Conversations in Anthropology@Deakin hopes, in time, to make transcripts available for every episode, in order to make the programme as accessible as possible. The first of these is available below, for the Episode 13. (Immense thanks to Mythily Meher for transcribing this…)
Episode 13: #MeTooAnthro Roundtable
Hannah Gould, University of Melbourne: Hello and welcome to a special episode of Conversations in Anthropology at Deakin, a podcast about life, the universe, and anthropology. I’m Hannah Gould and I’m here with three brilliant women anthropologists—Mythily Meher, Tanya King and Martha Macintyre—to present a special round table discussion on the issue of sexual assault and harassment in anthropology. Welcome, everyone.
So before we’d begin, I thought we’d just go around and everyone can introduce themselves with a brief bio.
Mythily Meher, University of Melbourne:Hi, I’m Mythily Meher, I’m a PhD cadndiate at the University of Melbourne in anthropology.
Martha Macintyre, University of Melbourne:I’m Martha Macintyre, and I’ an Honorary research Fellow at Melbourne University, and an anthropologist of the Pacific and gender.
Tanya King, Deakin University: Hi, I’m Tanya King, I’m a senior lecturer in anthropology at Deakin university, and I work at the relatively male-dominated field of commercial fishing.
HG:So my name is Hannah, as stated, I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and I work on material religion and death rites in Japan.
MM:Hannah and I are part of MeTooAnthro, an independent collective of anthropologists working to make our shared discipline a safer, more just, space. Late last year, when the #metoo movement exploded onto the world stage, it felt like a new moment. There was nothing new about the parts of it—about famous men being accused like this, nothing new about power being abused like this, or about power protecting itself—yet, at this moment, something seemed to shift, and those calling for justice seemed to be heard in a broad and significant way.
I think we all saw that in lots of industries, cultures of silence were being broken, and there seemed to be a renewed social pressure on those in positions of influence to do the right thing, or at least, to seem like they were. This whole time, a sharper public language for talking about these issues has been developing, and we’re interested today in how this groundswell has affected cultures around sexual assault and harassment in the academy—specifically, in anthropology.
HG:I’d like to start by asking everyone to share a particular moment in the last year or so, perhaps earlier in your careers – it might be something you read, or saw reported, or experienced in your work or personal life – that connected with you, and drove home the seriousness of the issue of sexual assault and harassment for anthropologists. And just to ask you, what that moment taught you?
TK:So I’ve been thinking about this, and it’s difficult to know with this question whether to, I suppose espeak about particular experiences that have happened in an academic context, or those that have happened in a more personal or online world that #metoo has largely emerged from. So I usppose there’s a few different moments. The recent revelations about HAU is one of them. The discovery of a woman who was murdered in Princes Park a couple of days ago, across the road from where I used to live, is one of them. The Aziz Ansari story really resonated with me, as well, partially because of the difficulty of the power dynamics inherent in that case. Not just because Ansari is a famous person but because he is a man, and the familiarity of that kind of expereince that the woman who wrote about her date with him had—how familiar that was.
HG: Yeah, I think a lot of the people who were reading that story had had that date before…
TK: Or versions of that date…
HG: Or had heard from a friend about something where they just didn’t know where the line was, in a way.
TK: And the difficulty of actually talking about those kind of hard to articulate experiences…there’s a line where, you know, I’ve got friends who had that date, and then it went on to very deliberate and obvious rape and sexual assault and kidnapping, essentially. But a lot more people have had that experience that only goes up to that line. And so why do we only talk about the line when at that point, when you’re over the line, is explicitly criminal, as opposed to everything that leads up to it, which seem like important kind of foundational experiences that we should all be talking about.
MMac: Okay, I’ll be a bit more specific with my thoughts on this. When I thought about this question, I thought about two cases that I know of. Not at my own university, but I am sufficiently friendly with the protagonists at another university to be aware that things were very bad in terms of sexual harrassment. This was sexual harassment of, I think at that stage of a post-doctoral appointment and a senior academic who harrassed her, who then, when she rejected his advances, lost her job. This can always be dressed up as structural adjustment to financial constraints, and so forth. But to everybody who was privy to this, it was a clear case of discrimination based on an initial sexual harassment case.
Now, what happened in that strikes me as the problem that I think Mythily raised initially, that is there are lots and lots of regulations, policies, people you can go to, etcetera, but for various reasons, any investigation was stymied. And it was stymied because of sympathy for this academic; not sympathy for the young woman who had lost her job and…
HG:And may never choose to continue in an academic career, ever.
MMac:Well I think she did continue elsewhere, but it raises that issue of if, in a university setting, a complaint is made, they how is it carried through? And there are a whole lot of issues arising from that that really annoy me. Unless the person that is harassed has steeled himself or herself or whatever to really carry through this—it’s like any whistle-blowing thing—they are going to experience extrodinary opposition at every stage.
The other thing is, it’s not only the structure of power that’s involved, which is always appealed to, but it’s a problem within an instiution when it’s an employee, a staff member, who is going to have a union backing them and access to legal advice free of charge (if they’re a member), and the university knows that. So it’s a problem for them. They don’t want to have this mess. They don’t want to have to sack someone, or reprimand them, or put it on their file, if it’s going to involve lots of appeals and perhaps even a court case.
So the structures are not only ones of power relations, that are always appealed to as if the two protagonists are all that matters: there are these other structures that mean the university is going to protect its reputation, is going to try and play down any kind of a ruckus over sexual harassment or any sort of bullying or whatever.
