Teaching Anthropology Under Oath: Establishing Expertise in Asylum Hearings through Anthropological Training, Research, and Publications

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“Most people refer to me as Doctor Billingsley,” I stated. “Oh, I am sorry, Doctor Billingsley,” the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security replied. This moment is one of the most memorable for me since I began serving as an expert witness in Nepali asylum cases. This statement came unexpectedly out of my mouth as listened to my one-year-old crying through the monitor while I testified in court from my living room. I was frustrated. Rather than question me about the country conditions of Nepal, the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security sought to establish that I was not an expert. Thus, I had spent the last forty-five minutes testifying about myself and my work with several of the questions being bookended by a reference to me as “Ms. Billingsley.” “Would you say that is correct, Ms. Billingsley?” “Ms. Billingsley, are you being paid for your testimony today?” “Would you be willing to share your interview transcripts and the names of your interviewees, Ms. Billingsley?” I had never been questioned like this before during previous asylum hearings. Even as a graduate student, the attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security accepted my expertise. Further, I thought my testimony would perfectly align (strictly by coincidence) with my daughter’s naptime. After working full-time from home without childcare for my daughter’s first year of life, these moments were how I tried to manage new motherhood and work during a pandemic. As my daughter’s cries became more insistent and the attorney for Homeland Security continued to seek to diminish my expertise as she was repeating the same questions, I became anxious to complete my testimony and comfort my daughter. The moment where I reminded her of my title was a shift in my testimony. I became more concise, more self-confident, better able to explain my work and why I would not be sharing the names of my interviewees with the court. My own shift hastened the questioning by the attorney, and, after a brief cross by the asylum-seeker’s counsel, I was able to comfort my daughter.

My Background and Research

I started serving as an expert witness for Nepali asylum cases in 2017 within a few months of returning from my dissertation fieldwork on transitional justice in Nepal. Processes of transitional justice aim to redress human rights violations following an armed conflict and establish democratic governance to ensure subsequent peace. From 1996–2006, Nepalis endured an armed conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists and the Nepali Government. My work primarily focuses on the perceptions of people who experienced gross violations of human rights as children and also examines post-conflict political and legal processes and ongoing violence. In the field, my approach to ethnographic research was up, down, and sideways. In other words, I interviewed and conducted participant observation with diplomats from varying countries; victims; victim-activists; Nepali politicians; and staff at the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, government organizations, and government security forces. I testify in asylum hearings as a country expert, and, in particular, an expert in Nepal’s current political and security processes. For my expertise to be established and my testimony to be weighted in the judge’s decision, I must explain the significance of my anthropological training and research.

The Importance of Teaching Anthropology to…Everyone

Despite ongoing dialogues about how to help others understand what we, as anthropologists, do, our discipline and our expertise remain little-known to the general public. The implications of this cannot be understated. Once, during an interview as a research assistant for a project based in the United States, I explained that I was pursuing a PhD in Anthropology. The person responded quickly, “what are you going to do with that?!” To which I replied, “I am doing it right now!” We both laughed. Anthropology’s public relations problem and our struggles as anthropologists to explain what we “do” undoubtedly make explaining our discipline and expertise more time intensive in every situation. I experience this in meeting new people inquiring what I “do,” teaching courses, speaking to parents and students about majoring in anthropology, communicating with scholars in other fields, and, on that day in court, while I was under oath.

Teaching Anthropology Under Oath

When the attorney for Homeland Security began questioning my expertise, I was taken aback. I began serving as an expert witness as a graduate student. Even then, my expertise had not been questioned in this way. The questions she asked felt disorienting, as if I was on trial. I was not prepared to defend myself, my training, research methods, publications, and choice of research topics. I was slow to answer the questions, contemplative and perplexed by what was happening. I was prepared to speak about Nepal’s current political and security situation, not to be asked if I was an activist, when was the the last time I was in Nepal, why I would not say the names of my interviewees or share my interview transcripts with the court, or explain my research and the quality of my data, grants, fellowships, and peer-reviewed publications. For me, one attraction to a PhD was the opportunity to think and then express my arguments in a written form. I was being called upon to defend my anthropological research on the spot and verbally under oath. Not only was I taken aback, I was ill-prepared. I was rusty on my defense of anthropology.

