturally and historically situated, even if they claim to be universal. Nevertheless, there is much that our discipline can learn from current discussions of trauma. Here, I want to highlight three insights that might help us build a trauma-informed anthropology:

Anthropologists should reframe how we think about trauma. While many of us have long recognized the prevalence of social suffering in our field sites, there is still too much silencing and skepticism about the effects of secondary trauma on researchers. Reframing fieldwork through the idiom of care work could help us not only name and deal with secondary trauma but also reframe ethnography as a method and politics of radical care for intimate others.

One Reply to “Staying with the Feeling: Trauma, Humility, and Care in Ethnographic Fieldwork”

  1. The brief comments on the concept of Complex Trauma provided insight on trauma I experienced as a child and teenager. While the nature of these on going episodes has dimmed by 70 years of living, I must admit to some benefits that accrued to me later in life when I was drafted by the U.S. Army. Upon entering basic training I was painfully and constantly aware of the brutality that my fellow recruits and draftees were being prepared for to face the enemy in Vietnam. I was intimately acquainted with brutality and bullying. I immediately began to question why I should involve myself further. The Vietnamese people were fighting for their freedom from the French plantation owners. They wanted to feed themselves and their families. I saw the military chain of command as bullies and cowards, no different than the people I had encountered in my childhood. I was forced to think for myself due to past trauma. Otherwise I would have simply enjoyed the comradery of my fellow soldiers and bought into the preparation of war. However, bucking the system also brings grave danger to the nation in times of a true national emergency. Young people must still serve honorably. The immense question becomes, what is a just war and what is simply military adventurism?