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Robinson | Vulnerability and Fieldwork: Implications for Method and Theory

February 22, 2017

Cabeiri Robinson
Cabeiri Robinson talks about the methodology and theory implications of assault on researchers in the field.

Cabeiri Robinson picked a topic for the first QUAL Speaker Series presentation of 2017 that is both difficult to talk about and necessary to address. Robinson, the Director of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, and an Associate Professor of international studies, comparative religions and south Asian studies, is an anthropologist who has conducted field work abroad since she was a graduate student. Throughout her career she faced a growing need to address the impact of assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault on researchers conducing fieldwork – whether in foreign places or in their own cultural settings. Robinson was interested in the impact of such experience on researchers’ methods and theory.

She faced the reality of violence and sexual assault through her own career as a researcher and more recently as a mentor to graduate students. These experiences are fairly common, she said to a hushed crowd of nearly 40 graduate students, faculty and researchers attending her presentation.

“On a scale of serious harassment to assault, such experiences are fairly ubiquitous for female field workers,” Robinson said. But she also acknowledged that similar experiences were common for male colleagues as well.

Robinson’s talk focused on thinking not in terms of trauma but rather impact to epistemological work.

In anthropology, some of the silence around this issue is likely related to the fact that it is so fundamental to the ethnographic method that the fieldworker build consensual and ethical relationships with the people in their field sites. In ethnographic fieldwork, Robinson said, a researcher’s work is dependent on the relationships developed with their interlocutors. The assumption in much current training is that a researcher’s access to both resources and power, are often higher than those of the people they are studying in the field (unless, perhaps, one is doing ethnographic work among elites). For an ethnographic fieldworker to discuss aspects of their fieldwork experience that are non-consensual (such as the case of assault) opens the fieldworker to suspicion that there is some failure to become a properly enculturated person in the host community.

However, “the most acculturated researcher will likely become vulnerable along with the people around she’s working with,” Robinson said. Failure to examine this because of the structure of the academy, also hides the ways that violence works in the societies where researchers conduct their fieldwork.

Impact on Methodology

The academy’s approach to issues of violence and sexual assault of researchers in the field has been patriarchal, Robinson argued. For example, in the UK, there has been an effort to introduce some reduction-of-risk measures in their version of the IRB (institutional review board) requirements. However, this quickly devolved into patriarchal assertions over female researchers – directing them to change the site of their fieldwork or the subject of their study, if it is deemed to be too dangerous as originally submitted.

Cabeiri Robinson audience

Faculty and graduate students attending the QUAL Speaker Series had many questions for Cabeiri Robinson, including the role of research mentors advising junior scholars venturing into the field for the first time.

In one of few published peer-reviewed articles on the topic, a researcher whose book Robinson often uses in her classes, anthropologist Cynthia Keppley Mahmood revealed years after her published work that her methodology was affected by her experience being gang raped by “hired thugs or rogue police in a north central Indian state during fieldwork in 1992.” Mahmood did not waiver from examining the topic that her attackers told her not to pursue, but she did pursue it in different ways—instead of doing field research in the Indian Punjab, she conducted interviews in the United States and Canada with refugees. She also became one the of important scholars who revitalized the study of armed conflict in anthropology—in part by articulating a methodology for doing ethnographic research on conflict outside of the zone of active conflict.

Impact on Theory

In addition to the consequences for our understanding of ethnographic methodologies, Robinson hopes the academy addresses the broader challenge of the reality for assault and sexual assault of fieldworkers for our social science theory. For example, she said, when conducting research in conflict zones, there may be some things that one might never be able to reveal. This challenge was raised in the field of anthropology of violence in 1990s and early 2000s, and revitalized the study of secrecy, especially public secrecy and social work, but has not been brought forth again in the context of sexual assault of researchers.

For Further Reading

The QUAL Speaker Series audience had a lot of questions and comments for Robinson, including issues of intersectionality of power, the role of research mentors advising junior scholars venturing into the field for the first time, the role of researchers on an insider-outsider continuum, and the difficult idea that to do good work, a researcher may need to be structurally as vulnerable as the people in the field they are studying. Robinson, said she is currently collaborating with a colleague to publish an article on the issue of violence and sexual assault on researchers and its effects on methods and theory. She offered a handout (which can be downloaded here) of additional readings and resources.