Abstracts 24 ( 1 )
SPECIAL ISSUE: “ETHNOGRAPHY AND SELF-EXPLORATION”
SJAAK VAN DER GEEST, TRUDIE GERRITS & FLORE SINGER AASLID
Introduction: ‘Ethnography and Self-Exploration’
This introduction presents three broad themes in this special issue about subjectivity and ethnography: 1. How subjectivity affects anthropological research and analysis; 2. How – conversely – ethnographic fieldwork affects the researcher’s personal life; and 3. How ethnography feeds self-exploration. The authors discuss the essays in this special issue and position them in the growing literature on subjectivity and anthropological research.
[ethnography, subjectivity, reflexive anthropology, anthropological fieldwork, ‘selfing’, auto-ethnography, self-exploration]
FLORE SINGER AASLID
Marginal groups, marginal minds: Reflections on ethnographic drug research and other traumatic experiences
In this article I seek to explore the connection between personal life and research by examining my own background growing up in a religious cult and the manner in which this has contributed to the generation of analytical insights regarding methadone assisted rehabilitation and the politics of consciousness in contemporary society based on ethnographic fieldwork in Trondheim, Norway. Although altered states are a highly situationally contingent and primarily subjective experience, drug and addiction research is largely dominated by epidemiological methods relying on objective observation, quantifiable data and verifiable truths. Consequently, many professionals choose to approach the field by employing disengaged scientific methodologies that minimize investigator involvement and subjectivity, while maximizing separation and objectivity. This approach to a highly complex field leaves little space for inter-subjectivity or reflexivity. On the other hand, by explicitly examining our own native constructs, the dominant climate within which drug research is conducted and the experiential basis of knowledge production, anthropology is in a unique position to provide a much needed critical analysis of this process and the manner in which it implicates the autobiography of the researcher. In this article I will therefore investigate the manner in which the dialectic between my personal life and research generates epistemological points of access to knowledge about the field and serves as a portal for self-exploration. In so doing, I hope to transcend the Self/Other divide that currently permeates most drug research today and arrive at a deeper understanding of illicit drug use dynamics in contemporary society.
[reflexivity, subjectivity, auto-anthropology, addiction, rehabilitation, drug use, altered states, intoxication, methadone, native anthropology, drug policy, cults]
Of food and friendship: A method for understanding eating disorders in India
Studies of eating disorders in general and of anorexia nervosa in particular are abundant in Western countries and perspectives on causes are plentiful. However, in South Asia this condition has not been investigated extensively. During my voluntary work in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand I forged a friendship with a young woman with disordered eating. Her condition seemed much more complex and multilayered than suggested by the literature I could find on the topic. In this article, I describe the methods I used to examine the various meanings of “being too weak and thin” in rural India through an ethnographic case study. In particular, I give an account of the friendship I developed with my informant, the implications it had on the choice of this research topic, and the ways in which it helped me understand my informant’s condition better. While friendship is by no means an unproblematic method in the social sciences, it proved to be a highly valuable approach in this study.
[friendship as method, self-reflection, ethnographic case study, eating disorders, India, personal narrative]
Seeing with new eyes: Field research and self-analysis in a clinic for treatment of eating disorders
As a part of ethnographic data collection for my PhD, I carried out one-year’s participant observation in an eating disorders clinic in Madrid. I took part in all the therapeutic activities offered in this clinic from lunch to dinner time every weekday during this period. It was an intense and shocking experience, both from a personal and an academic point of view. In this article I will explore my search for a balance between being immersed in a therapeutic setting and maintaining a consistent anthropological approach. This contribution will hopefully be of value not only in its own right but also as an account of personal struggles in the field that may be helpful to others in similar situations.
[reflexive anthropology, emotions, ethnographic research, eating disorder, treatment, Spain]
Interweaving personal biography and academic work: Studying infertility among ‘others’ and ‘at home’
In this article I reflect on how in the last two decades my personal biography – having been confronted with the problem of not getting pregnant when I wanted to and having been able to overcome this problem by means of IVF – and my academic biography have been interwoven. While I acknowledge and show the impact of my personal biography on my academic work (and vice versa), at the same time I contend that its impact should not be overstated. This is related to a number of factors, including the invisibility of my condition, which gave me the freedom to disclose or not disclose it; the fact that I chose not to exchange in-depth experiences with my informants; and the openness of informants to share their experiences. I argue that, based on the different positioning of myself and my informants in two studies (varying in context and temporality), a comparable physical condition does not necessarily have to be experienced as a shared, similar or same experience or situation, either by the informants or by the anthropologist. In both study situations I considered myself rather a ‘partial insider’, even though I once was – physically speaking – a ‘full insider’. At the same time I argue that the implications of similar circumstances for other social scientists, having different histories and experiences, may be quite different. Therefore, I emphasize the importance of a full disclosure of researchers’ relevant biographical experiences, to increase both the credibility and the value of the ethnographic texts anthropologists produce.
