Gauging the Toll: Auto-reflexivity, Sexual Violence, and Fieldwork

Photo by Jerika Loren Henize.

In Letters from the Field, Margaret Mead (1977) wrote, “The way to do fieldwork is to never come up for air until it is all over.”

This quotation demonstrates the chaotic feeling of drowning associated with the cultural immersion, lack of clear structure, and uncertainty that characterizes fieldwork for many anthropologists. This quote, however, takes on a different meaning for those whose risk in the field goes far beyond the “normal” aches and pains of academic turbulence. While fieldwork can be exciting, demoralizing, illuminating, confusing, and transformative, it can also be violent and traumatic. Since the Fieldwork Initiative began two years ago, we have learned that the latter is much more commonplace than most grasp, or are willing to consider. We have also learned that while trauma takes many shapes, its damages are compounded by structural inequalities within academia as its existence as a dimension of fieldwork is often denied by faculty members and university administrations (Backe 2015; Hanson and Richards 2019).

The Fieldwork Initiative is a grassroots coalition of researchers seeking to disrupt the reproduction of prejudicial practices by creating supportive networks where researchers connect to each other as people with shared experiences—circumventing the procedures, formative practices, bi-laws, and red tape of mishandled academic injustice.

Our initiative focuses on fieldwork inequality, including gendered violence and sexual harassment, and is on the front line working with researchers currently in the field as well as those dealing with the aftermath of trauma. Disbelief in the stories we tell has become the biggest barrier we face. Overwhelmingly, incredulity comes from those whose privilege has shielded them from some of the harsh realities that have been long censored from scholastic composition—professors, departments, organizations, and universities—not ironically those whose decisions can make or break our lives and careers.

As the Fieldwork Initiative formed more solidly as an online platform in 2018, it became clear that our first goal must not only be advocacy, but prevention. As we mapped our own trajectories, the lack of preparation for some of the harsh realities of fieldwork became glaringly obvious. As students, when we had listened to our teachers recount their stories of fieldwork, not once was the topic of sexual harassment discussed. In fact, the only real pre-fieldwork safety advice most of us were given was to wear a wedding ring—essentially asking researchers to deceptively make up a fake husband and/or go back in the closet through a performance of traditional heteronormativity.

To close this glaring gap in fieldwork preparation which leaves researchers vulnerable and exposed, we developed a fieldwork training module (FISST). This training offers potentially lifesaving advice to students regarding realistic fieldwork risk and is a forum to share insider information. The training is delivered by survivors of fieldwork violence themselves—refuting the co-optation of perfunctory sexual harassment trainings as monopolized by corporate language and embodiment.

As our members pitched the training to their own departments, we soon learned the problem was not simply a lack of training modules, but the lack of institutional interest in investing in such initiatives. Even when extended for free to the departments that cited a lack of sufficient budget to accommodate a FISST training, offers were rejected under the grounds that sexual harassment during research fieldwork isn’t a problem in our department.” Our solicitations seemed especially threatening to institutions who already had a record mishandling cases of sexual harassment and assault. When we questioned why pre-fieldwork conversations were not important enough, administrators expressed the fear that talking about these risks would scare students and dissuade them from conducting work in the field altogether. There was even an air of doubt around the solutions that we, actual victims of gendered fieldwork violence ourselves, had suggested.

These initial encounters with the university administrative infrastructure illustrate the ways in which academia remains willfully blind to the afflictions that rot its core. This goes hand in hand with the systemic shelving of issues around gendered, racialized, and sexual trauma—issues considered to be appropriate for conference panels but not a subject universities mobilize against with intent and force. Much like our allies in LGBTQIA activism and scholars of color who must continually remind academia of rampant prejudice, the work of actual upheaval is mainly done by private individuals and rests on the backs of unfunded survivors (Harris et al. 2017).

We propose the concept of auto-reflexivity as a mechanism to drag gendered violence and fieldwork discrimination into the spotlight and combat the culture of silence around sexual violence in fieldwork and the negative perceptions of traumatized researchers who share their stories. Auto-reflexivity will help interrogate the roots of the misuse of power within anthropology itself—a domain of science which often perceives itself as autoimmune to its own brand of cultural bias. As reports of gender-based violence within anthropology departments continue to emerge (Bikales 2020), the time is ripe for richer conversations on the ways trauma and sexual violence in the field shape research practices and outcomes.

Auto-reflexivity is envisioned as an optional section of its own within papers and research outcomes. Here, an author can explain the personal narrative and toll the work took on them, their well-being, and their career. Including such a segment grounds the data in larger systems of inequality and cites a subtext which has long been alienated from the labor of scholarship and composition. While reflexivity refers to researchers examining how their own biases and subject positions shape their research, auto-reflexivity would allow researchers to gauge and discuss the toll the research has had on them. Whether it is commentary from the scores of parents working without childcare amid Covid-19, testimonies from scholars of color who both study and live racism in and out of academia, or the many individuals who feel they must undertake trauma in the field to prove themselves worthy of a degree or position, auto-reflexivity embodies a space where one can make known the personal sacrifice paid for their work.