HG:I very much agree with your comment that there is the structure and power structure that we always talk about. But as anthropologists it’s perhaps odd that we don’t also often talk about the particular culture of the university and what its interests are, and kind of how relationships between people—personal relationships—can affect how that structure works, or doesn’t work.
MM:Can I also ask, when we talk about “the university” in that case, as much as you are able to, who are the positions and roles that end up executing this kind of resistance to justice, I guess?
MMac:Well it varies. I can think of a case at The University of Melbourne a long time ago where it was the Professors who kind of closed rank behind a member of staff accused of sexual harassment. And on other occasions, it’s the legal people—the university has a legal department—and I think it’s unfortunate that the people who often get the flak are the HR people, who are far lower down the foodchain! They’re just carrying out what they’re told to communicate.
TK:Look, and one of the problems I think as well is that the language of the corporation, of the university, is this exact, positivist language that requires facts, and well ‘where did he put his hand, and where was your hand at the time’, and all of this graphic detail that is so contrary to the experience of sexual harassment that women undergo. I’m thinking of a particular case at Melbourne as well where the victim—and I use that term because that has become the way that she sees herself some years later—was basically gaslighted by staff into believing that nothing really that bad had happened, like ‘oh you’ll be fine’, and that she might have been a little bit crazy.
HG:As well as all those questions about where did he put his hand there’s also well, why did you put yourself in that situation, what were you wearing, were you giving off all these signals—in the idea of gathering information, it suddenly becomes an interrogation of ‘did you also contribute to this’, which we know is victim-blaming and completely inappropriate.
TK:Which is what happens in the broader structure of society.
MM:And I think from everything that you guys are talking about already, it’s stuff where if you haven’t experienced something, say, you’ll hear about these things happening informally, but you won’t have any sense of transparency of what these complaint processes are, and how they work, and if they have worked for people in the past, because they are often accompanied by non-disclosure statements and that.
HG: And if it’s not official non-disclosure then a culture of silence, where’s no-one’s quite sure how much they should say, or what they should say, or if they should say.
MM:Exactly. And you feel that in your body when you go to say something that has been unsaid or that feels unsaid, you feel that sense of fear and ‘oh god what’s going to happen if I cross this line’, or ‘what’s going to happen to my career’, and I often wonder and was talking to a friend about this yesterday, of at what point do you no longer worry about your career—is there that point? Does it come?!
TK:That comes from retirement!
HG:This is one of the interesting things!
MM:And then do you have leverage?
HG:I mean, so Mythily and myself, we’ve been part of this MeTooAnthro movement that we kind of jumped on the back of the #metoo movement more broadly to hopefully try and create some movement in the discipline worldwide about what we can do to try and move the change on this issue. I think we often find ourselves having intense conversations about, ‘are we allowed to say that? Can we tweet that?’ We want it to be a discipline we respect, and that respects us, and that we’re comfortable in. And it’s a hard, fine line to walk between wanting to be an activist on these areas and wanting to protect your….
MM:But I also see it as a filter system for the kind of places that you’re allowed to go, so if you disclose your activist tendencies, then it’s a filter system for being excluded from places that are not likely to appreciate them.
HG:But maybe Mythily going back to the comment, do you want to give a little bit of a background to how you got involved in this?
MM:I think it wasn’t necessarily one clear moment, because I’ve been trying to think about this as well and I don’t think there was a clear moment but there might have been a gathering, over the past couple of years, of the sense of a problem. It went from being something where you hear about things that you don’t neccesarily have a language for, and you think ‘well that’s a bit off’, or ‘that seems like a shame for that person, I wonder why they weren’t more supported and I wonder why the other person still has their job’, to this point of having a way of talking about what had happened, and having a sense of oh, that’s what power looks like, that’s what toxic masculinity looks like, that’s what gaslighting looks like.
And maybe the tipping point was this conference a couple of years ago where I ended up on a couch with a bunch of other female scholars who were my age, and we were just sharing stories, and that was the transition from noticing things personally to becoming a whisper network.
TK: Um, are either of you, any of you, willing to talk about the situation at Melbourne, and the gag clause that’s on staff at the moment?
MMac:What can one say, it’s a breach of—and it goes against all sorts of other things that they’ve got in their various statements and visions and missions and whatever. It is appalling. It is truly appalling. And it’s happening in a lot of places. And I think, gagging on a lot of things.
It clearly gives an advantage to the perpetrator if too much information is given ahead of time, that’s a problem. If we take it back to sexual harassment or bullying, the whole thing of well, ‘I’ve just been bad-mouthed so much that any investigation is prejudicical against me’. So there’s that as a caution always, I think, in the background.
TK:There’s a difference between, I mean I’m thinking of the Catholic Church now, where the university is not a—
HG:An apt analogy in many ways! Long historical institution… Rituals and rites…
MMac:Dominated by men…
TK:…who believe they are above the law!
MM:Perpetrators getting shuffled around…
TK:Promoted up instead of out. Yeah, the university is not the police, it’s not the law, it’s not the state. I can understand the police putting a gag on things to protect the rights and what-not of all the people involved, but that’s not the role of the university.
MMac:Except if it involved something like sexual assault, so that the university can say ‘Sorry, this isn’t our business, go to the police’. And if you’ve gone on to MeTooAnthropology and said ‘this person did this, this and this’, and other people respond ‘oh yes, he did it to me too’, you have prejudiced the case.
MM:Can I ask, what then would be the appropriate, or rather the most effective way for someone to pursue a case?
We shift and chuckle uneasily in the room (perhaps because there is no good answer to this?)
