Somewhere close to the city of Durban, I was spending the late afternoon sometime in early 2013 in the office of Councillor Khumalo, a ward councillor and the man “in charge” in the township where I had been working for the past nine months doing ethnographic research on local political culture. We hadn’t seen each other for a while as he had repeatedly agreed to meet, however always cancelled our appointment at short notice. The political climate had changed in the past few weeks and for the first time in a meeting with him, I observed myself becoming visibly nervous. Also, from his side, there wasn’t the usual informal banter. Instead, his reserved, earnest tone and gesture made clear that today we would need to talk some “serious business. ” The past few weeks had taken a toll on him as existing tensions around a local housing development project had dramatically heightened. A former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldier, whom the councillor knew well, was murdered and rumours implicate...
“You shouldn’t be seen talking to them !”
Close to Durban, South Africa, a group of township residents protested against the allocation of houses in a local development project and the alleged scale of corruption therein. The group soon faced severe threats and intimidations by the governing elite and as these tensions intensified, my research was transformed into a form of “accidental frontline anthropology”. While unravelling the tensions between the different local actors involved promised invaluable insights into local political culture, the dilemmas of maintaining pre-existing social relationships on both sides of the conflict were also evident : I needed to counter critical suspicions about my past and present work in the township, engaging in conscious impression management. The paper explores the question of how we are compelled to adjust our practices in the field, when grappling with situations of doubt, vexing uncertainty and disorientation. It explores the development of a series of pragmatic, improvised field strategies, addressing in particular the (re-) establishment of neutrality and trust, the changing power dynamics that underlie researcher-participant relationships, the predominance of rumours in contexts of conflict and the complex dialectic of empathy and detachment. The argument is made that reflexive attention to the dynamics of ethnographic discomforts renders visible their practical and heuristic worth.
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I am grateful to Thomas Bierschenk, Nora Brandecker, Claudia Gebauer, Nick Rayner and Norman Schräpel for comments on earlier versions of this text and to the reviewers for helping me clarify my perspective on some of the issues discussed.
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Eva Riedke, « “You shouldn’t be seen talking to them !” », Civilisations, 64 | 2015, 117-127.
Eva Riedke, « “You shouldn’t be seen talking to them !” », Civilisations [Online], 64 | 2015, Online since 30 December 2018, connection on 25 March 2017. URL : http://civilisations.revues.org/3908 ; DOI : 10.4000/civilisations.3908Top of page
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