Fieldwork in a fishbowl: spying, intelligence agencies and ethnographic method

Workshop postponed!
Due to the COVID-19 virus, we have received cancellations to our upcoming workshop on March 18, including from Katherine Verdery who has had to cancel her trip to Denmark because of the current situation. We have therefore decided to postpone the workshop. So stay tuned, and we will get back to you with a new workshop date.
We look forward to discussing spying, surveillance and ethnographic method with you all at a later date!
Best regards,
Matthew Carey and Trine Korsby
Centre for Global Criminology



Conveners:                  Trine Korsby and Matthew Carey, 
                                      Centre for Global Criminology.

This workshop sets out to engage with Katherine Verdery’s recent work on the Romanian state’s surveillance of her during fieldwork.  We explore the complex game of mirrors reflecting anthropologists’ attempts to gather data on the people they work with and efforts by local institutions and people themselves to collect information about anthropologists. How do fieldworkers relate to issues of spying and surveillance what methodological and ethical questions does this highly asymmetrical process raise?      

At the core of the anthropological enterprise lies the gathering of data and the connections we develop with our interlocuters. However, when we enter the field, our research agendas are not always clear to the people we study and to the state apparatuses of the area. Many anthropologists have therefore been accused of spying - for intelligence agencies, home governments, international organizations or competing gangs. And, just as importantly, anthropologists have themselves often been objects of surveillance. 

Katherine Verdery's fascinating recent work (Verdery 2014, 2018) on spies and spying encapsulates this problematic, by exploring her personal file in the Romanian secret police archives: nearly 3,000 pages of reports, notes and photographs of her activities in Romania, which she discovered in 2007. 

There processes of reciprocal data collection in contexts of radical power asymmetry raise challenging questions, not only about the ethics of our discipline, but also about the nature of our relationships in the field, whom we trust and how, and the role of gossip, intimacy and confiding during fieldwork. It also addresses issues surrounding the ethics, sociality and politics of knowledge collection and production. 

The workshop proposes to explore how anthropologists relate to spies, spying and surveillance, and thus asks how anthropologists and their interlocutors have engaged or been associated with intelligence agencies and/or how intelligence agencies have engaged with them. We invite speakers to address questions pertaining to mistrust, suspicion and paranoia, while also engaging with methodological and ethical questions regarding friendships in the field. 

Speakers are encouraged to reflect on the notion of moral action in all phases of the anthropological enterprise, and how questions of harm and secrecy may play a role when carrying out research among people engaged in illicit activities. We invite discussions on the borderland of imagination and fear, and on the ethical implications of knowledge 'holding'. 

Suggested readings:

Boltanski, Luc (2014) Mysteries and Conspiracies. Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies, chapters 1 and 5. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Carey, Matthew (2017) Mistrust. An Ethnographic Theory. Chicago University Press. 

Sampson, Steven (2019) Citizen duty or Stasi society? Whistleblowing and disclosure regimes in organizations and communities. In: Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization, 19 (4). Pp. 1-24. 

Verdery, Katherine (2018) My Life as a Spy. Investigations in a Secret Police File. London: Duke University Press. 

Verdery, Katherine (2014) Secrets and Truth. Ethnography in the Archive of Romania's Secret Police. New York: Central European University Press. 

Vigh, Henrik (2018) Lives opposed: perceptivity and tacticality in conflict and crime. In: Social Anthropology, Vol. 26 (4). P. 487-501.