Writing for Them, Writing for Us: Resilience in Practice

Writing for Them, Writing for Us: Resilience in Practice

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


Writing for Them, Writing for Us: Resilience in Practice

In part two of our series, Humanizing Fieldwork, we considered the everyday challenges of conducting fieldwork abroad and at home. As all anthropologists know, the ethnographic fieldwork experience is not immune to the unexpected, and emergencies affecting the physical and emotional well-being of the field worker can and do occur. What do we do when fieldwork flips violently on itself, like an ill-fated bus? How should we proceed when pain or trauma reshapes our ethnographic work? In this final installment, we turn to a more direct engagement with the experience of trauma in the field. For both our contributors, fieldwork is abruptly interrupted, and each shares her story of resilience and recovery in the aftermath, as well as how these traumatic events are processed in the work of turning fieldwork into anthropological writing.

In this third and final series, Kim Lewis and Amarilys Estrella reflect upon strategies of resilience and processes of repair in the wake of traumatic field experiences.  Central to both accounts is the importance of narrative—whose story gets told, how, by whom, and to whom—and how those narratives are engaged as legible and meaningful (or not) by others.  In engaging in the task of transforming ethnographic data into ethnography, anthropologists face the pressure of sensemaking.  Because of this, anthropological writing can become a burden but also a potential avenue for recovery, as writing through the trauma can help us process traumatic events and their aftermaths.

Narrative has, of course, been a central theoretical concern in anthropology for decades. Anthropologists are trained to write with “thick description” at the same time they must discipline their writing within particular conceptual frameworks, often in ways that reduce the affective dimensions of ethnography to a series of highly theoretical ethnographic vignettes. But, as these posts highlight, narrative practices become entangled with the work of writing anthropology in ways that can sometimes be healing but can also, at times, be re-traumatizing.  How, then, do we do the work of anthropology, when doing that work involves revisiting and reliving events and contexts that have harmed us? Are there ways these practices can become part of strategies of repair, both for the fieldworker her- or himself and, perhaps, for the field of anthropology more generally?

Both of these entries recount harrowing incidents of physical trauma.  But they also speak to how trauma can exceed its boundaries, becoming linked to spaces, places, people, relationships that had no direct relationship to the originating event.  The conventional anthropological response to such a situation is: use the trauma as part of your data.  Be an anthropologist first, a human being second.  For some people, this intellectualization can be constructive, both personally and analytically.  For others, it can feel incredibly alienating, and “anthropologizing” the events becomes a form of re-traumatization.  The everyday tasks of academic work—reading, writing, thinking—can become infused with the residue of these experiences, making it difficult to function, let alone succeed.

Estrella and Lewis illustrate this experience in the literal and metaphorical crashes of their ethnographic projects. Through connection with others, they find ways to acknowledge and make sense of traumatic experiences that go beyond data analysis. This simultaneous creation of ethnographic writing –of anthropology—alongside the process of healing and recovery reminds us that what sets the ethnographic method apart is the fact that it is an embodied experience; that just as we are “collecting data” through our ethnographic field notes and interviews, we are also living the experience of fieldwork: establishing connections with others, with the field, and with ourselves.

Much remains to be said and written about trauma and resilience in ethnographic fieldwork. When we originally put out the Call for Papers, we received many more submissions than we could possibly publish. As we moved forward with acceptances and the submission deadline drew near, some of our contributors found they were not ready to write their stories. We end this series by holding space for those whose stories were not published, the stories many of us carry out of the field and into our lives. Our hope was to open a conversation about the role of trauma, power, and academic anthropology. As this collection of essays has been shared and distributed, we have heard that these conversations are happening in classrooms and departments.   We invite you all to continue in this process with us, as together we remake what it means to be fieldworkers and professionals, as we humanize the research process, and as we open room for more conversations and transformations to come.