What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).

Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did not then seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the route to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. First, for some it is merely appropriated. A series of interviews, or a familiarity with local events, or a long-running association, is included in research as data (the scholar draws on the field to populate their work with evidence) or as colour (anecdotes, jokes and borrowed phrases) to frame the piece. Although the appropriator explains clearly that they have had these experiences, that they have this intimate knowledge, theirs is nonetheless an insubstantial kind of presence. They do not struggle, or stumble, but cleanly reflect the field for us, their audience. Or, at least, they claim to.

Second, there is a sense of the field as authentic. Against appropriation, the authentic fieldwork encounter with distant others is not easy, and does not explicitly furnish examples for some larger thesis. Field experiences may be disruptive, or reveal important truths, but are in any case felt as particularly intense. Compared to the banalities of normal academic existence, the field throbs as a space where we are particularly alive. The authentic fieldworker is present at events otherwise only known second-hand, makes friends who continue to exert a pull once the trip is over, or emerges even more committed to their projects than ever before. Where appropriation is casual, and can be assimilated within conventional frameworks, authenticity provokes an affective reaction that it is hard to shake, and which often imbues the speaker with a different kind of authority: the authority of the witness.

Third, there is awkwardness. As with authenticity, the fieldworker is a vehicle for intimate knowledge. But far from returning with an enhanced authority or confidence, the awkward ethnographer experiences failure. The field is not what they expected, their talents are inadequate to the task, they are unable to make the personal connections (empathetic and political) that fieldwork depends on. They return more aware than ever of artifice, and may indeed conclude that the dream of breaking through abstraction to real relations with others is a sort of hallucination. We may even see awkwardness’s surprise and disruption as akin to the archetypical lab experience: the ‘result’ of an experiment that bucks the prediction, that disproves the hypothesis, that shakes the paradigm.

When Elizabeth Dauphinee writes of Stojan Sokolović, who decimated her preconceptions about Bosnia, we encounter both awkwardness and authenticity. Awkwardness because the overriding sense of the ‘field’ is that of failure, confusion, and loss. And authenticity because Dauphinee is both channeling Sokolović’s reality for us, and because retelling the story has epistemological implications far beyond the circumstances of its telling. On which more later.

The willingness in International Relations to discuss the field, and accidents therein, is intimately linked to what we must, following convention, name as “the narrative turn”. Against the fantasy of objectivist views from nowhere, small groups already inclined to post-positivist, post-structural and post-colonial perspectives gather to experiment with disclosure, autobiography and form. Moreover, to probe the political and ethical stakes of writing ourselves into IR’s script. These moves towards narrative are usually posed in opposition to a mainstream obsessed with distance, theory and abstraction. The narrative turn is thus one part of what Pierre Bourdieu called the “reaction to long years of positivist repression”. Positivists, comfortably enough, are the enemy. As a kind of political disciplinary differentiation, this defines narrative work as on the margins, orientated against the centre. Conceptually, this dichotomy is much less satisfying.

When it comes to abstraction, more is demanded of us than the replacement of the distant with the immediate. Proponents of narrative in IR are quite aware of the dangers. Dauphinee, for one, is explicit in not seeking to found a new school of novelists and autobiographers to replace the existing paradigms. It is indeed too simple for critics to cast reflections on fieldwork as narcissistic examples of the ‘diary disease’. But one consequence of locating post-positivist perspectives in the narrative of an individual subject is that the social coordinates of knowledge slip somewhat from site. Exploring the role of the field in global political inquiry requires a move beyond dichotomous choices between abstraction and authentic engagement. This movement – between field, non-field and anti-field, and across different levels of reflexivism – is made clearer by considering ways in which we might approach the field methodologically, and in turn how we might think about the purpose of fieldwork’s autobiographical scripts.

Meeting of Academics University of Paris

2. The Subject Of Objectivation

In typically combative style, Bourdieu characterised the naïve observation of the observer (the realisation that we filter the world through our perspective, and that we can reflect on the forms of that filtering) as substituting “the facile delights of self-exploration for the methodological confrontation with the gritty realities of the field”. Responding to some of the same post-positivist trends that animate IR’s narrative turn, he insisted that an awareness of scholarly perspective required its own methods: a means by which to achieve what he called ‘the objectivation of the subject of objectivation’:

The reflexivity fostered by participant objectivation is not at all the same as that ordinarily advocated and practised by ‘postmodern’ anthropologists or even philosophy and some forms of phenomenology. It applies to the knowing subject the same most brutally objectivist tools that anthropology and sociology provide, in particular statistical analysis (usually excluded from the arsenal of anthropological weapons), and aims…to grasp everything that the thinking of the anthropologist (or sociologist) may owe to the fact that she (or he) is inserted into a national scientific field, with its traditions, habits of thought, problematics, shared commonplaces, and so on, and to the fact that she occupies in it a particular position (newcomer who has to prove herself versus consecrated master, etc.), with ‘interests’ of a particular kind which unconsciously orientate her scientific choices (of discipline, method, object, etc.).

