Engaging in fieldwork elicits strong emotions in researchers, and feelings are powerful teachers. I was surprised that an uncomfortable field experience resurfaced when I read Alondra Nelson’s call to consider how we make “human sciences more humane” as the Covid-19 pandemic puts a necessary but troubling hold on fieldwork. I was in Nigeria in 1994, traveling from Lagos to Kano for my first-ever ethnographic data collection, and, after sitting on a public bus for six hours, I could think of nothing else but water. We had stopped at a simple roadside station, just a porch, where a woman sat and a jerry can stood. I followed a man, who dipped a cup into the can and drew out some water; I rushed to do as he had. Before I could touch the can, the woman berated me in Hausa. I understood no more than a few words, but knew I had to move away. I slunk back to the bus, with the woman still speaking in my direction, her voice steadily climbing the further I walked. Is it because I am a woman? Why is that water reserved? Why did the man get to have some? I sulked the rest of the trip, these questions roiling inside me.“Given the range of emotions that field researchers are feeling now—fear, sadness, nostalgia, longing for connection—must we continue to “contain” them?”
My mistake still embarrasses me, but reliving it, publicly, more than 25 years later after I have learned many more lessons in Nigeria, crystallizes some of the most valuable aspects of human physicality in field research and the potentially unrecognized “dehumanization” that Covid-19 might bring. I focus here on emotions in humanistic and social scientific research to make two observations: 1) emotions are productive for human understanding and 2) scholars’ own emotions have often been expunged from published knowledge, revealing an anti-emotionalism that shapes how field experience is rendered into “expertise.” Given the range of emotions that field researchers are feeling now—fear, sadness, nostalgia, longing for connection—must we continue to “contain” them?
In exploring these themes, I want to highlight a third issue, which is that the social control of emotions is an act of power. As historian Elise Mitchell reflects on the historical disproportionate impact of epidemics on African Americans and its latest iteration with Covid-19, the denial of the Black communities to mourn in public by social distancing and “the dominant Western notions of ‘closure’” is a silencing. She insightfully points out that makeshift solutions re-inscribe oppression: “The emerging mainstream digital funeral culture is insufficient…video conferencing, with all of its potential for connection, has already been appropriated as a tool for surveillance, racism, and sexual harassment.” Emotions are not equal, neither is the ability to express or control them. Feelings, grounded in material realities, like grief, fear of getting sick, and depression, deserve more attention as we social scientists confront more openly why field research has been and is increasingly difficult or impossible for many.
Shame: A useful emotion
Why the episode remains so vivid is not what I learned about the workings of Northern Nigerian society—which took me years to understand better—but what I felt in crossing a line: An immediate and intense shame. Experiencing shame is human. Kilborne argues that this human experience, an interpersonal one, creates a unique and perhaps unparalleled field in which social scientists and their “subjects” reorganize self and society. Shame in such research “illuminates the interpersonal world of anthropologist and informant, both phenomenologically and psychodynamically.”1Benjamin Kilborne, “Fields of Shame: Anthropologists Abroad,” Ethos 20, no. 2 (1992): 230–253, 230. The etymology of the word “shame” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to hide,” he writes, and gives English the words “skin” and “hide,” suggesting inner and outward implications that can inform our understanding of how we and others want to be seen and not to be seen. Kilborne uses psychoanalytic anthropology to consider that these human elements, in the course of research, are also controlled as expressions of power—whose emotions are scrutinized and explained, and whose are not.
Indeed, when the founding figures of social science, like Bronislaw Malinowski, revealed shame or other feelings of disquiet and doubt when they were conducting research—rarely in published works and in Malinowski’s case, only posthumously published—their peers recoiled. The intense reaction that researchers’ emotions evoke raises questions about what else lies unspoken.
We need to know far more than we do about experiences in the field, what portions of them are packaged in the form of ethnographies and what portions escape description, remaining secret because of a desire to hide them out of shame. The question of what kind of credence to lend to fieldnotes raises once again the question of anthropological evidence. What counts as “evidence” in anthropology? How is such “evidence” arrived at, evaluated, and interpreted?2Kilborne, “Fields of Shame: Anthropologists Abroad,” 244.
Kilborne suggests that the impetus to hide information or keep secrets arises out of a vulnerability, “a disconnect between how one will be seen and wants be seen,” but, without question, so rarely confronted: “How we exist in the element of shame is as difficult for us to perceive as it is for fish to know the water they live in, or birds the air they breathe.”3Kilborne, “Fields of Shame: Anthropologists Abroad,” 244. Would we be willing to recognize or reveal such a feeling in the course of conducting research via digital means, as the Covid-19 pandemic might force us to do? While it may be difficult to do, uncovering or exposing ourselves to shaming and admitting shame may be, as Kilborne argues, a vital resource for keeping our social science “faithful” to who and what we encounter in the field.
Emotions as ethical in a time of uncertainty“Rather than assume that emotions impede knowledge-creation and dissemination, we might consider how emotions and their manipulation are part of social norms, including norms of scholarly work.”
