The Fieldwork Visceral
Fieldwork. Those of us who have done it—or are in it—all remember the panicked emails we sent to our advisors, the bits of reassurance they would send back, and the truth that only those who have experienced it can understand: fieldwork is the hardest thing we will ever do. We know this, we tell future students this, and it is our badge of honor to wear wherever we may go.
But what we often overlook or save for closed-door conversations is the animosity, ambivalence, and even hatred we feel either in the field or for the field. The move in anthropology, and fieldwork more generally—following James Clifford and George E. Marcus’ Writing Culture and the development of feminist anthropology—has been one of inward reflections, coming to terms with our own existence in our fieldwork as if to instinctively ask: why me, and why here and now? Day one of any introduction to (cultural) anthropology begins with a fundamental mantra, that anthropology is as much about making the strange familiar as it is about making the familiar strange. On the surface, this may indicate a challenge to do anthropology of one’s familiar surroundings, be it one’s home country, one’s city, or one’s community.
It is much more than that.
Making the familiar strange is making ourselves vulnerable to the same rigorous ethnographic methodologies, analyses, and conclusions that we spend years developing with our field sites and fieldwork. This is not reflexivity or auto-ethnographic; this is self-making at its core. If work and labor is part of the human experience, part of the self-making process, then why should our fieldwork be any different? Is fieldwork not work? And should we not expect this work to expose us to the same range of human interactions, experiences, and self-making discoveries as others, even our informants? We researchers often become so engrossed in our projects that we find it difficult to tell where research ends and our own existence begins, as if either were ever separable. But as any good advisor will tell her student: we must first take care of ourselves and realize that our research is not our lives, that we must not let it consume us to the point of inseparability. The same body of research that examines and critiques work and labor in these neoliberal times surely applies to us as well.
Rather than stay in abstraction and generalities, I wish to locate this discussion in my own on-going dissertation fieldwork in Seoul and focus on my own ambivalence and, at times, seeming-hatred for both fieldwork and the field. My dissertation research concerns the relationship between sexuality, national security, and the military in South Korea as a site for investigating contemporary transformations in state governance, subjectivity, and social relations. I am not alone in this ambivalence, and perhaps most would rather keep such feelings and experiences locked away in the diaries that will be discovered decades after we have passed much like the way Malinowski, a forefather of anthropology, did with his own diaries until the were posthumously published in 1967, sending uneasiness through the discipline. However, I embrace my Malinowski heritage, my uncomfortable, politically incorrect, and sometimes ethically compromised experiences and self-making because I am, first and foremost, a human in an ever-changing milieu becoming a social and cultural person, or anthropologist.
I Know Nothing
Part of my dissertation research is funded by a Korea Foundation Korean Language Training Fellowship, which has also afforded me the ability to take intensive Korean language classes at a Seoul university. There was a moment in Level 6, the final level before graduation, when we practiced some TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) reading questions. While doing these questions, and for the remainder of class, I felt suffocated, angry, annoyed, and helpless because I knew nothing. My frustration of knowing nothing, or very little, mirrors fieldwork more generally because in every encounter, every interaction I have with an informant I realize that I know so little compared to what I thought I knew. Most of the time it is a frustration combined with a bit of excitement as I realize that new doors are opening and my project really is moving forward, even if I cannot see it now. But there are moments when I feel as angry as I did in that classroom, and like these practice TOPIK questions, they happen regularly and produce the same visceral response.
The realization that I know nothing or very little also emanates from the nature of my field site (or lack thereof). When I first shared early iterations of my proposed research on the Korean military and gay men with professors in Korea, one asked quite candidly if there was another topic I could do instead. His hesitation, or outright disapproval, of my topic was a result of reading the field of Korean Studies and explaining to me that there is a reason little to no research exists on either sexual minorities or the military in Korean Studies: there is no funding and no support for such research. The broader issue he alluded to, and which emerged as I transitioned from pre-dissertation fieldwork to my dissertation fieldwork proper, is that both the military and sexual minorities in Korea are not only thorny issues but also polarizing ones that are entangled with the greater discourses of national security. This is how my project took form and moved from the military and gay men to one about national security.
Yet it is incredibly difficult to collect data on the Korean military, even for those scholars and activists working in Korea. Every LGBTQ activist that I meet for the first time all say the same things: my project is fascinating, my project is necessary, and I should talk to this one individual working on issues of the Korean military. Over the past year I have heard this countless times, and as a result have tried every trick in my magical bag of ethnographic know-how to set up a meeting with this individual to have nothing come of it. He is the supposed gatekeeper of this sought-after, even necessary information and every attempt to get in contact with him has failed. He knows that I exist, as I’ve also used my network of informants and friends who know him, are friends with him, or have worked with him in the past to tell him about me and ask him to contact me, and yet nothing. I even met him once at the 2015 Queer Pride Festival and mentioned my research, to which he replied, “Contact me anytime for help.” Zippo.
