The researchable researcher

Turns out that, apropos of my post today about instrumentalism and field friendships, there are a couple of thought-provoking posts by John Jackson (univ. of pennsylvania) called “The presentation of self in ethnographic life” plus part 2 of the same post. He starts by pointing out that fieldwork has long been facilitated by a certain amount of strategic self-presentation, even strategic ignorance, in the field situation, while back at home in the university, one of course presents oneself as an expert. But, he points out, now that ethnographers’ work and presentations are easily available online, their field informants can easily look up what’s being said about them, making the ethnographers’ strategic self-presentation that much more constrained. Ethnographic representation, in short, becomes more accountable when it’s digitally available and when one works with internet-savvy populations. This is, for Jackson, a mixed blessing, an advantage for ethical discipline but a potential limit on the kinds of productive slippages in self-presentation that catalyze ethnographic work. As he puts it (in part 2):

It makes sense to think about how ethnographers are re-disciplined in a world where their backstage (back “home”) continues to shrink. That might just be another leveling of the ethnographic playing field, maybe even a welcome one, but it does demand that we reconfigure the ethnographic context to include the kinds of feedback loops and post-fieldwork exchanges that the Internet and other new (increasingly inexpensive) technological outlets facilitate.

Needless to say, such a problem is thought-provoking when it comes to this blog, which obviously serves to make my analysis of French universities immediately accessible to any French universitaire who cares to search for my name.

I do want to register just one small reservation about Jackson’s analysis, which is that he relies on the front-stage/back-stage distinction in a way that I think gives a slightly strange representation of academic life. Basically, in his description of anthropological fieldwork, the ethnographer is trying to enter the back-stage/intimate/ordinary world of the locals, trying to build rapport; and at the same time, this same ethnographer is probably highly managing their own presentation of self, and may be trying to conceal their own back-stage world in the academy from the locals, since a full rendering of this academic world might inhibit local relationships from forming.

Now, I take it as axiomatic that one can never have totally transparent communication or representation, that perfect intersubjectivity is impossible, that something always remains unsaid or concealed or repressed; and of course it’s true that different spheres of social life have different conditions of intimacy and exclusion. But, and this is my small objection to the use of the “backstage” image, I think it’s important to note that the way one presents oneself “back home” in the academy is no less scripted and regimented than the way one presents oneself in the field. Public academic performances, of the type that someone might find on youtube or read on a blog, are not really backstage; they’re just a different stage. Or to put this differently: for anyone who’s ever actually worked backstage in a professional theatre, like I did for a few summers, a backstage is a deeply professional space, full of rules about who should be where doing what when, thoroughly organized by organizational hierarchy. In some ways, professional theatre is more tightly regimented than academic presentation – after all, every detail is supposed to be scripted and identically executed every time.

Jackson is certainly right that there can be tensions between ethnographers’ self-presentations at home and in the field. But I would rather characterize this as a precarious balance between competing stages and forms of intimacy, rather than a matter of trying to penetrate other people’s intimacies while preserving one’s own. My own project is a little complicated this way, of course, because it’s an ethnographic engagement with something very much like my own institutional “home,” and the differences between contexts are always uncertain, if never absent. Still, I’ve long been a fan of participatory action research (which, by the way, is so unpopular as to be unheard of in my current department), and I think of my project not mainly as an effort at sociological objectification but as an effort at intellectual exchange with fellow French university denizens.

I ought to say, along those lines, that this blog has so far proved to be a minor blessing for my project, a facilitator rather than an inhibitor of research. It can, for a project like mine, actually be a way of meeting collaborators from one’s research context; I met Baptiste through it, which is a pleasure and has been analytically really helpful (thanks B for correcting my mistranslations!). That said, I do envision it having mainly an anglophone audience, and I think a number of my contacts in France wouldn’t want to suffer through its academic english prose. That is, intellectual exchange here is limited by language barriers. But it bears thinking more about how online work can catalyze and enable our research, not just how it can inhibit it.

I agree with Jackson that there are pitfalls in our digital presentations of self: this blog may yet cause troubles I haven’t thought of. But I would argue – against many of my shy and paranoid colleagues and classmates – that anthropologists have a major moral and logical obligation to make their profession and their academic praxis accessible to public scrutiny and engagement. I’ve met too many American academics who are afraid of being analyzed, who dismiss themselves as being “too boring” to study, who are happy to sweep all the dust and cruelty of the academy under the rug of a few highly stylized public presentations of their work. Any anthropologist who is a priori against an ethnographer studying their department has, in my view, no moral ground asking anyone to participate in ethnographic research. That would be the sheerest form of hypocrisy and one-way objectification. Again, this isn’t to say that everything can ever be completely public – see above – but just that ethnographers’ general obligation has to be towards openness and against a habitual retreat into the fantasy of a private academic world. Academic spaces are never as private as they seem, nor as pristine.

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