1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 2 (December 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Biographical (Re)Locations

Published Online: 22 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 2 (December 2022)
Page range: 14 - 40
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

I will structure the text in six parts. I. ‘Anthropology: exercises in (re)location, instability, and discomfort’, in which I will give an account of the theoretical horizon in which I stand; II. ‘Biography and research on the military’, in which I will assert that biography, research questions, and ways of inquiring are related; III. ‘Learning to live in instability: consolidating research questions’, in which I will argue that instability is a fundamental part of anthropological research; IV. ‘Positions born out of (re)locations’, in which I will define my theoretical and research proposal; V. ‘Towards an anthropology of discomfort’, in which I will sketch the ethical questions that have been raised about my inquiries and acknowledge the need for experimental and collaborative writing; and VI. ‘Discomfort and the writing process’, where I give an account of different writing exercises. In the text between asterisks (***) the reader will find extracts from my field diaries, childhood memories, and reflections that interrupt the structure of the text. This, in order to bring you closer to my discomfort.

Anthropology: exercises in (re)location, instability, and nonconformity

I. This article aims to account for the relationships between biography, emotions, discomfort, instability (Gadamer, 1999), location, and relocation (Rosaldo, 2000) in anthropological research, specifically in military research in Colombia. In ‘Culture and Truth: a new proposal for social analysis’, Rosaldo explains that the ethnographer understands certain social phenomena better than others because they are located, or what is the same, because they belong to horizons (Gadamer, 1999). It is necessary to clarify that when we speak of horizon, we are dealing with a metaphor that refers to what we are able to see from our perspective, daughter of a historical distillate, heir of a tradition. The horizon is that which marks a limit. The anthropological exercise is inscribed in horizons, it is located.

Being located, however, does not mean being a prisoner of our limits. Shock experiences (Gadamer, 1999) force us to relocate ourselves and thus to expand the limit of what we are able to see. In other words, they force us to understand the meaning of what challenges us and thus oblige us to broaden the scope of our horizons. Let us see. Not just any object of understanding, not just any “other” has the force to cause an experience of shock and the consequent exercise of relocation and expansion of limits. The experience of shock occurs because the practices and narratives of the otherness we come to see force us to signify them in a new way, breaking the unity of meaning we had given them. In the words of Strathern (1999) we are dazzled. That is to say, our attention is petrified in moments from which it is not possible to free ourselves. We are dazzled in front of what breaks our units of meaning. For this very reason, our analytical frameworks, our tools of understanding must be adapted to dazzlement.

The experience of shock, the dazzlement, makes us see the “other” in a different light and this does not leave us indifferent: the other enters our image of the world (Wittgenstein, 2003) in a new way and forces us to attend to new meanings. The shock experience moves us towards the construction of the right research question. In this sense, the task of the anthropological profession and of those of us who practice it is, then, to find the right questions and thus “recognize the radical and immeasurable singularity of the other and recover a sense of plurality that defies any easy total reconciliation. We must learn to live in this instability” (Gutiérrez, 2017, p.53). In this article I argue that there is an intertwining between biography/horizon, experience of shock, dazzlement, discomfort, emotions, construction of research questions and writing. I argue that, in my case, there is an intertwining between being Colombian, being the daughter of a leftist militant, the research questions about the military and the way of writing about the groups that hold power.

This text embraces the proposal of experimental writing (Rose, 1993; Prats, 1984) that recognizes the closeness between the ethnographic and literary genre (Marcus and Clifford, 1984) and the importance of biography in the formulation of research questions (Behar, 2009; 2020), as well as the need to embrace different genres. For this very reason, the reader will be in front of a writing that makes use of the styles that account for this relationship, precisely because the text strives to account for the intertwining between biography/horizon, dazzle, discomfort, emotions, construction of research questions and the exercise of writing.