MM:Sorry, perhaps we’ll get to that.
HG:Perhaps we’ll get to that, but I just wanted to say that I think one of the interesting reasons for why the #metoo movement kind of arose is because, well, we talked about going to the police and going to the university, but there are so many cases in which it doesn’t feel appropriate, or you don’t know who the authority is to go to.
So my own personal story—and I haven’t really talked about this previously—is that I was in a situation with someone who taught me anthropology very early in my undergraduate career, and he was a male, one of my instructors at the time. We were in a situation where we were in a different country overseas, and we were outside of the context, he was no longer teaching me. He had however written me a reference. And therefore I felt indebted to him? And he made very inappropriate advances towards me, including trying to get me to stay overnight with him in his hotel room. And I didn’t really understand what that was at the time. And it took me many years to work out howinappropriate that was, mostly through talking to other, you know, other people in anthropology. But also, I still don’t know in any way what the appropriate means of recourse would for that. Because we’re not at the same university, and we’re in a different country, and it didn’t cross that line, as would be said, so I think that part of the #metoo movement, where that came in, was all these cases where there really was no judge and jury around these things. There’s no structure you can necessarily turn to.
There’s as you said, Mythily, this whisper network where it’s like ‘oh by the way, if that person ever turns up to a conference presentation that I’m giving, I need you to remove him from the room, because I don’t feel comfortable with him in the room’. Or, ‘can you make sure that any female PhD students who is applying to have him as their supervisor, can you make sure she’s told’. Because otherwise, I don’t know how to manage that situation.
MM:And that’s the thing where a lot, like you say Martha, like disclosing things to each other through #metooanthro will prejudice or allow a case of prejudice against someone who is being accused…
TK:It also has the potential to protect.
MM:Yeah, it also has the potential to protect. And it’s one of the things where you don’t often know whether you need to make a complaint or not unless you’ve verified it with others, for some reason there’s still that need to verify something with others, because that culture is so thick around you.
HG:But it’s also that, just ingrained gaslighting that happens to women, where it’s also, like ‘was it really that bad? Was it really inappropriate?’ I remember coming out of that situation thinking, well, that was a bit weird. And then my friend saying, no, that was very weird, and very not appropriate.
And I still struggle with, you know, to what extent I should do something about it. If anybody’s got any ideas…
MMac:It raises a lot of issues in my mind, I mean the definitions of sexual harassment in law require that you feel offended, humiliated, or whatever, and that’s the same in universities too.
TK:Sometimes I feel like that in staff meetings!
MMac:And, one might say that there is an atmosphere or an ethos of bullying in staff meetings that creates this discomfort, but in a case of sexual harassment, I think it’s very hard there, because I think they say ‘a reasonable person might perceive this as being offensive, intimidating, humiliating. But if that person appears to be rational and says ‘well, actually, I found her absolutely beautiful and attractive, and I restrained myself until she was out of the orb of any kind of hierarchical relationship, and I thought I was simply just making a pass at her’.
HG:Oh, and that’s how he did justify it! Later, but yeah, exactly.
TK:So did you confront him?
HG:I sent him an email later telling him I really thought this was inappropriate. And he emailed me back saying, you know, ‘no, I would have done this to anyone…this is just who I am’, and ‘I was totally friendly, and not any of those intentions, you’ve misread the situation’. And even that took me a long time to realise, you know, no no, that’s gaslighting also. I think any reasonable third party—I think even you just nodding along as I told the story—would acknowledge that that wasn’t appropriate.
MMac:There is no so much emphasis on consent that the person who is making the advance has to be very explicit. And that might come as a terrible shock, you know, ‘you might find it offensive…’, but it does, it sort of, it complicates what might in other circumstances be something that could just be flicked off. I can think of a couple of cases of male colleagues who made advances—not to students of inappropriate people—but who were stunned that they were immediately thought to be sexually harassing, just with one advance, because they saw harassment as being persistent, and not taking no for an answer, and that sort of thing.
So it’s not all that difficult to see how a lot of the messages that come with #metoo, like extreme emphasis on what consent is, and the implication that it should be verbal, that raises those sort of problematic things. I mean if this chap has been pursuing you, following you, constantly trying to get you off to his hotel room, that would be quite abundantly clear that it was a case of harassment. If it was just that he said, ‘hey let’s go back to my hotel room’, then you’re free to say ‘no, I don’t want to’, and is that harassment? I actually don’t think it is.
TK:I suppose it’s that thing of, as if all these individual cases exist in a constellation of power and circumstance and intent. I think we had a talk about sexual harassment a long, long, long time ago in college, and there was a bloke who stood up and said ‘I asked my wife out four times before she agreed to go out with me, are you saying that I was sexually harassing her the first three times? We’re happily married and we have a hundred fat babies’, or whatever. But it’s all those little nuances that are complicated, and time-consuming to explain, and take patience on behalf of the speaker and the listener, that make these issues so difficult to kind of rule in or out of classification as, yeah, sexual harassment, or no, just a pass. And that’s some of the complexity, I think.
MM:I think—two things—so first of all, I think, and I think this is what you were both saying as well, that raising that complexity for people, and getting them to question themselves, and actually reflect on the ways that they’ve gone about these kinds of engagements is part of what needs to happen; because you can’t describe a situation to someone and have them tell you, ‘yes, you were fine, you were well before the line of harassment’, ‘oh no, not you, you were at the line, but you didn’t cross it, good on’. So it’s not something people (***meaning people who have been accused***) can be asking others, I don’t think. It’s certainly something you can be discussing, but it’s not something you can ask in a straightforward, yes or no, way.
