Political involvement during fieldwork: notes on not doing ‘applied’, ‘engaged’ or ‘public’ anthropology

Political involvement during fieldwork: notes on not doing ‘applied’, ‘engaged’ or ‘public’ anthropology

By Delia Rizpah Hollowell

Studying the impacts of industrial pollution

I have been the privileged recipient of funding from the Wellcome Trust Society and Ethics Doctoral Scholarship. I wrote my PhD proposal with that funding stream in mind and began my research in the academic year beginning in 2013. During my fieldwork I was also fortunate and privileged to work with residents of Santa Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, in their struggle against industrial pollution in their neighbourhood. One of the largest steel factories in Latin America, the ThyssenKrupp Companhia Siderúrgica do Atlântico (TKCSA or CSA), was opened in Santa Cruz in 2010 and there has been a lot of controversy over the TKCSA’s license, its effects on fishing in the area, pollution of the local rivers, and the health impacts of particulate matter emitted by the factory. Current contention is centred on the company’s polluting emissions, which local residents and campaigning groups have named the ‘chuva de prata’ (‘silver rain’). The ‘silver rain’ is a metal dust which falls continuously and settles on houses and streets in the areas neighbouring the factory (Kato & Borba de Sá, 2013). People living near the factory have been complaining of health impacts from the metal dust. They suffer from allergic reactions, regular nosebleeds, headaches, joint pain, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore eyes, rashes, runny noses, blocked sinuses, tiredness, sadness, stress and anxiety. They also claim that some of their neighbours, more than before, are being diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, and some of their neighbours are dying sudden and ill-explained deaths. The health of the residents has become a problem requiring solutions, but there is little official certainty about its cause.

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A view of the ThyssenKrupp Companhia Siderúrgica do Atlântico steel factory in Santa Cruz, Rio de Janeiro


My fieldwork was characterized by a mix of methodologies, in different settings and with different but overlapping groups of people. I have found that this has been crucial to the capture of some of the complexity involved in understanding the perceptions and embodied experiences of living with large-scale industry. My fieldwork was constituted by my residence in an area neighbouring the steel plant and my participation with a group of local residents campaigning against the TKCSA (often called the ‘Pare TKCSA’, or ‘stop TKCSA’ group). My time spent with Pare TKCSA led to a working relationship with a national NGO based in South Rio de Janeiro, that had been working on the campaign for nearly a decade. I also worked with a local group of fishermen campaigning against the construction of a barrier across a local river, built by a group of industries including the TKCSA. I attended many ‘corporate social responsibility’ events in the local area, organised by the TKCSA, paying particular attention to the company’s health interventions. Finally, I worked in the local state-run health centre, conducting household visits with ‘Community Health Agents’.

‘Applied’, ‘engaged’ or ‘public’ anthropology, or just anthropology?

Participating in the group meetings of Pare TKCSA, and attending the events organised by the NGO involved in the campaign, led me to become incrementally more politically involved. This was not a position I had planned, as part of a specific anthropological approach to fieldwork. During and after fieldwork I have undertaken a number of activities that some might understand as ‘applied’, ‘public’ or ‘engaged’ anthropological pursuits. I attended meetings of the campaigning group Pare TKCSA not only to observe, but also to contribute ideas to the campaign. I discussed local events and NGO policy and practice with staff of the NGO and I discussed the NGO’s work with local campaigners. I filmed and joined in with protests, on the request of local fishermen (Hollowell, 2016). I attended conferences with campaigning residents and joined them speaking about the issues affecting residents in various forums. Together we attended a meeting between the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights and ‘civil society representatives’ in the UN Working Group’s visit to Brazil. I also went to, and spoke at, Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Chamber’s seminary about the ‘water crisis’ in late 2015. I researched ways of testing the contents of settled dust and worked with local residents to collect it from their homes. I monitored the air in my own front yard with the aim of being able to provide that information for the campaign. Since I have come back from the field I have supported the legal cases against the TKCSA with a written report, which I provided to lawyers representing local residents. Finally, I have joined shareholder activists at ThyssenKrupp’s Annual General Meetings in Germany. Perhaps most importantly I continue to try to highlight the differential access to power among the parties involved in the environmental conflict in Santa Cruz.

