Re: Active Ethnography

Cecilia Maria B Sardenberg (cecisard@SUNRNP.UFBA.BR)
Fri, 14 Jan 1994 22:34:44 -0200

R.Ehrenreich is correct in criticizing the author of the book on fieldwork
method. he has been reading in that one should not intentionally seek to
get politically involved in the field. However, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes
beautifully demonstrates in "Death Without Weeping", it is often
impossible not to do so, especially if you are working in Brazilian
'favelas' or poor neighborhoods...

Scheper-Hughes worked in a very poor community in Pernambuco as a peace
corps volunteer back in the sixties and was then active in community
organizing. When she went back to the same place twenty years later to
conduct anthropological fieldwork, she tried not to get involved. Here is
what happened, in her own words:

"On the day before my departure in 1982, a fight broke out among Irene
Lopes and several women waiting outside the creche where I was conducting
interviews and gathering reproductive histories. WHen I emerged to see
what the commotion was about, the women were ready to turn their anger
against me. Why had I refused to work with them when they had been so
willing to work with me ? Didn't I care about them personally anymore,
their lives, their suffering, their struggle? Why was I so passive, so
indifferent, so resigned, to the end of UPAC and of creche, the community
meetings, and the festas? The women gave me an ultimatum: the next time I
came back to the Alto I would have to "be" with them - "accompany them"
was the expression they used - in their 'luta', and not just 'sit idly
by' taking fieldnotes. 'What is this anthropology anyway to us?' they
taunted." (1992:18).

I have had similar experiences and I am sure that so have a lot of other
ethnographers, some of which may be reading this message. Getting
politically involved or not in the field always depends on the field
situation, your specific object of study, and on the 'persona' that those
you are studying create for you. As a feminist involved in the women's
movement in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, and doing fieldwork among women in
poor communities in the outskirts of the city (who are also involved in
the local women's movement), there is no way that I can avoid 'political
involvement', even if I wanted to
(which is certainly not the case). But since my research focuses
mainly on family history, my 'involvement' has not been an obstacle but
rather an asset. No doubt, at times it has been diffucult to juggle both
roles. Obviously, if you are working in a community where there
are competing/conflicting groups and your 'involvement' leads you
into being identified with one of them you will have a big
But part of being a good ethnographer (active or non-active) is being
able to assess the field situation and learn if, when, and how 'to be or
not to be' involved... And I am not sure if you can learn this on 'field
techniques' texts...

Anyway, hope this is of help to you R.Ehrenreich.

Cecilia Sardenberg
NEIM/FFCH/Universidade Federal da Bahia
Est. de Sao Lazaro 197, Federacao
40.210 - Salvador, Bahia