We might see the removal of emotions from our research reporting as a scholarly “social distancing” norm, one that we need to reconsider in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fatal deficiencies and inequalities it has exposed. Rather than assume that emotions impede knowledge-creation and dissemination, we might consider how emotions and their manipulation are part of social norms, including norms of scholarly work. The interconnectedness of social and emotional norms is a phenomenon highlighted in a conversation on the historical study of emotions in the American Historical Review. Scholars of gender, the body, the family, and war, present diverse views on what the study of emotions is, but some distinct patterns and paths for future research emerge that are useful for thinking about how social scientists—who may not use texts like historians but do produce them—might consider emotions in evidence and as evidence.
First, the turn to emotions in history has arisen from “frustration with established or traditional approaches that leave the emotional side of human experience unacknowledged or marginalized…dissatisfaction compounded by an ambitious desire to capture a level of experience or expression that most historians would concede is simply beyond our reach, at least historically.”4Nicole Eustace et al., “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,” American Historical Review 117, no. 5 (December 2012): 1487–1531, 1494–1495. Second, the very process of recording lived experiences, such as “interviews stripped of performative and emotional qualities and reduced to texts” that Julie Livingston describes, “flattens” them. In other words, as Kilborne describes, ethnographers, historians, sociologists, and others leave no space for emotions in their published research and, I would argue, that is what internalizes them as individual reactions, and not as “useable knowledge.” A third point these scholars make offers a different approach: They identify patterns, norms, and codes that distinguish emotional communities. By way of example, Eugenia Lean describes how cadres in Mao’s Communist Party mobilized peasants against landowners by fostering rituals of “speaking bitterness.” These speech acts galvanized the masses into undertaking violent acts, which may have looked like “mob violence” on the outside. But, she notes, “historians and social scientists have been examining more carefully the logic behind these staged and powerful campaigns to understand how a participant could come to feel deeply the scripted-from-above sessions.”5Nicole Eustace et al., “The Historical Study of Emotions,” 1499.
As scholars, we also belong to emotional communities, perhaps one presently more united than ever, by our fear for the future and our work. However, if this fear is rooted in the loss of relevance and expertise without field research as it used to be, one way to use this time is to try to better understand how fear itself has and continues to shape our research, its presentation, and its dissemination in a wildly unequal world. As Tatiana Carayannis and Annalisa Bolin write, the Covid-19 pandemic may shift our attention to a radical uncertainty, to question “whether we continue to do research…There may be situations in which the most ethical response is to weigh the value of research itself against the dangers, rather than merely seeing ways to continue while minimizing danger. Alternatively, putting research on hold raises questions about responsibility to participants, time-sensitive data, and unfinished projects.” Thinking about this kind of response as “action” means becoming comfortable with emotions like shame, uncertainty, the frustration of waiting, and wanting intensely to reconnect.
We can also use this time away from “the field” to deconstruct it, detach from it, pick apart its details, confront our feelings about it. A shameful faux pas, like mine in Nigeria, obliterated in a single moment my presumed entitlement to water and my assumption of “sameness” with another person, that we saw the water in the same way, as a shared “need.” Instead, to her, I signified a source of potential pollution of the water, which was reserved—perhaps for ablutions for Muslims, perhaps off limits to all foreigners—I still do not know. I have never encountered such an experience since. Yet, I remember it now because, in this “field,” I could imagine how in the pandemic I could be seen as a carrier of disease.“When certainty is shaken, we are led to new perspectives and practices.”
Her disgust and my shame point to how emotions reorient human relationships, and those between humans and nonhumans, say between humans and water. Citing Hindus’ performance of ablutions in the polluted waters of the Ganges, Orlove and Caton remark that “sometimes cultural beliefs trump material realities in stunning ways.”6Ben Orlove and Steven C. Caton, “Water Sustainability: Anthropological Approaches and Prospects,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 401–415, 403. Only when material realities of water shortage intrude on Americans’ tendency to “naturalize bodily needs,” like a minimum amount of water intake, do they begin to question their own views and adopt new uses of water. My “naturalization” of my relationship to the woman and the water reflected the imposition of a false sense of certainty. When certainty is shaken, we are led to new perspectives and practices.
We have already made mistakes in “naturalizing” Covid-19’s effects on humans—its damages to human bodies now shown to be very different and not yet patternable by age, for instance—and we cannot assume “shared humanity” means the same responses to this disease. “Every epidemic is different; government responses are usually the same regardless. Many governments apply what they think are ‘lessons learned’ from a previous pandemic to a new pandemic. Experts on pandemics think this is an error.”7Alex de Waal, “Covid-19 in Africa: ‘Know Your Epidemic, Act on its Politics’,” African Arguments, March 31, 2020. From body to body politic, perhaps social scientists might shift attention to what seems less clear, unresolved, and mistaken, even in the past.
Outbreaks of epidemic disease have always required humans to adapt “techniques of the body.”8London: Zed Books, 2016More Info → Embedded within these are emotions on many registers, from the micro- to the macro-levels of social, communal, and political expression and action. We have come to recognize emotions as a kind of intelligence or knowledge in fields like education. Social scientists might consider the “declassification” and disclosure of emotions that affect our perception and presentation of research, along with privilege and positionality, as a new ethical turn as we confront the changing landscape of field research and its relationship to expertise.