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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/tfyv-jc25

technical paper

AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Fieldwork Confessionals





“Don’t put this in your book.” “I know I shouldn’t say this, but...” Cautions like these are preludes to the fieldwork confessional, a pervasive and ambivalent genre that opens up a world of partial secrets. With such exhortations, our interlocutors tell us who to believe, who to discount, and what to keep off the record. They enact relational demands and place conditions on the ethnographic project • but rarely in straightforward ways. Working with moments when tacit knowledge is marked as such but then shared nonetheless, our panelists consider what these disclosures put at stake, contextually and conceptually. Confessions both constitute and complicate social ties, sometimes tightening relations and sometimes testing them. Yet other confessions press closeness onto unconsenting hearers. Together, we ask how ethnographers ought to respond to such obligations, both in the field and on the page, and in the context of vastly different disclosures: whispers of violence done and violence lived, of intimacy, hate, doubt, and covert information. Papers move from the performances these speech acts prompt, to the proximities they impose, to the forms they do (and don’t) take at our desks. Our particular focus is on how truth gets negotiated in the gap between the act of confession and the outcome of ethnographic writing. In exploring the sticky relational processes through which ethnographic truths get formed and forced, represented and resisted, these papers complicate the invitation to bear witness, take action, and speak truth this AAA. What does it mean to tell the truth when the confession itself winds through secrets, lies, codes, jokes, and a range of known unknowns? When might truth-telling present an obstacle to action? When does it rise to the level of an ethical breach? How do the constraints of scholarly writing shape which truths get uttered and which stay lodged in the throat? How might omission, euphemism, allegory, or even fiction constitute modes of truth? And are there ways to incorporate inadmissible knowledge into our work without breaking confidentiality? Acknowledging that, sometimes, truth and responsibility are incompatible (e.g., Simpson 2014), we query how anthropologists are to proceed once put on notice. After the first hour • comprised of five short papers, each organized around a different prelude to the fieldwork confessional, and brief discussant remarks • we invite the audience to participate in a conversation about the stakes of secrecy and exposure in ethnographic research.


Transcript English (automatic)

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