In tracing the theoretical shifts and methodologies in anthropology and social science, there has been a strong focus on how researchers influence the outcome of their research. Reflecting on the development of researcher subjectivity in data outcomes, within Pierre Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology and the postpositivist movement, the researcher as a data collection agent is thought to always be operating under a degree of conjecture (Popper 1968; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). That possible blind spot is then divulged alongside the narratives of their data almost as a disclaimer to its limitations. Yet, as we move toward addressing the lack of diversity, equitability, and accessibility in academia, auto-reflexivity is still kept from the methods we use to approach and analyze the attendant processes and lived experiences of conducting research. While space is held to unpack the ways in which we as researchers impress upon our own data, the same consideration has not been held for how the academic process impacts us—specifically its disavowal and apathy toward the barriers of race, class, and gender in the field (Parikh 2018; Melaku and Beeman 2020).

FISST training poster. Photo by Jerika Loren Heinze.

Working in the domain of sexual harassment in fieldwork settings has exhibited the need for auto-reflexivity and how its absence silences and reproduces violence against women, LGBTQIA researchers, and people of color in academia. This is done in three main ways: minimizing, individualizing, and doubting.

Minimizing refers to the many varied ways in which researchers are made to believe that their case is unique and not part of longstanding patterns of violence against non-male, non-hetero, and non-white academics in the field. This is cemented by cavalier attitudes and muted institutional responses when and if researchers divulge their negative or violent experiences. This lack of appropriate response underpins the implicit message that gendered violence and sexual harassment are side effects of conducting fieldwork in certain situations, but are not issues that warrant formal intervention at the university level. In fact, the realities of violence have historically been regarded as the collateral damage of the rite of passage of conducting research (Kloß 2016; Ghassem-Fachandi 2020). In that sense, the stance academia takes on violence during fieldwork is contradictory in that it is viewed as both unavoidable and avoidable at the same time. While the domain of anthropology feels it cannot be held responsible for situations that occur in real-world settings where violence happens, researchers should also take steps to protect themselves on their own while still working as representatives of the university. This aspect is closely linked to acts of individualizing, as the university seeks to own the outcomes of research but not the risks of its acquisition.

Individualizing occurs when universities, advisors, and academic personnel approach the issue of sexual harassment during fieldwork research as a personal problem that is relegated to the confines of the individual’s personal life (Kloß 2016; Schneider 2020). As such, it becomes inappropriate and unprofessional to discuss. The victim is often burdened with “making others uncomfortable” when speaking out about their experiences. It is not uncommon for stories of trauma during fieldwork to be edited out of theses, books, dissertations, and journal articles as un-academic content, which is considered separate from the experience of collecting the data. For students and early career academics, the need to substantiate themselves and prove their worth as scholars is paramount. Imposter syndrome hits particularly hard in the aftermath of a sexual assault or gendered harassment, as victims can often be cross-examined on the event and then consoled with sentiments like “next time, don’t get in the car alone with a research participant” or “you should have known not to walk in that area late at night.” This implies that if an incident occurs it is to some degree also the victims fault, or that the researcher helped create the situation that led to the traumatic event. Even when Title IX staff follow their script that “It’s not your fault,” when victims hear that their case is not “reportable” because it happened off campus, it not only strengthens the beliefs of “good” and “bad” fieldwork (Kloß 2016) but also notions of “good” and “bad” sexual assault.

Doubting as an institutional practice comes in varied forms: for example, questioning whether the events actually occurred as the victim recounts or distrusting the researcher’s desire to publish or speak publicly about their experience. As Mingwei Huang (2016) notes in her testimony on sexual assault, “One professor, who was puzzled about why I would write about rape, asked me if ‘it was in fashion,’ as if there was little merit, intellectual or otherwise, to sharing such an experience.” There is a pervasive perspective of doubt that researchers do not take enough precaution to prevent sexual harassment or that assault in the field is longstanding to the point of being tradition. The most dominant case and point is the rape and murder of anthropology student Henrietta Schmerler in 1931, in which the field of anthropology threw its own under the bus to protect the institution of fieldwork and forgive its many flaws (Schmerler 2017). This attitude becomes more bewildering when one considers that only 2 percent of those interviewed by the Fieldwork Initiative received pre-fieldwork training on safety, discrimination, gendered violence, and sexual harassment (or were connected with support once it occurred). Thus, the lack of training on the prevalence of fieldwork violence keeps intact the larger doubts that it is in fact a problem (Cai 2019).

Minimizing, individualizing, and doubting are not new. They have been well documented by scholars in anthropology who push past the resistance and share their experiences in an academic climate that regards vulnerability as detrimental. The absence of real intervention measures to give students tools to navigate the field further showcases erasure in the mainstream literature of problematic fieldwork. Thus, even when women, people of color, and LGBTQIA researchers write and publish on these issues, the threat their stories pose to the status quo keeps them from permeating the nucleus of white male power that exists in the tradition of anthropology. Moreover, finding a journal or outlet to publish pieces on sexual harassment and gendered assault during fieldwork is exceedingly difficult (Schneider 2020), as these stories are often exiled to personal blogs and other non–peer-reviewed outlets.

