Contact/Access: Provocation

This is the first post in Field Notes. See the introduction to this conversation here.

I regularly encounter questions from people contemplating research projects involving NGOs, or similarly dispersed phenomena.  Where to begin?  How to make contact, to enter the network and slip into the flow?  My answers have ranged between personal anecdote and abstract observation, all in blithely ad hoc fashion.  This exchange seems like the opportunity to attempt a more systematic response, especially with the able assistance of others.  Let’s begin literally then, and consider access in terms of research.  People tend to overlook the obvious when searching for something clever to say, which leaves it as an unexpected reserve for provocation. To that end I’ll offer three obvious points of potential provocation and begin a response to each.  

1. Access is not a thing but a state of relation

Moments of contact are obviously fraught for ethnographers, suffused with affect and over-determined by future narration as a beginning.  Initial engagement resonates with larger cultural tropes of alien encounter (think First Contact, whether New Guinea highlands or Star Trek style), and the grander conceits of anthropology — the pith helmeted explorer of cartoon fame stumbling into an “unknown” village.  And of course there’s much written about arrivals, and now also written about that writing.  Maybe that’s why contact overshadows not just everything that follows, but the way we often frame access in general:  once you arrive, you’re there.  However, both reflection and experience suggest otherwise.  Access involves relationships.  These can ebb and flow, tighten and loosen, warm and cool according to conditions and circumstances, which are not always predictable in advance and indeed not always under control of any of the parties involved, least of all the researcher.  Years ago a friend and I, struck by widespread laments over areal neglect and “understudied” topics, conceived of conducting a geographic census of anthropological research projects.  Our goal was to create a topographical map of the ethnographic empire.  Although we never carried out this project, we played with it long enough to realize what it might reflect beyond individual curiosity:  patterns of political connection and borders easier or harder to cross, shifting forms of economic support in the forms of state and foundation initiatives, and disciplinary traditions worn deep like the ruts of a wagon track.  Having initially worked in a location that didn’t easily fit any of these patterns (French Guiana), I learned from the outset that some sites are harder to reach than others — even in the most literal sense of transport — and that student stipends convert quite differently in different economies.  It’s not cheap to study up.  Later, when pursuing a mobile organization (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders), I learned that sequential “first” encounters with different holders of the same office can help define a larger pattern, while also making visible the episodic nature of field research.  People change in relation over time, and even “yes” and “no” are not always final answers.  Sometimes you might just have to wait.  

2. Of course it matters who you are!

Not everyone can equally study everything.  Or to refine the observation in a more kindly passive voice, not everyone is equally positioned at a given moment to study everything in the same way.   This is not only true in terms of the social trinity of race/class/gender beneath facades of liberal equality, but also nationality, language, age, institutional position, health, disposition, personal ties, etc.  I had friends who worked for MSF and other medical organizations.  That gave me a place to begin conversations as well as a bridge to others.  By the time I began the project I also had a child and a faculty job.  Beyond the consequent mix of obligation and security, these facts also served as points of commonality with people who had children or academic interests (some aid practitioners crave reflection amid action).  Such retrospective observations extend from the realization that I would have proceeded quite differently at an earlier point in my life.  Access is an internal as well as external question:  At any given point what are you able to hear of what people have to say?  

3. What is at stake in provocation?

Academics have a deep investment in appearing provocative.  The classic position of the critic, of course, is to stand outside the phenomenon in question.  This stance can rupture relationships and complicate access.  It can also obscure the fact that what actually provokes other actors (as opposed to affirming expectations) might not be a given.  Studying an organization that itself practices forms of critique, and (limited) self-critique has made me particularly aware that provocative statements are rarely as new as they proclaim themselves to be — including these.   What then is at stake, and for whom?  Having reached the end of my allotted 800 words, I’ll now pass the baton.

Peter Redfield teaches anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (University of California Press, 2013).

Peter has published two essays in Cultural Anthropology. His 2005 "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis" received the SCA's Cultural Horizons Prize. His 2012 essay is entitled "The Unbearable Lightness of Expats: Double Binds of Humanitarian Mobility". Both are on his work with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).