Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Neutrality on the Field (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Tarini Date

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

On a personal level, I firm believer in and advocate for women’s autonomy, including their bodily autonomy. Accordingly, I am a strong advocate of the pro-choice position. However, as an ethnographer, I did not want my personal beliefs or opinions to cloud how I approached the pro-life group and how I interpreted people’s arguments about the pro-life group’s use of graphic images and its morality. Furthermore, I believe that as a researcher of any kind it is important to maintain neutrality and critical distance when conducting research. I think it is not an ethnographer’s place to make moral judgements or interventions in the course of their fieldwork unless people’s lives are in danger in the course of research, which was not at all the case in my fieldwork. Therefore, at the beginning of my project, I decided that I would not disclose my personal views on the topic at hand to my interlocutors as a way of maintaining a distance between my personal views and my research.

However, I was unable to maintain neutrality in the course of my ethnographic research. In fact, whenever I interacted with members of the pro-choice group and their supporters I was forced to put aside my neutrality. In all of my formal interviews with pro-choice group members I was questioned about my personal views, and only when I stated that I was a pro-choice supporter and crucially when I expressed disgust at the tactics of the pro-life group and claimed that its members were terrible—a view that I do not hold entirely—did my interlocutors open up to me and share their honest opinions with me on the pro-life presence on campus.  

For instance, I was only allowed access to the pro-choice group only after I  professed my support of the pro-choice stance and abhorrence of the pro-life group and its members to Anita, a representative of the pro-choice group who acted as a gatekeeper to the rest of the group. During our interview (I say “our” because I was interviewing her just as much as she was interviewing me, judging if I were a threat or a pro-life group member trying to infiltrate the pro-choice group), after I told Anita about my project she immediately and stiffly asked if I was a pro-choice supporter or “anti-choice” supporter. In that instance, I realized that if I did not declare my stance she would not allow me access to the group so I responded that I was a pro-choice supporter. My answer did not seem to placate her entirely, so I decided in the moment to state that I found the group and its members disgusting, and their posters vile. That mollified her and she then opened up about the history of the group, its structure, its aims and added me to the secret Facebook group that members used to communicate with one another. I found myself in a similar situation when I spoke to the student union executive about why the pro-life group had been banned club status and funding. Only when I expressed my personal aversion to the pro-life group and its members did she open up to me about why the group had really been denied club status and funding (their posters were considered “triggering”), before she had simply stated they were  not in compliance with the union’s policies and refused to point out which policy.

This made me uncomfortable because not only because I had to abandon my neutrality but also because I had to claim positions that I was not entirely in agreement with and engage in a form of deception. While I do not agree with the pro-life stance and find it extremely objectionable, I do not find their graphic posters disturbing, neither do I think the members of the pro-life group are despicable. However, it would not have been possible for me to conduct my research had I not engaged in those deceptions. This, to me, is illustrative of how bounded the pro-choice group and its supporters can be, where they cannot interact with a person unless they are, or present themselves to be, in complete agreement with their own views.

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