The reader will find texts between asterisks (***) which are excerpts from my field diaries and memories of my childhood. They will also find pages of ‘Ortiz’, a graphic novel written with the artist Esteban Borrero. ‘Ortiz’ has two protagonists: an anthropologist and a professional soldier (the lowest rank in the Colombian army). Both are synecdoche. The first, of anthropologists, children of leftist militants who deal with questions that have to do with the military. The second, of professional soldiers who “give their lives to the cause” and at the end of the service must face the loneliness, daughter of the incomprehension of families, friends, and civil society. The pages of the graphic novel in no way illustrate or exemplify the arguments contained in this article: they interrupt, dialogue with the writing, and strengthen, in a non-textual way, the proposed intertwining.

I have deliberately left the vignettes in Spanish. The textual composition throughout the intertwining of biography and research question has passed through multiple languages. Amongst them, Spanish, my mother tongue. I believe that linguistic diversities should be exacerbated in writing.

In other words, the reader will find a montage composed of different registers: I. The academic; II. Field diary entries; III. Biographical notes, and IV. Excerpts from the graphic novel. You will find a commitment to experimental writing that puts on stage the different registers that I have gone through for the construction of the question that is born in my horizon and that forces me to write in a non-canonical way.


First memory

When the adults were leaving, when I stayed in the courtyard freezing to death, I imagined a raid. I imagined soldiers arriving at dawn, armed with rifles. I saw them throw the bookshelves on the floor, seize the subversive literature: the three volumes of Capital, the three volumes of the Selected Works of Marx and Engels, and lesser works that would no doubt have served to blame my father. In my fantasy, I saw the revolver being planted in my cupboard (the expression “planted” seemed marvellous to me, I couldn’t help but digress from my hallucination and imagine putting the revolver in a pot and waiting for a weapon tree to grow). In my fantasy, the soldier said: ‘these guys don’t respect anything, he put the guns in the girl’s clothes’. The climax of my hallucination was: soldiers putting my dad handcuffed, beaten, and hooded into the army truck while my mum, my brother, and I started to make a racket. The three of us in our pyjamas would go running and wake up the neighbours with ‘Help, help, they took him away!’. (Forero Angel Ana María, Barrero Esteban, forthcoming publication).

I want to revisit the following sentence: recognise the radical and immeasurable uniqueness of the other and recover a sense of plurality that defies any easy total reconciliation. We must learn to live in this instability. Understanding the military is a permanent exercise, as we shall see, in the instability of discomfort.


II. The Anthropological endeavour must deal, then, with the permanent search for understanding the practices of the “Other” that inevitably bursts, in an unavoidable way, into the life world of the researcher. For my part, the task of understanding the military, whom I conceived only as repressors and as a synonym of fear and anxiety, became unavoidable (Gadamer 1999) when, in 1996, I was able to listen for the first time to their testimonies of pain and fragility. These were meaningless in my horizon, in my location, and therefore broke the meaning I gave them. The soldiers spoke of their dead, of their disappointments.


DISCOMFORT, in the most colloquial of senses according to the RAE: 1. f. Lack of comfort. 2. f. annoyance (ǁ action of annoying). 3. f. p. us. Disgust, anger.

DISCOMFORT, together with anthropologist Andrea García-González, author of the article ‘I Feel I Cannot Write Anymore: Exploring Violence through Discomfort in a Feminist Approach to the Basque Armed Conflict’ published in this monographic volume, I define discomfort as an epistemic and interpretative resource. I emphasise, with García and Chadwick (2021), that discomfort must be conceptualised as an affection that lives in relations, spaces, and relations of power. It is an affective force that gives life to methodological, interpretative, and analytical spaces. Discomfort is a constitutive part of knowledge creation which, also in dialogue with García, I define as ‘the aspect of consciousness urging you to act on the knowledge gained’ (2015: 237).


