Connecting through the Layered Traumas of Fieldwork

Connecting through the Layered Traumas of Fieldwork

By CD Green

(Fieldwork in a Time of Coronavirus series)

This billboard is part of an ad campaign that began just after the virus arrived. It has continued even as Kanaky/New Caledonia has resumed nearly all public activities. Photo by Jana A. Hirsch.

Within the span of two hours on April 15, I received two coronavirus-related alerts from the Kanaky/New Caledonian news. The first was a notification about another day with zero new cases of the virus—the small Pacific island had been relatively protected up to this point. The second was an announcement: according to the Overseas Minister of France, the referendum on Kanaky/New Caledonia’s independence from France would continue as scheduled on September 6

“The coronavirus should not interfere in this process,” it said.

But of course, the virus is already interfering in this process. The political implications of this virus in contexts throughout the world are still unfathomable at this point. Here in Kanaky/New Caledonia, decades of independence activism gains could potentially be lost by the decision not to postpone. This sets up a fundamental tension: between an all-consuming attention to the virus and a lack of attention to no less real and pervasive political threats. This has broad implications for projects like mine, which look at how the past is utilized in politics, bringing me to ask: how can we balance the political stakes of our projects with the traumatic realities of a pandemic?

Fieldwork Prep as Pandemic Prep

In many ways I feel as though my fieldwork has prepared me for this pandemic moment. The things I’ve witnessed friends and family struggling with—social isolation, lack of routine, and unhealthy correlations between productivity and self-worth—are all things I had to mindfully grapple with before entering my fieldwork. Yes, I am “stuck” in the field. There are no flights into or out of Kanaky/New Caledonia until June, at the earliest. I can do little or no research with the museums and archives closed. However, I’m otherwise living the same life as everyone I know back at home in the US. What’s better, now everyone is living that life with me and I’m not the only one trying to get others to make time for me.

So when people ask me—as they seem to be asking each other—“Are you finding yourself eating/drinking more?” or, “Have you been able to find a new daily routine?” or remind me, “You don’t need to feel productive during this time,” I find myself thinking about how I settled on strategies for managing these things before and during my fieldwork. In other words, the changes people are undertaking now are changes I’ve had to make in my life already. And in that way, I’m thankful in this crazy moment for what fieldwork personally prepared me for.

However, at the same time as I’m thankful, I think this dynamic has serious and negative implications. It seems problematic to me that a huge part of the collective trauma now being experienced on a global scale seems to be inherently a part of cultural anthropological fieldwork. I certainly shouldn’t have to feel like I need to embody and experience this trauma in order to do good work, and though our discipline has been squaring with this gratuitous paradigm for some time, we should take every opportunity to continue to consider how our mental and emotional health can be better prioritized in our discipline.

Fieldwork During/After Pandemic

This moment has given me time to reevaluate how we relate to others in the field while conducting our fieldwork. The primary question for me at the moment is: when/how/why would I resume my fieldwork when doing so could put people’s safety at risk?

Here in Kanaky/New Caledonia, like many islands, there is a primary capital city, Nouméa, through which much of the island’s people, industry, and money flows. This has been the epicenter of countermeasures against the virus. This is the only place where cases have been identified to date. However, there is concern in other parts of the island, where medical facilities are less accessible, about the drastic effects the virus will have on the predominantly Indigenous outer communities if—or more accurately when—it reaches the island. These concerns continue to circulate as the island begins opening back up to internal activities while keeping international flights shut down. 

Practically, I could resume my work, which includes both archival research and interviews with people in the northern part of the island. But ethically, what feels right? We still don’t seem to know how long asymptomatic carriers of the virus could transmit it to others. It certainly feels unlikely that Nouméa and the rest of the island will be able to contain the virus for the time it will take until a vaccine arrives. Do I wait for another two weeks to be “clear”? I could encounter any number of symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers between my apartment and the north even if I did. At the same time, there have been no confirmed cases on the island in 56 days (as of May 20).

While I previously had strong notions as to how I might “give back” or how my findings could “feed back” into current independence and decolonial movements, now everything is up in the air. Before the virus, helping communities to understand how the past is a legitimizing force in French politics felt both important and timely. But in a crisis, nuance is often left behind, and Kanaky/New Caledonia will potentially face more radical forms of activism around the referenda. Accordingly, the value of my work is very much up in the air. Not in its theoretical implications, which I still find to be very interesting and meaningful, but in their practical implications.

