Towards a compassionate turn

When The New Ethnographer launched in 2018, several decades had passed since the reflexive turn of the 1980s, in which anthropologists were asked to reflect thoughtfully on their subjectivity and how it impacted their fieldsites and interlocutors. Our project aimed to create a space to think not only about how we impact our fieldsites, but how our fieldsites impact us. So for this opening post of 2019, the writers at The New Ethnographer reflect on the underlying idea behind many of our contributions last year: that in spite of the wide body of work that has drawn from and built upon the ‘reflexive turn’ of the 1980s (Clifford and Marcus 1986, Rosaldo 1989, Tedlock 1991), there remains a need for greater empathy and compassion for what it means to face challenges in ethnographic research. Here, we propose a manifesto for a compassionate turn.

A compassionate turn attends to both the wellbeing the researcher and their interlocutors[1]. In so doing, it makes explicit and transparent both the way our fieldwork impacts the places in which we work, but also the ways in which fieldwork impacts researchers. When we use the term wellbeing, we refer to health, mental health, attention to power dynamics of gender, sexual identity, class, race, ethnicity, and other markers of subjective identities. However, we also draw attention to additional themes that emerge for many ethnographers, including risk, deception, and perhaps most importantly a sense of compassionate care. With these factors in mind, we return to the literal meaning of wellbeing: are we as researchers and those we work with being well as a result of our work?

Many of the contributing authors to the TNE project both in our blog and forthcoming edited volume have referenced the importance of self-care in their work, especially in light of often hostile or disinterested institutional responses to challenges faced in the field or upon our return. Attitudes that place care for the self and care for those we work with as the responsibility of the researcher create a weighty intellectual and emotional burden. A compassionate turn, then, would draw attention to these thought processes, actions, and adjustments to methodology with the intention of raising attention towards managing this burden.


An attitude of machismo towards ethnographic fieldwork within the academy has long encouraged a pressure on researchers to conduct research in the ‘most difficult’ places they can endure in order to render it authentic (Humphrey 1989, Abu-Lughod 2000, Taussig 2004 to name a few). Yet compassion in research should not be a reflection of the ‘extremity’ of the fieldsite. Whether researchers are conducting fieldwork in contexts of conflict and violence, or in spaces that might be conventionally considered as ‘safe’, they are liable to experience trauma, depression, anxiety, loss, financial hardship, or other kinds of traumatic experiences. Fieldwork does not occur in a time and space vacuum. A decade ago, Amy Pollard’s ‘Field of Screams’ (2009) highlighted that ethnographers returning from fieldwork with different kinds of trauma was emerging as ubiquitous rather than exceptional. Based on the contributions The New Ethnographer received in 2018, it appears few university departments have heeded any of the recommendations made in Pollard’s remarkable study. Indeed, only very recently does it seem that some departments (often at the behest of early career scholars) have acknowledged that fieldwork is not an initiation ritual, after which a researcher should hide their personal experiences instead of addressing them. We believe ethnographers should be encouraged to detail their personal experiences relevant to their research, and move away from historical attempts to separate ‘emotion’ from ‘data’ in what Foley calls “a somewhat schizophrenic manner” (2002: 474), including the emotions embedded in their own lives and relationships in the field.


The compassionate turn would also recognise work that demonstrates how anthropologists think about the concept of compassion in our work and conduct research in compassionate ways. Many researchers do not consider their fieldwork years as a rupture from a normal life, but a meaningful part of our lives that we intend/intended to live in fully and holistically, returning to our field what our presence and work may take out. This can often mean undertaking longer periods of fieldwork. The effects of any of the above can play out very differently among scholars conducting research in contexts that they have previously lived in or consider to be ‘home’ and those who are conducting research in places less familiar. Although the insider/outsider debate is one of the oldest in anthropological thought, seemingly very few academic departments consider the differences of conducting fieldwork ‘at home’ or ‘away from home’ in their methodological training.

Often ethnographers attempt to embed themselves within vulnerable communities, who can feel that an outside researcher is extracting a great deal from them without this being in any way returned. While as academics we are often not able to financially recompense our interlocutors for their time, we are often able to repay them in other ways. This compensation should simultaneously be mindful of a compassionate use of our own time, resources, access, and privilege. We argue that these attitudes can be taught and emphasised by methodological training courses taught by universities and institutions, which instead more often focus on technical aspects of a more traditional fieldwork, such as interview technique and strategies for participant observation.