It is incredible that an anthropologist who has conducted long-term research in a country would be questioned about their expertise. I spent fourteen months conducting research in Nepal. In addition to conducting semi-structured interviews and focus groups, I lived in Nepal for fourteen months. I took local transportation, stayed with Nepali families and my research assistants, witnessed violence, strikes, and people I knew arrested by security forces, shared food with interviewees, spent exhausting hours bearing witness to, experiencing, questioning, having everyday conversations…I lived in Nepal and conducted research. The longer I stayed, the more people opened up to me, including politicians, security forces, diplomats, donors, conflict victims, and staff at governmental and non-governmental organizations implementing transitional justice measures. I have met so many anthropologists who spent even longer at their fieldsites (two to three years!). Many anthropologists continue to engage the communities with which they conducted their dissertation research for several years after leaving the field or even the remainder of their career. I continue to stay in contact with my interlocutors five years after returning from my dissertation research. I regularly receive updates on their lives and Nepal’s current political and security situation. We worked together on a publication not long after I returned from the field (Billingsley 2018 and Bhandari 2018) and, more recently, conducted an engaged research project together (Billingsley 2021).

Yet, the validity and reliability of our research methods are questioned, and stating these facts on that day as I was testifying was especially difficult for me. As I continued to be questioned and grew frustrated with the repeated questions alongside my daughter’s cries, I was able to articulate more clearly that my ethnographic fieldwork was peer-reviewed by competitive granting agencies and published in peer-reviewed journals. I explained that I was not willing to share the names of my interviewees or interview transcripts because I would not put my interviewees at risk. For example, I stated, for people who had experienced sexual violence or torture as children, revealing their names would be detrimental to their reputation and compromise their safety. Further, my ethnographic research allowed me to personally witness many of the events I described when explaining Nepal’s country conditions. My ongoing communications and research projects with interlocutors after returning to the field kept my research current. In addition, my training as an anthropologist, with a PhD, and a Graduate Certificate in Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights prepared me to conduct the research on which my expertise is based. Finally, my training and research in anthropology taught me that long-term relationships lead to understanding a country and people’s lived experiences within that country more deeply and more accurately.

In an effort to present my testimony as biased, the attorney asked me if I considered myself an activist. She had spent time researching me online (“Ms. Billingsley, on your CV, on your LinkedIn Page, …”) and discovered “activism” was one of my areas of research and that I had published on research I conducted with refugees in the United States. This was particularly disheartening to me as a means to establish my lack of expertise and bias. Although offended by the question, I explained that I was not an activist but that activism was a focus of my scholarly research. I conducted research with victim-activists in Nepal who continue to fight for justice more than fifteen years after the end of the armed conflict. When she questioned me repeatedly about working with refugees, I just restated the work I had done. I conducted research with refugees and provided resources to aid them as they were facing housing discrimination and sexual harassment. To me this was ironic. In a court of law, I was accused of being biased for providing contacts for legal aid to people who were experiencing things that were illegal in the United States. Likewise, gross violations of human rights, that processes of transitional justice aim to redress, by definition, violate international law. Studying people’s inequitable access to protection under the law is exactly what qualifies me to speak about Nepal’s country conditions related to their security.

Quite frankly, I am better trained to speak the language of law than to explain how my anthropological research and training qualify me as a country expert. Although this was the only case in which my expertise has been challenged so aggressively, it has certainly inspired me to think more critically about how I can articulate what we do as anthropologists. Our work does qualify us as experts. We oftentimes spend years being trained in PhD programs, must seek the most competitive funding for our long-term work, and spend more time in the field (or the lab!) conducting research than other disciplines. It is certainly impressive and should be articulated as such in various teaching scenariosin the classroom, the courtroom, and in everyday conversations.