The force of the military’s statements forced me to construct a question that would guide me in understanding the meaning they attributed to their practices and narratives and that would make me uncomfortable in order to move, to (re)situate myself in a better understanding of those who until 1996 had been simple synonyms of fear and repression. I will explain this point in the following paragraphs. For now, I argue that the discomfort, the dazzlement, and the experience of shock did not leave me indifferent and forced me to construct a question that respected the demands of listening to the other military man, who demanded to be understood from his fragility, from his vulnerability. I insist that the anthropologist’s task, mine, is to recognize the unfamiliarity of what challenges us/me and to construct questions that allow us to understand the meaning of what has entered, with inescapable force, in our horizon with clear demands of listening. The narratives of the pain of policemen and soldiers placed me in the position to understand the force (not the truth or falsehood) of their statements. The experience of shock repositioned me in a better place to inquire about the Colombian Armed Forces.

1The Armed Forces in Colombia consist of the National Police and the Military Forces (Army, Navy and Air Force).

Thus, constructing the appropriate question obliges one to assume, to experience the discomfort that precedes a necessary relocation that is indispensable to change the perspective from which one inquires. Let it be clear from now that this receptivity does not presuppose neutrality or self-cancellation, on the contrary, it implies taking charge of one’s own anticipations, one’s own prejudices so that the “Other” can manifest itself in its otherness and thus obtain the possibility of confronting its meaning with the previous opinions of the researcher, of the anthropologist.


Extract from the field diary 2016

In the table I was assigned to interview the soldiers. M. says, ‘I’m 39 years old, I’m old. I have given my whole life to the army. I missed the birth of my daughters and I am starting my fifth treatment for Leishmeniasis. I can’t go back to the area. I’m asking the medical board to tell me what percentage of money I’m entitled to, but what am I going to do with this beaten body? I’m like a glass, I’m beaten, I don’t know when I’m going to break, nobody in the civil society is going to hire me, I can’t carry heavy loads, I don’t know how to do anything…’. (Forero Angel Ana María, Barrero Esteban, forthcoming publication)


Biography and research on the military

2Some excerpts from this chapter were already worked on in Forero Angel and Frederic (2019).

I. I was born in 1975 in Bogotá, Colombia. In 1980 I entered school under my father’s warning, ‘don’t give your house number to anyone, you never know’. With his warning, my father, a member of a minor movement of the Colombian left, was echoing the atmosphere at home: fear and hatred of the military who, at any moment, could break into our daily life to raid it and disappear him.

Figure 1

‘Ortiz’, Illustration by Esteban Borrero

My father, who always made it clear that he was a Marxist socialist and not a communist, was a militant in favour of the agrarian reform and opposed the coalition of liberal and conservative parties consolidated in the National Front. During this period, conservatives and liberals established coalition governments, excluding the participation of other political forms. Described with humour, cynicism and irony by his friends as “ideologist of XYZ”, my father’s personal priority was to make the socialist agenda a reality. In the year I entered school and heard my father’s warning, Colombia was under a state of siege and therefore the armed forces were granted exceptional powers over the civilian population whose constitutional guarantees were suspended.

Without the need for a dictatorship

3During the first half of the 20th century, under the influence of U.S. national security policy, the national security policy was consolidated and the figure of the internal enemy was entrenched: threat to national democracy embodied in guerrillas and social movements (Leal Buitrago, 2003; 2006; Ugarriza and Pabón, 2016, Iturralde 2003; García Villegas and Uprimny 2006; García 2009; Ugarriza and Pabón 2017).

, the military enjoyed privileges such as the power to judge civilians and to reach executive power by becoming mayors of some regions. It is worth remembering that this power had been consolidating since 1970. Lawyers Mauricio García and Rodrigo Uprimny (2005) point out that the state of siege was implemented in Colombia almost uninterruptedly from 1970 to 1991. During this period, Colombia lived 206 months under a state of emergency, that is, 17 years, which represented 82% of the time elapsed. During this period, deep restrictions were imposed on public liberties and the military enjoyed the permanent power that exceptionality gave them. In short, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Colombian Armed Forces had the prerogatives of a military regime (Leal Buitrago, 2003), but it was not until the 1991 Constitution that these prerogatives were limited (arts. 212, 213, and 215). The permanent power given to the military by the exceptionality was translated into the repression of the communist/socialist enemy who, stigmatized as an enemy of democracy, had to be militarily abated.