And the other thing is that, I think one of things that happens repeatedly with these stories is that it’s easy to summarise something in a way that was quite different to the way it was experienced, which is the problem with the process of complaint, the problem with sort of, repeating stories, so…
HG:Yeah, I obviously left out details for particular reasons but I think that’s one of the interesting complexities of this is that we get into these difficulties because it’s already so hard to share information. But I wanted to take this opportunity to pivot to question 2, if I may, on our agenda.
One of the reasons that Mythily and I had, when we were getting this panel together, is that we wanted to have different generations, or different stages of their careers—being lowly grad students—to ask you, Martha and Tanya, being above us in the food-chain somewhat, about how the #metoo movement fits into your understanding of a broader, historical drive for change, in the academy, and outside of it. And what are some of the things you may have been surprised of, or intrigued by, or maybe even rubbed you the wrong way about that kind of movement? I mean, I know Martha you mentioned changing ethics around consent and trigger warnings, and that sort of thing. But is there anything reflecting on your experiences that you might want to mention about this sort of thing.
MMac:During my career there was a period where ideas of sexual harassment were introduced into universities, and into the legal system, and workplace legislation. So for me that was new and it certainly altered things then—that was mostly in the 1970’s but mostly in the 1980’s when these things were solidified.
I have very mixed feelings about #metoo for the reasons I think that the whole trajectory of setting up legal constraints, employment regulations, etc has gone in one direction. But I love metoo cos it just says ppppppfff!—I’m going to out this person. But of course, as I’ve pointed out, saying that also undermines all those former ways of dealing with sexual harassment. What worries me is because the law is a much stronger and long-lived institution, it might make #metoo—it’ll sideline it. Maybe Harvey Weinstein might be able to say #metoo has been so prejudicial that I can’t get a fair trial.
But on the other hand, it means that public humiliation of that sort is more likely to stop that sort of behaviour. If you think your name is going to all over, like Giovanni da Col must be thinking about HAU at the moment, then perhaps it might constrain some of those behaviours. So even if it’s just a blip and it goes, it’s been a good blip.
HG:‘It’s been a good blip!’
MMac:I think it is a new iteration that is taking it in a very different direction from the ways that it has cumulatively built up over the last 30 years or so.
HG:My concern, or maybe it’s a lack of faith perhaps, is that even people who are publicly named and shamed and become known as ‘bad apples’, or ‘difficult personalities’ if we’re being euphemistic, or ‘serial abusers’ if we’re being a little bit less euphemistic, that that public persona or reputation will be enough that they won’t get hired or won’t be part of research grants, and they won’t get publications. Because my worry is that the #metoo movement only has effectiveness if that outrage doessomething.
MMac:No, I don’t think it will. I’ve seen too many people who are considered too productive, or too important internationally…
HG:Or bringing in too many research grants…
MMac:Yep. You know they might try constrain them in some ways, like telling them, you know, you can’t teach. Giving them more free time to write their research papers!
The room sighs and laughs wearily.
HG:You have to laugh ‘cause otherwise you’ll cry.
MMac:I know that’s happened to two cases: they’ve been removed from teaching responsibilities. You know, it’s almost enough to make you want to go and sexually harass someone.
But no I don’t think it’s enough at the moment. The whole corporatization, the way your value to the university is calculated. And if you are a mere post-grad or junior member of staff, and you don’t have any grants, you’re dispensible in a way that a professor or person higher up the chain is less dispensable.
But we’re talking all the time about this power imbalance. I’d just like to bring it back to the fact that most sexual harassment in universities is between students. So as anthropologists we should then be looking at, well, what is it about that environment, that culture—and I hate using that word! As an anthropologist, it’s so mis-used!—but the cultural values that underpin that flow of sexual harassment, of bullying, of belittling people on the grounds of their sexuality.
HG:Tanya I know you said you worked at a college previously, did you mention you went to a college previously?
TK:I lived at a college when I was a student.
HG:I’m interested because a lot of the recent reports that have come out regarding the university in particular, but also the college environment—not to single out colleges, or perhaps to single out colleges as a particularly a difficult part of this problem—but having had that experience is there anything you can reflect on, maybe shed some insight on this question?
TK:Um, I think it depends on the college. I think there are some, shall we say present colleges which we used to refer to as—one in particular—as date-rape college because it had such a reputation. And part of that comes, I suppose, from some of the money and prestige that’s invested in some of those very big colleges.
I had a friend who was living at date-rape college when she was date-raped, and, um, the college completely—and that includes the students—moreso the students—completely closed ranks on her, and gaslighted her, to use the current term, into believing that she was the one that was at fault.
But, saying that, I went to a college where I genuinely couldn’t imagine something like that happening: it was a different mix of people, it wasn’t one of the big prestigious colleges, there wasn’t that emphasis on I guess retaining the prestige, and the name of the college—it wasn’t about that.
I was wanting to reflect on #metoo in that trajectory of feminist movement. To me, it is pretty lovely! It reminds me of mid-90’s, second wave feminist rage. And as somebody who teaches young women that’s really exciting to see, because in the last few years, since I’ve been teaching, there’s been a large cohort, or a very disturbing cohort of young women who are of that ‘I’m not a feminist’, ‘I don’t need feminism because—’ that I’ve found really disheartening. So to see #metoo and this kind of, what I see as a looping back to whisper networks, and an attempt to support each other, and to believe each other, and find new ways of talking about things that are really fundamentally difficult to talk about, is really encouraging. I do think that there will be a backlash like we saw with second wave feminism. And we see it now, within the university—David (Boarder Giles) and I were at a seminar not long ago where it was fairly apparent that the #metoo movement was seen as a threat—as a witch-hunt.
