This special issue aims to deepen emerging theoretical engagements with discomfort, in relation to recent debates on affect and emotion, and grounded in ethnographic research. It is based on a joint project of bringing together scholars from different backgrounds to examine the methodological and conceptual affordances of discomfort. This project started in the 2019 AIBR (Iberoamerican Anthropology Association) annual conference, where the editors of this special issue (Elona Hoover and Andrea García-González) made a call for contributions that examined discomfort from original and committed approaches. The quality and the breadth of perspectives moved the editors to collaborate on this publication proposal. The focus on discomfort is a way for the authors of the special issue to bring together approaches from across disciplines, to challenge fixed frames, and inhabit disciplinary borderlands. This common thread also allows the authors to bring together research from contexts and disciplines that might not otherwise be brought into conversation.
Our first stop: a polyphonic composition with five of the contributors of this publication creating collectively a piece in
Attention to emotions and affects in ethnographic work has been widely accepted and discussed across a range of disciplines in the social sciences, for instance in geography (Bondi, 2005; Dawney, 2013; Anderson, 2014), political ecology (González-Hidalgo & Zografos, 2020), anthropology (Abu-Lughod & Lutz, 1990; Behar, 1996; Navaro-Yashin, 2009; Esteban, 2015; De la Cadena, 2021). Much of this work is also inspired by feminist and poststructuralist scholarship on affect and emotion in philosophy (Jaggar, 1989; Fischer, 2016) and cultural studies (Gregg & Seigworth, 2010; Berlant, 2011; Ahmed, 2014). Nevertheless, few scholars have paid sustained attention to discomfort. The articles gathered in
Ethnographic research, grounded in relations with specific locations, times and personal trajectories, leads to shifting research questions: ‘grounded in social interaction, intimacy and emotionality are inseparable from ethnography’ (Davies and Spencer, 2010). The authors in this special issue are animated by sense of duty to recognise a particular effects of emotional experiences related to discomfort, unease, awkwardness… a responsibility to attend to gut level responses in our fieldwork. These postures are inspired by feminist scholars such as Megan Boler (1999) and her pedagogy of discomfort, Donna Haraway and their call to ‘stay with troubled times and places’ (Haraway 2016, p.4), Lisa Stevenson’s (2014) work on fieldwork in uncertainty, Sara Ahmed’s work on the
This responsibility, however, does not stop with the identification of discomfort. The authors work with these feelings, exploring the reasons for feeling different kinds of discomforts and taking action on this affective attention. This mean finding ways of avoiding the spiral that can lead to guilt or excessive reflexivity. Ethnographic grounding inspires us to look at what discomfort does, and the articles in the special issue do this by investigating discomfort as method (Ana María Forero Angel, Kayla Rush, David Berna and Andrea) and discomfort as practice (Lisa Slater, Nancy Francis and Elona). The authors do this in different ways, recognising different temporalities and locations in which this work takes place, as well as a range of methodological techniques.
Most of the authors attend to elements of discomfort while in the field through different techniques such as drawing, sketching (Ana and Elona), the use of creative writing (Ana, Andrea, Nancy, Kayla, and Elona), the recording of sounds (Elona) or making more-and-less systematic written notes of embodied feelings (David, Kayla, Nancy more explicitly).
The articles also show the importance of time when working with discomfort. For Ana and Andrea, the temporalities of writing and sharing learning (years) after their fieldwork allows for necessary distance from difficult experiences in the field and perspectives that can only be gained over time. Andrea’s article expresses this by reflecting on the process of publishing work based on her doctoral research in the Basque Country and the ongoing effects of violence and shifting linguistic contexts. Ana’s contribution has a long temporal horizon, sharing reflections from a body of work that emerges from decades of research with the Colombia military and an awareness of the time needed for truly listening to the ‘other’ (side). In Lisa’s article, time becomes a companion for working with discomfort, another way of expressing the commitment of “staying with” uneasy feelings.