We, the observers, confront ourselves. On this account, it is not enough to realise and confess our own positions and experiences. We must instead subject those same positions to rigorous critical analysis, revealing the conditions of possibility for scholarship itself. This methodological ‘device’ (as Bourdieu sees it) is put to work alongside participant observation, applying scrutiny to the fieldworker without abandoning fieldwork itself.

Rather than relying on individual reflections and memories as sources for a kind of social scientific knowledge, Bourdieu’s method turns the gaze forcefully towards the academy, revealing the “banally social, sadly impersonal properties” that determine the content of our work. Reducing reflection to the occasional admission of accidents, or framing stories about others with stories about ourselves, is an evasion of the larger responsibility: to situate the academy and its powers of subjectivity.

What might this mean for narrative IR? The first, and most obvious, implication is that the field ceases to be a single distant point that we travel to. We may have a field of study where we are engaged as participant observers, uncovering logics of action and the networks of global politics. But we do not return so much as move back into another field – that of our own academic conduct. Second, our narrative responsibilities shift. We are less inclined to work from memories of the encounter than to invest ourselves in a tradition of ethnographic writing. Research tools are not set aside, but put to different uses. Third, the critique of IR as a discipline takes on a different, more structural, tone. By directing attention to conditions of epistemic authority and knowledge production, participant objectivation confronts the discipline as an institutionalised power. This awareness is of course not lacking in existing narrative and fieldwork accounts, but the usual first person narrative constructs a specific relation between the scholar and their discipline. This is invariably the the plot of individual resistance to training, where the certainties of the classroom space are undone in the field, leading to a personal transformation and new approach to the study of world politics.

So, to return to Elizabeth Dauphinee and Stojan Sokolović, their disruptive friendship means not just that Dauphinee erred in her understanding of Balkan realities. Their ‘personal’ story is the stage for both a critique of the methodology of conflict studies (conventional researchers find what they want to, and are easily misled) and a renewed ethical disposition (towards uncovering our intentions and responsibilities). Participant objectivation extends this ethos in insisting that the critique of academic positionality be systematic. But it also changes the grounds for this project, since it is not necessary for fieldwork accidents to result in an awkward awakening (and certainly not an authentic epiphany) for the scholar to situate themselves institutionally.

3. When Objects Write Back

A second twist on the idea of objectivity in the field is provided by anthropologist David Mosse, whose commitment to the idea of multiply-situated knowledges serves as a guide to, and perhaps a very stark warning about, what happens when fieldwork is subjected to social production. Where Bourdieu’s recommended method exposes the social conditions that produce the fieldworker and shape their conclusions, Mosse’s experience indicates a way in which not just the participant observer, but also those who are being observed, may write themselves into the record. Having completed a long period of research embedded with a DfID project in India, Mosse produced a draft manuscript. Adopting a compelling definition of ‘objectivity’ borrowed from Bruno Latour – that objectivity “derives not from standing above the fray or suppressing subjectivity, but from maximizing the capacity of actors to object to what is said about them” – he shared the manuscript with his informants and former colleagues.

Their reaction was extreme. They felt betrayed by some of Mosse’s critical conclusions and sought to have the book rewritten or suppressed. Although generally unable to identify concrete falsehood or defamation, the attempt to change the text was, in Mosse’s reading, an effort to re-establishing the moral bounds of the community they had previously shared, and to have him again accept the parameters of a joint endeavour. The conventions of field and non-field were so disrupted in this case partly because those under study were not distant and marginal, but relatively powerful elite actors housed much closer to the writing desk. However, the decision to share text with informants – and the in-principle commitment to change that text in the face of their objections – remains a logical extension of post-positivist commitments to narrative and multiplicity. That Mosse’s attempt to do so counts in some sense as a ‘failure’ – matters became increasingly acrimonious, and the complainants were not satisfied by the small changes made – nevertheless leaves the methodological recommendation intact.