HG:I’m sorry but can we all, just, the words ‘witch hunt’ in relation to the #metoo movement have to be the most terrifyingly ironic and disturbing metaphor. Using a term for the persecution of outspoken women historically!
TK:But you can’t gaslight a blog into disappearing into the ether in the way that you could in the 90’s. You know, like Helen Gardner’s sort of story. And that’s the sort of thing that gives me hope. The format that #metoo is happening in makes it more difficult to ignore, I think. In the 90’s or the 80’s, I think, would we have even heard of Aziz Ansari? Would he have had the opportunity to read a letter from his date?
HG:We’re keeping receipts now!
TK:Daaamn straight! Right on.
MM:We were joking the other night in our metooanthro twitter about how we’re, like, polishing our pitchforks, and how our pitchforks might look a revamped theory and practice of anthropology. And speaking of that, as people who teach anthropology and supervise and mentor students, I imagine that there’s like, like you say, this moment has allowed you to put that message forward in a different way about feminism. But what other messages do we want to be communicating to younger generations of scholars, and how do we want to be supporting students?
TK:In anthropology specifically we have the field, this mythical place where you go off and you become an anthropologist. And there this still this huge amount of reverence and mystique about doing fieldwork. And I know, I’m sure Martha knows, I’m sure a lot of people know women, in particular, who’ve been raped or assaulted on fieldwork which is—as you say—often overseas where legal recourse is complex, at the least; where people don’t have social supports to either help prevent or to help come back on these kinds of situations.
I’ve been thinking back on my own sort of fieldwork experience, and going off into the field—which wasn’t terribly exotic being South Gippsland…there were moments of exoticism!—but, I mean, I’ve been a card-carrying feminist for a long time. I got into a physical fight with a Moroccan guy in Amsterdam who was fairly unsavoury—I don’t think of myself as somebody who has that much trouble standing up for myself and saying ‘actually, you’re sitting too close to me, I’d feel more comfortable if you’d just move away a little bit’. I’m fine with that kind of thing.
But in the field, I found myself permitting or not reacting to or tolerating certain kinds of infringements that I would normally have just been like ‘Nuh-uh!’ because I was in the field, and I didn’t want to put my key informants off-site, or upset the locals, or do anything that might jeopardise my chances of making it work. It felt really do or die. And I vividly remember one night at the pub where one of the local women intervened and said ‘honey, you need to tell him to back off’. And it was like, oh, shit, I’m usually the one saying that—I’m not the one who gets that advice. What is it about this particular context, or my headspace, or my relationship to anthropology and the academy that’s making me more vulnerable in this context. And that’s something we can be talking more about, I think, as professionals who are sending, particularly, young women off into the field.
MM:I’m so glad you brought that up because—similar experiences on fieldwork—and in the process of doing that, I remember writing to my supervisors and saying ‘I feel like I’m being a bad anthropologist and that a more generous ethnographer wouldn’t have trouble with this’. And I didn’t know what to do because I got to the point where I was like, finally listening to some sort of instinct enough to sort of write to the supervisors and ask for input.
But I think what I really noticed at that point was how—and I did my fieldwork in Sydney, so it wasn’t anywhere else—but I think because I was being a fieldworker, there was this strong sense in me that you had to be a different kind of person, and that fieldwork transforms you, and you let yourself be completely open to everything, and, I mean—there’s a really good thread on twitter at the moment that’s calling that into question and it’s taken me a long time to sort of, like, see the way that that trope of fieldwork is centered in a form of anthropology that is quite Eurocentric, and is deeply masculinist as well.
And I feel like one of the really important things to be accompanying this new feminist wave in anthropology, if we can call it that, is an anti-colonial one. And sort of questioning how we do fieldwork, where we do fieldwork, and who we choose to fieldwork, and how we represent people—I think that needs to be had as a new conversation; stir it right up and let it simmer again.
TK:It’s all inextricable. It’s all linked.
HG:I completely agree with you, I mean, in many ways my reckoning with the #metoo movement occurred in the middle of my fieldwork. I remember being alone in a city I didn’t know in Japan. And I know the language. I have family, I have in-laws there, I have friends, I’ve been there for years and years and years. It’s not a situation where I felt particularly unprepared.
But I remember being alone in a café, and it was just when all the Harvey Weinstein allegations were coming out, and there was that period of about a week where it was just, like name a famous man—yep him too. It was just like every day you’d open the newspaper and it was like, yep, also that person, and also that person.
And I had just agreed to live in an apartment for free, that was being lent to me by an informant in the field who was a man who was a president of this company. And I had thought, excellent, free accomodation, I’m going to save up, it’s great. And I just remember sitting there thinking, I’ve got the key and he’s got the key. And I actually don’t know anything about this situation, or what I’m in. And I always assumed that Japan was one of the ‘safe’ countries to do field work in, as if there’s this kind of division.
MM:As if there are safe and un-safe countries.
HG:Exactly, it can happen anywhere, obviously. And I just thought: I never thought about being a woman in the field, and having to take precautions that way, and I just felt so naïve. So you know. It had been assumed that my fieldwork was safe because I had that experience in the culture, I spoke the language, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about those kinds of things.
