Ethnography and violence

By Dennis Rodgers and Gareth A. Jones

29 September, 2019

Violence is a phenomenon that sheds bright light on the particularities of the relationship between ethnography as method and as writing. On the one hand, the methodological nature of ethnography means that ethnographers are inevitably forced to take on greater than normal moral and physical risks when they study particular groups, practices, or contexts associable with violence. On the other hand, particular forms of violence often imply different qualities and constraints to the task of ethnographic writing. Take the fact that many forms of violence are often spectacularly dramatic in nature, for example. As a result, they call for the ethnographer’s attention, sensationally attracting their methodological and theoretical gaze in a way that more mundane social processes might not. Yet this can over determine violence, placing the phenomenon centre-stage to the detriment of other important social processes. The question is how an ethnographer can write up an account of their research on violence without becoming highly sensationalistic? And, how might this representational work contend with violence as a spectacular event in the moment with the long-lasting and less visible traumas that it might imply?  

For many researchers, these dilemmas are reconciled by the fact that the decision to adopt ethnography as a practice is not just a methodological choice but a political act, it reflects an alignment with the marginal, the poor, and those for whom violence is not an abstract ‘poetic’ or discursive field but a material feature of everyday life. Yet such a position also poses numerous questions. Many of the narrative tropes and strategies deployed in writing about violence are clearly based on precipitating a sense of empathy or pity among readers, which is obviously more difficult to do in relation to torturers than their victims, for example. How far should ethnographers adopt an appreciative gaze with regard to perpetrators of violence? How can ethnographers avoid an a priori decision to romanticise violent actors, to over-extend their good traits and humanise their dispositions while obscuring their more brutal actions and less palatable attributes? Conversely, how can we link characters and personalities to actions and outcomes that are less observably positive without demonising them?

Complexo do Alemão. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Credit: Saulo Cruz

Another critical question concerns whether we engage in particular forms of ethnographic research and writing about violence due to the particular nature of violence itself. Certainly, a case can be made that all ethnographic research that tackles violence faces the methodological dilemma of ‘how close’ one should get to the action, and whether even the researcher is aware of just how close they are or should be. As ethnography involves co-presence, the capacity or opportunity to withdraw from activities, especially if being witness to particular actions is relevant to the research itself, is difficult even impossible. Indeed, in most cases ethnography requires a conscious intent to seek out people and places likely to be involved in criminal activity and violence. In many instances, therefore, ethnographies and/of violence involve close witness to and knowledge of criminal acts, and possibly even participation in them, to the extent that it can be argued that the ethnographer of violence will inevitably be complicit in violence.

Although violence has long been a central concern for ethnographic research and writing all over the world, there has arguably been a lack of reflexivity concerning the relation between these distinctive dimensions of the ethnographic endeavour. For this reason, we have recently guest edited a special issue of the journal Ethnography on “Ethnographies and/of violence in Latin America and the Caribbean”, which aims to offer certain starting points for a sustained debate on the topic. It brings together a range of contributions about a region that has been the site for a large number of ethnographic studies of violence in recent years, including more specifically on Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala again, and Brazil. We asked our contributors to consider how their work dealt with the relationship between their methodological approach in the field, the substance of the material, and the representations that they felt able or compelled to draw out in their writing. The papers expose a range of different positions when in the field and critically examine the relation to styles of analysis in the text.

Dennis Rodgers is Research Professor in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute – Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID)

Gareth A. Jones is Professor of Urban Geography and Director of the Latin America and Caribbean Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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