Notes on Method: Familiarity/Extraction/Refusal

Notes on Method: Familiarity/Extraction/Refusal

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by Azra Hromadžić

In this project, my engagement with the anthropological “field” (other people’s homes and lives)  is one based on fragmented, fleeting, superficial, yet deeply situated ethnographic encounters between myself (a native of Bihać, an anthropologist living in the US) and my drastically transformed “home town.” My ethnographic notes are therefore born out of several interrelated and conflicting sensibilities: first, my discomfort with the simplistic, rushed representations of the »migrant crisis,« and from my commitment to the people with whom I share geography and more; and second, my recognition of the problems which hunt and inspire ethnographies of familiar and ethnographies of refusal, even if that means writing in a way that is offensive to the anthropological sensibilities of fairness, access and replicable results (Simpson 2007). This “methodology” and “engagement” therefore became and is an ethical issue for me: how to recognize the sovereignty of the Bihać people at the level of encounter, method and representation? And how do I capture both the overlap and disjuncture between what was written about them and the things that mattered to them the most (Simpson 2007:72)? And this, once again, included a careful calculation of »what you need to know and what I refuse to write in« (Simpson 2019:72). 

And this reflection makes me wonder: how do we engender other ethnographic forms (including refusal) which »involve calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what you refuse to write in« (Simpson 2017:72)? How do »we«—hybrid anthropologists and ethnographers from and of the Balkans—do this and still stay present and heard in academia and elsewhere, if we do not only push against (thus indirectly reproduce and naturalize) dominant representations and contours of discourse, but rather refuse them altogether? And is there narcissism and self-rigorousness hidden in this politics of refusal (i.e., who has power/choice to refuse)?

And then, there is an unavoidable issue of ethnographic extraction which goes even »deeper« than recognizing the business aspect of ethnographic endeavor (see Cabot 2019). The irony of ethnographic enterprise is that, if it is done, as Cabot suggests, »properly« –slowly, carefully, listeningly—it still leads to the betrayal of human relationships since it extracts knowledge, perspective and »life« from the bonds we form with actual people. These ethnographies of the familiar—of our most intimate encounters—turn to questions of ethics and the normative work of representing, making claims, and staking of limits (Simpson 2007).

Troubled and inspired by these reflections, I ask: what kind of methodology could take the contemporary »migrant crisis« in Bihać seriously? What kind of approach would allow us to enter the world of shared but unevenly distributed problems (Bassire 2014)? Are there any footings for political anthropology that could account for the profoundly ambiguous being of these people, caught between spectacle and marginality, human and non-human, life and death (Bassire 2014)? After I received an invitation to write about »the migrant crisis« in Bihać, it took months before I could write: »I could barely speak and only tell stories from the middle out when I could tell them at all« (Bessire 2014). What this paralysis, reflection, doubt, hesitation and (partial) refusal resulted in is a set of fragmented, disconnected, layered, historically-shaped and partial »notes from the field «.


Bessire, Lucas (2014): Behold the Black Caiman. Chicago.

Cabot, Heath (2019): The business of anthropology and the European refugee regime. American Ethnologist 46(3): 261-275.

Simpson, Audra (2007): On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.