Some people in our fieldwork training go and do a Fieldwork in Dangerous Places course, and they teach you all these things, like…actually, I don’t know what they teach you, I haven’t done the course. It sounds like an amazing course, but I just thought why didn’t we all do that course?
MM:Yes. Or a version of it, at least.
HG:Why was fieldwork presented to most people like, ‘that’ll be fine’. Being a single female in the field, I didn’t kind of just clock the idea that maybe I needed to be aware of it. And it was kind of shocking when I realised, wait, actually, this is a thing, in a way.
MMac:Well it is a thing, but it’s also relatively rare. And it’s one of the things that bothers me about #metoo and about courses in how to prepare for fieldwork that stress risk all the time. Risk management has permeated universities. The ethics forms that one fills in are not about ethics at all. They’re about risk, and about legal risk to the university above everything else. Which means that they can say, well, we told her she had to do this, that, and the other. And it’s her fault that she was attacked because we had all these risk management strategies down in her ethics form and she obviously didn’t adhere to them.
But on the other hand when I was thinking about preparing students for risk, I thought, okay, I have now in my career supervised over 50 PhDs. I know of one case of sexual assault and another of rape that occurred to a person after they’d graduated. What is the level of risk, compared? Because it seems to me that we’re clustering risk all the time. There’s that.
The other thing is, reading some of these courses, including one that was sent around from an American university, it seemed to me very odd that as a feminist anthropologist, that throughout that, the person was constructed as vulnerable—not as an intelligent capable person but as a vulnerable subject. And that’s, of course, that’s what we get in the ethics proposals is all of the people we’re going to interview are these incredibly vulnerable people who we might dupe, or upset, or whatever we might do to them, and I think, in my experience—and I’ve worked on sexual harassment, I’ve worked with victims of torture in anthropological research—and I didn’t see them as, they didn’t come across as vulnerable. They volunteered, they wanted their story told, they were kind of in their #metoo moment in that this was their opportunity. They were not constructing themselves as vulnerable subjects that I was exploiting. And I think feminism, surely, if anything, has tried to overturn that view of femininity as essentially vulnerable, particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, sexual harassment, attack. So that bothers me.
I’ll take an example from my own fieldwork: I’m going to work in Pakistan. I’m working in a remote, desert community where women are in purdah: how do I dress? The temperature gets up to 40 degrees everyday. I had to then think, right, I’ll consult some Pakistani women anthropologists and ask what would they wear in the field. The person who is doing a lot of the translating and interpreting for me, what are they wearing in the field. Well, you know, it was quite interesting because they gave me some advice, so I go into the clothing place and I had two male advisors—the chap who’d driven me and the chap who was selling it. And:
‘Oh, you couldn’t be wearing cotton, nobody would be wearing cotton’.
‘Well I’m not going to be wearing silk in the desert, sorry’
So you know, it was all about my status. Because they spoke English, and that was quite interesting. They said ‘you’ll have to wear this synthetic material because it’s more expensive than cotton. And then you won’t look like a peasant. If you wear that then they’ll think you have no money’. So that kind of negotiation, I just thought I’m not going to cover my face, but I’ll cover my hair because that’s clearly going to be a problem if I don’t.
You know, you’re an intelligent person, you don’t sort of think, ‘I’m a feminist, I’m going to walk in to this remote oasis community where women are all in purdah and terrify the wits out of them because I look so different’. As it was, it was quite intriguing: they would negotiate with me about my appearance.
HG:I think that negotiation process, that thinking through and that drawing on other networks of anthropologists, women anthropologists who have worked in the region, is really important. Something we kind of struggled with in the MeTooAnthro movement was resources for fieldwork training. By constructing resources and asking people to do training, are we, as you said, constructing not only female anthropologists as vulnerable, but also getting them to do the work of dealing with this big problem. Do you know what I mean. Like, there’s this big problem, this patriarchal issue, and it’s your job to do all the work to make sure you protect yourself to manage that risk, and also, you’re really, really vulnerable.
I think the perfect situation is one in which it’s a negotiation and you understand yourself as having resources and being able to draw on those networks. But I think the difficulty is that because fieldwork is still constructed for many as an adventure where it’s not that you’re not vulnerable but there’s no potential that you could become vulnerable, it feels like a failure, in some ways, when something does go wrong.
TK:It’s a boy’s own adventure and very much tied to that kind of colonial expectation of what fieldwork is. You know, we’re not Malinowski. We’re not Evans-Pritchard. They didn’t face these kinds of issues—Malinowski certainly didn’t. But yeah, it’s a discipline that’s established on set of principles around safety and risk in an environment which are long outdated.
HG:Yes and when you’re looking at the ethics guidelines, which is one of things we’ve started to do as well, like you said, a lot of the ethics guidelines are constructed around the idea that everyone you talk to could be potentially damaged by you talking to them, which, again, is bizarre. But also that you have all the power and you could never be damaged by talking to them. Very much this notion that whatever situation they step into, the anthropologist is going to be the one with more power. And I’ve been in many situations in my fieldwork where I’m the intern and someone else is the president of the company, or the government official. I’m sure we’ve all been in those situations, I certainly do not have the power in that situation.
MMac:And certainly, I’ve worked in mining: try dealing with the head of a mining company, or the landowner corporations.
Chuckling from the rest of the room.
TK:Potentially vulnerable, yeah?
HG:Are they gonna be hurt by your questioning?
TK:Do they feel disempowered by your presence?
HG:Well, I mean there are very important reasons why our ethics are like that. Historically anthropology has done some terrible things.
TK:But I think Martha’s right, you know. It’s legal risk mitigation for the university that drives it.