The call for auto-reflexivity in research provides myriad ways to initiate deeper interruptions to the oppressive power dynamics that marginalize a researcher’s trauma and push it to the periphery of science. When victim’s stories stop becoming anomalous works branded with unorthodoxy, the institutional conceit that sexual harassment and gendered violence is merely feminist lore will have to be revisited given the sheer volume of cases we know to exist (Clancy et al. 2014). Removing the alienation of the researcher’s experience from the research outcomes will destabilize academia’s hyper focus on the collection data above well-being and re-center agency onto researchers as human individuals. Considering the reservoir of untold trauma tied to the sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism, transphobia, islamophobia, and xenophobia in the field, this is a watershed moment.

Designating a space for auto-reflexivity in research papers will not uproot the systems of patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, anti-Blackness, and discrimination that pervade the sciences, but will instead help hinder the academy from further marginalizing researcher’s own experiences as a lived critique of ethics in knowledge production. Alongside the abstract, findings, and methodology, a statement on auto-reflexivity allows academics to speak about the personal toll they paid for their work. Using the case of sexual harassment, statements on auto-reflexivity will help researchers to preemptively prevent critics’ comments on data shortcomings in which, under the current culture, victims may have to forfeit research depth for prioritizing their safety and must then endure commentary which equates incomplete data with their own shortcomings. In service to not just a humbler science but a more accountable science, auto-reflexivity allows survivors’ stories to exist outside of the #MeToo and #BlackInTheIvory hashtags on Twitter by honoring their narratives alongside the data itself.

In summary, when spaces are created for researchers to not just state their subjectivity but also to divulge how the research has impacted them, their traumas are no longer exiled to being “dirty little secrets” or pieces in exclusively feminist journals. Rather they are allowed to become part of the collective understanding of some of the harsher realities of knowledge production. The tactics of minimizing, individualizing, and doubting can be destabilized by transparency that recognizes and honors the researcher’s personal experience relevant to the data and the emotional weight of their work. Of course, the inclusion of auto-reflexivity alone will not remedy the unbridled occurrence of discrimination, sexual harassment, gendered violence, retaliation, and lack of support when such trauma takes place. It is not a radical solution. Instead, it forces anthropology to be at odds with its practice of banishing violent fieldwork to the personal/individual sector, challenges doubts about why pre-fieldwork safety conversations are necessary, and prompts discussions that have long remained off the books. It is merely an opening wedge into the vast ocean of inequity that exists for non-white, non-hetero, non-cis, non-male academics in the field. It exposes (if only) the top layer of disparity that has endured within anthropology since its inception.

The Fieldwork Initiative

Find out more at / @MeTooFieldwork. For a full list of sources, see To book a pre-fieldwork FISST training, visit


Backe, Emma Louise. 2015. “Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care.” The Geek Anthropologist (blog), July 24.

Bikales, James S. 2020. “Protected by Decades-Old Power Structures, Three Renowned Harvard Anthropologists Face Allegations of Sexual Harassment.” The Harvard Crimson.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc J. D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cai, Yifan. 2019. “Confronting Sexual Harassment in the Field.” Made In China Journal 4, no 3.

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: e102172.

Ghassem-Fachandi, Parvis, ed. 2020. Violence: Ethnographic Encounters. London: Routledge.

Hanson, Rebecca, and Patricia Richards. 2019. Harassed: Gender, Bodies, and Ethnographic Research. Oakland: University of California Press.

Harris, Michelle, Sherrill L. Sellers, Orly Clerge, and Frederick W. Gooding, Jr. 2017. Stories from the Front of the Room: How Higher Education Faculty of Color Overcome Challenges and Thrive in the Academy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Huang, Mingwei. 2016. “Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape.” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 12.

Kloß, Sinah Theres. 2016. “Sexual(ized) Harassment and Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Silenced Aspect of Social Research.” Ethnography 18, no. 3: 396–414.

Mead, Margaret. 1977. Letters From the Field, 1925–1975. New York: Harper.

Melaku, Tsedale M., and Angie Beeman. 2020. “Academia Isn’t a Safe Haven for Conversations about Race and Racism.” Harvard Business Review, June 25.

Parikh, Anar. 2018. “Race Is Still a Problem in Anthropology.” anthro{dendum}, April 9.

Popper, Karl. 1968. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row.

Schmerler, Gil. 2017. Henrietta Schmerler and the Murder That Put Anthropology on Trial. Eugene, Ore.: Scrivana.

Schneider, Luisa T. 2020. “Sexual Violence during Research: How the Unpredictability of Fieldwork and the Right to Risk Collide with Academic Bureaucracy and Expectations.” Critique of Anthropology 40, no. 2: 173–93.