Disruptive Discomforts and Irreparable Returns: Reflexive Accounts on Ethnographic Guilt, Power, and Powerlessness

Image by Q Manivannan.

"What transforms the process of ethnography endowing it with its thing-like, modal character as an ethnography? What is the ethnographic case expected to achieve when distinguished from the practices out of which it emerges?" - Wardle and Blasco (2011)

On Anxious Methods

In 2016, I was an undergraduate student on scholarship at an elite, private university, in the fieldwork component of a course titled ‘Interdisciplinary Studies.’ Along with the rest of my cohort of liberal arts students, we visited anganwadis in two rural localities, and we mapped Sonepat city in Haryana, India. We went with faculty members to these locations multiple times during the semester, spending hours with the children, their teachers, panchayat members (the neighborhood governing body), and others of the local community.

At these sites in Sonepat, my friend S and I did our undergraduate fieldwork together. She was wonderful with languages, and my Hindi (let alone Haryanvi) was limited to the most functional of phrases. S had a patience and gentleness that was often stronger than mine; she was a dancer, and we, at times, during small gatherings of our department, sang Tamil music together. As such, there was no one I trusted more to accompany me during that period of learning.

At the anganwadi (one of the two, whose names I am intentionally withholding), S slowly built trust with one very young student. As I recall from memory (no notes remain from our work seven years ago), the child had long eyelashes, was restrained but laughed readily at the smallest things, was around five years old, and spoke very slowly, in hesitant nods. They nodded and told us that they were informed of our trips to the anganwadi in advance of our arrival (which meant time for the administration to prepare the anganwadis). They nodded and spoke to us softly about their abusive father.

I do not know if this knowledge was utilized by my school or the university to address the sources of childrens’ suffering. As an undergraduate student, it did not occur to me to check with my administration about their action at this stagewith whom I had a good, ongoing rapportand I regret this. I am not optimistic: the elite university would not have risked strained relationships with the local panchayatsdoing so could mean a revocation of privileged access granted to these sites, affecting future generations of students on the course. And so, S and I took our notes, and then played with the children with toy letters of the English alphabet, teaching them to pronounce each one.

On Power, Abuse, and Position

In a different place, at a different time, I was taught a course on methods by a lecturer who (I later came to know) sexually assaulted a friend and colleague. It is in retrospect that my anger toward this faculty member now textures my recollection of their class on positionality, in anger, in grief. I am made to notice that power manifests in complicated forms, that someone with a history of abuse could conduct research ‘ethically.’ Back then, I did not understand positionality or ethics as I do now.

In the class, this lecturer (let’s call them ‘M’) delineated the room into four corners based on our feelings about their statement to follow: agree and disagree, partially agree and partially disagree, opposite one another. M made a statement: ‘truly integrated and assimilated participant observation is possible, where the researchers’ position of power does not influence the research’and they asked us to position ourselves as per our response to it. Most took different corners, but it was only M and I who stayed in ‘entirely disagree.’ I do not think I would ever want to share that corner with M, or any corner, but I recollect this moment with both disgust and pridemy colleagues were possibly irked by my incessant need to stand out from the crowd. Yet there was a confidence with which I justified my (ethical, literal) position.

On Discomfort as Pedagogy

Two years later, I began my work as a Research Fellow in a university-affiliated center. Here, I helped coordinate, under the supervision of Project Leaders, a project on sexual harassment laws and their compliance, interpretation, and perception in Indian universities. With fellow researchers, we conducted thirty detailed interviews, surveyed over three hundred and fifty students across institutions in India, organized a consultative conference, and performed secondary studies on best practices.

When reading and analyzing interviews with members of Internal Complaints Committees or Sexual Harassment Committees (SHCs) in India, I remember encountering an expected hypocrisy. SHCs provided two different verdicts to the complainant and the person accused, assuaging both sets of students and parentsin essence, lying. In some institutions, SHCs did not exist. These were SHCs that recruited members internally, that bribed the external third-party member to give them the verdicts they wanted, that used the confidentiality clause to silence victims rather than holding perpetrators accountable. There are few things, we found, that institutions wouldn’t do. Sexual harassment was largely a public relations (PR) concern.

In this project, I remembered here my discomfort as a critical pedagogical feature. My discomfort with my own silence (and my alma mater’s), with the lack of action in the anganwadi projects, and with the lecturer M whose teachings I still utilized to study sexual harassment. My discomfort as a queer scholar in a precarious space making around one hundred British pound sterling (GBP) per month, and my discomfort with the project itself. This discomfort has since manifested itself iteratively through my research career. With my doctoral project in Scotland, now, I study care, grief, and protests as Third World peacebuilding, which contends with this and other discomforts, offering regular disruptions.

How may we find space for such affective, moral, and ethical disruptions in research? How does this discomfort constantly and regularly feature in our pedagogical and ethnographic practices, and texture our approaches, methods, and observations? And most of all, how do we teach ethnography that is mindful of these living liminalities? Examining these questions can help scholars grapple with the distinction between the ethnographic case and ethnographic practice.

First, while an ethnographic case does not always demand reparative writing and reading, good ethnographic practice does. There are lessons here from proximate disciplines. Rohini Sen, drawing from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (2003) “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” writes, “My readings of these texts were anxious, suspicious, and I questioned their authenticity often. However, by subjecting myself to this repeatedly, I eventually allowed for more reparative reading to take place. And this, in turn, had an impact on how I viewed the discipline.” Reparative reading is reparative not only for the anxious reader who balances the disruptions, discomforts, and liminalities they contend with, but also for who is being readthe interlocutor, the subject, the interviewee, the participant, the fixer, the translator, the perpetrator, the victim, and all those unlisted, unmentioned, unresearched.

