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Dynamics of Disruption: Ethnographic Practice in Contemporary Turkey

RoundTable II-1, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Over the past 20 years, Turkey has experienced a series of major social disruptions, from the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the attempted coup of 2016 to the resumption of armed conflict with the PKK and the government’s crackdown on Academics for Peace. Additionally, more localized disruptions range from the dramatic expansion of urban renewal projects that have driven widespread internal displacement to natural disasters such as the 2011 earthquake in Van, have reshaped both the physical and social landscape of Turkey. All of these events and their reverberations have played out against the backdrop of a migration crisis resulting from the Syrian Civil War, a constitutional referendum that dramatically expanded the powers of Turkey’s long-ruling AK party, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. One consequence of these changes is the erosion of trust throughout Turkey. As Ayşegül Sert wrote in The Atlantic in 2023, “Turkey’s trust in government has turned to dust.” More broadly, as of 2022, the World Values Survey showed that only 14% of respondents in Turkey agreed with the statement, “most people can be trusted”, while 84% responded that people “need to be very careful.” This roundtable explores the implications of these changes for social science researchers conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey. Focusing on the theme of fieldwork disruptions, panelists will discuss the barriers they faced during their fieldwork and how they responded. The roundtable will speak to a variety of themes of relevance to both scholars of Turkey and ethnographers and other field-based researchers more broadly. Panelists will address themes including: tangible strategies for adapting to losing access to field sites; theoretical implications of studying a social environment in flux; the challenges of writing and framing research conducted during periods of major social upheaval; the difficulties of gaining entrée in an environment characterized by low social trust; and the personal tolls of conducting fieldwork amidst widespread social instability.
  • In my statement, I will discuss the obstacles that I faced during the ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted for over two years in southeastern Turkey, between 2014 and 2017. My research focused on the afterlives of the ruins of Armenian material heritage in the majority-Kurdish region of Van. Because it relates to the taboo topic of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction and expropriation of Armenian property, my topic was always sensitive, but became more so at times of heightened political strife. When I began my fieldwork in 2014, the Peace Process between the Turkish government and the PKK was ongoing, and the atmosphere in the Van region was relatively open compared to the following year, when the Peace Process ended, and armed conflict resumed. Over the subsequent two years, I continued my research during a period of civil crisis, escalating war, and increasing tension and mistrust among residents of Van. First, the military-enforced curfews and destruction of Kurdish cities by the army and later the coup attempt of July 2016 further exacerbated the violence and precarity that has long defined everyday life in Turkey’s Kurdish region. Throughout this time, I conducted in-depth interviews, collected photographic documentation of sites of material ruins, and carried out long-term participant observation of social and political life in Van. In this roundtable, I will discuss the context of my research and the various political events that required me to rethink my research plans, adjust my methodologies, and change the focus of my inquiries. Additionally, I will reflect on how the changing political climate influenced how my interlocuters in Van viewed and interacted with me. During times of peace, people were eager and willing to share their stories and opinions with me, while during times of increasing conflict, many were more wary, and viewed me, as a foreign researcher, with increased suspicion. Finally, I will consider how the climate of mistrust and instability shaped and guided my research and led me, often, in unexpected directions.
  • Like many academics studying Turkey, my research topic addresses an inherently politically unstable issue--in my case, healthcare provision and access for refugees in the context of a legally precarious temporary protection regime. This has meant designing a research project that accounts for political change over time, where uncertainty is a primary factor shaping provider institutions and individual behaviors. It has also meant adapting recruitment strategies during a period of increasing resentment toward refugees that has exacerbated a climate of social distrust. Yet, while attempting to build in space for uncertainties inherent to the project, external disruptions have altered the course of my work. Most centrally, my dissertation research period fell squarely during the height of pandemic lockdowns. My plan to conduct interviews with individuals in healthcare settings quickly became untenable given public health concerns. Like many others, I shifted my interviews to the virtual sphere. Rather than rehashing generative conversations that have occurred in the past two years about the transition to virtual interviewing, I will discuss the ways that pandemic challenges were compounded in a politically unpredictable context. I will specifically discuss “time management” strategies I had to use in the field--not in terms of daily routines but in terms of long-term project management given shifting policies and politics. Which interviews were more amenable to virtual interviews, and which ones would be best-suited to delay until in-person interviewing became an option again given sensitivities of topics to be discussed? How might the content of interviews shift depending on their timing in the midst of the pandemic, and how can interview questionnaires and analysis account for this variation? What was the ideal time to try to reach out to government bureaucratic offices for interviews or permissions given pandemic strictures? How might local university affiliations help or hurt efforts to build trust with a range of interlocutors, particularly in the aftermath of the Bogazici University protests? How can we account for effects of the pandemic and other disruptions in our interlocutors’ lives without imputing undue importance on these events? These are just some of the questions that emerged for me during my research that I look forward to discussing.
