July 24, 2015
By Emma Louise Backe
For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate ethnographer. Fieldwork, rather than being a praxis for cultural research, has rather become the test for one’s anthropological training and credentials. Yet, throughout my undergraduate degree, we never discussed the emotional or physical challenges of fieldwork—it was always framed as this transformative, clarifying experience during which the theory we worked so assiduously to grasp could finally be applied. It was understood that everyanthropologist inherently falls in love with their site, integrates into their chosen community, and concludes their fieldwork with a sense of kinship and satisfaction at the rich ethnographic data and knowledge they have been able to accumulate. This silence surrounding the very real personal challenges of fieldwork can, however, be detrimental to a student’s first foray into fieldwork.
After graduating from college, I almost immediately joined the Peace Corps as a community health volunteer in Fiji. I felt certain that my anthropological training had adequately prepared me for my service in the South Pacific, where I was expected to learn the language, integrate into the community, and develop programs based off of local needs-assessments and desire. After spending my Pre-Service Training at a home stay in a remote, mountainous fishing village, I moved to my site in an equally remote town on the Eastern Coast of Viti Levu, one of the bigger islands the country consists of. Throughout my service, in an attempt to adapt to the culture and be accepted into my community, I found myself emptying out my identity to make space for a new “Fijian” version of myself. I struggled with how to translate my personality into my adopted social space, while simultaneously struggling with health issues from the moment of my arrival. Because of my anthropological training, and the ideologies that undergird Peace Corps, I took responsibility for any programmatic failures or difficulties I had connecting with my local partners. If I wasn’t able to befriend a neighbor, I felt that it was my fault—I wasn’t being sensitive or reflexive or open enough, there must be a flaw in my personality. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to members of the Peace Corps staff, for fear that my struggles would reflect poorly on me as a volunteer. Similarly, I was anxious to contact my anthropological mentors, afraid that my seeming challenges to connect with my Fijian counterparts meant that despite all my education and devotion to the discipline, I was not personally adept at cultural integration. This concern was perhaps the most devastating and depressing aspect of my service.
These anxieties, frustrations and feelings of guilt are ones that anthropologists share. As Amy Pollard has written for Anthropology Matters, many of the anthropology students she interviewed about field work experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation, stress, stress, regret, feelings of powerlessness or captivity to your site, disappointment, fear, frustration, guilt, depression coupled with self-hate for feeling depressed during fieldwork, and embarrassment at perceptions of poor success or lack of productivity. Despite these struggles, “Some students reported feeling they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak” (Pollard 2009). This feeling of weakness stems from the misapprehension that anthropological training inures you to feelings of culture shock or the other mental health crises others might experience during prolonged periods of time in new cultural habitats. Indeed, as Rachel Irwin writes,
For multiple reasons, researchers admitting to fear or depression during fieldwork may be ridiculed or dismissed as ‘cowardly anthropologists’. I was once strongly encouraged to conduct fieldwork in a remote village rather than a larger town, so that I could be a ‘courageous anthropologist’. Chiefly, I would argue that this is closely linked to a sense of academic bravado and competitive virility. I was given the idea that there is something inherent about studying anthropology that protects one against ‘culture shock,’ and that anthropologists are naturally better at negotiating unfamiliar situations than other sojourners. As such, anthropologists can feel a certain ‘culture shock’ within their own academic community, because their experiences of culture shock ‘in the field remain unacknowledged, and they are feeling something that they believe they ought not feel. (2007)
When anthropologists actively avoid discussing the feelings of anxiety, depression and desperation associated with their fieldwork, they do a disservice to the next generation of aspiring anthropologists. Even though ethnography relies upon qualitative research methods, anthropologists inevitably enter their field site with certain expectations about the questions they want answered, the traditions they intend to explore, the in-depth interviews they hope to conduct. If, for any number of mitigating and complicating reasons and factors, you aren’t able to accomplish these goals, it precipitates yet another watershed of shame and regret that you simply weren’t good enough. Because anthropologists are participant observers, their bodies and identities are essentially the very tools of their practice. Therefore, personality clashes or the development of stress or fear under certain situations place the onus of culpability on the researcher. As an anthropologist, a “failure of fieldwork” is essentially conflated with a failure of yourself. In so doing, “A large number of students felt profound shame over their sense of failure in the field […] For some, going home early was a source of great shame” (Pollard 2009). When I left my Peace Corps service early, after months of illness and the impending signs of depression, it felt like I was abandoning the aspirations I had to become an anthropologist, despite the fact that the majority of my fellow volunteers were struggling with similar programmatic and personal issues. After spending so many years planning my trajectory toward becoming an anthropologist, this belief that my emotional struggles somehow disqualified me as an anthropologist only further tangled the crisis of identity I had undergone during my service. And I didn’t know how to talk about it because I felt completely alone.
