Discomfort, pain, and the “suffering slot” in collaborative research

Recent calls to move away from anthropology’s “suffering slot” (Robbins 2013) demand interrogations of the frictions inherent in our field’s genealogy. While emotional pain and discomfort are generally framed in terms of “negative emotion” and suffering, this paper explores a) how moments of ethnographic discomfort are analytically generative, and b) how pain and discomfort as subjects can be potentially overstated, ignoring the ways that discomfort and pain can drive many to mobilize in social struggles against the structures that cause their discomfort. This paper will discuss the multiple and productive discomforts that arose in fieldwork encounters in an activist oral history project with Haitian university students. Centered on the 2010 assassination of a leftist professor in Port-au-Prince, one intention in this research was to investigate and emphasize the concientization and mobilization of oppressed people, yet I was still confronted with very real turmoil and discomfort among my interlocutors. Moreover, despite it being an activist project that emerged from solidarity work, my feelings of emotional pain and exhaustion pointed to fundamental tensions within ethnographic power dynamics, and the privilege/distancing of being a light-skinned academic in Haiti as stories of the killing of a comrade and the experience of the 2010 earthquake were unearthed. This paper asks, what can discomforts that we experienced together, yet unevenly, reveal about the operation of power in the world and in our field? It explores how emotional pain and discomfort, rather than being viewed as just “suffering,” are sources of knowledge, insight, and revelation.


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