Dignity and Resistance: Activist and Engaged Perspectives

Sat, 6/1: 8:00 AM  - 9:45 AM 
Paper Session 
Saturday Session 1 
Room: Congressional B 
In an increasingly globalized world, ethnographers are engaging and working with activists and advocates to participate in, contribute to, and even shape debates on significant issues of public concern. This track of CRN-sponsored panels seeks to explore different modes of activist or engaged ethnography. What are the roles of different actors in a particular field site? How can researchers maximize the analytical power of ethnographic research? Capturing diverse sites and approaches to activism and engagement, the papers explore different meanings and tensions that emerge around dignity. This panel responds to questions raised at the Ethnography, Law and Society Collaborative Research Network's 2017 business meeting in Toronto, which sought out examples of ethnographic research that engaged activism and social justice.


Amelia Radke, University of Queensland  - Contact Me


Allison Fish, University of Queensland  - Contact Me


03: Ethnography, Law & Society

Primary Keyword


Secondary Keyword

Methodology, Socio-legal Methodology


"We Know When They Laugh With Us": Engaged Anthropology and UK Asylum Tribunals


How do ethnographers respond when studying such politically-charged arenas like asylum and immigration? How can engaged ethnographers escape--or at least challenge--distress when working with severely marginalized people?

Rejecting ideas of "neutrality," I advocate a complicated position--one that acknowledges both the privileges of the ethnographer and potential vicarious trauma that can result from such intense work. Instead of falling into cynicism--or disengaging--I suggest collaboration with interlocutors as a political act. In my fieldwork, this collaboration is further complicated by belief: belief both of asylum-seekers by the UK Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, and of the Iranian Christian converts I work with.

I want to share my experiences of working alongside asylum-seekers, people of faith, and legal professionals to create better futures for people seeking status in the UK. Through my work as researcher, I was able to advocate change and create small solutions--but only after first throwing off the heavy label of ethnographer "impartial observer." Such impartiality, I argue, runs parallel to the assumptions of the impartiality of law, and must be challenged if we are to highlight pressing sociopolitical issues. 


Rine Vieth, McGill University  - Contact Me

Engaged Anthropology "On the Live Edge" in Colombia: Conversations Between Collaborators


In this paper we explore the specificities of our experience with engaged anthropology in the context of Ancestral Peoples defending their territories from criminal mining – mining undertaken by outlawed armed actors -- in the North of Cauca, Colombia. Drawing on ethnographic moments to ground our theorizing, we dialogue with the literature on engaged activist anthropology from both the global south and the global north, proposing and exploring what we call anthropology "on the live edge". We argue that this ethnographic praxis of law and legal pluralities calls for a very particular theorization given the lethal context in which it takes place. We also reflect on our relationship as collaborators and anthropologists from the south and the north, considering our positionality through the lens of race and gender, while engaging in an experimental type of writing rooted in dialogue. 


Viviane Weitzner, McGill University, Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives, Anthropology  - Contact Me

Non-Presenting Co-Author

Marlin Mancilla, Universidad del Pacifico  - Contact Me

Rethinking NGOs? Non-State Actors, LGBT Rights Activism, and the Law in the United States


In the United States, the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector has been a significant site for important social justice struggles for LGBTQ-identified persons, but also, it has been shaped by, and has helped to shape neoliberal political economic policies. This paper is based on ethnographic research with NGOs that worked with "binational same sex couples," individuals in same sex relationships where one partner holds U.S. citizenship or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status and the other does not. I focus on NGO-produced political advocacy for binational same sex couples to examine more closely the complicated position of NGOs as mediators between LGBTQ-identified persons and the law. I explain how NGO actors crafted a sentimental political discourse about the binational same sex couple by using tropes of love, respectability, and dignity to produce the binational same sex couple as legible to the law as "family." I argue that while these strategies produced some LGBTQ bodies, histories, and relationships as legitimate and includable within the nation, they also marked others as illegitimate and excludable. Further, I demonstrate how the rhetorics, images, and texts produced by NGOs played a significant role in how NGO constituents made meaning about their position in relation to the state and how they formulated their own claims to state rights. This paper will thus raise important questions about the increasingly intimate relationship between NGOs and the law, and considers the implications for social justice activisms for LGBTQ populations. 


Jara Carrington, University of North Texas  - Contact Me

The Search for Indigenous Justice in the Rural Bolivian Highlands: The Strategic Use of Law to Maintain Dignity in Scenes of Abandonment


This paper examines activists' efforts in the rural Bolivian highlands to strengthen indigenous jurisdiction following the passage of the 2009 constitution, which recognizes indigenous leaders' rights to resolve conflicts within their territories according to their own norms and procedures. I ask what dignity comes to mean for poor indigenous quinoa farming communities when they take up this new legal tool to improve their access to security and material wellbeing. To do so, I drawing from collaborative ethnographic research with legal activists to strengthen indigenous jurisdiction to resolve a long-standing violent conflict between two Quechua-speaking families near the migrant city of Challapata, Oruro. I show how a lack of dignity was expressed by one family in terms of abandonment by the state and indigenous justice, both of which had failed to offer a resolution in the decade-long conflict. Drawing from Povinelli (2011), I suggest that the family mobilized discourses around the emancipatory potential of the legal strategy to make their abandonment "eventful," to make it – and not the conflict itself – the main object of ethical reflection and response. I argue that, in doing so, the family sought to maintain dignity by constructing different forms of relating to the state and others involved in the case, forging bonds of obligation to respond to the different forms of social harm that marked their everyday lives. I end by reflecting on what questions the case raises for engaged and activist research when dignity is placed at the center of strategic use of law. 


Amy Kennemore, University of California  - Contact Me

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