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Peace activists and some dilemmas with ethnography PDF Print E-mail

Author: Janjira Sombatpoonsiri
Sourece: http://janjirasadventure.blogspot.com/

There are huge dilemmas of peace activists trying to be ethnographers, especially when you investigate the issue of violence. Well, if you are a normal social scientist researcher, you might find a usual dilemma. For instance, you don’t agree with the ‘ethical stance’ of your informants, but seriously nothing much you can’t do because you want their information and insights.

However, more dilemmas are created when you are a peace activist at the same as a wanna-be ethnographer. But what is it this ethnography thing?

Ethnography is a research methodology widely used among anthropologists and was invented during the time of British colonisation. Initially, ethnographers who were deployed in unknown (and uncivilised) areas, were assigned to take basic notes about the indigenous and their cultures, and to report back to their countries. Then, as you can imagine, these basic notes were pretty much used to support the wiping out of the indigenous. The methodology subsided for a while after the decolonisation period, but it revived and gained popularity among American anthropologists.
From this point on, fundamental tasks of ethnographers are not only to observe and write something called ‘field notes.’ But they are to be ‘neutral’, to be locals, to be something else but not themselves when they are in the ‘field’ (which is different from rice fields, but there are times ethnographers like to do their jobs in the rice fields). Basically, in order to get to the gist of cultures of their studied subjects, they have to see from the locals’ point of view. Ethnographers have to understand not only practices of the locals, but meanings of their practices. Why are they doing so? What is/are their rationality/ties? What is their cosmology? In a nutshell, this is what Clifford Geertz called ‘thick description.’

I’ve never defined myself as an ethnographer although I realise how much I like to observe people in different cultures and am eager to know what they make sense out of their actions. As a matter of fact, I have done sneaky observations for a long while before I knew it was termed ethnography. When I became a researcher myself, this ethnography thing is somehow my main method of ‘knowing’ people living in the zones of the unfamiliar. I thought I could just use the method, but would never immerse myself in it, or let it suck me it. Well, someone must have been right when he said, “When you use the tool, it also uses you.”

I was a researcher for a project which investigates the issue of firearms proliferation and arming civilians in the Deep South of Thailand. No one assigned me to do the ethnography research, but I was curious about activities of some armed militia groups, so much that I accepted their invitation to visit their bases and to witness some activities. It was the most inconvenient situation in my life. I felt like I was involved in some illegal business although it was literally not. I wanted to know about them as much as I could. Yet, at the same time, I totally disagreed with their thoughts, their solutions to the problems, and their activities. I wanted them to trust me, so that I could get more information. Hence, I ‘pretended’ to agree with them. Nevertheless, I was crying in my heart because what they explained to me just revealed some scary scenarios of what Southern Thailand conflict was heading to. Given that, I had to maintain my smile, my nod, and my manners. I felt like shit as if I was cheating somebody; however, I held on to the hope that my work would expose destructive impacts of what they think are appropriate.

It was a suffering moment, indeed. I’ve never thought of myself as a moral person. But with this research and with the method I used, I realised there is something inside telling me that I’m a crappy ethnographer. Why? In such a situation, I was trying to understand why they did so. It was the attempt to get an insight into the unknown world. But at some point, I felt I had enough. I relatively understood them. However, I couldn’t sit there without any judgment. And just for your record, judging the locals is something a decent ethnographer shouldn’t do.

Given all my understanding to the victimsation of these people, I can’t make myself to agree with them, or even if I’m allowed to disagree, I can’t stand myself not judging that their actions are wrong. In the research that entails issues of peace, conflict, violence and nonviolence, if I have to choose between being a peace activist or an ethnographer who prepares herself to become one of the locals in order to get the most insightful analysis, I’d rather be a peace activist. At least, it reminds me of the boundary between action and inaction. At least, it enables me to say that some cultures are wrong and they have to be changed. At least, it permits me to be less culturally relativist.

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