Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Protecting Privacy in Foreign Fields

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Protecting Privacy in Foreign Fields

Article excerpt


The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing.... Necessarily dichotomous, somewhat Manichean, he divides, excludes, and without, properly speaking, wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, thus casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations.

Julia Kristeva, 1982

And you may find yourself in another part of the world

And you may ask yourself well, how did I get here?

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime," 1980

Privacy is an ambivalent and multifaceted question when fieldwork is conducted in Africa by a non-African scholar. Assuming that the researcher makes a conscious and political choice to live among the people whose thoughts, lives, and cultural practices are being studied, the first great difficulty appears to be protecting private space and a sense of self. Shortly, though, additional questions arise about the privacy rights of others in our conduct of research and our writing about it. Each side of the privacy issue is complicated. In this essay I examine privacy questions that I experienced on various projects in Tanzania and Malawi from 1991 to 2000, most of them in the city of Zanzibar. I start, as does fieldwork, by examining myself.

A number of geographers have become captivated by the opportunities opened up to humanistic geographical inquiry by various modes of psychoanalysis (Pile 1993; Bondi 1999). I do not wish to sidestep these opportunities entirely, but I also do not want to make this essay entirely about what goes on in my head, as Julia Kristeva does in the lead epigraph, mainly because I hope I am a better storyteller than a psychoanalyst. Still, fieldwork for Western-trained academics is foremost a private, inner exploration. Kwame Anthony Appiah distinguished the general strategy of Western fiction writers from that of African writers, suggesting that westerners engage in a "search for the self," whereas African writers embark on a "search for a culture" (1992, 74). His conception, generalized though it is, also works to differentiate the Western field-worker, as bourgeois intellectual individualist, from how he or she appears to the surrounding city-dwellers or villagers, as a new player in a social collective.

Selfishness is inherent in individuated Western fieldwork in non-Western settings, an arrogant assumption that somehow one person develops explanatory powers. One quickly learns that selfishness must give way to a sharing, an open-ended identity enmeshed in a community. This giving way of self, however, also has its limits. Certainly I have felt there were parts of my soul that I needed to hold privately out of the field of play in fieldwork. To negotiate the boundaries between selfishness and selflessness addresses how I go about "casting within [my]self the scalpel that carries out [my] separations" as Kristeva put it (1982, 8).

The literal translation of the Swahili word used to describe a white person, mzungu (pl. wazungu), is "stranger." As one of two wazungu in the Kikwajuni ward of Zanzibar city in 1991 and 1992, the "stranger" label remained mine until I was known by my middle name, Andrew, by what sometimes seemed to be all 4,000 people in the ward. Children were especially fond of calling out "Andrew!" as I walked by or rode through the alleys on my bike, and I grew fond of their voices. In ordinary life identity is, to a considerable degree, a gendered performance (Butler 1997, 258). Although we cannot control entirely how those who see us performing interpret the performance, at most times what appears outwardly is an installation of what we inwardly deem an acceptable appearance, beyond our unconscious selves: It is an act. In foreign field experiences, totally immersed in another language, this can be a performance I feel I am watching, an out-of-body experience. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.