“Ethnography as Knowledge in the Arab Region.” Special issue of Contemporary Levant vol. 2, no. 1 (April 2017).
The responses below are by Samar Kanafani and Elizabeth Saleh, two of the contributors to the issue. For bios of all contributors, please click on the byline above.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you compile this special issue?
Samar Kanafani and Elizabeth Saleh (SK and ES): This special issue hopes to encourage deep and critical reflection about the methodological implications of conducting fieldwork. While doing fieldwork for our PhDs and professions, several of us contributors found that the line of inquiry on methodology had been conspicuously side-lined in literature we were reading on the region, and it was something that we missed as references to inspire our own endeavors or prompt contrast or comparison. Literature reflecting on ways of doing research in (though mainly on) the region predominantly dealt with the politics of representation, and on the theoretical and thematic trends that have stemmed from such politics. One exception, Arab Women in the Field (Altorki & Fawzi El-Solh, 1988), is an edited volume written within the reflexive anthropological turn that focused on how gender and nationality affected research outcomes in the “home” field. What we missed was material about the ethnographic enterprise that resonated with the conditions we experience in our work today, and a reflection on what knowledge these conditions enable.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the special issue cover?
SK and ES: The articles are written by women scholars of/from the region and from various disciplines, but mostly anthropology. All of us, however, have engaged in ethnographic methods in some way or another. As a collection, the papers propose particular modes of attention as vital for ethnographic research in their contexts with possible relevance to other similar contexts. They say that attention to fear, sound, memory, lies, movement, dreams, and the immersive quality of violence – i.e., the shared embodied experiences of researcher and informants alike – form an understanding whose purpose goes beyond refining academic representation of these worlds. Rather, stemming from personal interest in the dual sense of the word (intellectually stimulating and commitment) in the subjects of study, the issue invites a debate about dominant regimes of knowledge and prevailing forms of ethnographic practice in the region. It is safe to say that most of the articles in this special issue are making the point that it is very difficult to separate the personal from the ethnographic experience, and that the everyday lives of ethnographers are entangled in very specific ways with the lives of their interlocutors and even with the discipline of anthropology itself. Meanwhile, the issue as a whole asks what kind of critical knowledge can be generated from attention to these personal aspects of the ethnographic endeavor and from the methodological adaptations that the ethnography makes as a result. In addition to a critical engagement with scholarship on ethnography as fieldwork practice, mode of attention and writing, you will find references here to literature on epistemology, ethics, violence, feminism, gender, emotion, affect, institutional critique of the academy, critical anthropology, reflexivity, urban anthropology, kinship, state control, psychology, memory, sensory experience, revolutionary social movements, post-colonial theory, indigeneity.
J: How does this special issue connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SK and ES: It is hard to speak for everyone, but for several of us it was the case that, with the exception of “methodology” sections in our theses, this special issue was the first piece of work that engaged seriously with the tools and terms our trade as anthropologists, or researchers who use ethnography. We take a moment’s pause – each in our own way – to think about what kind of ethnography we do, what kind we want to do, what the field sites we work in have prompted us to do and what kind of knowledge this has enabled. While these concerns may weave themselves implicitly in the research work one does on a regular basis, in this case we wanted to address these questions explicitly.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SK and ES: Ethnography is a way for us to think over the long-term about the various ways to engage with the region’s “overbearing conditions” where we do research. We expect the articles to interest anthropologists and social scientists in the Arab region (and beyond), including those who regularly tune into the conditions that bear upon their own personal experiences of fieldwork and that of their interlocutors. Also, we hope these articles will be of interest to researchers, working in other domains (like development, journalism, humanitarian aid), where “ethnography” is gaining increasing popularity but sometimes at the cost of substance. More often than not, sites where such parachute ethnography is practiced become subject to short-term researchers flying in and out for a few weeks and then drawing grand conclusions about people’s lives, which is ethnically problematic. Our articles seek to foster a conversation about the importance of doing justice to the routine and unavoidable conditions that bear upon a research site, with all their sticky complexities and entanglements.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SK and ES: This exploration about ethnographic knowledge production, which has culminated in a special journal issue, initially began with a writing group that included several of the authors. While each of us has her own research trajectory and time-frame, several of us are also interested to continue this line of inquiry through further research and reflection. In particular, we have always envisaged this as a long-term project, of which this special issue is but a stepping stone towards future conversations on this topic, with researchers using ethnography in various professional domains, and with ethnographers not just across the Arab region, but also beyond to other parts of the global south.
This special issue reflects on the practice of fieldwork from the present and onward, with concern for the future of fieldwork as well. It is therefore not oriented toward recovering past (or indeed present) misrepresentations through gendered and indigenous self-awareness, which was championed over the decades and continues against difficult odds in laudable directions. Recent examples have challenged orientalist views and exposed blatant forms of discrimination, including within the academy itself (Hafez & Slyomovics, 2013; Deeb & Winegar, 2015). Inasmuch as the field researcher’s subjective experience continues to shape ethnographic knowledge, however, our interest here is the way the field makes its imprint on the researcher as the researcher tunes into the visceral, sensorial, ethical, spatial, cognitive and political registers of fieldwork as methodology and fieldwork as an extension of daily life. Broadly, this collection of articles and essays is concerned with the what, the conditions that have a bearing on ethnographic practice today, and the how, the ways to do and think in and about our field contexts with a mind to push debates towards frontiers where critical thought can still speak to (and against) the realities of everyday life, which encompass the researcher and her interlocutors alike (Sabry, 2011, p. 14).