Early on, the echoes of exceptionality materialized in my house in the anxiety and paranoia that Taussig (1992) describes as characteristic of states of emergency. These, the anthropologist explains, involve a language in which guerrillas, social protests, and any actor associated with the “enemy of democracy” are described as likely to disappear. The emotion that prevails in these states is paranoia, the “you never know”. You never know what might happen, you never know if a friend or a relative might disappear, you never know who you are talking to, a friend from militancy, a “tira”?

4Tira in the language of the militants is the spy of the Armed Forces who infiltrates the activities of the left to identify weak points, enemies and, based on the information obtained, to support in the elaboration of extermination strategies.


1. My mom prepared blankets. I don’t know where she got so many. My dad’s friends slept over everywhere. They had to be taken care of. They could disappear. My mom would cook, pounds and pounds of minced meat with bacon: my dad’s friends would dip the arepas in the sauce. Me, I was forbidden to memorize names, phone numbers, and faces. ‘It’s for your safety, chiquita’. (Forero Angel Ana María, Barrero Esteban, forthcoming publication)

II. Hello? Mr. Agent, please tap the phone discreetly, I can’t hear the call. (Forero Angel Ana María, Barrero Esteban, forthcoming publication)


The military become visible in my horizon as a threat, as an otherness to be feared and to beware of. An otherness that does not deserve to be understood and towards which one should feel only fear because ‘you never know what might happen if you fall into their hands’. In the 1990s and 2000s my father had already abandoned militancy. The family’s safety had become his priority. The need to enforce the socialist agenda could be satisfied in the classroom. Complicity with leftist groups put the stability of his family at risk. The domestic space was limited to being a refuge for lower-ranking militants, who did not put our well-being at risk.

II. In 1996, I was studying anthropology and I was asked to do an ethnography on the Historical Museum of the National Police. The question guiding the research was about the usefulness of the Museum to hide the institutions’ repressive actions. It only took two meetings with Carrillo, the 18-year-old guide (a contemporary of mine), a visit to the fallen in service room, and some chatting with the directors for the question to begin to waver and transform.

That is, after having an experience of shock, daughter of discomfort and instability, my question changed. The similarities found between the narratives that justified the raison d’être of the National Police, the narratives that described those killed in action, the ones that claimed the need to improve the living conditions of Colombians, and the speeches heard at home, forced me to understand the collection in a different way. These similarities forced me to relocate and change the guiding question of the research: in its new version, it inquired about the meaning that the Colombian National Police gave to the staging exhibited in its museum. The consonances found between some narratives of the Museum and the militant narratives marked my interest in approaching what the policemen call “their humanity” and the similarities between the militants’ pain and the pain of the armed forces members.

The image of the other constructed and fed in the domestic and political context of terror acquired complexity. The recurrent visits to the Museum developed into an interest in understanding those who, without the need to have carried out a putsch, helped shape the destiny of the nation. Years later I constructed a new question and inquired about the training of Colombian professional soldiers.

Figure 2

Illustration by Esteban Borrero ‘Ortiz’

Learning to live with instability: consolidation of research questions

In 2005, I was conducting the fieldwork necessary to write my doctoral thesis (Forero Angel, 2018). My question inquired about how professional soldiers are educated, about the motivations they had to become such and persevere in their work. This question was dismantled again and again: the soldiers, regardless of their rank, insisted that the important issue was to address the military history. Colonel Ibarra insisted ‘it is imperative to attend to our version of the facts, which has been systematically ignored by the civilian population, the academy, and the State. Our history is a history of wounds; years in the bush have been of no use, and neither has having won malaria many times. The war goes on and nobody respects us’ (personal communication, Colonel Ibarra, 2005).

5The names of the interviewed persons have been changed to guarantee their anonymity.


Discomfort. Gadamerian hermeneutics, in which I place myself, or better yet the readings and appropriations I have made of Gadamerian hermeneutics, demand listening, they demand openness to what the other is saying, to the meaning of his statements (and practices). Discomfort leads to an embodied listening. Listening does not leave the researcher indifferent.