Sometimes leads and paths don’t pan out, but for me this is an impossibility. A bit dramatic, yes, but it is true nonetheless. In talking with Korean graduate students working on queer Korea topics, we tried to think of a person or way around the one individual and we all drew a blank: there seems to be no one. In a conversation with another informant and scholar, I asked quite frankly, “Where does he get all his information? Why can’t others have access to it and only him?” My informant answered that this individual has an extensive network of people inside and outside the military and government that feed him information, and when people are discharged from the military some will contact him and report on their service. A network of information and knowledge about the Korean military does in fact exist, but it all gets filtered through this one person, a key would-be informant for my project, and yet scheduling a sit-down with him is near impossible. How else am I supposed to feel besides angry, annoyed, and ambivalent to not only this situation but also this person?
The plot thickens. This individual has a reputation among LGBTQ activists, and a larger progressive activist community, as being a difficult person with whom to work. My graduate cohort often jests that anthropologists are glorified gossip columnists, and situations like this affirm our jokes, for there are those I meet who cannot wait to tell me their thoughts on this individual or what they have heard. Some require a bit of my own gossip before they spill their own, but regardless this gossip and reputation further paints a picture of someone I’d prefer not to meet and yet have no choice but continue to try and meet.
For I know nothing and he is the only person, it seems, that knows everything. It is not that I am entitled to anything, but every other activist in Korea that I have had the great pleasure of meeting and sharing has done so in a spirit of friendship, cooperation, and enthusiasm. Why not him?
The Fieldwork Visceral
My ambivalence towards informants, or would-be informants, embodies a range of emotions or feelings: annoyance, boredom, love, and at times hatred. We can find these ambivalences in many ethnographies. For instance, in Angela Garcia’s The Pastoral Clinic, towards the end of the book she recalls an event when she visited the home of an informant and former patient from the rehabilitation clinic where she volunteered, and when the informant answered the door and Garcia realized the informant was high, she turned around and walked away in anger. She could not stand to even look at the informant, the friend, and so her only option was to walk away; she was no longer simply doing fieldwork, she was the fieldwork. Similarly, I’ve had numerous conversations with my former MA advisor Jennifer Patico about these issues when conducting research for my MA thesis. She shared her own ambivalence with her second project about international marriage brokering between American men and Russian women (which she will discuss in more detail in an upcoming article entitled “Awkward Sincerity and Critical Empathy”). She told me that when she would talk with these American men it was extremely difficult to keep her own feminist anxieties and visceral responses at bay; but her feminist commitment and methodology pushed her forward in empathy, even as she was engaging with the anti-feminist rhetoric of her informants as a way to allow for varied gender politics. She never wavered from her feminist methodological stance–other assumptions often ran counter to her own form of empathy–but it was indeed personally stressful to listen to men talk about “the problems with American women” while still empathizing with their situations. The point she made to me several times is that one’s commitment to fieldwork–for both Patico and myself, a decidedly feminist commitment–will often collide with one’s own emotions, and not only is that okay but also a crucial part of being an anthropologist.
I’ve had my fair share of visceral encounters that have shaken my position as both researcher and human in ways I never expected. In early June 2015, the Queer Pride Festival in Korea was holding an Opening Ceremony on a Thursday evening to kick off a month of festivities leading up to the Queer Pride Festival later in the month. The Opening Ceremony was scheduled for 7pm at City Hall Plaza, not only a prime location for attendees but also significant for protests and demonstrations. There was much controversy surrounding this event and the one later in the month, as conservative Christian protestors demanded that the Seoul government should not allow the festival and all related events to be held. Though this nearly happened, the festival received all the necessary permission from the local police and city hall to hold the events. However, around this same time South Korea experienced a number of MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) diagnoses and related deaths, sending many Seoulites into a panic. There was talk of canceling the Opening Ceremony, but organizers decided instead to hold the event but ask those planning to attend to stay home and watch it live online, and thus only the necessary staff would show up at City Hall Plaza.
Conservative Christians were not pleased and staged a number of protests and demonstrations around City Hall Plaza beginning earlier that morning. I arrived around 1:30 in the afternoon to loud music and troves of Christian protestors at City Hall Plaza and across the street. I planned to meet a friend and informant writing his MA thesis on these Christian protestors, and we walked around all sites of demonstrations. While he was not surprised by what we saw I certainly was.