Me, helping to make signs for a protest.

However, I did not start my fieldwork with an ‘applied’, ‘public’, ‘engaged’ or ‘activist’ ethnographic outlook and I do not consider myself to be undertaking ‘applied’ work.  While these approaches have converged to a great extent (Lamphere, 2004), their collective definition varies and may involve a basic commitment to, working with, or support for informants, social critique in academic and public forums, advocacy or activism (Low & Merry, 2011; Pink, 2006; Rylko-Bauer, Singer, & Van Willigen, 2006). I do not classify my work as ‘applied anthropology’, but this is not because of disapproval of the suggested links between application and structures of domination and oppression (Stavenhagen, 1971). The origins and development of anthropology as a whole are inextricably linked to the unequal distribution of power (Asad, 1975; Rylko-Bauer et al., 2006; Said, 1989).  I do not view the possible conflicts between ethical stances and the presentation of an ethnographic ‘truth’ as necessarily insurmountable (Stoczkowski, 2008). My hesitation to call my work ‘applied’ does not come from a concern that applied work is incommensurable with objectivity (D’Andrade, 1995; Fortun, 2001). I also reject the idea that the ‘application’ of anthropology should result from pressure to illustrate the ‘relevance’ of anthropology in the context of rising university fees and the consequent effects of the market on higher education (Maida & Beck, 2015; Rylko-Bauer et al., 2006; Sillitoe, 2003, 2007).

My research cannot be described as ‘participatory’ or ‘collaborative’. I did not negotiate preliminary permission from informants to undertake research in the area, nor did I negotiate the terms of the work, its underlying questions or the outcomes of the project with residents of the areas surrounding the factory (Johnston, 2010; Lassiter, 2005). I would still question who might give such permission in the case of my fieldwork, and suggest that while this preliminary negotiation may be a realistic option for anthropologists returning to the field, it is more difficult for PhD researchers, particularly those dependent on funding. Having had to write an application detailing aims and methods before getting any funding from a specific funding stream, somewhat precludes preliminary negotiation with informants, especially for those who can’t afford pre-PhD trips to the field.

I have chosen to conduct research on a ‘critical social issue’ (Lamphere, 2015), and I certainly have a deep sense of commitment to the people with whom I lived in Santa Cruz. This has been quite central to my work, but I would argue that this was based on a pragmatic response to ethical reflexivity, rather than on a planned, ‘applied’ agenda. My involvement in political actions associated with the residents’ campaign was an issue of ethics within the context of relationships that I developed during fieldwork. As Susser has argued, it can be very difficult to purely observe suffering, without trying to do what you can to alleviate it (2010). Indeed, some argue that to document misfortune, without doing what one can to attempt to reduce it, is to capitalise on the suffering of others (Nichter, 2006). Whilst I did not share the full burden of the suffering of residents campaigning against the factory (Shapiro, 2015), I did witness it, and I felt compelled to contribute what I could to their campaign. For me, this is a return to the ‘primacy of the ethical’ (Scheper-Hughes, 1995) that I do not feel leads me towards a sub-discipline of ‘applied’ work, rather, I see it as an integral part of ethnography.

