Friendships Built on (Dis)Trust: Navigating fragility during fieldwork

Hareem Khan is a cultural anthropologist based in the US, however, she is interested in the transnational webs that sustain and complicate diasporic realities. Her ethnographic research examines the burgeoning South Asian beauty industry in the US, focusing specifically on race, labor, and the commodification of cultural aesthetic practices.


What does it mean when relationships shift, as in, when they flow from one state of being to another? How do ethnographers, who have the privilege of “entering” and “leaving” the field, remember the fluid trajectory of these relationships in ways that challenge our perception of how friendships are formed, sustained, and ruptured during research? Certainly, ethnographic inquiry is not immune to reflexive critique from within and outside Anthropology when it comes to such relationships. However, I am moved by the continued influence of friendships on our own development as ethical ethnographers and, maybe even more importantly, as friends.


I use a traditional “ethnographic moment” I experienced to situate this inquiry. The moment calls into question the fragility of friendships in the field, their ever-present potential to rupture, and the ways academic institutions prepare us (or, rather, don’t prepare us) for these experiences. The subtext of “fragility” here is trust and I am curious about how trust (and consequently distrust) are inextricable from how relationships are built, understood, and ultimately written about. Using Kamala Visweswaran’s Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (1994) and its continued influence on ethnographic and feminist praxis, I reflect on how a friendship built on distrust – specifically, suspicion – is actually an agentive demonstration of women’s power to set boundaries on their own terms when encountering a researcher. I end with some thoughts on the production of reflexivity in our writing that often only allows our processing to commence once we have returned from the field. What does institutional support look like when it isn’t just offered prior to or following fieldwork and is instead integrated with the day-to-day of fieldwork? What implications can this have for the ways relationships are formed and understood during the course of our research?


My ethnographic fieldwork is situated in the South Asian beauty industry in Southern California and I have worked and carried out observations in beauty salons that cater largely to the South Asian diaspora in the US. These are predominantly diasporic women’s spaces that in many ways I grew up out of and my career choices were compelling me to grow back into. I became more curious about the ways women who participate in this ethnic industry negotiate their racialized subjectivities as the service sector continues to expand and reach a more multiracial and multiethnic clientele. These curiosities eventually shaped the themes of my dissertation.


I met Tasneem as a result of a cold call I made in 2015 during the very early stages of dissertation fieldwork.[1] Tasneem is a middle-aged, first-generation Pakistani-American woman who moved to California in the 1980s, around the time many South Asians were migrating to the US. After trying several business ventures, she decided the beauty business would be the most lucrative given the population growth of South Asians in Southern California. Fast-forward to today, and Tasneem owns two salons and employs five people.


My first few meetings with Tasneem were quite informal. I used to visit one of her salons during slow hours and sit with her and the other workers while they shared their experiences, often lamenting about the increased competition and heavy deflation of beauty service prices. This economic climate made it difficult to stay afloat in the market, despite the increasing popularity of services associated with South Asia, such as threading and henna.[2] She eventually allowed me to “intern” at one of her salons, which entailed managing the front desk and keeping a written record of services completed. During the first couple of months at one salon, I became close to two of the beauty artists who were hired by Tasneem. As we became closer, they started to share their experiences of working for Tasneem, experiences that were, at times, cast in a negative light.


My ambiguous title of researcher slowly became suspicious to Tasneem as I started to get closer to her employees, potentially threatening the social order of the salon. She was evidently uncomfortable with the relationships I was forming at the salon, so she moved me to another site where she spent most of her time, implying that I could carry out the research only under surveillance. After reacting to this situation with frustration and disappointment, I tried to channel these feelings into an understanding of how my dual position as “researcher” and “friend” was bound with power and privilege. I was eventually permanently relocated to this second salon and did not visit the original site during the rest of my fieldwork. I lost touch with the other workers at that site and was unable to interview them or meet with them outside of their work hours.


Over the course of three years and into the present, these emotions subsided, or rather, transformed into something that was more sustainable. I started to pay attention to the financial precarity of small business owners, which stirred a general climate of suspicion and competition in this niche market. This did not necessarily justify the way I was treated by Tasneem, however, it exposed a more nuanced context, one that eliminated the need to point fingers. Today, Tasneem and I still keep in touch. We text each other on Eid and on birthdays. My relationship with Tasneem taught me that friendship is often entangled with axes of power, trust, and distrust that leaves it susceptible to rupture. It took me time to accept that our friendship was not any less real because of this fragility and because of her suspicions.


Visweswaran theorizes these moments of rupture through the lens of betrayal. The betrayal was the ethnographer’s assumption that a “universal sisterhood” existed between researchers and their participants. I find this framing important because it immediately calls into question the patronizing orientation ethnographers can have when it comes to collecting, listening to, and writing about knowledge production. It also reveals how “the process of knowing is itself determined by the relationship of knower to known” (48). While betrayal best expressed the affective dimensions of Visweswaran’s relationship to the participants at her fieldsite, I am curious about what a deep critique of and confrontation with trust can imply for the transformative potential of critical ethnography and feminist epistemology.