  • Over the course of conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey off and on between the years 2010-2023, the country has undergone many political and social upheavals, including the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, the failed coup attempt in 2016, the COVID pandemic in 2020-21, and the Kahramanmaraş earthquake in 2023. As an ethnographer, I developed close relationships with my interlocuters and friendships with fellow researchers that became important to my life. Alongside my research agenda, maintaining these connections is a central part of my experience in the field and back home. Therefore, disruptions to my field site are both professional and personal, and impact me in my roles as researcher, teacher, and friend. When I first began dissertation fieldwork in 2010, several of the neighborhoods I was working in were undergoing demolition due to state-led urban renewal projects. Instead of a contained site where I could do the classic ethnographic work of observing and participating, the field site was in flux and my interlocuters were sometimes difficult to locate. For this reason, my research became multi-sited. My project also became intimately linked to advocacy work and activism, which shifted the direction of my research questions substantially. After completing my dissertation, several events in Turkey impacted my teaching and research projects in numerous ways. In 2016, a study abroad program that I had created for undergraduate students was cancelled due to a terrorist attack against tourists in Istanbul. After the coup attempt that summer, approved travel to Turkey by undergraduates at my institution was suspended indefinitely. I was able to pivot to a Virtual Education Abroad program that attempts to simulate the in-person study abroad experience online. Similarly, in 2020, a research trip to Turkey was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, I shifted my project to allow for online interactions and, since then, my research in Turkey has been largely conducted in Zoom. These experiences have shaped my research and teaching agendas and forced me to adapt in several ways to changing circumstances. They have also left me with questions, which I will reflect on in this roundtable, about how to prepare graduate students for fieldwork in a world in flux; how to maintain a professional and healthy distance from the very personal implications of conducting fieldwork amidst social and political instability; and how to write about places and times that no longer exist.
  • What is perceived today as “living in an unknown moment” with pandemics and ecological disasters has long become the “new normal” that structures everyday life at the margins of Europe and the Middle East, particularly in places under rising authoritarian regimes. As scholars working in/on Turkey, for instance, we have witnessed or first-hand experienced several moments of crisis over the recent years. We have seen the scrambling of the EU-Turkey relations and its effects on the migration regimes, the collapse of peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK and the resulting surge in state violence in Turkey’s Kurdistan, the 2016 coup d’état attempt, and the suppression, criminalization, and incarceration of the dissent, including, among others, students, politicians, journalists, and academics. These divergent yet interlinked moments of crises have reshaped and often complicated, if not completely stopped, our research as ethnographers working in/on Turkey. These moments have also pushed us to develop creative strategies to continue our fieldwork. These strategies included building solidarities and intentional collaborations with our colleagues and interlocutors, relocating fieldwork to the diaspora or online venues, or dividing long-term fieldwork into short-term, consecutive, or cyclical field visits, similar to what is recently called the patchwork ethnography. The multiple temporalities of disruptions have proved once and again that ethnographic resilience and flexibility are essential for researchers in prolonged moments of crisis. On the other hand, the discourse of resilience often puts the burden on individuals, especially the already marginalized and precarious ones, rather than on institutions of power, such as departments, universities, professional associations, and funding agencies. How can we draw on the experience of scholars working in/on Turkey to better inform our future research practices in moments of (ethnographic) crisis? How can we hold our institutions accountable to create the conditions that make alternative forms of fieldwork possible? Drawing on my research from 2014-2017 in Turkey, I will reflect on these questions in this roundtable and discuss the possibilities and limits of nontraditional forms of fieldwork.
  • Disruption as Diagnostic: Listening to Secular Istanbul during the COVID-19 Pandemic When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I was halfway through a planned year of ethnographic fieldwork on how practices of listening to Western classical music shape secular embodiment and belonging in Istanbul. Of course, the pandemic dramatically disrupted my principal investigatory method of participant-observation research at live musical performances across the city. At the same time, my research fields of Western classical music and the city of Istanbul were already widely regarded by my interlocutors as having been disrupted by the neoliberal and Islamic populist policies of Turkey’s current regime. In my talk, I will examine how the disruption caused by the pandemic provided opportunities for deeper understanding of practices of listening to Western classical music in a disrupted contemporary Istanbul. In other words, I will consider disruptions not as interruptions to research, but rather as diagnostic moments that can throw dynamics in the field into sharper relief—in this case, dynamics characterized by perceived disruptions to secular urban life in Istanbul. I will first consider my initial research field as one significantly constituted by perceived disruption to urban secular life. I will then discuss my initial pandemic research response of turning to digital ethnography and the challenges that this posed. Finally, I will draw on ethnographic vignettes taken from in-person fieldwork that I was able to resume from Summer 2020 to explore ways in which tensions and patterns latent in my pre-pandemic fieldwork were brought to the surface by the disruptions of COVID-19. I focus specifically on a Western classical concert series initiated during Summer 2020 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in the courtyard of the Tekfur Sararyı, a newly-renovated Byzantine palace. I examine how my research during the pandemic brought into sharper focus extant practices of listening to Western classical music in distinctive spaces associated with Istanbul’s non-Muslim histories to cultivate a mode of belonging characterized by chronotopic distance from the contemporary city. Drawing on these experiences of pandemic fieldwork in a disrupted Istanbul, I will argue that disruptions can not only interrupt, but also clarify, research questions and data.
  • Field Precarity: Working in a Field in Flux in Contemporary Turkey 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.