The anxious, paranoid, reparative reading is not always of text, but at times of memory, of people, and of the self. My anxious memory of M’s teaching on ethnography, my silence on potential child abuse encountered in my undergraduate research, and my interviews with members of SHCs, is reparative not in the sense that it reduces the harm perpetrated or renders my remembrance of it any less violent, but that it allows me to notice such simultaneities of care and violence in my own fieldwork (cf. Krystalli and Schulz 2022). Even in recounting my interactions with them, unnamed and ungendered, my words and thoughts here are infused with anger and hesitation. I wish I could name M, or my alma mater, give them a name that would force accountability in spaces where there are likely none. I hope that my ‘ethical’ un-naming of them, here, grants them a discomfort of their own. And alongside this disruptive desire to name them, the inability to do so is also its own discomfort that I contend with.

On Return and Repetition

In returning to my memory of M, the fieldwork in the anganwadis with my friend S, and in my work with the Sexual Harassment Committees, I am also regularly returning to violence. Each time I return, by intention or accident, my understanding of violence undergoes reassessment and change. I also inhabit distinct moral and ethical positions with each return: in writing about these violences conducted in the teaching, learning, and practice of ethnography, I present them neither as accusation nor confession, but as a tool of reflexivity, understanding, and learning (cf. Nordstrom and Robben 1995). I present them, perhaps, as a complaint. In such a return (learning from Lee Ann Fujii and interpretivist, relational fieldwork), there are new opportunities to think of these dilemmas and new opportunities to address them.

By returning, what acts of silencing or of according agency do I then commit? I present my memory of these violences as violences of themselves, and in writing them, perhaps recommit them for some (cf. Dauphinée 2007). The mode of writing this return is furthermore a significant factor in determining its consequences. An evocative ethnographic account (that is mindful of the complexities of recalling fieldwork from memory) can offer new ways of not only reading observations but also feeling them (cf. Gergen and Gergen 2018). In writing them mindful of this impasse, there is a critical caring function—in that this discomfort and anger is directed toward a reparative function of understanding our own individual violences, to prevent their repetition, or to better identify them when they do recur.

In many ways, these repetitions and returns are conversationseither with one’s own past self, or with another person. I recount my conversations with S on what our responsibility was, as (well informed) nineteen-year-olds, to the children in the anganwadis we interacted with. Beyond their indications and symptoms of abuse, we also discussed and remembered the happiness of spending time with the children with every visit. We conversed, agreed, and disagreed about many features of interaction and observation. With another person, a conversant, there was the possibility of difference: S often saw things I did not, S often disagreed with me about the tonality of certain interviews we took, or the nature of events we observed, or the location of places.

Once, on a research trip to Sonepat town, we were tasked by our instructors to explore in pairs and map the neighborhoods we visited. S (with not much assistance from me) drew a beautiful map, near perfect in proportion, detail, every angle of each street perfect, every significant site marked out with the utmost accuracy and precision. In the process of drawing this map, we chanced upon a gurudwara where we spoke with the administrators present. We then found a mosque and a temple in surprising proximity. Remembering our interviews here, during our conversations with each other about our experiences, we collectively synthesized and viewed our fieldwork experiences with a care-infused lensnot just care for what and who we were studying but also my care for S and hers for me. Without it, our learning would have been incomplete. It is a similar care that draws me now to return to my own guilt from the fieldworkmy own violence.

It is also a similar care that also draws my anger, hesitation, and discomfort with M. In my care for the friend who was affected by their actions, I am drawn to focus not on the perpetrator’s actions but the systems that allowed it to go unchecked and the anxieties it causes in me (and, likely, many others). In caring for my friend, my conflicting memory of M’s teachings of ethnography, and in extension my practice of ethnographic field research, encountered a different intentionality. I now intentionally focus my efforts toward transformational, emancipatory fieldwork, and I choose not to conduct fieldwork where I have the potential to do harm or where I cannot do good.

Yet this is insufficient. Care does not rid ethnography (or ethnographers) of guilt or powerlessness. The fact remains that violences were committed, left unaccounted for, and the resilience of those who experienced these violences was unseen except in the passing works and words of those who care for them. The teaching and learning of ethnography is, as a rule, an exercise in powerlessness; for scholarship and ethnographic practice to enact sustainable change, to repair, or to recover is almost always a rarity, an exception. But at the very least, ethnography can help us remember and return.

Tools of teaching and learning ethnography thus must incorporate considerations of intimate relations, care, conversation, and the complex ethics of such care in fieldwork practice. Ultimately, acknowledging and teaching ethnography’s reparative limitations in both imagination and analysis, the likelihood of the ethnographer’s powerlessness, and the certainty of guilt and an (un)willing return to such harm, we prepare students and practitioners to be better equipped towards facing such dilemmas and to act ethically in their scholarly encounters.


Dauphinée, Elizabeth. 2007. “The Politics of the Body in Pain: Reading the Ethics of Imagery.” Security Dialogue 38, no. 2: 139–55.

Gergen, Kenneth J., and Mary M. Gergen. 2018. “Doing Things with Words: Toward Evocative Ethnography.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 15, no. 2–3: 272-83.

Krystalli, Roxani, and Philipp Schulz. 2022. “Taking Love and Care Seriously: An Emergent Research Agenda for Remaking Worlds in the Wake of Violence.” International Studies Review 24, no. 1: viac003.

Nordstrom, Carolyn, and Antonius C. G. M. Robben, eds. 1995. Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Wardle, Huon, and Paloma Gay y Blasco. 2011. “Ethnography and An Ethnography in the Human Conversation.” Anthropologica 53, no. 1: 117–27.