Writing, Silence, and Sensemaking After Fieldwork Trauma

Writing, Silence, and Sensemaking After Fieldwork Trauma

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Kimberly J. Lewis, Associate Director of the Office of Scholars and Fellowships at the University of Richmond. She earned her PhD in Anthropology from Brown University in 2019 and her research interests include higher education, academic labor, and inclusive pedagogy. She is on Twitter @kimjunelewis.

Writing, Silence, and Sensemaking After Fieldwork Trauma

by Kimberly J. Lewis


During my first summer of graduate fieldwork, I was on an overnight bus that skidded and tumbled off the side of a highway in coastal Ecuador. I remember the heavy, alien sounds during the crash. First, the tires screaming. Then, the passengers. As our bodies crunched together against the humid window, I told my companion what I imagined to be true: vamos a morir. We are going to die. The bus came to rest, wheels up, along a line of emerald-green fruit trees. We lived, by the grace of guanábana.

On holiday weekends, urbanites in Ecuador’s highland Andes long to escape the dry mountain air. Buses fill with vacationers and descend some 10,000 feet to coastal beach towns. Overnight bus trips offer the promise of fresh ceviche at sunrise. Everyone knows that these buses occasionally sail off highways, killing or scarring dozens of people at a time. This knowledge produced two experiences of the crash. One part of me witnessed and thought: yes, this happens. This all makes perfect sense. She was the observer. Another part of me could not make sense of what was happening at all. Why were the blue lights inside the bus making the blood glow like radioactive waste? Why was none of the blood mine? She was the participant.

Fieldwork, like life, is punctuated by random catastrophe. The summer of the bus accident, I was doing research on higher education. The bulk of my participant-observation occurred in places like department offices and univresity hallways. I thought I had designed a project free from blood and death. 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?


Whatever happens, ethnographers are generally encouraged to keep writing. Produce meticulous field notes. Start a field diary. Take photos, press record, draw a map. Faculty encourage novice fieldworkers to treat everything as potential sources of data, especially moments that register as jarring or confusing at the time. In this framework, it becomes reasonable to reduce even the most upsetting fieldwork experiences to ethnographic insights waiting to happen. Anthropologists warn their students to be diligent about producing a record in order to make sense of these experiences later. Fieldnotes, or it didn’t happen.

However, trauma complicates the process of remembering and the act of writing. Many ethnographers hate writing fieldnotes. They are tedious and so very slow to produce. But, how often do we acknowledge that remembering and writing fieldnotes can be actively painful? Traumatic experiences and the emotions that commonly follow – fear, rage, shame – shape what we are capable of logging about our fieldwork. They affect what we can document for others, as well as what we wish to document for our future selves.

Vehicles crash. My bus could have tumbled off a highway near my home in Rhode Island, rather than in Ecuador. Yet, at home, anthropologists often have more resources to cope with traumatic events. Crucially, we are also released from pressures to collect data. We are not obligated to document or make sense of tragedy. During fieldwork, ethnographers become uniquely attentive to the world. We shake the observer in us awake, believing that she is the better anthropologist. Sometimes I wonder if I have experienced more pain during fieldwork, or whether I have simply experienced pain with my eyes and notebook fully open.


When I finished my summer fieldwork and returned to campus, I briefly sought help from the university counseling center. I mentioned the accident to advisors and mentors. But, I did not want to say too much. I feared someone would advise me to abandon work in Ecuador altogether. I quietly reoriented subsequent fieldwork around new priorities and limitations, mostly related to mobility, frequent breaks, and access to communication. When I drafted grant proposals, I held my breath that the intellectual justifications for these decisions were persuasive enough.

As I reflect on these experiences now that my graduate work is over, I have a few humble suggestions for dealing with fieldwork trauma. First, we must be exceedingly gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. Trauma complicates the process of returning to one’s field site. I was shocked by how the bus accident stretched well past its logical boundaries, altering relationships and practices that seemed unrelated. Years later, during the final phases of my dissertation fieldwork in Ecuador, I struggled to write about situations that recalled fear, violence, or shame. I often avoided writing at all. Ethnographers famously cling to their memories, running to bathroom stalls to jot notes. I instead spent long stretches of research longing to forget. My dreams became loops of crunching metal – a terrible kind of data to work with.

Within this context, anthropologists can honor boundaries and silences, particularly in our own data collection practices. Writing can feel tantamount to re-experiencing. Self-care might mean putting down the pen to embrace silence. But, we can do so with intention and compassion. We should also question systems and people that produce shame around adjusting our research to personal realities. Anthropologists have limitations. Few of us are truly free to pursue any line of inquiry during fieldwork, despite the heroic narratives that still shape the discipline. Researchers have emotional needs: safety, love, connectedness. We must prioritize those needs, even during fieldwork.


Anthropologists can also do more to develop coping tools and identify resources for emergencies. This is especially critical for new ethnographers, who may struggle to know how to care for themselves in the field or even know their own limitations in advance. Graduate methods seminars should directly address topics like violence, depression, sexual assault, social isolation, and accidents. These issues are extraordinarily common during fieldwork. Faculty should draw on other campus resources for these conversations. Seek additional forms of expertise and advice. University counseling centers, for instance, can be helpful allies in preparing to send students to the field.

There is no way to anticipate or avoid every fieldwork challenge. But we should probably all ask each other more questions. What problems might arise during fieldwork? Is there a plan for abandoning the work if necessary? What are effective ways to navigate accidents or assault or mental health problems? What possibilities exist for flexible fieldwork arrangements or changes in project design? Even as we disperse into our field sites, ethnographers should work to support one another and address complex field situations as they arise.


Community and connection are critical resources for healing after fieldwork trauma. I returned to therapy during my last year of dissertation writing. By that time, the research was winding down. Connecting with a therapist allowed me to see the accident and other experiences in Ecuador alongside a compassionate observer. A question from my therapist encouraged me to start annotating a draft of my dissertation. I called it the shadow dissertation. In it, I noted painful memories lurking in the background of vignettes. Placing these memories somewhere reassured me they were real, too, even if they did not make the final piece. Grappling with fieldwork trauma ultimately encouraged me to form better connections with colleagues, students, and research participants, as I am more attentive to the stories behind their research.

Finally, the work of writing offers more opportunities for connection than most people acknowledge. Writing alongside colleagues can engender solidarity. It can be a radical act. For those who experienced trauma during fieldwork, writing communities can reverse isolation and allow writing to flourish. While drafting my dissertation, I participated in dissertation writing retreats and interdisciplinary writing groups with a cast of other graduate students. The Graduate School and university Writing Center supported the groups, but they required a fairly simple set of resources to sustain. Group meetings usually consisted of coffee and quiche, check-ins about goals, writing in a common space, and check-outs about progress. Tears sometimes entered the space, but self-shaming and comparison did not.

We need writing communities for more reasons than productivity. Not a single person in these groups read my work. However, they offered a sense of belonging during the writing process. I had opportunities to look up from a difficult memory, see others who cared about me, and then continue to press into the work. In some respects, communities like these were just as important as critical feedback for finishing the project. Given the painful stories lurking behind many of our field experiences, connecting with one another can allow us to understand and integrate those stories so that we can move forward.