Saturday, February 16, 2013

Keeping Secrets

There is a line between anthropology and investigative journalism. In both areas, a good practitioner solicits information from people she may have little history with and re-frames it to tell a story. The difference lies in the goal of the information-gathering. Investigative journalism, at least in my understanding, is devoted to the Truth (with a capital T) at any price. Sources should be protected but the chips fall where they may once a story is afoot.  In socio-cultural anthropology, most researchers recognize situated truths, thanks in large part to the post-modernist movement. This makes the process of deciding what to do with all of those nuggets of information sometimes more problematic than a clear line between Truth and Lies. Additionally, none of the anthropologists I know engage in "gotcha-anthropology" where the goal is to catch people out in falsehoods in order to create a better story.

All of that being said, we spend a hell of a lot of time learning how to get people to tell us secrets - magic formulas, drug deals, sexual behaviors, domestic violence, birthing rituals, political corruption - we want it all.

Who are we to think we deserve such information? I believe that people are mutually intelligible to one another, given time and patience and perspective. In many cases, anthropologists act as cultural brokers, straddling two worlds. The situation is made more awkward by the fact that many anthropologists "study down," or work with people with less political, financial, and social capital than themselves. This may lead to the anthropologist acting as an advocate on behalf of the "studied" people, a role I believe is worthy. However, this can easily result in the reproduction of an imbalanced power structure with the anthropologist cast as the expert and an entire community relegated to background players. In reality, many anthropologists care deeply about the groups they work with and resist the urge toward self-aggrandizement. There is a focus in the discipline on collaborative anthropology, recognizing that the "group one works with" is significantly different than the "group one studies." Lofty goals of greater understanding of the human condition are salted with the knowledge that people are often exploited in many ways, and anthropologists, given their history as the handmaidens of colonialism, have a particular responsibility to refrain from increasing misery.

Yet still we want the inside scoop. I cannot pretend I am above this. Like a demanding two-year-old, sometimes all I can think of is, "Why?" I suck at small talk, but I am generally successful at getting people to open up to me. It helps that I've predominantly worked in the United States, where confessionals are seen as a legitimate form of communication. I've also shared many of the characteristics of the people I work with, namely being a woman and having an abiding interest in alternate forms of sexuality. Having a set of ovaries isn't sufficient to know the position of another human similarly endowed, but it does create a starting point for a relationship, sometimes. I have, on occasion, exploited my gender and sexuality to form initial alliances.

Some very few anthropologists work in small, geographically bounded communities where it is possible to have a personal relationship with each individual in a community. My dissertation field site was more nebulous, structured in large part by being in an urban environment with high geographic mobility. I think this is more often the case than not. Once I developed relationships, I relied on a few key people in the community to vouch for me with others in an effort to glean their secrets. (It sounds ominous when I type it like that, but forgive my flair for the dramatic. There were a lot of questions about mundane topics, as well.)

I am constantly amazed by people's honesty and self-awareness. They are truly the experts on their lives. It may sound corny, but I am honored with their confidences. The question then becomes, once you are in possession of the magic formulas or other deeply personal details, what do you do with them?

If you are an ethical researcher (as I like to think myself to be), then the people you work with know that you are studying their beliefs and behaviors. I always affirm that participation is voluntary and that a person can ask me to stop observing them or strike their actions from my fieldnotes or refrain from publishing anything about them. At the same time, the best anthropology sometimes happens when people forget you are an outsider. It is a fine line between sharing confidences and spilling secrets.

My PhD research on BDSM involved eliciting some potentially damaging information on many levels. On a grand scale, revealing someone is involved in the kinky scene can result in stigmatization resulting in loss of social standing, employment, or child custody. In some circles, being kinky is just a slightly different shade of ice cream. In others, it is still an identity that is pathologized or demonized. Sometimes I am amazed at the balls I had to plunge into that kind of responsibility. People in the kinky community (usually) had considered the risks of exposure to the vanilla community and decided to trust that I wouldn't misuse their confidence. In other ways, however, people hadn't considered the implications of airing dirty laundry within their own circles. Some days, I think the only people who stumble across my dissertation online are those with search terms like "hyper promiscuous kinky people" or "noobs guide to bdsm cutting and branding" (no lie - thanks,!), but I know there is a very real possibility that, one day, people from Cactus will read it (despite my shameless promotion, so far I don't think anyone has made it through the 316 pages). In that case, it because even more important that I don't damage any relationships between community members since the circle is so small, and as one participant said, "Once you are ostracized by the outsiders, where else can you go?" It won't come as a surprise to anyone there that there were tensions between the het community and the queer one, but I had to be careful that the way I explored those tensions didn't throw fuel on the fire when some community members were beginning the delicate process of rebuilding bridges.

On a practical level, I resolved some of these issues by using pseudonyms and deliberately conflating or separating attributes of participants. There were also a lot of secrets I just didn't tell. I think one of the hardest things to learn as an anthropologist is restraint. My first impulse was to show off all the deep secrets I uncovered. Upon reflection, the shape of these secrets revealed truths about power, sexuality, self, agency, but exposing every nuance to an academic gaze placed participants at more risk than I felt comfortable with. People's narratives are not simply illustrations of social science theories.

At the same time, these revealed truths are powerful windows into people's lived realities. It is part of the art of anthropology to remain honest to the ways people explain and understand their lives while trying to mitigate the risks of exposure. The people I work with have agency and are capable of deciding how, to  whom, and when they will divulge their secrets. It is my job, however, to have thought deeply about the implications of my role in that sharing. Even though my goal is not to exploit the people I work with, I have to be mindful that others may feel no such compunction about using my research to do so. The line between protecting and patronizing is a fine one and I worry over it often. I don't think there is any easy resolution, nor should there be.

In a discipline based on collecting secret knowledge, it's a mark of a professional to know when to keep your mouth shut.