Both during and after fieldwork, the articles also show how attention to discomfort happens in and through our own bodies and attention to other bodies. This approach is in keeping with the feminist approaches that guide many of the authors in this collection where the body is a location for thought, a location from which one can analyse discomfort as corporeal reality (Anzaldúa, 2015, p.5). Kayla’s analysis, for instance, is deliberately interiorized, examining her own responses as a way of understanding discomfort in art. For Andrea, writing is also bodily, analysing and writing involves revisiting and re-feeling what Kayla and Elona refer to as the visceral nature of certain experiences–what Petillo (2020) also calls listening from the guts. Lisa’s work connects again the notion of listening to discomfort, asking how we might listen when we don’t share the same ways of understanding the world(s). To do this, she documents her scholarly discomfort and her stake in knowledge production.
Another analytical approach to discomfort is through attention to the circulation of emotions and affects–to atmospheres and more diffuse feelings. For instance, in response to strong feelings in his fieldwork, David developed a technique he calls “emotional diagrams” to analyse emotions while in the field and using them take a step back from the immediacy of uncomfortable emotions and be able to shift to the more analytical posture of the anthropological researcher. Elona’s work involves cultivating a sensitivity to the materiality of discomfort as an affective resonance, an attention to individual and collective affects necessary when relating to more than human discomfort. This is echoed in the way Nancy deploys the notion of attunement, which for her is about recognising the existence of affects in the material manifestations of embodied experiences, and the knowledge that comes from the negotiation of violence, discomforts, traumas or hurt.
In all its variety, the ways in which the authors work with discomfort requires a certain vulnerability (in fieldwork, in writing, in collaborating). This can sometimes be at odds with years of cultivating invulnerability as a means of protection (as in David’s work). The unequal positions for different authors also entail different approaches to the exposure to vulnerability.
Following a decolonial and feminist approach to research that stresses the importance of opening up questions more than offering answers (Millán, 2014), in this special issue the contributors explore these openings and uncertainties that unsettle established Western ways of producing knowledge. Discomfort becomes a tool for that disruption as a feminist decolonial intervention that reveals the onto-epistemic violence that neglects and assimilates knowledges that do not fit into hegemonic conceptualizations of the world we live in. Our interrogation of discomfort as a method and as a practice gives relevance to knowing from experience, exploring emotions, and being aware of what bodies tell. Our reflections come from encounters, from exchanges, from relationships that make us aware of what we do not know. As Nancy clearly argues in her article, while institutions dismiss and devalue embodied knowledge, we attune to affects and body signals that reveal the violence committed by those same institutions. Recognising how Western science create shamefulness in feelings that are shown as associated to weakness and to a lack of professionality such as feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability or bewilderment, we embrace the discomfort linked to these feelings for knowledge creation.
In this sense, we draw on genealogies of scholars in the social sciences and humanities that have developed an interest in investigating the transformative potential that discomfort can produce, for instance in questioning set ways of knowing, the power of heteronormative public spaces, privileges, and encounters with “others” (Ahmed, 2014; Slater, 2017; Kirmani, 2020). The “pedagogy of discomfort” proposed by Megan Boler (1999) applies to formal and informal educational spaces where discomfort becomes an entrance for a collectivized engagement in learning to see differently (1999, p.176). This proposal has led to a range of critiques and interest, particularly in feminist and critical race pedagogies, interested in expanding the attention of earlier work on individual and collective emotions to theorising discomfort in relation to structural inequalities and affective assemblages (Zembylas, 2013).
The articles gathered in this publication explore the discomfort generated when knowing is exceeded (as Marisol de la Cadena would put it in her argument for ‘not knowing’ as an analytical method, 2021). Excess appears in the encounter with one another, with those we work with, and it is identified as a shock experience (as Ana reflects on), raises doubts and relates to feeling unanchored (as Lisa and Andrea bring up), to craziness or to ‘what doesn’t make sense’ (Elona), disorientation (Kayla) or to confronting emotional denial (Nancy and David). In consonance with De la Cadena suggestion of “not knowing” not as a result and not implying that we will eventually know (2021, p.254), we consider the challenge of certainties as an openness to other ways of understanding that does not search completeness, closure or fixed definitions but inhabits vulnerability and displaces an illusion of control. The discomfort found in this embracement of uncertainty also leads us to unveil colonial and patriarchal structures and practices and to explore how to cultivate ethical and emancipatory modes of existence.