These blurring and reforming boundaries of “ethnographer” and “friend” shaped my access to fieldsites and research participants in profound ways. At the same time I was an ethnographer, I was also a friend, legal expert, mediator, daughter, researcher met with suspicion, and a researcher met with warmth, at some points embodying many of these positions simultaneously. By openly identifying as a second-generation South Asian American Muslim woman of Indian and Pakistani descent, I was situated within and apart from the industry where I worked and carried out research. In her important piece, “Situating Locations,” Jayati Lal ponders the division of “Self” and “Other” that un/fortunately is part and parcel of ethnographic research and argues that as researchers we “occupy multiple and fluid locations” (186). In my case, Tasneem’s relative positioning of me as a friend, one who was slightly distrusted, did not extinguish the possibility of other forms of friendship, a realization I came to much later.


So what do we do with these ethnographic moments, reflections from the never-so-distant field? How can these moments reveal the limitations of institutional ethnographic training that ill-equips us to understand the broad spectrum of friendships, their fragilities, their susceptibilities? Often, our academic training as anthropologists is framed around “preparation,” which separates time into two phases: “pre” and “post” field. Prior to fieldwork, I remember taking enriching courses on critical ethnographies and anthropological methodologies that trained us theoretically for methodology, but opened up the door to many questions. Some might romanticize this as the uniqueness of anthropology: You do not really know what can happen until it happens. However, I think this leaves the ethnographer and women like Tasneem left to navigate dis/trust without any resources.


I argue for an integrated fieldwork training that does not only emphasize interviews and participant observation, but centers the navigation of relationship building as an essential aspect and, at times, challenge of fieldwork.[3] When I experienced this issue with Tasneem, I shared it with respected advisors and friends on a one-on-one basis, which was useful. However, a more structured, safe space with others conducting fieldwork, similar to the seminar classrooms that prepared us in ethnographic methods, could offer anthropologists immediate comfort, relief, and ideas to reflect on while they are in the field, as opposed to months later after they have left and the responsibility of writing it all out seems insurmountable.


I envision this to resemble something akin to structured workshops that ethnographers participate in during the course of their fieldwork. A weekly or biweekly format that allows ethnographers to track their progress through the course of their fieldwork would benefit our growth as ethical researchers. Themes covered in these workshops would include not only relationship building but also their sustaining and rupturing, which we all know are realities of fieldwork. Other themes could include navigating isolation, confronting power, and encountering our raced, classed, and gendered selves within these matrices. It would mean transforming our pre-fieldwork theorizing about the field into a daily field praxis. Ideally, the readings, themes, and discussions would function fluidly to reflect the changing needs and concerns of the participants and remain loosely structured as a means of support. Fieldwork today rarely disconnects us from the global world, therefore, it should not be considered a detachment from our academic selves and our “pre-fieldwork” selves.


This imbrication of methodological theory encountered before the field and the daily praxis we engage with during fieldwork has the potential to enrich our understanding of relationship management within the researcher/research participant dynamic. The workshops proposed would allow us to reflect on the trajectory of relationships in the present as opposed to retroactively processing their development once we have “returned.” Sometimes I wonder what my own experience in the field would have looked like with this type of semi-structured group support. Would I have navigated my fieldsites differently? Would I have confronted Tasneem about her distrust? Might my relationships from the first salon escape rupturing? This is not to say these questions would be resolved with this type of support, but rather, a space would be offered to challenge our assumptions about conducting fieldwork. It compels us to reflect through conversation with other ethnographers, instead of solely pouring out these experiences into fieldnotes that are re-confronted months, and sometimes, years later.


Perhaps, with this collective support (and continuation of training), I could have more fully understood Tasneem’s actions instead of letting some of that resentment build over time. Institutions and departments need to transcend their current model of fieldwork training so that our critical engagement with ethics, positionality, and reflexivity isn’t suspended by the field but, rather, integrated with it.




Lal, Jayati. 1996. “Situating Locations: The Politics of Self, Identity, and “Other” in Living and Writing the Text.” In Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork ed. Diane L. Wolf. Westview Press.


Visweswaran, Kamala. 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] All names of research participants and fieldsites have been changed to preserve anonymity.

[2] Threading is a hair removal technique that involves the friction of intertwined cotton threads across the face pulling out fine hair from the roots. Henna refers to a skill that uses a plant-based paste to draw intricate designs and patterns on the body and hands. Both skills are often marketed in the US as originating from South Asia.

[3] In her piece on friendship in Xinjiang featured on this blog, Anthropologist Lisa Ernst explores the ways academic institutions can do more to prepare students for the emotional, mental, and ethical dilemmas produced by fieldwork.

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