[infertility, IVF, reproductive technology, anthropology, personal biography, Mozambique, Africa, Netherlands]
Alzheimer’s, national bankruptcy, and hegemonic masculinities in Greece
This paper experiments with the tension between self-exploration and the production of scientific knowledge. It positions itself at the junction of ethnography and autobiography, with a bit of fiction added in. I interweave autobiographical narrative concerning my father in the period pre-dating a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, with reflection, and hypothesis formulation, concerning my current research project on an ostensibly unrelated subject. My fieldwork focuses on the sovereign debt crisis in Athens, Greece and its impact on gendered and disparately nationalized subjectivities.
I draw from personal life in yet another way here, as my research ‘field’ is where I currently live and work. Thus, the paper traces some of the ways with which emergent narratives based on physicalized crisis in ‘personal’ life, both my father’s Alzheimer’s and my own experience of national crisis discourse and austerity measures, produce ideas and writing that fuel ethnographic work on larger social realities, and their politics. Part of what surfaces at critical junctions, with some irony to be sure, is a broader process of self-exploration. Yet, part of the project here is to suggest that the ‘personal’ self, as we have come to know it in any case, as it is normalized and naturalized that is, should not be memorialized. The ability of individuals to adjust and survive, physically and emotionally, and the sharpening of critical theory aimed at resisting politics that totalize, whether the latter target people suffering from Alzheimer’s or populations in financial duress, are both contingent on the acknowledgement of the possibility that ‘preservation’ of a former sense of self is not necessarily beneficial. This paper argues that the self really is not something worthy of that much attention in those terms.
[Alzheimer’s, autoethnography, hegemonic masculinity, subjectivity, Greece]
INA KATHRIN HESEBECK
The anthropologist as an expatriate native: Anthropological research on and with congenital heart disease(s)
This paper focuses on the situation that emerges when research within medical anthropology is conducted by anthropologists who are ‘native’ to the condition they study. Taking myself as an example, I reflect on the impact of my living with a congenital heart disease in relation to my fieldwork with German youths born with similar conditions. Focusing on key moments occurring during and after our meetings as well as during the post-fieldwork writing process, I relay both the advantages and disadvantages of being able to draw upon personal experiences mirroring some of those conveyed to me. I describe the struggle to view my own experiences separately from my young informants’ life stories while simultaneously drawing on that very embodied knowledge to gain better insight. Employing the concept of being an ‘expatriate’ native, I stress the importance of the gap in age and education that invalidates the perceived ‘sameness’ of memories concerning interactions with classmates and teachers, doctor’s appointments, time spent at the hospital and anticipation of surgery. Finally, I explore how the insights gained from my informants changed my own experience of being examined by cardiologists.
[auto-ethnography, limitations, embodiment, narratives, congenital heart disease, chronic illness, Germany]
The negative side of independence: An exploration of the self and others
When I was diagnosed with a chronic and progressive muscle illness, my worst fear was of becoming dependent. I dreaded having to rely on others and not being able to do what I wanted to do. In order not to be or come across as dependent, I rejected people’s help and would not ask for it. The price I paid for this independence, however, was high. In pushing beyond my physical borders, only because I did not want to ask for or accept help from others, I strained my body. Furthermore, rejecting help not only restricted me, but also offended others. Avoiding help and striving for independence is a phenomenon I recognize not only in myself, but also among other people who suffer from a chronic illness. However, little attention is paid to the negative effects that this can have. Based on my own experiences and on those of thirty people with Multiple Sclerosis whom I interviewed for my previous research project, I suggest how approaching dependency as part of reciprocity can be fruitful, both theoretically and practically. This article is an example of autoethnography, where shifting between the individual and the cultural leads to more insights.
[autoethnography, reflexivity, dependence, reciprocity, chronic illness, Multiple Sclerosis]
The significance of presence: Personal experience and research among incurable cancer patients
Is personal experience a productive resource when carrying out a research project, or is it rather an impediment, binding the researcher to her own preoccupations instead of the informants’ own concerns? I will pursue that question with reference to a research project on user participation in treatment decisions for cancer patients at an incurable stage. In that discussion, the significance of presence is relevant as a methodological as well as a thematic issue. I will explore how my own experiences as a close relative of seriously ill cancer patients affected the research process. Encounters with three patients with inoperable lung cancer are discussed against the background of the memories of my own experience of the cancer-related deaths of my parents and husband. The discussion shows how personal experience and involvement with the issues at stake directed my attention as a researcher and sharpened my perception of some factors more than others. At the same time, I found myself to be particularly attentive when informants talked from an unexpected point of view. While personal experience related to the research topic did not provide instantly applicable answers in itself, it did contribute to the dynamics of the research process, in promoting questions and exchanges in the researcher-informant interaction that would have been unlikely to have arisen otherwise.