Fieldwork as Trauma

In this moment, I’m also now questioning the trauma which I’ve willingly submitted myself to, which seems to parallel the quarantine trauma being experienced throughout the world. Anthro{dendum} recently ran a beautiful series of articles exposing the traumas we embody in our work. Anthropology is like many other jobs in which certain traumas are willingly embraced; professionals like medical practitioners and astronauts each square with life-altering trauma as a necessary part of their jobs. The pandemic provides me a moment during which I can reflect upon the types of trauma my friends and family are experiencing around as a means by which to understand my own trauma. 

Though it is often categorized, trauma cannot be compared. The depth and breadth of trauma, as exemplified in this pandemic, is disproportionately felt across communities and individuals. This is also true within anthropology. As researchers, we experience, feel, and suffer from our experiences in the field. Even though I’m feeling relatively much better off than many of my colleagues, even if they’re in their homes, it has been this very lack of trauma that has forced me to acknowledge how much I was preparing myself for as I faced fieldwork. 

For anthropologists, how can we be more mindful of the risks we’re personally taking—and especially those we’re training our students to take? How might we move toward deromanticizing the traumas of long, isolated fieldwork for which researchers sometimes need to prepare themselves as if preparing for an event like a pandemic? Perhaps the risks could be worth it, if we believe the practical effects of our projects go beyond conventional research products (i.e. publications and presentations). However, a massive and growing literature has been devoted to applied anthropologies, to greater or lesser effect. It isn’t my goal in this piece to offer answers, but rather to share my own struggles with understanding how this balance could or should be achieved in the context of my own project.

Despite controlling viral spread thus far, the New Caledonian government is continuing to mandate social distancing measures, conveyed through posted signage like this one on a public bus. Photo by Jana A. Hirsch.

The Layered Traumas of Fieldwork Subjects

We are entering a world in which most, if not all, of our research participants will share a universal trauma with us. Although the traumas will still be felt disproportionately in different communities, this shared trauma could be seen as a point of intimate connection with those we otherwise might not have with people in the field. This is a connection that could be more powerful that even global issues like climate change and capitalism. 

But I worry that such a connection through shared trauma can and will be used as a means to leverage the interests of the anthropologists, and at the same time to subsume even more profound traumas. The fact that we survived (if we are so lucky) this deadly pandemic does not lessen the other kinds of traumas many communities face. Colonial, gendered, religious, racialized, and other violences that are perpetrated still have real daily consequences, and these consequences do not necessarily improve because there is an overarching crisis. In fact, many news outlets have spotlighted the horror of victims of domestic violence that are stuck at home with their abusers. In a discipline in which intimacy and connection is more or less necessary to foster relationships with subjects in the field, we are potentially predisposed to use this trauma to our own individual and academic benefit. However, we have to be careful that we still acknowledge these networks of trauma that extent far beyond, and much deeper than, our own shared pandemic trauma.

Fortunately, there are excellent models for negotiating the ethics of in-community research. Autoethnographers like Arlene Dávila (2004; 2012), J. Kehaulani Kauanui (2018), Audra Simpson (2007; 2014), Bianca C. Williams (2018), and many brilliant others have shown how fieldworkers can consider their own positionality in ways that acknowledges both shared connections and the privileges between the fieldworker and their subjects. As we look towards a return to our fieldwork, however that may look, we should be looking to these scholars who have paved the path for conducting ethical research in the context of shared, but layered, traumas.

Conclusion

As I continue to struggle with understanding how the Kanaky independence movement lives alongside and against such a crisis, I also continue to reflect on what fieldwork will look like for me now and moving forward. I want to continue to be grateful for the unwitting pandemic preparation I undertook before leaving for the field, while at the same time remaining suspicious of what this implies about ethnographic fieldwork. I want to continue conversations with my peers and cohort about the ethics of conducting fieldwork in this context. And I want to be especially mindful of how my shared trauma with those in the field should not be exploited or emphasized in a way that undermines the violences of colonialism in Kanaky/New Caledonia. For that, I’ll continue to look at autoethnographers that have deftly handled their own personal connections with their subjects while also holding sufficient space for more pressing issues and traumas.

When we get back to work, however it may or may not be possible, we need to remember that, while the coronavirus has consumed much of our lives in this moment, it has not consumed the myriad social and political issues the communities we work with face.

Bibliography

Dávila, Arlene M. 2004. Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2012. Culture Works: Space, Value, and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas. New York: New York University Press.

Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. 2018. Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue 9: 67–80.

———. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Williams, Bianca C. 2018. The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

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CD Green is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores the ways in which the past is used as a political tool in the context of the referendum on independence in Kanaky/New Caledonia.

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