CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: Trial by Fire: Trauma, Vulnerability and Fieldwork / by Ethnography Commons

Trial by Fire: Trauma, Vulnerability and Fieldwork  

A Conversation Piece for Commoning Ethnography, to be published early 2020.


Edited by Rachel Douglas-Jones, Nayanika Mathur, Catherine Trundle and Tarapuhi Vaeau

Within anthropology fieldwork remains an essential ritual of initiation and a cornerstone of our disciplinary identity. Implicit to many canonical accounts of ‘good’ fieldwork is the tacit idea that an encounter with alterity must engender traumatic transformation in the fieldworker. In becoming an anthropologist, shock, displacement, disorientation and disconnection are taken as essential ingredients for immersive learning, resocialization and scholarly insight (e.g Wengle 2005).

This idealized rite of passage renders invisible the different vulnerabilities, risks, and forms of violence that diverse scholars face when conducting fieldwork. As Maya Berry and colleagues point out (2017), our myths of the heroic fieldworker disguise the hierarchies of race, gender, class, sexuality and ability/disability that shape the differentiated harms that fieldworkers face, and the different levels of legitimacy their experiences are afforded. And as Bianca Williams argues, “women—particularly young, women of color—often find themselves navigating the danger, awkwardness, shame, discomfort, and violence of unsafe or not-yet-safe spaces, or previously safe and now suddenly, threatening individuals” within fieldwork (2017, see also Evans 2017, Nelson et al 2017).  Berry and colleagues call on us to reject “the discipline’s implicit masculinist ‘shut up and take it’ mentality” (2017). As part of conversations generated by feminist, queer and BIPOC scholars, #metoo, and #metooanthro, this is indeed a necessary call to action with academia and within anthropology. This proposed collaborative piece thus seeks to encourage anthropology to further consider the fieldworker's personhood, not merely as a tool in the service of disciplinary knowledge, but in relation to an emergent ethics of care, equity and responsibility within our research and collegial spaces (e.g. Bonet and Williams 2018).

Attempts to challenge the status quo are often met with silence, or even hostility. Take Amy Pollard’s study of British anthropology PhD students’ experiences of fieldwork (2009), which revealed stories of isolation, shame, betrayal, disappointment, embarrassment, fear, and feelings of being trapped. In a response to Pollard’s study, one scholar expressed little empathy for such vulnerabilities, and described such students as failed anthropologists, recasting their traumas and difficulties as personal weakness. “The habitus of the discipline of anthropology relies on a widespread agreement that not everyone can be an anthropologist, and the survival of the misery and bafflement of fieldwork is the best way to see who is, and is not fit to join the culture. Metaphors of ‘ordeal by fire’, and being ‘thrown in at the deep end’ abound...Pollard’s informants do not all seem to have recognised and accepted that reality: so they are not yet fully socialised or enculturated into anthropology” (Delamont 2009:1).

We seek up to ten 1000 word rejoinders to the ideal of the heroic trauma of fieldwork. We invite contributors to reflect upon the tacit academic cultures of fieldwork, and what possibilities exist for us to remake fieldwork ethics, its infrastructures, and its narrative conventions in ways that do less harm to junior colleagues, economically precarious scholars, women, gender diverse and queer scholars, and BIPOC colleagues. We are also interested in pieces that reflect upon the interlocking vulnerabilities and privileges that fieldworkers face, such as the risks of being harmed in the field and of doing harm in the field. We also welcome responses to Amy Pollard’s call for increased and different forms of fieldworker mentorship and institutional responsibility. This could include pieces that offer examples of existing good practice, imagine alternatives to the bureaucratic and legalistic models of risk and responsibility that currently exist within university institutions and ethics review committees, or engage with the assumption that fieldwork is too idiosyncratic and dynamic to necessitate training.

We welcome standard commentaries as well as alternative forms such as fieldwork training syllabi, poetic and visual genres, as well as reflexive comments. We also welcome pieces that interact creatively with canonical or forgotten ethnographic works that exemplify or subvert the heroic tropes of ethnographic fieldwork. We accept single-authored, co-authored and collective-authored submissions. We welcome submission from graduate students currently training for their first period of fieldwork, those in the field or recently returned, as well as established colleagues reflecting on their own training or their role as mentors and educators for future fieldworkers. In doing so we hope to explore how fieldwork preparation, training and mentorship has changed or stayed the same over time and in diverse settings.

Please send your piece (up to 1000 word) to by August 31 2019. Please feel free to email Catherine anytime before this deadline to discuss or pitch an idea that you would like to submit.

References Cited

Berry, Maya J., Chávez Argüelles, Claudia, Cordis, Shanya, Ihmoud, Sarah and Velásquez Estrada, Elizabeth.

2017. Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field. Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 537–565.

Bonet, Sally Wesley and Julia Ann McWilliams

2018. “Documenting Tragedy”: Ethnography and the (Hidden) Costs of Bearing Witness. Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 29 November.

Delamont, Sara

2009. Familiar Screams: a brief comment of “Field of Screams”. Anthropology Matters. 11(2): 1-2

Evans, Anya

2017. The ethnographer’s body is gendered. The New Ethnographer Blog.


Nelson, Robin G., Julienne N. Rutherford, Katie Hinde, Kathryn B. H. Clancy.

2017. Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and their Implications for Career Trajectories. American Anthropologist 119(4): 710-722.

Pollard, Amy

2009. Field of Screams:  Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork. Anthropology Matters. 11(2): 1-24

Wengle,  J.  L. 

2005. Ethnographers in the Field:  The Psychology  of  Research.  Tuscaloosa:  University of Alabama Press.

Williams, Bianca C.

2017. #MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 2) Savage Minds.