[end of life, cancer, life extending therapy, personal experience; self-exploration, anthropology, Norway]
KATAYOUN TAMARA MEDHAT
Betwixt and between: Observations on ethnographic identity and ‘scribbling on the margins’
The contribution of ethnography to ‘understanding’ social and cultural processes resides in the inventory of ‘meaning-making’ catalogued through an outsider’s – the ethnographer’s – fresh gaze. The ‘anthropological lens’ delivers custom, habit, rule and rite, the sacred, the profane, the mundane, the arbitrary, the routine, the rigid and the bizarre from the parochial confines of their respective ‘host-frameworks’ into an extending ‘rhizomatic’ system. Like the ‘Hall of Mirrors’ fairground attraction, where revelers are confronted with multi-angled, seemingly endless reflections of self in motion, a process that – paradoxically – affects temporary alienation rather than the cohesion which may be assumed to result from being confronted so exclusively by images of the self, the ethnographic process – the encounter of Other through Self and Self through Other – is the dynamic interplay of the alien and the familiar reflected through a position of objectified subjectivity. Ethnography, it may be argued, is ‘of the beholder’. This paper explores margins, marginality and ‘multiple positioning’ in an autobiographic context and examines how particular perspectives may be sought as well as shaped by subjective experiences. The paper discusses how my training and perspectives as both anthropologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist shaped my fieldwork in public and tribal health services on a reservation in the United States, and how the research process could be conceptualized as a ‘trajectory of multiple positioning and divided loyalties.’
[auto-ethnography, inter-subjectivity, reflexivity, self-enquiry, self-exploration]
“From some place deep in you.” On personal connections between researcher and research in mental health
This article explores the issue of situating oneself in one’s research. As a part-time, mature student with a professional background in psychiatry, I started my doctoral research with a Dutch self-help group for psychosis. The project evolved over a ten year period. In that time my life was punctuated by significant life events of family illness, disability and loss. Consequently, my research narrative became intricately interwoven with my own life story. The research called for self-reflexivity, not just on theoretical grounds because of my commitment to a self-reflexive research attitude, but also because of reverberating personal experiences. This article considers the interconnections between my research and my life experiences. I argue that reverberating personal experiences inform one’s ability of achieving resonance with one’s research subjects and significantly affect one’s research.
[ethnography, self-reflexivity, chronic illness, psychosis, self-help]
love, displacement, and ritual excision: a medical anthropologist gets appendicitis
This is a narrative account of an unexpected illness which occurred at an extremely significant time in my life. Appendicitis is frequently held up as a classic ‘organic’ pathology, one that ‘just happens’ independent of any social and psychological causes or contexts. However, there is an undercurrent of biomedical thinking which suggests that appendicitis may be linked to significant life events, an approach we recognize in medical anthropology as ‘somatization’. This certainly seemed an appropriate inference to make in my case, since my appendix was removed on the same day that my first born son emigrated to Australia. My anthropological background helped me to consider my emotions at the time as a response to ‘social death’, and to reflect on a common anthropological critique of biomedicine, namely that it fails to answer the ‘why me, why now?’ questions patients may so often have of their illnesses. The concatenation of events I experienced led me to question dogmatic assumptions that appendicitis is an ‘organic pathology’ that can only be coincidentally linked to possible psychological or social determinants. However, rather than worrying about the causal explanations that could be constructed, the unfolding narrative led me to consider Jung’s theory of synchronicity and the ‘symbolic density’ that made the onset of my appendicitis and my son’s departure so mutually significant for me. My account thus raises ontological and epistemological questions about supposedly organic pathologies such as appendicitis, and makes the point that, while the number of operations has been falling, appendicectomies can sometimes be associated, at least in the minds and bodies of some patients, with narratives of migration or loss. I found this personally constructed somatization helpful in enabling me to see my appendicectomy as more than just a surgical procedure or unfortunate coincidence. In my own anthropological and Jungian terms, as a ritual of excision it became, unexpectedly, a vehicle through which both physical and psychological healing could take place.
[appendicitis, autoethnography, coincidence, causation, ritual, organic pathology, somatization]
To marry or not to marry? studying others to know myself
Reflection is integral to ethnographic work; it situates the ethnographer’s insights, beliefs, fears, motivations and confrontations within the larger framework of investigation. But as ethnographers, do we always listen to and act upon our personal reflection? To what extent are we able to go beyond writing reflexively and turn those insights into self-exploration? Using the example of my research on life stories of elderly women in long-term marriages in suburban Mumbai, I explore the relationship between reflexivity and self-exploration. First, I describe my motivation to research this topic. I analyze the contents of reflectional notes from my personal journal and master’s thesis to understand the impact the research had on me. I consider possible explanations for my inability to listen to or accept my own reflections and self-exploration during fieldwork and the consequences on my personal life at the end of the research period.
[reflexivity, research, anthropology, self-exploration, marriage, love, elderly women, India]