Fiesta in the Peruvian Andes

What would happen if we did not narrate our fieldwork (and its accidents) in a singular voice, but allowed the people we speak about to answer back? That the voices of others are already included in texts (as colourful figures, as interlocutors, as quoted wisdom) is insufficient, since we remain in control of those depictions. A narrative produced by a group (we might speak with Mosse of the ‘family’ of a project), albeit one with a more privileged conveyer, would have a different character. Where the informants were marginal to global politics, such a project may even begin to match the aspirations that we claim to hold, reversing or subverting the normal narrative mode of scholarly authority. For when the scholar writes up fieldwork (especially in the authentic register), they still retain a privileged position, and may in fact increase the prestige of their voice through the confessional. Certainly, Stojan Sokolović objected to Elizabeth Dauphinee, but the ripples of that objection were channelled under her name.

At the same time that this vision of objectivity opens up a space for new mode of critical multiplicity, it also destabilises assumptions about the field and its opposites. We are faced with challenges in determining when to cut off the voices of interlocutors (whether agreeable or disagreeable), how to incorporate multiplicity, and how to represent the thick disagreement of persons as knowledge consumable by others in turn. The paradox is that Mosse ended up having to insist on the anti-social nature of his anthropology, responding to informant complaints by “resist[ing] the fallacy that the social has to be analysed socially”. A long-run embeddedness in social projects and a commitment to inter-subjective objectivity nevertheless resulted in an insistence on a voice – Mosse’s voice – as the final arbiter. The critics provided a ‘review’ of sorts, and surely must be counted as more invested in the project than they would be if the manuscript had never been shared, but remain strongly dissenting: a minority report from the field.

We should not flinch at this paradox, since it is no more avoidable than any other peculiarity of perspective. To wish it away would be to revisit the idea of incontestable truths, ones that were produced by the conglomeration of multiple perspectives rather than singular vision. But illuminating what we usually ignore may also require much, much more of us than the idea of narrative reflection might thus far have implied. A truly inter-subjective (or strong reflexivist) ethnography thus far exceeds the bounded of the autoethnographic, with the ethical and political consequences that implies.

4. Caring for International Selves

Where does this leave the accidental fieldworker, and the sharing of their experience? Despite occasional claims to the contrary, narrative and autoethnographic IR does more than write the scholar in. It indicates a wide-ranging epistemological difference, a critique of other modes of inquiry, and therefore an implicit alternative to forms of knowing that are less present in the fields they speak about. This disposition towards personalised narrative carries its own dangers, and may indeed reproduce the authorities it claims to overthrow.

Writing of historiography, Hayden White distinguished between ‘narrative’ – that immediate first person plot that seems so translatable across contexts – and ‘narrativity’ – the attempt to impose the coherence of narrative onto the mess of historical events. Fieldwork reflections face a similar danger insofar as they attempt to move from a narrative of the self to the narrativity of objections to the discipline (say, by indicating that this or that method is a form of discursive violence). Veracity sneaks back in through the back door when the field acts as authority point for wider conceptual and theoretical objections. Indeed, we might begin to think that it is the field and its accidents that somehow prove or ground such general objections, and that by conveying our experiences we help the field speak for itself. And this is closer to a version of objectivity discourse than some might wish.

There is another possibility, which is that we treat reflections not as rivals to conventional scholarly accounts but as forms of care that we provide for each other. Instead of opposing the general theory of a war with an autoethnographic account of the same, we might instead consider the sharing of stories with each other (however we bound the disciplinary ‘we’) as a community practice. Reflecting on how we experience the field may not necessarily lead to a Bourdieu-style critique of our institutions, or a Latour-inspired communication with informants, but can help us all the same, like a diary entry that provides succour and connection with other inquirers into global politics. A gathering together to tell stories not so that they can be translated into prestigious publications, but to relate to each other, to reflect on ourselves and our engagements as co-conspirators in engaged research.


4 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

  1. 3 quick thoughts:
    1) thank you
    2) stories–messy, complicated, open ended, abounding in multiplicities and more–are not the same as narratives and worth more of our attention….I continue to try and cobble something together about this, but it is, uhm, well, messy and complicated, and abounding in multiplicities…
    3) The essayist Joan Didion’s notion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” seems apt; but the poet Muriel Rukeyser goes further: “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”


    • Thanks Eric. Our collective universe is pretty inescapably woven from stories, at least if we want to hold on to antiquated notions like ‘meaning’. Which is presumably why we still struggle to accept The Universe as atoms all the way down. I suppose that is rather neatly like the gap between the messy stories we tell ourselves and our incessant reaching for method.


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