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Doing Fieldwork in the MENA Region

Panel IV-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Drawing on fieldwork in summers of 2021 and 2022 in a rural village located in Al-Daqahliyya governorate on the Nile’s Delta in Upper Egypt, this essay asks: What kind of hospitality is offered to animals and humans in rural Egypt and what are the scripts of hospitality undergirding these relations? Which humans and animals count as guests, intruders, or hostages? In this town, just like almost every other town on the Nile’s Delta, women farmers rear, care for, kill, sell, and eat animals on rooftops or in their courtyards. I put in conversation three ethnographic instances involving humans, animals, & researchers and different traditions/theologies of hospitality to argue that hospitality is a useful analytic that exposes the species and groups of humans that count as guests to be welcomed or unwelcomed and those held hostage or host(il)ed for various ends. In one instance, security officers and policemen regarded themselves as hosts protecting a sovereign home/nation that offers shelter to a foreign researcher, while expecting a local/native ethnographer (myself) to seek permission before stepping in that territory. In this view, hosts contain guests who in turn acquiesce to restrictions on movement. In another instance, hospitality unfolds as an expansion of selves through a playful negotiation with alterity in a familial ethnographer-interlocutor setting. Fraught with inconsistencies and negotiations, this ethnographic encounter necessitates a continuous rewriting of scripts of hospitality beyond idioms of containment and performative courtesies of kinship. In this view, hospitality offered for ethnography rather than/before kinship offers a more flexible frame in which a sovereign host and a familial guest are in constant negotiation. In the last instance, offering shelter and food to courtyard animals only appears as hospitality but is closer to hostility since animals are only sheltered and fed to be killed, eaten, or served as tokens of hospitality to other (human) guests. While hospitality is an inevitable condition of ethnographic research, I suggest a closer focus on scripts of hospitality and deviations thereof as pointers towards a gradation of hospitality and hostility. In this sense, it matters to which humans or animals hos(ti)pitality is offered. As such, who counts as guest, host, or neither demarcates boundaries of hospitality, hostility, and homes. Rather than a fixity on transformations, I suggest a focus on movement, visitations, and flexible/cautious openness to alterity as generative to attending to fraught relations in fraught contexts of security, killing, and eating.
  • This paper presents an autoethnographic exploration of fieldwork precarity in a field in flux. Defined roughly as “uncertainty, instability, and insecurity,” precarity is integral to any ethnographic art and practice of becoming a part of the field. From establishing access to settings to building rapport with actors and gaining competence in a field’s grammar, fieldwork, by definition, requires field workers to leave the comfort zone of their life worlds by participating in the unfamiliar life worlds of others. Despite the commonality of this trait, however, how and to what extent precarity is experienced by fieldworkers is contingent on both (a) stability and (b) resistance of the field. While the former primarily affects the framing of the field, the latter shapes how that frame is performed as a research object, in the first place. This paper looks into the contingent role of fieldwork precarity in the design and practice of ethnographic fieldwork by drawing on two years of ethnographic research on the economization of security in the market for private security services in Istanbul. Designed as a multi-sited ethnography, this project asks how security is being translated into a market object in the market for private security services as well as in three settings of private security provision: airport, hospital, and gated community. In Turkey’s bitter sociopolitical climate of the late 2010s in Turkey, the conduct of my research was infused with experiences of fieldwork precarity due to both the instability and resistance of the field. While the field was disrupted first by the state of exception and then and the pandemic, its resistance was multiplied due to a set of factors, including my identity (as a researcher based in the US), the sensitivity of the topic (security), organization of field (intricate relationship between public and private security sectors in Turkey). The challenge of such contingencies was neither uniform nor entirely constraining. As the multi-sited research design allowed me to observe that the stability and resistance of the field vary across the settings. On the other hand, the challenges posed by those can also enhance the research design and practice of ethnography as long as they are translated into pragmatic solutions in the field.
  • Objectivity is considered an inherent part of scientific research. As researchers we examine people or phenomena as outsiders and afterwards explain the world based on the findings. This thinking is challenged when researching vulnerable people and conducting fieldwork in conflict-affected societies. People who have experienced violence and loss can not be researched as mere study objects who give the researcher information. Along objectivity, vulnerability and emotions of the researcher become essential. This article draws from my fieldwork experiences with civil actors in the Syrian war. I have not managed to be completely objective, nor have I sought to be, but I have showed interlocutors my vulnerability and my emotions. Building on feminist scholarship on conflict and violence that emphasizes care, I argue that being open about researcher’s vulnerability and positionality can facilitate research because it will ease building trust with gatekeepers and interlocutors. This article proposes openness about researcher’s positionality as a method to make research more ethical as it acknowledges the feelings and experiences of the research participants and the researcher.
  • Scholarship on ethnographic methods has long concerned itself with the uneven power dynamic between researchers and the people they study. However, literature exploring this dynamic routinely assumes that the power imbalance favors the researcher. Based on interviews with researchers who conducted fieldwork in Turkey, I find that in practice, researchers routinely express suspicion of their interlocutors and a sense of generalized vulnerability, suggesting an inversion--or at best, a negation--of this widely-recognized power imbalance. I trace this phenomenon to shifts in the political field in Turkey, which have upended long-recognized power relationships over the past 20 years. I discuss how volatility in the political field contributes to insecurity and suspicion in contexts where power imbalances do not clearly favor the researcher. I discuss the theoretical implications of these findings for understanding the effects of instability on social research, and the methodological implications for scholars conducting research in contexts defined by political instability.