Having grown up in Florida and Georgia, along with a rather conservative Christian family, I’ve experienced quite a bit of homophobia and hate speech. I told myself that when I got older I would never let such homophobia or hate speech affect me in the ways it did when I was younger, and up until that point it did not. But my anger and fear got the best of me while walking through these demonstrations with protestors holding signs like “Homosexuals Out,” “Homosexual marriage [is] against human nature,” “HIV/AIDS is a homosexual disease,” “Sodomy Mayor Park Won Sook [Seoul’s Mayor],” and signs that said homosexuals will more easily contract MERS because they all have AIDS already and therefore no immune system. One protestor actually stopped my friend and me and told us that “those homosexuals over there will all get MERS, but us over here are protected by God’s divine protection and love.”
The signs were powerful, but the sheer numbers and volume of their protests are what affected me most, in part because there was no counter movement of LGBTQ protestors (as they were instructed to stay home for fear of MERS, not hate). Even with my friend by my side, never had I felt so alone and so helpless. It was as if all was for naught, that these LGBTQ activists, informants, friends, and loved ones I had followed and supported for so long were fighting a losing battle, a battle that did not even need to be fought because the outcome was already decided. There are those LGBTQ activists and allies that say this is a generational problem, that when the older generation passes this hate speech will also die with them. They assume the younger generation is more accepting—more tolerant—but tolerance is a dangerous thing, and there were plenty of younger teens and college-aged people at these protests in prime locations as if to show their presence off to the world. In that moment, which lasted for hours, I had given up hope. I had replaced that hope with two emotions: sadness and hatred. Sadness for my friends and hatred for these protestors. And while I know that hatred met with hatred is never productive, never the way—my father raised me better than that and my mentor David Valentine taught me better than that—I was no longer a rational-thinking anthropologist but that scared gay boy in conservative Florida too afraid to accept myself for being gay. Even one of my Korean language teachers had texted me later in the evening, the number of protestors only growing and now contending with hundreds—if not thousands—of police officers and the Queer Pride Festival organizers and attendees. She said that I should avoid downtown because it was only going to hurt me, and I replied that I had been there since early afternoon and that what damage that could be done had already been done.
I eventually regained composure as my best friend later joined me downtown and we left, sat and talked. The Queer Pride Festival later in the month helped to build up whatever confidence had shattered, and hope has slowly crept back into my psyche and research. Yet that ambivalence—the fieldwork visceral that transcends even our own rationality—is always at arms length waiting, patiently.
Perhaps the toughest thing for us doing fieldwork is accepting that this fieldwork visceral, the ambivalence and range of human emotions, is not somehow unexpected or necessarily bad. How are we to study human experiences, culture, and sociality if we do not first recognize and accept the fact that we are humans? This is not only an acceptance that we are cultural beings influenced by our own subjectivities; this is more fundamental than that. What we feel matters, and how we act on that is instrumental to our research. My advisor, David Valentine, always asks students in all his classes one simple yet incredibly important question: what does that thing do? In other words, how is it productive?
This is not easy, especially when it comes to our own visceral responses and emotions. It takes time, I’ve realized, and is still taking time to process. The productivity of these moments, these encounters, is not always immediately known because they are still raw and exposed like wounds. Imagine if we were to ask our informants immediately after a traumatic event what they thought those emotions—and those events, in general—do for themselves and more broadly; the results would not, themselves, be productive. We are to analyze the situations for ourselves, to probe when need be but to be able to read situations and interactions in ways others do not or cannot. This is what makes us anthropologists, in many ways, and why it is a process of growing.
How then do we deal with our own trauma and our own experiences when they are incredibly vital to our research? Who reads us and analyzes us? Surely we have help from advisors, colleagues, friends, family, and even the occasional therapist. But we still must do the work of analyzing the productivity and what our emotions and our trauma do for our research because it is part of our research.
There are no easy answers here, only difficult questions. However, what I have realized is that in analyzing the situations and interactions with my informants, in analyzing this research and the human experience, I am also coming to terms with and reading my own emotions and trauma. I’ve heard it said that fieldwork can be cathartic, and I think in part this is true. But the true catharsis comes with analysis and writing, because in the same way that writing helps us work through an argument or problem, so too can this writing help us work through our own emotions and trauma.
Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota
Image: Young Anti-LGBTQ Protestors, City Hall, Seoul, South Korea—Timothy Gitzen, 2015