Upon returning to the United States, I was covered in scars from persistent skin infections and stress hives, my hair had fallen out, and my mood was ragged. I experienced many of the symptoms of depression, including sleeplessness and moodiness; sometimes interactions or objects would trigger uncontrollable feelings of sadness or anger. I had difficulty being around people and I walked everywhere draped in a cloak of self-loathing. For my friends and family members who haven’t traveled widely or spent long periods abroad, they couldn’t understand why I believed that my difficulties in Fiji were solely my fault. When I sought out therapists to talk through my lingering misgivings, they praised me for my strength and courage, when what I wanted was not to be coddled, but to understand why I hadn’t “worked” in my community, when it felt like I had spent all my energy trying to integrate. Many friends and acquaintances also did not want to hear that I hadn’t had a positive experience—in their minds, Fiji was nothing more than a tropical paradise and it seemed feckless to explain my humanitarian, existential misgivings about it. This was not reverse culture shock per se, yet I was at a loss about how to recuperate and heal, mentally as well as physically, let alone negotiate my anthropological path moving forward. I was simply afraid that I wasn’t cut out to do fieldwork.
During this period of uncertainty, I turned to video games. In the past, I’ve also used video games as a coping mechanism. After suffering from a traumatic brain injury my freshman year, I suffered from sometimes crippling dissociation and self-doubt about my cognitive abilities. My neurologist was unhelpful, and the only option I was offered to heal was to sit and wait for my brain to stop bleeding. Brain injuries are unique in that they often invoke crises of identity. With so much forthcoming research on the connection between the frontal lobe and personality, I experienced an acute crisis of self after my brain contusion. Offered with no other recourse or resilience methods, video games helped coax me back to a space of equilibrium. In both cases, playing video games provided a viable alternative to being social. If I felt disconnected from the world around me, or anxious about having to explain why I had come home early, I could retreat to RPG’s. Video games can put you in touch with a wide online community, thereby facilitating social contact for those who might otherwise feel stress or anxiety at the prospect of socializing with strangers. For me, I felt powerless to help myself—video games were an active way to use my time and process my emotions. Rather than passively consuming other forms of media, such as movies or television shows, video games provide you with tangible goals, objectives that, when achieved, provide players with a sense of success and achievement. As Romeo Vitelli wrote for Psychology Today, “By setting specific tasks and allowing young people to work through obstacles to achieve those tasks, video games can help boost self-esteem and help children learn the value of persistence. By providing immediate feedback as video game players solve problems and achieve greater expertise, players can learn to see themselves as having skills and intelligence they might not otherwise realize they possess” (2014). During a period of such acute self-doubt, it was extremely satisfying to be posed with challenges and obstacles that at first seemed insurmountable, but that could be accomplished through patience, creativity and skill-building.
Video games became a refuge for my cultural concerns as well. Games like BioShock: Infinite (2013) and Dishonored (2012) were dystopian alternatives to human history, new life worlds I could explore and inhabit through a sense of play and constant discovery. I was particularly drawn to games with robust storytelling mechanics, where the developers and programmers had clearly invested a lot of time and attention to the minutia of the world, encouraging players to interact with minor characters, read books and notes scattered around the stages, and learn about the internal mythologies, politics and social dynamics that informed the action of the game. I no longer felt powerless, but had a degree of agency to determine the kind of player I wanted to be. In Dishonored, like other games such as Infamous (2009), your actions as a player determine the internal stability of the virtual play space. Even though I had spent months working on community health empowerment, with few visible signs that my efforts were making any difference, I could immediately see how acts of benevolence positively impacted the city of Dunwall. In recent games, many of the avatars that players inhabit are also saddled with their own traumatic experiences which are explored throughout the game. Booker DeWitt of Bioshock: Infinite has a dark past, and other characters, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman throughout Arkham Asylum, City and Origins, are constantly battling their own demons, whether invented or embodied as supervillains. To a certain extent, I was able to project my internal monsters onto the villains in the games, channeling my anger and frustration in a way that felt both productive and cathartic. I could go to bed at night feeling as though I had accomplished something, and had something in the morning I could look forward to. In the absence of other motivations, and paralyzed by fear about the future, this sense of purpose saved me.
New literature has begun to indicate the salutary psychological effects of video games. Studiessuggest that video games may have beneficial effects on cognition, motivation, emotion and sociality; some psychologists have even begun to recommend video games as a form of therapyfor patients with mental health issues, including depression. Contemporaneously, programmers and developers are working on video games as tools to cope with mental health issues. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest (made famous due to its involvement in the #Gamergate controversy) was created to explore what life was like living with depression; other forms of e-literature build interactive stories around the expression of grief and mourning. Whereas several years ago, critics and concerned parents worried that video games like Grand Theft Auto were producing violent, unempathetic adolescents, practitioners are beginning to understand that the process of play may actually serve a positive psychological function. On a related note, The Mary Sue recently published “Coping With Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction” (2015), a poignant piece outlining the ways in which Guardians of the Galaxy’s character development and musical composition helped the writer overcome anxiety attacks and obtain a sense of emotional stability. Marie-Pierre wrote about rewatching episodes of Star Trek to maintain her equilibrium during fieldwork and Peter Olthoff remarked on the therapeutic efficacy of geek culture. Whether it’s a space opera, a society ravaged by an infection of zombies, or a fantastical universe populated by dragons, elves and other mythological beings, video games help transport you to another world, not necessarily as a form of escapism, but rather as a creative space to process your own lived reality.