The idea of practical doing and political involvement as a normal part of ethnography seems to me to be a logical extension of reflexive and feminist approaches to ethnography. These shifts in anthropology have acknowledged the central position of the fieldworker and the importance of relationships to the construction of ethnographic accounts (Abu‐Lughod, 1990; Crapanzano, 1986; Despret, 2004; Lassiter, 2005). Feminist scholars particularly have highlighted the importance of the researcher’s reflexivity as a situated practice (Nencel, 2014). A researcher is always situated in the complex constructions of location, history and body. As such witnessing cannot be disengaged from the ethical consequences of positionality (Haraway, 2000; Haraway, 1988; Harding & Norberg, 2005). If the fieldworker is central to what is being studied, it is clear that the ‘method’ makes the ‘field’ and vice versa and that each ‘interferes’ with the other (Mol, 2002). Rather than seeing the events and conversations around me as given or prior, I attempted to be conscious that I was asking questions, listening, talking, observing, making connections with others, and taking part. I see this reflexive analysis as commensurate with Bourdieu’s ‘participatory objectivation’, which requires “objectivising the subjective relation to the object” and necessarily includes the point of view of the ethnographer (Bourdieu, 2003b, p. 282). I made efforts to delve into the ways in which my presence, interactions and communication formed part of the on-going developments that I witnessed in Santa Cruz. My interference wasn’t after the event, as if ‘culture’ existed separately from the scenes in which I was implicated (Mol, 2002). This means that the question is not ‘whether’ to interfere, but rather, in which ways (Haraway, 2003; Mol, 2002). Decisions about my political activities were another element of my reflection on the unavoidable and necessary part (given that I was conducting fieldwork there) that I played in life in the areas neighbouring the steel plant.

Ethnographic reciprocity and political expectations

My practical, political responses to the suffering I witnessed were also based on the importance of reciprocity. Why would, or should, the local residents and campaigners be interested in my obtaining an anthropology PhD? Or more importantly, when in receipt of so much open giving of their time, interest, patience and efforts, how could I not respond with some of my own efforts to support their campaign? In a context of unequal power structures, where greater visibility and weight is attributed to corporate perspectives, it was important to me not to attempt to assume a position of ‘political neutrality’ (Bourdieu, 2003a; Kirsch, 2002). I saw the more practical inputs that I could offer, as opportunities to continue re-addressing ethical considerations, I saw them as ethical duties to the people with whom I lived, and as a “precious right and a privilege” that I could choose to do (Scheper-Hughes, 2009, p. 3). However, I am acutely aware that the political activities I undertook, were not everything that I could have done, nor were they everything that others may have wanted me to do.

Negotiating these relationships of attempted reciprocity was not uncomplicated. My relationships with the people living around the factory in Santa Cruz, and with the Non-Governmental Organisation working on the campaign, involved the repeated negotiation of my political stance regarding the factory’s presence in the area. I felt that my positive relationship with NGO staff was to some degree dependent on their understandings of me as someone who stood in opposition to the steel plant, and as someone with political leanings of which they could approve. An example might be pertinent here. In July 2015, while on a boat heading to one of the fishermen’s protests, some NGO staff were discussing the then current situation in Greece. I was not up to date with the issue, but I listened to what two NGO staff members had to say about the possibility that the Greek people may reject the terms of the Eurozone ‘bailout’ in a national referendum on the issue. One of the staff members turned to me and said, “let’s hope that they vote ‘no’ and reject the Troika’s terms, no?”. She lowered her head, raised her eyebrows and smiled in a gesture I understood to mean, ‘I’m sure you agree’. I suspected that whether or not Greece accepted the bailout, whether they managed to negotiate a better deal or if they left the EU, it was probably the poorest Greek people that would suffer. I shrugged and pressed my lips together, weakly trying to show that I didn’t know what I thought about the issue. At the time I reflected that the statements I had just heard posited certainty about how I should feel about the Greek economic crisis. I recognised this testing, through shared orthodoxy, of my political awareness and outlook from previous experiences with activist groups in the UK. I often felt that NGO staff implied that I should have an opinion about the presence of the factory, and I was relieved that I did. My ethical stance towards undertaking political action was partly a pragmatic result of the various ways in which the people I met insisted on it (Scheper-Hughes, 1995).