Challenging certainties and exploring discomfort is done in our research practice and through our writing. Contradictions, hesitations, are part of processes of encounter and reflected in our articles. Some of the articles experiment with format and language in conveying discomfort (as we previously explored in García-González et al., 2022). Inventing new words, merging languages, creating vignettes that recreate the messiness of the everyday, using the literary genre or putting into question the (im)possibility of translation is part of how discomfort inspires our writing from our understanding that to represent is always a political act.
The exploration of discomfort allows for the production of new knowledges, the identification of different research questions, repositioning and relocating. Looking at discomfort has been theoretically / epistemologically rich for us. As an example, David’s work on sexuality of gypsy communities came from reflecting on his emotional discomfort in the field around his masculinity and male identity. Discomfort as a space for analysis led him to break with homogenizing conceptualizations of the community studied and perceive differences within. As Lisa reflects in her article, discomfort appears as an embodied reminder in encountering difference and alters us on the colonial tendency to make difference the same. Encountering otherness entails navigating divergent conceptual and emotional frameworks, raising questions on ethics and politics, giving space to perplexity, bewilderment, conflicts, and also pleasure. Otherness not always relate to those marginalized in hegemonic structures of power, but in this collection, otherness also relates to the antagonism found in the examination of institutions that inflict violence -such is the case of the work of Ana and Nancy. Attending to discomfort(s) as affective resonances and affective practices offers some learning for cultivating more ethical relationalities, Elona states in her exploration. However, she also adds that discomfort can also reinforce violence towards otherness.
Relationships created along our research processes need to be developed through a deep reflection on where we stand ethically, morally and politically. The value given to an epistemology of the “I don’t know” does not mean neutrality but, to the contrary, embracing uncertainty in research dismounts the illusion of neutrality established by modern science and reveals the unevenness and the multiple violence that is kept hidden when we stay positioned in the role of spectators occupying seats of comfort (echoing Boler, 1999 and Petillo, 2020). Sitting with discomfort, nonetheless, could give rise to question the relationships of power that we are embedded in and the hierarchies of knowledge that create onto-epistemic denial towards otherness. Being with discomfort allows us to see clearer the frames that structure what we know and highlights the importance of acknowledging that we don’t know.
Contributors openly reflect on how colonial and patriarchal violence affects us in our everyday and our research. Nancy explores, from her own experience of violence and attuned with other survivors, what experiences are acknowledged by institutions, and which are not, and what we can/want/are willing to acknowledge and become accountable for. The violence revealed when staying with discomfort is about social and relational processes, Kayla asserts, but bound up in larger historical processes of inequalities and oppression. Relations of domination in the global capitalist structure are also the basis of the violence of dichotomies that Andrea highlights and feels trapped by in her research. The fact that we might be complicit in violence reproduction is an important alert stressed along this volume. As stated by Lisa, staying with discomfort opens a space to question and meditate upon our complicity in practices that reproduce colonialism. Discomfort in this sense is methodologically and ethically useful in the relations of obligation and response-ability to place, people and more-than-human.
Ana María Forero Angel’s article outlines the methodological and conceptual elements for an anthropology of discomfort, based on several decades of fieldwork with members of the Colombian Armed Forces. She proposes to take seriously the role of emotions and affects, weaving it together with biographical accounts, ethnographic work, positioning and repositioning oneself and different forms of writing. She shows how the configuration of a horizon of meaning is closely linked to affective force and how the limits of this horizon are modified after an experience of shock and discomfort. The anthropology of discomfort proposed by the author manages to transcend postmodern postures and show how the broadening of a horizon of meaning and the understanding of worldviews, perhaps one of the most important tasks undertaken by ethnography, is possible when the tensions, contradictions, and emotions inherent to fieldwork are recognized and studied–a process which requires the construction of collaborative and multimodal types of narratives and modes of research.