Ethnographic effect: “Every ethnographic moment, which is a moment of knowledge or insight, denotes a relationship between immersion and movement” (Strathern 1999). The ethnographic experience is totalizing, it implies the anthropologist’s immersion in it, the ethnographic experience is also open, or unfinished, it is an anticipatory exercise, not in the sense that one knows what is going to happen, but because it is open, thanks to the discomfort, the shock, the dazzle of what is to come.


The colonel’s demand synthesized the demands to be heard from the military with whom I dialogued. This was a topos (Forero Angel and and González Quintero, 2021), a recurrence in the narratives, and it was an emotional event (Pedraza, 2017). The emotional force of the expressed provoked discomfort and for the same reason an obligatory movement of relocation. The question about the training of soldiers fell into the void, it did not respect the listening demands of my interlocutors. My question matured, then, into inquiring about the way in which the intellectuals of the institution invent their tradition (Habsbawm and Terence 1983). That is, by the way in which they construct their foundational myths, their moments of glory; by the way in which in their narratives (Jimeno, 2016; Visacovsky, 2016; Hyvarinnen, 2012) they give meaning to the institutional wounds, the moments of glory, and the national enemy. The question allowed me to attend to the demands of listening, without the aforementioned neutrality or self-cancellation.

This question was developed during the two terms of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), who with his Democratic Security Policy saw in the pacification of the national territory and in guaranteeing the Colombians security the indispensable conditions for consolidating the development projects necessary for the modernization of the country. In his agenda, for example, the issues of land distribution and access to education were put on the back burner. During the Uribe administrations, the military retained its leading role in maintaining public order.

In these two presidential periods, the military leadership felt that their sacrifice and mission were finally understood by the political elites. It is worth mentioning that in 2005, Army historians felt free to talk about their institutional and personal wounds (Forero Angel, 2017). At that time, I was surprised, precisely, that the military interviewed defined the Colombian National Army as a fragile, wounded institution, and the soldiers (regardless of their rank) as people who physically and psychologically wounded had to endure the humiliations constantly inflicted on them by the civilian population and the State. Having grown up in a state of terror, in which paranoia portrayed the army as a powerful force capable of bursting at any moment into the daily life of any Colombian, I never ceased to be surprised by the acknowledgement of vulnerability by some institution members.

Thus, following the high commanders demands of being listened to, I could understand that in their image of the world they define themselves as an institution wounded by the governmental elites and by civil society. In their image of the world, the elites have used the army as a fire-fighting force, useful to militarily suffocate the enemy, ignoring its character as a civilizing agent that has driven and accompanied Colombians in a permanent and failed pacifying process, crucial to achieve development.

The high commanders agree that the State has abandoned the Army and that it has never guaranteed decent living conditions to the Colombians who desperately turn to the guerrilla, a military target. For this very reason, civil society sees its army as a mere repressive force. It sees only “the boot that punishes” and for the same reason, in the military narratives, they are unable to thank the sacrifices made (Forero Angel, 2017).

In their narratives, the State has been unable to guarantee dignified living conditions for Colombians. In the words of a high command:

has not been able to guarantee neither education, nor health, nor housing, nor roads. The State sends only its armed forces, its repressive forces. The common citizen knows the State only through its armed forces, which fulfil the mission of pacifying populations that are left devastated, eternally waiting for the civilian forces to enter. We enter, pacify, half build infrastructure and leave without any other presence (personal conversation with Colonel Ibarra, 2007).

In my horizon, the research question, the question for understanding their version of the military history, their wounds, became inescapable.

During the years in which the Havana dialogues took place (2012-2016), the topos emphasized the need to understand how soldiers are victims of the conflict. And being a victim was clearly located in the mutilated body and mental illnesses of the lowest ranking soldiers. Again, the second attempt to address military training fell on deaf ears: senior, mid-level, and professional soldiers found my question oblique. Following the demands of listening, I then concentrated on inquiring about the life trajectories of the institution’s “killables” (Butler, 2012), the so-called “cannon fodder”, the “sacrificeables”. In the narratives I heard, professionalization was a preliminary prelude to ending up as a victim of the conflict.