As it turned out, the rediscovery of video games upon my return led me back to anthropology. I read about ground-breaking games like The Last of Us (2013) and its place within the larger resurgence in zombie-lore. Through my research, I discovered the work of Louise Krasniewicz, a UPenn Anthropology professor who built a class around The Walking Dead. I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee with Dr. Krasniewicz to discuss her approach to geek anthropology, but after running through our recent favorite shows and theories about monstrosity, we inevitably turned to the topic of fieldwork. Emboldened by our conversation, I opened up to her about my experience in Fiji, my doubts as an anthropologist, and my misgivings about the negative consequences of prolonged sojourns in new cultural territory. Expecting reproach or judgement, my story was instead met by a laugh from her. “Welcome to your first time doing fieldwork! It’s horrible for everyone!” she replied. She then went on to recount her own experience conducting fieldwork in upstate New York—hardly the “exotic” destination one would expect for an Ivy League professor—and how difficult the process was emotionally. Even within her native country, where she spoke the language and shared similar cultural assumptions, she struggled to find a community and sense of connection with her interlocutors. Yet, despite her ethnographic challenges, she went on to become a successful anthropology professor. She did not interpret the issues with immersion as her failure as a practitioner, as I had during my experience in Fiji. While many anthropologists have written about the role of emotion during ethnography, such as James Davies and Dimitrina Spencer’s book Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience (2010), and phenomenological anthropologists encourage attention to the ways we physically and emotionally react to our surroundings, I don’t believe that there has been enough discussion about the emotional labor of fieldwork, both to prepare students and acknowledge that the anthropologist is not wholly culpable for “failure” in the field.
In professional fields that deal with emotionally draining issues, such as gender-based violence, there is a heavy emphasis on self-care for activists. An advocate may experience vicarious trauma if they work with survivors of sexual violence day after day, sometimes leading to emotional fatigue and burn-out. For humanitarian researchers conducting interviews with refugees, internally displaced populations, or war-torn communities still reeling from horrific acts of violence, program managers ensure that the interviewers have sufficient support and counselling mechanisms to decompress and work through the emotional labor of their work. The same practices can and should be applied to anthropology. Indeed, as Amy Pollard points out, “Students reported finding it difficult to let go of the traumas of fieldwork, because the writing-up process meant they were continually having to relive them” (2009); their recuperation process may be only further stymied by the culture of silence that pervades discussions about what occurs in the field. Students of anthropology recognize and perhaps relish in the hardships they will encounter during ethnographic research, but if they are given no inkling of the possibility that they won’t always jive with their chosen community or culture, they will have no coping mechanisms or strategies for resilience. Larissa Begley writes of her experience in Rwanda, “As anthropologists, we are part of the narrative we create. Our fieldwork does not exist detached from our own emotions and our lives. We impact on those we study and they impact on us. It is because of this dialectical relationship we have with the ‘field’ that we must recognize the impact that fieldwork can have emotionally, psychologically and physically on us” (2009). Just because we are academically prepared to live in a different culture, doesn’t mean we have the emotional methodologies to succeed.
How do you translate your personality into a new cultural space while also being sensitive and flexible? Rachel Irwin writes that, “Depression, in the form of culture shock, occurs when the firm grounding in one’s own symbolic world is lost” (2007)—this symbolic world and one’s own identity is thrown into flux when you enter and attempt to become a part of a new cultural space. There are bound to be growing pains and types of people you don’t always get along with. I realize now that I didn’t have to suppress my identity in the process of incorporating into Fijian culture. I wish I had read Jessika Tremblay’s post on “10 Tips For Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork” before my service, especially her recommendations on not taking things so personally and “harnessing the power of your introversion” (2014). I know that there were nights in Fiji I retreated to my house to decompress and write, but felt guilty if I was skipping one of the nightly kava sessions held on my compound. If anthropology is to continue to grow as a discipline, we need to ensure that students are prepared for fieldwork, equipped to be both emotionally vulnerable while mentally sustainable. A vital part of self-care is an institutional support system, one that the anthropological community can strive to cultivate. If we are concerned with cross-cultural psychiatry, we should be equally in tune with the mental health of our comrades. You can never predict how fieldwork will change you, and it’s important to maintain a disposition of self-reflexivity, yet the process of discovery should not necessarily come at the cost of self. We need to turn, yet again, within our own community to analyze our professional and personal predispositions, and clarify how we can support one another through the process.
Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Geeking Out With Louise Krasniewicz.” The Geek Anthropologist.http://thegeekanthropologist.com/2014/11/07/geeking-out-with-louise-krasniewicz/
Begley, Larissa R. (2009). “The other side of fieldwork: experiences and challenges of conducting research in the border area of Rwanda/eastern Congo.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No. 2. http://www.anthropologymatters.com/index.php/anth_matters/article/view/17/23
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Renaud, Marie-Pierre (2015). “Note From the Field: Go Home To A Starship.” The Geek Anthropologist.http://thegeekanthropologist.com/2015/02/26/notes-from-the-field-go-home-to-a-starship-2/
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