MMac:But I think, once again, we have to think of these things as how damaging—how big is this problem? Now, how many communities have suffered terribly because of anthropological research? At a kind of meta level, you could say that all communities studied have suffered from some reason. But at another level, the sort of damage that is being talked about in ethics or in debates of the sort we’re having, we have gone into this constant risk-averse mode of operating in research, and I think it stifles research.
I have a student at the moment working in Colombia in an area where guerilla warfare has been taking place, where they grow cocaine and export it to the United States, so it involves criminality, it involves violence, it involves military and government violence. A very risky situation, one might think. But, you know, she had been in that situation before; she knew the situation, she knew what she was getting into, and she had devised for herself before she left, you know, we both got on Whatsapp, she would tell me every day what she was doing, where she was going, who she was with, what their name was, if they had a mobile phone this was their mobile phone number. You know, so she had minimised the risk as much as she possibly could, but she was prepared to take that risk for doing work that she thought was really important about the peace process in Colombia.
TK:Would you have set up those same safeguards for a student working in Sydney?
MMac:No. No I wouldn’t. I would think that they would be capable of negotiating Sydney, and that there would be, if they were attacked, police stations in Sydney—there’s not in Caquetá. So that kind of thing. I wouldn’t dare tell people, they’ll say ‘oh good, all supervisors must communicate everyday by Whatsapp with their students’.
TK:So I think it’s that perception of risk, as well, that is partially being addressed by the #metoo movement. To me, it’s not about depicting anthropology students or PhD students as being vulnerable; as having no agency, no capacity to stand up for themselves. But it’s about having conversations that acknowledge the kind of risks that we don’t feel prepared to talk about in, just, our everyday life, much less this strange, liminal space we call fieldwork.
I think there needs to be a balance there between being realistic and going in with your eyes open, and kind of caving, I suppose, to the bureaucratised version of ethics that the university would have us adhere to. And actually, kind of fostering these relationships and these conversations, that negotiation we were talking about earlier: that gives students a language with which to talk about potential risks, and supervisors as well. So that a young woman in Sydney is vulnerable in a way that—I mean you are vulnerable, in a way that we’ve been talking about, I suppose. And kind of stepping back or not allowing ourselves to be silenced by, I suppose, the objective perception that, well, ‘she’s not in Colombia dealing with drug lords’. I think that’s a tempered kind of cautious conversation that is worth having.
MM:And I think there’s also, one of the things that’s so clear across the board in academia but other institutions too, is that there’s this bureacratisation of processes, and that’s where the ethics committee comes from in its lean towards covering the university if anything goes wrong. And that’s certainly what this sort of risk-prone training and things can become, this sort of blanket, ‘we must call people this now rather than this’, and I think those things have their place but I feel like what we’d like to do is operate, kind of, above, or around that, and sort of just maintain a focus on these tensions and fluidities of power and vulnerability that happen as a part of all interactions, and so are certainly a part of fieldwork.
So it’s not necessarily that the field-working anthropologist who’s a female or who’s trans or who’s brown studying in a predominantly white society is necessarily vulnerable as their character, but there are situations that emerge in which you are vulnerable, and I think that that document that we prepared is just trying to prepare you for what happens if that goes on. You know, not all supervisors will be able to tell you what to do in this country, in this context, if this happens.
MMac:You don’t know the contingencies that are going to crop up. I arrived at the mainland port, ready to go out to my fieldsite. I had to stay in a hotel so I had booked the hotel. There was only one place, it was a guest-house, only one place in this small town, Alotau, in Papua New Guinea. I arrived there and they said ‘we don’t have your booking, no, you can’t stay here’. I knew nobody in that town. I went up to the administration and said ‘is there anywhere I can stay?’
‘Nothing. We can’t help you, sorry’
‘Do you know anybody?’
‘Oh maybe go and talk to the Catholic priest’.
So I go down and talk to the Catholic priest, down at the church, say ‘do you have somewhere I can stay?’ Meanwhile, lugging my backpack in very hot weather. And he said we don’t have it.
So I was standing there in the middle of Alotau—a very small town in those days, in 1979. And I look up and I see this white faced man, and I thought, I’m going to ask him if I can stay at his place. Now, if I were to say to someone ‘what would you do if…’ and they said ‘well, I’d wait until I saw some white face and walk up and say excuse me can I stay at your place tonight’. I mean, honestly…you can get desperate, you can not have any alternatives, you can not plan for every risk, and that’s the point.
And I think a lot of this, the way in which ethics have blown out, the way in which preparation for fieldwork’s blown out, the way in which you have all these vulnerabilities, and then when it comes down to the nitty gritty you’re not in one that’s been predicted, and you have to go on your gut feeling, your intelligence, your self-confidence.
And sometimes you can’t say no. I mean, this work in Pakistan, I get out to the field—it’s this big project and I’m just a little person in it. And I discover that in order to go to these villages I have to have two armed guards all the time. This is the law. Because this is a region that has roaming bandits.
HG:Interesting to get that through the ethics process these days.
MMac:Yes, I’ve got a wonderful photograph of me with Hussein and Ali with their bandolier of bullets. You know, ideal fieldwork circumstances. Honestly. What could I have done then?
HG:I think maybe a lot of the conversations we’re having here is the kind of if not the failure of those systems to provide the adequate preparations, then just the importance and the support that is provided by informal mentorship and conversations between colleagues, and whisper networks, and having these kinds of conversations with your supervisor and other students, so that you have the self confidence and resources.
