Ethical Dilemmas of the Encounter: Ethnography, Fieldwork and Political Violence

Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Subject MatterNotes on Methods
Notes on Methods
Ethical Dilemmas of the Encounter:
Ethnography, Fieldwork and
Political Violence
Ankur Datta1
In her seminal essay written in the aftermath of the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi, Veena
Das discusses the difficulties of working with communities who have been subjected to traumatic vio-
lence, and who are unable to access justice from the law and the state. Das writes about the experiences
and the difficulties of fieldwork in an area where not only did the victims find it difficult to articulate
their experiences and feelings, but where they also continued to live in the same area as the perpetrators
who enjoyed impunity from legal action. Nevertheless, the cornerstone of Das’ essay lies in its title,
which comes from a conversation she had with one of her respondents who told her: ‘Our Work is to Cry,
Your Work is to Listen!’ (Das, 1990).
Das’ (1990) essay can be read in different ways: from a discussion on space and locality in the
context of communal violence, to the role of the state in permitting violence and the breakdown of law,
to the relations between victims and perpetrators and to the ethical and methodological challenges of
working with victims of violence and in collecting data. What also emerges from her engagement is the
encounter between researchers and the researched, whose lives are being explored. Ethnography, and
other approaches in qualitative research, has been discussed both in studies of political life and in terms
of their theoretical and methodological contributions to the study of politics (Kumar, 2014; Spencer,
2007). In this note, I shall discuss the ethnographic ‘encounter’ that takes place in the study of political
life with reference to certain ethical dilemmas that are incurred in the process of fieldwork. Ethics are
an integral part of research and data collection. They influence the interaction between researcher and
the so-called ‘researched’ and are an integral part of discussions on ethnographic methods. I will first
unpack the idea of the encounter and then situate the encounter in fieldwork on politics, and especially
violence, or where fieldwork is set in politically complex sites. In the process, I hope to raise certain
questions regarding ethical choices made by social scientists who carry out ethnographic fieldwork on
political life.
The Encounter and Political Life
For anthropologists, and perhaps most practitioners of Indian sociology, ethnography is definitive of
their disciplines. Students may look at Clifford Geertz’s (1973) ethnography on the cockfight as a way
1 Department of Sociology, South Asian University, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, India.
Studies in Indian Politics
3(2) 284–289
© 2015 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023015601748
Corresponding author:
Ankur Datta, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, Akbar Bhavan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021,

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