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Difficult Knowledges: Methods for Knowing the Unseen, the Hidden, and the Silent

Saturday 21 March 2015, 0900 – 1100, Lecture Theatre 5

Darcie DeAngelo
McGill University

Darcie DeAngelo
McGill University


Southeast Asia presents particular, though by no means unique, difficulties for accessing and protecting sensitive information. Ben Tausig and Tyrell Haberkorn, in their collection of ethnographies of Thailand, name some kinds of knowledge ‘unspeakable things’ in reference to information repressed by censorship during the 2010 military coup. Such ?unspeakability? persists today, not only in Thailand but also in places like Laos where late socialist rule poses fieldwork dilemmas, making it difficult to access already marginalized groups and gather data within the bounds of government surveillance (Turner 2013). But politics and power are not the only sources of difficulty in obtaining knowledge in countries this region. Psychosocial trauma and the physical devastation of past wars fragment the past in Cambodia. For example, the psychosocial expert, Dr. Sotheara Chhim, has identified baksbat, or lost courage, as a kind of posttraumatic stress that inhibits most Khmer people from speaking about painful memories (2013). Wars themselves perpetuate the decay and destruction of physical memorials of the past through the neglect and military use of historically significant sites, such as tenth century temples. In this panel, we examine analytic and methodological techniques for researching so-called unspeakable things in Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. Importantly, these knowledges are difficult for researchers and informants. The knowledge that people hold onto in places with devastating pasts and sometimes oppressive contemporary events requires research with special methods such as alternative media, increased subject protections, creative detective work, and careful diplomacy.


Paper 1: Doctors and Deminers: An anthropology of landmines in Cambodia

Darcie DeAngelo
McGill University

How do you confront that which is beyond words in Cambodia? Millions of landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERWs) lie beneath the rice fields of Cambodia, which puts people under an everyday threat of violence and pain. These landmines have provoked the rise of two industries: mine action and amputee medicine, which result in clashes between western and local knowledges and require modes of communication between humans and their mine-sniffing dogs. In amputee medicine, Scandinavians attempt to ?teach? the biomedical body to Cambodian students who must learn to configure new medicines that incorporate biomedicine with their knowledge about health, hot and cold bodies, sorse body lines, and multiple souls. In landmine detection, spirits and animals and remnants of war come together in modes of representation beyond the human, provoking ethnographic methods away from ‘linguocentrism.’ Deminers must partner with dogs to find hidden bombs and doctors and patients must trick phantom limbs away with mirrors. How do Cambodian deminer ?talk? to dogs? How do patients and doctors engage with phantom limbs? These situations in Cambodia, caused by ERWs, deal with that which cannot be confronted with words. Spirits and animals constitute different modes of representation in Cambodia, calling for anthropologists to rework through ideas like signs and symbols. An anthropology of landmines in Cambodia, then, must engage with nonlinguistic knowledge, knowledge that can confront that which is beyond words.

Paper 2: Paddling against the current: challenges of doing maritime ethnoarchaeology in Cambodia

Veronica Walker Vadillo
University of Oxford

The deterioration of traditional knowledge in Cambodia brought about by the terror of war and violence, the destruction of natural resources, and the ever present process of globalization has left archaeologists with fragmented ethnographies with which to study the past. This data is particularly relevant for the study of Angkorian royal barges, a type of boats that are documented in the bas-reliefs of Angkor but of which there are no physical remains. Through the use of historical and ethnographic sources, it is possible to reconstitute the meaningful referent of the iconography. But while the recording of the nautical bas-reliefs is quite straight forward, the documentation of ethnographic data presents difficult challenges. Ritual practices associated with boat-building and boat use, for example, have diminished or disappeared in some cases. Where these practices have been recorded, it shows that this knowledge is learned and shared in different ways, and lacks uniformity or homogeneity. The degree of knowledge competency varies from interviewee to interviewee, and to the usual amount of data that is lost in translation it needs to be added questions that are never asked by the researcher for sundry reasons. To this difficult knowledge we need to add the process of disjunction that happens when symbols and objects are re-interpreted at different times and by different peoples. The aim of this presentation is to highlight the obstacles encountered by the researcher whilst conducting ethnographic fieldwork, and the problems of applying this knowledge to any reconstitution of the past.

Paper 3: I Swear I’m Not a Spy: Anonymity, Subject Protections, and Faith in Fieldwork in Lao PDR

Leah Zani
University of California, Irvine

Rapid development in Lao PDR is occurring alongside religious revival as socialist and secular reforms loosen. In my research, I examine the current moment of increasing faith-based programs, coupled with the uncertain status of faith and civil society in Laos. Researching faith-based development compels carefully negotiating a shifting political terrain. Conducting this research well requires adapting conventional subject protections and re-assessing what counts as data. Anthropology is an inherently ethical practice, which poses particular challenges in fieldwork. For example: Anthropological research in Southeast Asia is, unfortunately, linked with histories of spying during the Vietnam-American War period. This legacy impacts my ability to carry out research effectively. In some instances, I have had to prove that I was not a spy. Addressing the challenges present in my field site, I re-assess conventional anonymity and other subject/researcher protection practices in anthropology more generally. What makes certain kinds of data unsafe? How can we best anonymize the paths that link subjects (and researchers) to dangerous knowledges? How should we address informants’ pervasive beliefs that they lack privacy? I analyze the interrelations between methods, data, and ethics through an examination of the particular challenges of studying faith in my field site.

Paper 4: Female Circumcision in Central Java

Vesna Bocko
Independent Scholar

Throughout the article the author focuses on the ritual of female circumcision on Indonesian Java. By the help of extensive fieldwork and academic literature she undertakes not merely the tabooed but also by law forbidden practice in the biggest Muslim country. Female circumcision in Java and Indonesia in general is considered as a daily practice respecting the tradition. In most cases it is performed on 35day old babies. The author puts to the foreground the form of circumcision, performed in Java and the growth of religious identity and by that also the rituals. Important role in the research have the reasons and historical/religious background that justify the circumcision. Furthermore she focuses on the relation and the (un)knowledge of the people about the law (legal regulations), which forbids the female circumcision in Indonesia. The author learns and emphasizes that this is a practice taken for granted, whose origin is little known to the interlocutors (the executors and participants of the ritual). For such a research a critical approach is of key importance and the author of this academic article considers it a great deal.