Reflecting on research in relation to armed conflict, this time in the Basque Country, Andrea García-González takes a critical decolonial feminist perspective to investigate the epistemic risks scholars (and others) face as they flee from discomfort. Her ethnographic work with people with different ideological stances and diverse experiences of the armed conflict leads Andrea to deploy the concept of ‘tambaleo’ to understand the affective displacement present when moving between what are often presented as binary categorizations (terrorist/non-terrorist, activist/scholar, the ‘two sides’ in a conflict…). What is at stake in this article are the ways in which power structures draw us back into their normalizing logic. By dispensing with discomfort, the author argues, we become complicit in the violence of power structures.
Athanasia (Nancy) Francis’ article is an honest analysis based on ethnographic and auto-ethnographic activist research, linked to critical feminist methodologies. It carries out a reflection on gender violence and resistance, focusing on the violence committed by institutions in the denial and disbelief of experiences of violence. It encourages affective listenings on complaints and problematize the position as a knower subject. A subject located at the borderland of being an activist researcher as well as a feminist activist against gender violence.
Also from an experience relating gender and discomfort, David Berna develops an exploration of how masculinity is enacted and resisted in a gypsy community in Spain. His article highlights the emotions and feelings of discomfort that anthropologist feel during fieldwork and that includes processes of estrangement as key aspects in a reflective methodological approach to research. His proposal entails a systematic analysis of how this emotional experience is produced at the different stages of fieldwork and how we can incorporate emotional discomfort in a methodological systematization.
Kayla Rush’s article also sets out a methodological propositions for researching discomfort, this time in relation to art installations and intercultural community arts in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Through (auto)ethnographic experiences, she incorporates and gives language to the different ways in which art (and people!) can arouse discomfort, investigating the sociocultural meanings this makes visible. The article brings the ethnographic work into conversation with theoretical work on art and affect. In doing so, it explicates, with clear and diverse fieldwork examples, three categories for examining affective discomfort in relation to art: discomfort from art, discomfort about art, and discomfort with other peoples’ reaction to art.
Elona Hoover’s article in turn explores practices of discomfort in collective urban projects, drawing on fieldwork in Paris and London. She does so by composing her experiential ethnographic research with urban communing projects with insights from affect theory, the notion of queer discomfort, and more-than-human geography. The article offers a way of examining discomfort as an affective resonance, both in individual and collective bodies. The article explores how discomfort can bring attention to gendered, racial and ecological dimensions of collective action. Crucially, it examines how discomfort can also be generative affective practice, and one that might inspire response-ability in troubled times and places.
Lisa Slater’s article also engages with the generative possibilities of discomfort as a prompt for onto-epistemological, methodological, and ethical reflection. She draws on her ethnographic experience as a non-Indigenous, settler scholar in a collaborative cultural revitalisation project linked to the Wolgalu/Wiradjuri Aboriginal community’s connection to Gyack, the corroboree frog. In the process, the author sets out to move beyond documenting their ‘scholarly discomfort’ to instead harnessing discomfort to make room for hesitation, uncertainty, and doubt: revising their stake in knowledge production. She weaves concepts and ideas of discomfort together with discomfort in practice, with elements of autoethnography. Its takes seriously moments of incommensurability and incomprehension that arise in the process of developing more just and decolonising ways of being and doing research.
We, the editors, would like to conclude this introduction with a series of questions, invitations for those readers who will venture out into the worlds of the contributors and their ethnographic discomforts.
Which articles do you find more comfortable to read?
Are there aspects that leave you without resolution? What does that mean to you?
When is discomfort intentionally provoked?
When is visible discomfort dangerous, or even unethical?
What are the obstacles to noticing discomfort?
How might we (researchers) propose other ways of entering and doing fieldwork that allows us to account for discomfort?
What do you think you can learn from discomfort?
‘I feel I cannot write anymore’ Encountering Discomfort and Negotiating Vulnerability as a Feminist Activist Researcher Discomforting ethnographic knowledges Biographical (Re)Locations Affective agencies of discomfort Fieldwork in Discomfort Discomforting Methodologies Situating Discomfort in the Cracked Art World