Humanizing Fieldwork

Humanizing Fieldwork

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

Humanizing Fieldwork:

Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork, Part II

The first collection of posts in this series demanded that we recognize the fact that fieldwork can hurt, and that we have fostered a disciplinary culture where that hurt has been normalized and even celebrated. In this next installment, our contributors recognize the challenges of navigating mental illness before and during fieldwork as well as the multiple structural constraints faced by anthropological fieldworkers in and out of the field. Recent studies reveal a mental health crisis among US graduate students, and each of these next three posts engages in some ways with this reality. The truth is that, although fieldwork continues to pose challenges to our mental health beyond graduate school, most cultural anthropologists will only be able to carry out the “traditional” or expected 12 month (or longer) fieldwork expected of them during their dissertation research. For the lucky few of us who are able to seamlessly enter tenure-track positions, long-term absences for fieldwork of more than 6 months will occur very occasionally, if ever. Attending to the particular challenges to mental health faced by novice fieldworkers who embark on research for extended periods of time is more important than ever.

When we originally conceptualized the Trauma and Resiliency series, we expected contributions would focus on trauma related to the fieldwork experience. We soon found, however, that many of the proposals we reviewed connected their trauma to other factors – be they a familial predisposition to mental illness or other structural constraints that limited or even thwarted fieldwork. For many of our potential contributors, the journey to fieldwork itself was fraught.

The three posts in this group consider the experiences of doctoral students embarking on different kinds of field research projects. Shir Ginzburg’s account of her personal struggle with depression in the field presents a learning opportunity for students preparing to depart for fieldwork and for their advisors. It serves as a stark reminder that, as mentors, we should not wait for our students to ask for help, but to have conversations about mental health early and openly.

Revisiting Carter’s rejoinder to consider the difficulties of doing fieldwork at home (what she calls “homework”), Melinda González’s post renders, in heartbreaking clarity, the difficulties experienced by those among us who are mothers, poor, and brown. González’ story illustrates some of the ways in which the field of anthropology, despite its claim to social progressiveness and even justice, continues to support exclusionary systems that disadvantage students of color and first-generation college students. The realities of living on graduate student stipends and adjunct wages without other means – and how these daily struggles to survive deeply affect mental health – come to life in her post. They urge us as anthropologists, and anthropology itself as a field, to look inward and to recognize our complicity in the propagation of our discipline as an elitist, colonialist institution through its suppression of some voices in favor of others.

Also echoing Carter’s engagement with homework and González’ description of fieldwork at “home,” Saira Mehmood shares her experiences as a Muslim woman of color conducting field work at home in New Orleans. In addition, Mehmood offers a series of suggestions for mentors to consider when advising graduate students, particularly graduate students of color.

In titling this set of posts, “Humanizing Fieldwork,” we wish to highlight two things.  First, the posts lead us to reflect upon the humanity of fieldworkers as full, fleshy, embodied beings with complex histories and lives, whose engagements in the field are imminently, inextricably bodily as well as social.  These engagements are sometimes as messy as they are productive, and they cannot be disentangled from the structures of power and privilege that condition students’ lives both inside and outside of the field.  Second, the posts spotlight the (in)humanity of a discipline that not only ignores but is often hostile to this humanity in the service of an ascetic analytics.  Despite various moves over the past several decades to “impassion” anthropology, our disciplinary standards remain centered on forms of knowledge production that are most valued when they emerge in spite of, rather than by way of, grounded experiences of lived difference.

Taken together, these posts call attention to the ways anthropology can do better to prepare and support our PhD students as they work to complete their degrees –before, during, and after fieldwork. We must also acknowledge the structural and racial barriers faced by many of our first generation and students of color, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). In the era of #hautalk and #anthrosowhite, a disciplinary engagement with PhD student mental health and its intersections with race, socioeconomic privilege, and structural violence is more important than ever.