Contact/Access: Integration

From the Series: Contact/Access

Photo by qimono.

Integration would seem to invite summary reflection. I join here with Peter Redfield, Nicola Bulled, and Rachel Caesar to explore conditions and paradoxes of contact/access as ethnographic modes of knowing. Each cultural anthropologist borrows from the classic tropes of the telling ethnographic arrival scene, the need to find institutional subsidization, and the licensing procedures of gaining permission for fieldwork from bureaucratic or traditional authorities. But each also reveals the lived and typically undisclosed dimensions of how fieldworkers move across different contexts and networks.

For Redfield, ethnographic access is “a state of relation,” one that may open, close, or shift over time as researchers age and deal with the complexities of generational associations and attachments; the main idea, I believe, is to remain attentive to how institutions and their interests transform vis-à-vis the ethnographer, who is similarly a changing instrument of knowledge. Bulledshows the painstaking process by which her composite identity—in her own words, “white, highly educated, modern, young woman”—activates and forecloses fieldwork possibilities, even as being conscious of one’s ethno-racial and gendered self-presentation may help to gain contingent entry into normally restricted areas. Finally, Ceasar demonstrates how having multiple ethical commitments (especially in politically sensitive situations) shapes the fieldworker’s relationship to research itself—opening important questions about (post)colonial relations of power and modes of ethnographic disclosure, including the problem of transparency within one’s research community.

In sum, the way others reckon with the ethnographer’s gendered, generational, ethical, and ethno-racial associations typically plays a large, unspoken role in being authorized to occupy and promote one’s field research. But this very same process, I suggest, may increasingly restrict ethnography from taking place.

Ethnographic Access in the Security State . . .

For the last decade, I have pursued fieldwork on spiking incarceration rates in Guayaquil, Ecuador, studying how justifications for punitive confinement have shifted their directions as the state itself moved from promoting neoliberal to neosocialist ideals. The city of Guayaquil is like home to me. But my strange, half-Ecuadorian, academic and gringo background usually throws Guayaquileño bureaucrats for a loop. The university connections and associations with human-rights groups I forged long ago had previously been good enough to gain prison clearance for interviewing inmates and staff. Over the last five years, however, the country has witnessed an unprecedented boom in prison construction and the securitization of new carceral spaces in order to undermine the coercive reach of imprisoned drug mafia. Where the prison was once rather easily traversed—open to nearly anyone who showed up at the gates—access to these new cellblocks and penitentiaries grows more and more restricted. For people who aren’t easy to identify as an unambiguous insider within the prison-industrial complex, well, let us simply say that you will likely wait, like Kafka’s antihero, at “The Door of the Law.”

These days, even federal and defense lawyers can be heard complaining about being turned away at the prison gates or security filters. And you can perhaps imagine how journalists, researchers, and assorted documentarians might fare under the same circumstances. Those who are merely curious about the living conditions of persons in state custody, or who seek ethnographically to understand punitive enclosure and its impact on inmates and their families, friends, and communities, are faced with the impossibility of regular passage across the prison threshold. Prison wardens and staff, it is true, may grant researchers limited access to certain cellblocks and common areas, but such visitors are only allowed guard-supervised conversations with preselected inmates, and are usually prohibited from mingling.

. . . Where Contact ≠ Access and Access ≠ Contact

All this is to say that within the inner depths of the security state, an increasingly global and problematic space, the ethnographer may be granted contact with individuals submerged in the penal apparatus. But such contact does not necessarily equate to access. Nor, by the same token, does officially proscribed access signal actual contact. Indeed, the three-fold movement we automatically presume takes place as a result of long-term, first-person fieldwork (contact leads to access leads to ethnographic authority) may be in need of some revision.

It is for precisely this reason that I now train my ethnographic focus on the prison threshold itself: the doors of the security state repeatedly close shut on ethnographic researchers, human rights workers, and other professionals, but we may respond in kind by cataloging these experiences of closure, analyzing how state securitization artificially segregates populations considered threatening, distancing them from physical and moral contact with society at large. By studying movement across the prison threshold, ethnography can set itself the critical task of rethinking the encroachment and normalization of the security state in people’s lives. The prison continues to remain a machine for internalizing discipline, as Michel Foucault once argued. But prison’s new role as an apparatus for punitive containment, instead of reform, turns such disciplinary transmissibility—and accessibility—on its head. With more ethnographic and self-reflexive derring-do, the contemporary void of contact/access can be theorized and perhaps even turned into a resource for broader interdisciplinary and state-level critique of mass incarceration today.