In other words, the Havana Dialogues and the recently initiated post-conflict context were the occasion for the military (high and low rank) to claim the need for their sacrifices to remain in “the historical memory of Colombia”, defined by some members of the military leadership as a place of political dispute. In their narratives, military feats should be remembered as heroic acts, as sacrifices that blur what in military narratives has been called “the poverty of the image of the victimiser”. For the Army, it became indispensable to stage the mutilated bodies, the wounded minds of the soldiers who had “given their lives to the defence of the Nation”.

The question I constructed, then, inquired about the trajectories of the ‘defeated bodies, which, like glass, crack and become useless, they are about to break, the only thing that can be done with them is to replace them’ (professional soldier, personal communication, 2016). The question led me to understand the polyphony and heteroglossia, the difference of meanings, of being a victim. There are soldiers who define themselves as victims of the conflict: the years in the area that ended in an ambush or a confrontation “defeated” their bodies. There are also soldiers who define themselves as victims of their superiors, some of them corrupt, and ‘who keep the money needed to build a decent health system’. Regardless of how they define themselves, they all agree that the army abandons them when they must return to civilian life, when they must build a ‘future with bodies and souls that only know the combat area’.


The discomfort is no longer in recognising that the pain of the military is similar to that of the militants. The discomfort is no longer in thinking about whether or not I am a spokesperson for the army. The demands of listening from professional soldiers who call themselves “cannon fodder”, “those of us who are worthless”, “those of us who are wanted as long as we can hold the gun” arouse empathy, deep empathy. For 20 years I have studied the Colombian army, I have certainly studied an institution that has power, do professional soldiers have power? Do the killable have power? The dichotomy of powerful soldiers vs. victim population makes no sense. The victim-victimizer category falters. The reflection on power implicit in the concept of nonconformity (Petillo, 2020) shows another edge: to deal with the institutions that govern the destiny of nations (Lutz, 2006), is also to deal with the vulnerable sectors of the institution. To deal ethnographically with the armed forces, the embodiment and emanation of power, forces us to look at those who can be killed, those who are there disposed to be murdered, those who are exposed to violence and are at the mercy of the institution that abandons them. The professional soldier is excluded from the institution: he is a sacrificeable, but, at the same time, he is the heart of the army, he kills and dies for it. The soldier is at the same time both separated and imprisoned.


Positions born from (re)locations

The concern for the military born during the 1980s, when they were synonymous with paranoia and anxiety, was the basis of the questions mentioned in the previous section and matured within a theoretical agenda that, in my case, moves along three axes: the study of narratives, the anthropology of emotions, and Gadamerian hermeneutics. I define narratives, embracing the positions of Jimeno (2017) and Hyvärinnen (2012), as a specific type of narrative in which a temporality is delimited, in which there is a central theme with a beginning, middle, and end, and an identifiable narrative voice.

Narratives are historical, since they are located, inscribed in a horizon. That is to say, they are immersed in the discursive formations of their time and place. Attending to narratives allows, on the one hand, to understand the link established between the subject, the social group, and the circulating narratives. On the other hand, it allows to understand the shaping, validation or contestation of the moral ethical systems of a given social group. It is worth remembering that, in the stories heard during the years in which I have worked on the military, there is a great emotional force, there are emotional events that speak of the bond that soldiers establish among themselves, with the institution, and with civil society. In this order of ideas, it became unavoidable to understand the emotions present in the stories. For this reason, I built a theoretical scaffolding that would allow me to study those emotions as cultural products, as embodied relational acts that live in social practices.

Catherine Lutz and Geoffrey White underline the need for anthropology to deal with emotions in The Anthropology of Emotion (1996). Emotions are socially signified, have an inter-subjective character (Forero Angel, González Quintero, and Wolf, 2020; Jimeno, 2020), must be understood as public phenomena, and are constitutive of social action. This position is followed by authors such as Davies and Spencer (2010) who not only recognize the social character of emotions, but also stress the need to make them a constitutive part of anthropological research. They are inescapable and are therefore a structuring part of ethnographic work. Embracing the anthropology of emotions makes clear that the paranoia that distanced the military from the right to be understood by me now coexists with their pain, with their dead, with their wounds. The (re)locations made me understand that their sufferings are not different from those I had experienced in the state of terror, that their fears are not different from mine. I would like to underline that the complex emotional framework then made me experience different events of shock and construct different questions.