And on that note, if I may make a move towards wrapping up the conversation, I thought it would be nice, as always, to try and end on a somewhat hopeful note, and to go around the table and ask people what do they hope to see from what’s been happening and stirring in the wider world.
TK:Ooooh goodness me!—ongoing conversations, I think. Just continuing to have these, like Mythily was saying, these fluid, difficult, complex conversations. And I suppose if anything, conversations which often can’t be scripted, but continuing to very deliberately carve out spaces where these conversations can be had, I think is I suppose a way of ensuring that there is at least a way of ensuring that the conversations can at least be ongoing without necessarily scripting what they entail.
MMac:I don’t know, I think I’d like to see some quite dramatic changes in the way that anthropological research is conducted. This might be coming at it sideways, but I think the whole movement towards—I think they usually refer to it as ‘decolonisation’ of a subject, of the discipline—I would like to universities allowing and enabling people from the countries which we as folk here want to work in, so that there are many more students from those place coming. I would like to see all fieldwork done in collaboration. I would really love to see changes that enable the discipline to open up so that subject-object is…is just changed. This is kind of utopian.
HG:Let’s think big.
MM:I want to be utopian.
MMac:I would also like to see dramatic changes in the employment of people in universities so that there was more security, so that the possibility of reducing the male dominance in higher echelons of the discipline was at least trimmed back a bit. I think until we get that change in the structure of universities whereby it’s still male-dominated, it’s still conservative, it’s still allowed to uphold sexist ideas about how things should be done, how research should be measured, what value is placed on certain academic activities.
The push from above should be greater equal opportunity—it hasn’t worked yet, you know. Then from below, that those people who are admitted as students are a much better mix of culturally diverse people so that the leavening goes up.
MM:I’m going to jump in because I’m so excited: this is—I want this utopian future you want. So I don’t have to say much because you’ve basically spelt out what I think needs to happen as well. It’s the decolonising of the academy, it’s the decolonising with the discipline, and I think a very serious reckoning from people who are in positions of influence, power, security with people who are serially spreading this sort of toxic vibe in anthropology. And I’m talking about people who are serial harassers, I’m talking about people who are predatory faculty, I’m talking about people who are abusive and bullying in whatever ramification of ways.
At the moment, there is this idea that there isn’t that space in academia for people, it’s hard to get jobs, but the future that I want to see comes from these students and younger people, people of colour, people who are not traditionally what the anthropology discipline is historically made up of, and those are the people I want to see space made for. And it can be done, it just needs to come from a serious commitment to that at a higher level.
HG:I mean, yes, yes, and yes, to all those things. If I can add anything at all it’s that I hope to see the empathetic, compassionate listening skills we’re supposed to be so trained at applying in anthropology; maybe we need to turn them towards ourselves, and our colleagues, and people who have less powerful, more precarious positions in the academy, so that we can listen to their stories and opinions with more empathy and compassion and understanding.
MM:Yeah, this isa discipline about sensitivity, at its core.
HG:So actually for the last round-the-table for this comment, we have had two almost silent presenters with us here, David and Tim, who have been listening to our contribution. I thought it might be nice for the last contribution to be about what you might like to see change in the discipline in the coming years.
David Boarder Giles:Us listening—speaking as a fellow, speaking as a fellow who’s been trying to listen as attentively as possible for most of the time that I’ve been in the discipline. And having learnt an enormous amount from my female peers, I would love to see the fellows in anthropology who are not listening, listen more closely. I think that’s one of the main reasons Tim (Neale) and I literallypassed the mic this time.
I wish I could have these conversations with my male colleagues more easily without instantly—and I mean instantly—having some kind of defensive pushback. So I’m really grateful that these sorts of spaces are being opened up, and I feel as if maybe I’ll be able to keep having those conversations with my male colleagues a bit more easily now.
Tim Neale:You know listening to this conversation, especially where we started was where we first started thinking about these issues, and I had some undergrad experiences, and some friends of mine had some undergrad experiences that made me think about this stuff. But really it’s been in the past few years and being looped in to some of those whisper networks, and discovering that I’d been oblivious to things going on around me where I was a postgrad student. And I just firmly support that as a way through. And I’ve brought that up with other colleagues, especially male colleagues, and there can be a lot of pushback about that, you know, ‘we shouldn’t have gossiping as a mode of social justice’. And I think actually I’ve come down on the side of it’s a productive way forward to other kinds of changes.
DBG:Can I add what a privilege it is to be one of the fellows who’s admitted, now and then, into the whisper networks—who is trusted enough to be present in these conversations without the conversation having to be hushed and cut short. And thank you also to all of you for having me and Tim sit in.
HG:So thank you for joining us for another episode of Anthropology at Deakin, a podcast about life, the universe, and anthropology. This episode featured a conversation between Mythily Meher, Hannah Gould, Tanya King and Martha Macintyre.
If you’d like to learn more about the #metoo Anthropology movement, please visit www.metooanthro.orgor follow us on twitter and instagram at ‘metooanthro’, one word, no spaces. We will be convening meetings, labs and panels at the ASA and AAS conferences in Oxford and Cairns respectively this year, and working behind the scenes on other actions—we’d love to have you involved, the more diverse voices the better. You can also email us, anonymously if you wish, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TN: Conversations in Anthropology at Deakin is a podcast produced by David Boarder Giles and me, Timothy Neale, with support for the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. If you’d like to learn more about the podcast you can find us on twitter at @tdneale and @dhboardergiles, or at blogs.deakin.edu.au/anthropology.