They say they can’t tell if I have malaria or not, maybe it’s something else. “Just lie down, try the drip, and see if it helps”. I am in the hospital in the North of Sierra Leone, I have a headache of a magnitude I have never experienced before, I have a high fever and joint pains, the fans are not working and to get through a huge number of patients in the overcrowded district hospitals the nurses are injecting strong antibiotics straight into the veins in my hand. In the evening the pain is slightly subsiding thanks to the drugs, as they bring in Kadiatu. She is about 14, she is incredibly thin but is brought in kicking and screaming and it takes three adults to keep her down on the bed and to stop her from ripping out the IVs once they are put in. Her family don’t speak English so I translate between them and the foreign doctor: “They say they haven’t used any traditional medicine on her”. Her screams are making me shiver, “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can do this” I keep repeating to myself. By the next morning Kadiatu has died—my own illness worsens and I am transferred to the capital where I get better treatment.
I am doing my PhD research with unemployed youth in Freetown, studying violence in the aftermath of war. I hang out in “ghettos”, I sit endlessly as young men drink, smoke, listen to music, and we talk about “the system”. It’s intense, but rewarding work, I’m learning every day, I think it’s what I have been trained to do, the full immersion experience. Then, one day the violence I am researching comes very close, too close, it rips my world apart.
These two short snapshots seem unrelated, but as I lay in my hospital bed in Freetown after Kadiatu’s death in the district hospital, I kept finding myself thinking about what had happened five years before. They were isolated instances in an otherwise happy and rewarding near-decade of engagement in Sierra Leone. However, in both situations I felt utterly powerless and fragile, and in both cases I experienced on my skin the kind of fear and violence that I have explored in my research, whilst becoming profoundly conscious of the ways in which my experience remains nonetheless fundamentally different. In this brief piece I want to reflect on how I have come to think of fragility over the course of my ethnographic fieldwork in Sierra Leone, how this has re-shaped how I think about “the field” and how it has helped me develop a form of reflexivity that links fragility to social (in)justice. I do this by considering how experiencing fragility during fieldwork has made me at once feel closer to my research participants whilst simultaneously forcing me confront the injustice made evident by the kind of fragility I experienced. These reflections, it must be emphasised, are not universal, they are rooted in my experience doing research as a white, privileged outsider with groups of people living in poverty in Sierra Leone.
Firstly, difficult, at times traumatic experiences during fieldwork have forced me to flip the lens on myself and think about the ways in which I, as a researcher, can be vulnerable whilst doing research in contexts that are often defined by their fragility. Experiencing fear, powerlessness and violence in the field has allowed me to develop what I think is a more nuanced understanding of power relations in the field. This was important because when researching vulnerability, poverty and violence in post-war Sierra Leone it was easy to see my research participants only as victims of structural injustices and to situate myself, as a white Italian researcher from a Western University as a holder of power. Experiencing complex, even violent, relationships with research participants did not make me abandon my commitment to advocate against simplistic (and wildly inaccurate) depictions of Sierra Leone as a violent, dangerous place. On the contrary, it forced me to understand deeply and engage fully with the complexity and nuances of life, where nothing is black and white, nobody is simply either a victim or a perpetrator, a holder of power or powerless. This, like the possibility of violent encounters, extends beyond the context of Sierra Leone.
Being very ill in a hospital in Sierra Leone’s provinces similarly meant experiencing first hand the fear and vulnerability of placing your life in someone else’s hands where resources are significantly limited. Sharing a room with Kadiatu on her last day, and seeing friends and colleagues suffer and pass away in the same hospital over the years, inevitably created a deep emotional connection that casts research observations and relationships in an entirely different light. Having my Sierra Leonean friends come visit me in the hospital, bringing fruits, prayers, tears and laughter, strengthened our friendship, to a point that I struggle to call them “research participants”. It made us feel closer because this time it was me who was vulnerable and needed help. This is also a deeper truth about less extraordinary field experiences, where asking people to let us into their lives, and letting them into ours, is by definition to become vulnerable and open to challenging but profound human interactions. These experiences have not only made my emotional connections in the field stronger, deeper and more complex, they have helped me see my work in a different light, and have forced me to contend with the messiness and moral ambiguity of the ethnographic research encounter. They have also, significantly, confounded the fiction of “the field” as a distinctive space, as these friendships and support networks transcend research and geographical distance.
Stopping here would be naïve. Both of the encounters above, as the thousands of other micro-instances over the years, have undoubtedly made me feel closer to the lives I study, but they have also made painfully clear the chasm between my reality and those of people like Kadiatu. It is banal, but I think true, to say that the fundamental difference is that I can leave. When my condition deteriorated in the district hospital, I could be transferred to Freetown and ultimately could go home. Kadiatu died. When violent encounters felt too much to deal with I could suspend my research and come back later. Most Sierra Leonean women cannot. Leaving is a product of my colour, of my class. So whilst feeling fragile and vulnerable has undoubtedly reshaped drastically how I engage with my research, the way I write about my research, and the way I relate to friends and research partners, it is key to avoid, in Patty Lather’s words, the “liberal embrace of empathy that reduces otherness to sameness”. Exploring fragility is challenging precisely because it forces us to look at ourselves fully and honestly, considering the ways in which we are weak and those in which we are strong, how we benefit and how we are hurt by injustice.
So where does this leave us? I think it has left me with some practical, some theoretical and some political thoughts. On a practical level, it is essential that we create spaces within academic institutions where young academics can reflect on both the opportunities and challenges of fragility and vulnerability in the field. Acknowledging fragility has to become central to academic debate, not just in whispers amongst those who have already had their field “initiation”. It needs to be part of methodology courses and encouraged through dedicated seminars and workshops. We should be telling students what I wish had been said to me: that it is ok if things go wrong, but it isn’t necessarily the way things should be, it is not a rite of passage. If something happens, there need to be institutionalised processes for asking for help. Similarly, acknowledging fragility openly and frankly would help communicate to students that finding oneself powerless, or feeling a loss of control during fieldwork does not mean having failed as a researcher. In the long run it can be a profound experience that transforms our ethnographic practice, but in the short run mental health is important, and universities need to be better at providing support for students.
On a theoretical level, it is important to re-position fragility as a way to think reflexively about multidirectional power relations, helping us break out of monolithic ways of understanding how identity interacts with power in the field. Teaching and practicing a more intersectional reflexivity, is by necessity a political act. Engaging deeply with the ways in which the field makes us vulnerable as researchers, as well as considering how our vulnerability might be different from that of our research participants, forces us to reject the separation of analysis and advocacy. This means thinking about how we reproduce injustice through our ethnographic practice but also how to use our first hand experience and what is often our privilege to describe and mobilise against it, collectively. Because ultimately, as Nancy Scheper Hughes has said, “if I did not believe that ethnography could be used as a tool of critical reflection and for human liberation, what kind of perverse cynicism would keep me returning again and again to trouble [their] waters…?”
Luisa Enria is a lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath. Her work focuses on political violence, humanitarian emergencies and citizenship in Sierra Leone.
This text was first published on the blog The new Ethnographer