Sitting in downtown Pretoria, my first time visiting the city, I listen to a man, whom I’ve just met, narrate the history of an adjacent colonial-style building. How close does his telling, which is at turns quite dramatic, strike to the truth? In the moment, I have no way to tell for sure, so I nod my head in eager interest. For his part, there is more motivating his story than a simple sharing of Tshwane lore; he’s likely trying to capture my attention long enough to ask for money, or maybe something else. Regardless, the encounter raises a broader question of how much a researcher in my position can, or should, take at face value.
If the smooth operation of social dynamics require that we all, at least in some capacity and some of the time, trust in what one another is saying, a veritable genus of anxiety has emerged over the fear that those around us are untrustworthy. Such worry may be widespread, and perhaps even a product of our particular socio-economic conditions, but it does not rise to the same level of salience or become operationalized the same way in every society. As anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff describe in their recently published work, contemporary South Africa has become peculiarly dominated by a perceived inability to read the proper intentions of fellow members of society: an inability to tell friend from foe and, by extension, an obsession over detecting the proper signs of crime. As a result, suspicion of the criminal amongst ordinary people abounds, along with the corresponding explosion in private security (itself a complex phenomenon involving challenges to the legitimacy of state authority). While South Africans are trained from a young age to be relatively skeptical toward requests from outsiders, social scientists, by the very nature of the information on which their studies are based, cannot afford to close off possible avenues of knowledge, even those that may carry the risk of misdirection. Anthropologists, especially those studying religion, find themselves in the dual bind of remaining open to what people tell them while not falling into gullibility, a tendency to which I am unfortunately prone, as anyone who knows me well would attest.
Indeed, there is an immediate danger to excessive credulity, both in the general sense and for fieldworkers in particular. For anyone, taking what others say at face value can lead to all kinds of victimization, from wire fraud to the dashed hopes of promised job opportunities. Large-scale “impersonal” societies are filled with those seeking to take advantage of our reliance on mutual trust in order to bilk unsuspecting “marks” out of money or property. For ethnographers, though, the risk is compounded by our methodological need to engage with strangers, even when they may pursue their own interests at our expense. As we enter a new environment, we cannot know a priori whence a new lead or contact might come. It is often through the most serendipitous or unexpected encounters that we discover the most fascinating things about the people we’re living with, things that get beyond the “official narratives” promoted publically in order to get a sense of how life works in all its complex facets. This insistence on following the story wherever it may lead puts us in what can be vulnerable situations, especially when we are cultural novices in the communities where we live.
At the same time, as a counterbalance to this vulnerability, recent generations of anthropologists have begun to shine more light on issues of safety in the field. Although the risks of travelling in remote and at times volatile regions have been long recognized by practitioners and the public alike (e.g., the image of the adventurous anthropologist braving exotic locales and hostile tribes), the smaller, everyday potentials for violence have not historically been afforded as much attention, certainly not in the limited preparation students have received before being sent to begin their projects. Even excusing the base romantic stereotypes of the Indiana-Jones-style explorer, the pragmatic how-tos of maintaining personal safety—or most of the mundane tasks that make up fieldwork, for that matter—were things presumably learned on the fly, struggles we would be expected to tough out on our own. Parallel with a rise in consciousness of workplace harassment, especially gender-based violence, has been a new unwillingness to tolerate (or at least silence within professional circles) the everyday threats on the safety of young anthropologists-in-training, often living alone in a setting far from home. While our institutional ethics boards, recognizing the power held by scientific institutions, have directed the majority of their attention toward the protection of our research participants, in some cases, mostly with field-based studies, it is the researchers who are just as, if not more so, vulnerable than the people they recruit.
This pushback against blind trust from a safety perspective could be coupled with pushback from an intellectual perspective. In other words, is it necessarily the case that the best fieldwork data comes from being a compliant and agreeing listener? During a session of this year’s Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings in New Orleans, veteran ethnographer Charles Hirschkind stepped into this debate on the right way to deal with genuine differences in belief—at times amounting to fundamentally incompatible claims about physical reality—between anthropologists and the people they work with. He questioned the kind of polite, nodding acceptance that some researchers, not wanting to offend or disrupt their interlocutors, might adopt. As he reminded fellow audience members, E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s famed description of the internal logic of Zande witchcraft as an explanatory system for unfortunate events was elicited only through an extended engagement between the ethnographer and an informant in which the researcher actively challenged the latter’s explanations in order to see how he would respond. In the study of religion in contemporary times, why should we be afraid of putting a kind of dialectical pressure on what people are telling us rather than accept what they tell us carte blanche? Moreover, I might add that to assume the cultural systems we investigate are not robust enough to withstand an inquisitive gaze belies a lack of faith in their rationality that borders on the patronizing.
So how ought researchers respond to ideas or requests that contradict their own instincts? If imagined on a spectrum, the responses laid out here might extend from a complete acceptance (or at least uncritical assent) on one end to hostile rejection and aggressive challenging on the other. Of course, the obvious solution would be to take a track somewhere in the middle, depending on context and what is at stake in the encounter. After all, challenging a theologian in a friendly office setting is quite different from challenging an intoxicated man threatening violence against you.
As for practical advice in an ethnographic capacity, though, one way forward came up in one of the interviews I conducted this past month. As a church elder and I were speaking about studying alternative interpretations of scripture, he raised the importance of playing the role of devil’s advocate. That is, he insisted, understanding the logical understructure of your opponent’s argument will offer a stronger ability to counter those claims one point at a time and ultimately end up being more convincing. (Of course, it might just happen to cause you to change your mind, he acknowledged!) Beyond just the level of theological debate, I can see a real applied potential for the devil’s advocate approach: We can entertain the logical and conclusions of those we work alongside, if only in some cases as an intellectual exercise; at the same time, encouraging respondents to consider alternative perspectives allows them to reflect on the very same critical qualities of thought we are interested in capturing in the first place. As long as the approach is tactful, this type of back-and-forth dialogue could produce the reflective, critical data on which anthropology places such a premium.