Towards a compassionate turn

Compassion needs to be applied both in the field and within the academy. A compassionate turn asks those employed by and profiting from the capitalist neoliberal academic market to treat its researchers with a level of compassion that reflects the necessary challenges we face in our work. Increasingly a consumer culture, the upper echelons of higher education and academic work has been slow to create a safe space for researchers to discuss their concerns and experiences in relation to fieldwork. As our careers are boiled down to our output, impact, and reputations, while concurrently research and hiring budgets are slashed, we cannot cast aside the compassion with which many early career scholars will remember fuelling their difficult fieldwork periods.

Concerns about student mental health become a UK-government initiative and universities are now required to provide services, information, and bring attention to the mental health of students operating in difficult and often precarious financial circumstances, in prejudiced workplaces with poor representation of minority groups, with heavy workloads incompatible with family life, necessary travel, and other employments. A compassionate turn would ask universities and institutions not only to allow us to practice with compassion, but to provide an empathetic level of attention to not only early career scholars but all members of the institution. Fair wages, funding and support for work-related travel and events, appropriate work environments and timetables for the mentally ill, sick leave for mental health conditions, and perhaps above all an understanding of fieldwork as a highly impactive period on a researcher’s life are often ignored or excluded by funding bodies. This leaves scholars overworked, underpaid, and under-supported by staff who are unable to challenge the status quo, perhaps if not from a lack of compassion,

It seems that the demise of the now infamous HAU journal can be used as a metaphor for a deeply uncompassionate anthropology; an exploitative and abusive structure seemingly at the forefront of anthropological innovation and open access models, behind the scenes re-enacting colonial, exploitative, and opaque dynamics between anthropologists. It is no wonder that #hautalk has gripped the anthropological community, sparking critical conversations about the increasing gulf between senior and junior scholars, unacceptable work practices, and the obfuscating of deeply unethical practices behind a screen of supposedly enlightened scholarly leaders with open access politics.

The work we publish on the TNE blog reflects the qualities we have detailed above, and we would ask our contributors to explore this theme and/or demonstrate different practices of compassionate anthropology in future submissions. As a future-oriented movement, The New Ethnographer invites its contributors to consider how we can feed back to institutions and universities on how our practices can become more compassionate while pressuring those in the position to do so to take this compassion into account when impacting structural change.


Abu-Lughod, L. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honour and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Berry, M.J., Chávez Argüelles, C., Cordis, S., Ihmoud, S., and Velásquez, E.E. 2017. ‘Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race and Violence in the Field’. Cultural Anthropology 32: 4.

Behar, R. 1996. The vulnerable observer: Anthropology that breaks the heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Coley, A. 1999. The ethnographic self: Fieldwork and the representation of identity. London: Sage.

Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cook, J. C. 2010. Ascetic Practice and Participant Observation, or, the Gift of        Doubt and Incompletion in Field Experience. In Emotions in the Field:    The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience, (eds) J. Davies and D. Spencer, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Douglas E. Foley. 2002. Critical ethnography: The reflexive turn, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 15:4, 469-490.

Humphrey, C. 1989. Perestroika and the Pastoralists: The Example of Mongun-Taiga in Tuva ASSR. Anthropology Today, Vol. 5(3): pp.6-10.

Lorimer, F. 2010. Using Emotion as a Form of Knowledge in a Psychiatric Fieldwork Setting. In Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience, (eds) J. Davies and D. Spencer, 98-126. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Marcus, G. 1994. ‘What comes (just) after “post’’! The case of ethnography’. In Y. Lincoln & N. Denzin (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 563±573). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Newton, E. 1993. My Best Informant’s Dress: The Erotic Equation in Fieldwork. Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 1: 3-23.

Nicholson, L. 1982. Comment on Rosaldo’s “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology”. Signs 7(3):732-735.

Pollard, A. 2009. Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork. Anthropology Matters 11:2(4-24).

Rosaldo, R. 1989 Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. London: Routledge, 1-24.

Rosaldo, M. and Lamphere, L. (eds.) 1974. Woman, Culture, and Society.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” Current Anthropology, Vol. 36(3):409-440.

Song, H. 2017. ‘James Clifford and the Ethical Turn in Anthropology’. Cultural Critique 97: 176-200

Taussig, M. 2004. My Cocaine Museum. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Tedlock, B. 1991. From participant observation to the observation of participation: The emergence of narrative ethnography. Journal of Anthropological Research, 47(1), 69-94.



[1] For the purposes of this post the term interlocutor has been used as opposed to informant, given the uneasy connotations of this term with surveillance. We nevertheless acknowledge the inadequacies of this term, which many feel implies an unfelt clinical distance between researcher and friend, family member, romantic partner, or other fictive ‘kin-like’ relationship.

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