Overbearing field conditions or the what of fieldwork
When we speak of the conditions of the field, calling it the what of fieldwork, we also imply when and where, and generally mean the conditions affecting ethnographic practice in various sites of the Arab region and beyond, where we have done research and where some of us also espouse a sense of belonging. Most of us (especially the initial research group) are Beirut-based, though variously doing research in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Mexico, in addition to Lebanon. We therefore claim no comprehensive scope of the region even though we view our work as necessarily nestled in and inflected by historical and geopolitical trajectories that have shaped our primary fieldsites since at least the late 1980s. One might enumerate the events as a way to qualify this vast and various geography, and thereby end up with a list of mostly war and conflict-related items. Several of these would have occurred or been instigated elsewhere (or everywhere) in the world, even as they transform in recognizable ways—abrupt or gradual—the experience of our fieldsites. The most obvious examples include vestiges of colonial wars, independence wars, the end of the Cold War and most recently the US-led Global War on Terror, yet many other subtle machinations and geographical variations of these global power struggles qualify as well. The individual contributions in this issue reference specific events around which they wish to theorize and reflect. Yet preferring in this introduction to avoid a spectacular and spectatorly framing of experience, which indexing current affairs necessarily entails, we rather qualify these ethnographic contexts as existing within what Hage explains as routinized crisis (2012). This global condition is crisis without foreseeable resolution, and violence as protracted and permeating most aspects of daily life.
With this global scale in mind, the papers of this issue pursue particular iterations of global phenomena, while eschewing contribution to a discourse of exceptionality on the Arab region, which is all too often made emblematic of crisis, war and violence. Yet, as we proclaim to focus on the conditions of the field, adapting our practice and attention to its terms, it is these critical (from ‘crisis’ in this case) conditions that present themselves as overbearing and deeply impinging on the lifeworlds we research and on the methods we devise to comprehend them. These include spatial, discursive, remembered, sensory, embodied and emotive dimensions of work and life in the field, which substantiate the workings of various dominant systems and discourses, through a self-aware reflection about their effects at the intimate level of the ethnographer’s experience in the field, and their effect on understanding. For example, Sawaf substantiates the limits and thresholds of the Saudi state’s spatial and moral control by attending to idioms and practices of lateral movement during fieldwork in Riyadh. Moghnieh’s critical engagement with expert knowledge on violence, such as that of humanitarian psychological relief programmes during and after major episodes of political violence in Lebanon, proposes a simultaneously popular and scholarly understanding of violence as an uneventful and immersive state within a war-prone context. Meanwhile, Al-Masri qualifies the prolonged experience of war as apprehended through the traces it leaves in memory and on the human sensorium, and which emerge as markers of the ethnographer’s ‘insider’ status, over and above subject positionality. The regimes of heightened surveillance and state repression in Nassif’s work on fear in Cairo become manifest through her dual reckoning with clandestine political dissidence and her own ‘punishability’ as a researcher. While in Saleh’s work, the informal economy and possible regimes of knowledge about it are revealed through a rhetoric of morality during her fieldwork with Turkmen female sex-workers/street-vendors in Beirut. Finally, Eqeiq reveals how historical parallels between two distant internal-colonial settings come to intersect in the ethnographer’s own body and mind such that intimate knowledge of the conditions of the one (Palestine) are indispensable to her sense of intimacy with the conditions of the other (Mexico).
In considering the what of their fieldwork, these various texts at times make manifest the ethnographer’s sense of uncertainty, fear and doubt in the trajectory of her own fieldwork, the soundness of her method as well as the safety of her life in the field. At other times, this engagement with field conditions imparts a familiarity and habituation (from accumulated sense of belonging or invested concern in the future and wellbeing of a place), generating forms of certainty about impending uncertainty. In either case, they prompt the authors to consider how they are doing fieldwork, and they do so precisely from a position of unsettledness with the conditions of the field, due at least in part to a fraught relationship with particular epistemologies about those conditions, be these based on common knowledge or academic conception. Doing fieldwork in all these accounts is an intensely emotional endeavour and not without its distinctive ‘ecstasies’ (Fabian, 2001, p. 31)—frightful, epiphanous and transformative—including ones that the ethnographer experiences through extraordinary ways such as visions and dreams. Fieldwork ensnares and preoccupies, haunts and appears, bothers, discomforts, moves and scares, even as it fosters positive social and affective bonds between the researcher and her informants. In so doing, where and when the field is constituted starts to shift between the conditions of the field and the emotional states that ethnographic labour entails and tries to capture.