Teaching Fugitive Anthropology with Maya Berry and Colleagues

The November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field," by Maya Berry, Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada. In the wake of #MeToo and the resulting dialogues over sexual assault and its intersection with racial identities in the United States, this article brings these issues home to anthropology by combining autoethnography with an analysis of how researchers’ bodies are gendered and racialized—in the field, in the academy, and in daily life. These processes make women of color researchers vulnerable in a way that has not been addressed in anthropological theory, praxis, or training. This post offers a guide for engaging with the article by Berry and colleagues and its implications. Included below are suggested additional readings, prompts for an in-class discussion, and an empathy-building exercise that encourages participants to think critically about their own interactions with power inequities, whether inside or outside of academia.

Audience

Graduate and advanced undergraduate students, as well as faculty. The concept of fugitive anthropology is a versatile and important one, which could be addressed in courses focused on anthropological theory or ethnographic research methods, as well as courses that focus on race or feminist, activist, or queer anthropology. The article might also serve as a starting point for a discussion among faculty about best practices for mentoring and advising students.

Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with the concepts, methods, and critiques of activist anthropology.
  • Understand and evaluate the role of "the field" in contemporary research, and how it impacts researchers differently due to varied identities and backgrounds.
  • Understand and evaluate the power dynamics that surface in the autoethnographies of the authors, including their experiences in and out of the field.
  • Become familiar with the invisible labor carried out by anthropologists’ gendered and racialized bodies.
  • Critically analyze the concept of fugitive anthropology and its basis in black feminist analysis and indigenous decolonial thinking, as well as what these often marginalized traditions can teach us about anthropological research, praxis, and power dynamics.

Suggested Readings

For a more extensive discussion, the following readings can be placed in conversation with the article by Berry and colleagues.

Anderson-Levy, Lisa. 2010. “An (Other) Ethnographic Dilemma: Subjectivity and the Predicament of Studying Up.” Transforming Anthropology 18, no. 2: 181–92. 

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist 113, no. 4: 545–56.

Clancy, Kathryn B. H., Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford, and Katie Hinde. 2014. “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault.” PLos ONE 9, no. 7. 

Navarro, Tami, Bianca C. Williams, and Attiya Ahmad. 2013. “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 3: 443–63.

Sojoyner, Damien M. 2017. “Another Life is Possible: Black Fugitivity and Enclosed Places.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 514–36.

Discussion Prompts

  • What is activist anthropology? How does it relate to the concept of decolonization?
  • According to the authors, in what way is “the field” a masculine space in anthropology? Does this critique extend to the field as a whole? Do you agree with this critique?
  • How does the concept of embodiment inform the arguments in this article? What connections do the authors draw between “bodily precarity” (p. 555) and “embodied pedagogy” (p. 538)?
  • What are the “global structures of power” (p. 558) and “intersecting structures of oppression” (p. 547) that the authors make visible through their autoethnographies? How do these structures impact their lives at home and in the field?
  • What are the intersectional identities that the authors describe in recounting their experiences with violence during fieldwork? Which aspects of identity are positioned as privileged or as mitigating circumstances in the differing narratives, and which aspects are presented as increasing the researcher’s vulnerability?
  • How does the gendering, racializing, and sexualizing of the authors’ bodies impact their positionality and their research in the field? How does it impact their experiences in academia? What connections do they draw between their personal experiences and the experiences of anthropologists in general—those with similar and dissimilar bodies?
  • What erasures and silences do the authors identify? What role do academic power dynamics play in these processes? How do local power dynamics fit in within the collectivities being studied?
  • In discussing perceptions of accountability after an experience with violence, how do the authors’ identifications as “black, brown, indigenous, mestiza, and/or queer cisgendered women trained in the United States in the tradition of decolonial and activist anthropological praxis” (p. 537) converge to influence their actions?
  • What are the authors’ suggestions for addressing their critiques of the field, of activist anthropology, and of the academy? How are these suggestions unified through the concept of a fugitive anthropology?

In-Class Exercise

This exercise is designed to encourage discussion about differences in the experiences of the students or faculty present, and to critically evaluate how these differences relate to the topics raised in the readings. This exercise is likely to be more successful after a discussion of the readings, when participants have already begun to analyze and engage with key issues.

Empowerment through Empathy

The creator of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, emphasizes the importance of empathy and the development of connections to other survivors of sexual assault in healing. This exercise does not focus solely on assault, but widens the lens to the issue of power dynamics in general. Its goal is to: a) form connections between participants who have had negative experiences with power inequities, whether in conducting research, in the academy, or in everyday life, and b) familiarize those participants who have benefited from power inequities with how differences in identity and background impact their colleagues’ experiences. Due to the intersectionality of identity, many participants will likely fall into both categories, for example because of privileges associated with their race, gender, education, and/or American citizenship.

  • To start, ask each participant to write down (privately, on their own sheet of paper) both a positive and a negative experience they have had with power inequities. As the facilitator, you should also participate so that you can speak up if others hesitate.
  • After everyone has finished, ask if anyone is willing to share an example of how they have benefited from a power inequity. If no one speaks up, share your own example.
  • Ask everyone to link this experience back to the readings. For example, was it an experience that occurred within a community to which the person belongs and/or was studying? What types of power dynamics were visible or invisible? How might the person’s embodied identity have been involved in these power dynamics? What other aspects of identity might have been involved? Were there likely others who did not benefit in the same way from this or a related experience?
  • As participants become more comfortable with each other and the discussion, ask if anyone is willing to share an example of how they were negatively impacted by a power inequity. If no one speaks up, share your own example.
  • Ask everyone to link this negative experience back to the readings. For example, was it a negative experience that occurred within a community to which the person belongs and/or was studying? What types of power dynamics were visible or invisible? How might the person’s embodied identity have been involved in the power dynamics? What other aspects of identity might have been involved? Were there likely others who did benefit from this or a related experience?
  • Ask what power dynamics might have been involved after a negative encounter with power inequities. For example, was there a possibility of reporting the negative outcome? Or of seeking a resolution? What about any perceptions of accountability? How might they have been internalized, and how might they have been externalized?
  • Next, ask the participants to draw out the main themes emerging from these experiences. Write their responses on the board or somewhere visible to everyone, and encourage them to link these themes to the concept of fugitive anthropology. For example, what are the contested spaces identified in the personal examples? Do they mirror the contested spaces identified in the readings? How do these contested spaces map onto anthropology and the academy at large?
  • Finally, invite participants to share their personal takeaways from the discussions. Conclude by asking: what can fugitive anthropology teach us about a path forward?

Acknowledgments

Thank you to Lisa Anderson-Levy, whose emphasis on the power dynamics involved in intersectionality influenced my ideas for the in-class exercise. Stay tuned for my interview with Anderson-Levy in the upcoming Teaching Tools post “Teaching Race: Intersectionality, Paradigm Shifts, and the Ubiquity of Whiteness.”