There were, of course, limits to my commitment to Pare TKCSA’s campaign and to the fishermen’s activism. I felt my way through what I would and wouldn’t do. One occasion presented itself while on a protest with fishermen, that I had been asked to join in order to film the events. As it became clearer that the fishermen were going to be taken to the police station, I had a decision to make. Did I want to stay with them during their removal by the police and potentially be able to film some of that interaction (as I had been asked), or should I leave and go to the police station to wait for them there? I chose to leave, and attended the police station directly, together with an NGO staff member. Having already been arrested for my part in non-violent direct action in the UK, I very much wanted to steer clear of the police, at almost any cost. I told a friend and informant, who had asked me to accompany the fishermen to the protest, and he promptly informed the other fishermen that I had a previous engagement and had to leave. I contradicted him, ensuring that the fishermen knew that I didn’t want anything to do with the police, and that I couldn’t risk being arrested. Later I reflected on this, and realised that my friend’s white lie had illustrated how much he felt my behaviour reflected on him, having introduced me to the rest of the fishermen. I wondered whether it also showed how much he expected me to be willing to put on the line for the cause. On that particular occasion, I was willing not to live up to expectations.

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Fisherman protesting against a barrier constructed across a local river

Variation, reflection and telling it like it is

In a politically sensitive situation, in which opinions on the issue of the factory’s presence in the area differed vastly, it is important to remember that the role of an ethnographer cannot be simply to register ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of informants’ accounts. Similarly, if I were to focus solely on recounting the impacts of the factory, my role would be reduced to that of a poorly trained and ill-equipped attempt to reproduce the work that NGOs are already doing. However, in a context where views amongst informants differed substantially I also had to tread the thin line between, on the one hand, being presented (or presenting myself) as entirely opposed to the factory and, on the other, remaining open (and perceived to be open) to different accounts. In this context I found Stacey Leigh Pigg’s insistence on careful reflection through ‘just sitting around’ helpful (2013). This conscious emphasis on careful and slow reflection was important to me in the context of political sensitivity. As part of this approach I honed listening skills and listened more than I opined. I learned to recognise when the expression of my own opinions was needed, when it would not be constructive and how to encourage further discussion without necessarily weighing in. This is, of course, part of most ethnographic work in some form or another, given that a major aim of most anthropological work is to provide an account that reflects (as closely as possible) the world views and lived experiences of study participants (Bourdieu, 2003b; D’Andrade, 1995). The campaigners of Pare TKCSA have urged me to tell it as it is. Unsurprisingly, how it is, is not all, or even mostly, about me.

Pragmatic conclusions

The discussions surrounding ‘public’, ‘engaged’ or ‘applied’ anthropology often imply that anthropologists will be able to consider these issues fully before conducting fieldwork and that a resultant plan of action will guide ethnographers in their ‘engaged’ approach to their work. Pat Caplan, for example, has emphasised thinking through some potential pitfalls and negotiating through these with funders and other relevant parties, prior to undertaking ‘engaged’ anthropology (2014). I have come to view my more practical political activities as an integral part of a reflexive approach to anthropology, and that reflexivity as a primarily situated practice. Therefore my decisions to undertake activities to support campaigning Santa Cruz residents are part of my reflexivity within the context of relationships developed during the course of my research. I have taken situated, pragmatic decisions dictating which specific actions I should take, within the limits of the possible, as certain situations have arisen. This is perhaps the crucial point. My choices, actions and interactions during my fieldwork, and since, have resulted from a convergence of what I feel able to do, what others have done, what I and others think would be a good idea to do and what has been possible within a given situation. From one perspective my fieldwork seems full of ethical dilemmas and tricky positions. I have had to negotiate the question of how one remains palatable to different groups of people, often with deeply held opposing views. From another viewpoint I was fortunate to be in a situation in which I was able to act in accordance with my own ethical decisions and still remain loyal to campaigning residents of Santa Cruz. Political activities related to my fieldwork are a continuation of political activity that I have been involved with in different settings (Schaumberg, 2008). While it seemed more urgently needed during my fieldwork, the question of what I could do to support people’s fight to improve their situation was similar in Santa Cruz as it has been elsewhere. Political activity, while on fieldwork and during one’s everyday life, will be a result of personal interests and preferences, negotiation with others, situations that arise and the possibilities that develop with them.


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