In short, the military have always been visible on my horizon. They have been signified as a synonym of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. However, the aforementioned encounters with Carrillo, with the high command, and with the professional soldiers broke the unity of meaning that the soldiers had in my image of the world. Those encounters made me have a shock experience, the dazzled me, it is worth stressing. It became unavoidable to understand their narratives, their emotions, and their practices while respecting their demands of listening, that is, the meanings that their affections and their wounds have in their horizons.

Towards an ethnography of discomfort

Returning to what has been said so far, I consider it important to highlight the close link that exists between biographies, emotions, (re)locations and research questions. In my case, being the daughter of a left-wing militant shaped questions that led me to construct ethnographies that I could define as uncomfortable.

6In Latin America, anthropology has concentrated its efforts on the study of so-called minorities (indigenous communities, Afro-descendants, victims of the armed conflict), very few studies have aimed at understanding power groups. These types of studies have been carried out by Frederic (2013, 2016), Guber (2001, 2016), Castro (1990, 2009), Camargo Leirner (1995, 1997), Badaró (2009) and Forero Angel (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018), who have dedicated themselves to understanding military institutions from the inside.

Paranoia led me to fear the military; the encounter with their emotions made me dissatisfied to reduce them to a “force to be feared”, to exclude them from the “agenda” of anthropological understanding and forced me to undertake different exercises of (re)location.

In the making of uncomfortable ethnographies, reactions have not been long in coming and I have been questioned about the exercise of understanding the military. These questions are related to the interpretations that are made about my research and about the writing processes. To explain the first point, I would like to bring up an anecdote. During the seminar ‘Violence, Subjectivity, and Culture’, held at the Universidad de los Andes, I presented the conference ‘Imagination and Identity in the Narratives of the Colombian Army’ (Forero Angel, 2014). There, I explained how the members of the Military History Academy invent their history and how they locate within it the origin of their institutional wounds. At the end of the talk, during the few minutes allotted for questions, a representative of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes intervened accusing me of being ‘a public relations officer for the army, which had disappeared and assassinated Colombian leaders and representatives of social movements’. This event, far from being an isolated episode, would happen again in different scenarios. At the 2014 ‘Latin American Studies Association Congress’, for example, I was able to observe that this reaction was not exclusive to victims’ movements. At the end of the talk, a colleague accused me of being the spokesperson of one of the worst armies in the world and, supported by figures, exposed the number of human rights violations committed, introduced himself as a scholar of the Colombian National Army and confessed in front of the audience that he had had to abandon his research because his ethical principles demanded so.

What is common to both reactions? Both assume an association between understanding, justifying, and forgiving. They presuppose that ethnography of discomfort blurs ethical boundaries. Geertz, as early as 1984, would call this association “the fears of relativism”. In his text ‘Anti-Anti-Relativism’, he states that the so-called anti-relativists see in the understanding of otherness an inevitable drift to ethical irresponsibility. For them, understanding otherness is synonymous with conversion, with assimilation of the moral codes, emotions, and behaviours of the community being studied. In this way, the methods of anthropology, aimed at building ethnographic intimacy (Jimeno, 2017), will undoubtedly move the anthropologist to take sides with the community under study, in the case of the study of the military, with a community responsible for countless human rights violations.

However, we can recall with Gadamer that the task of understanding does not presuppose neutrality towards all things, nor does it imply self-cancellation. Understanding the narratives and practices of the Other implies taking charge of one’s own anticipations so that the Other himself can present himself in his otherness and obtain the possibility of confronting his objective truth with the previous opinions of the anthropologist who does not ‘directly and uncritically introduce his own linguistic habits’ (Gadamer, 1999, p. 331). The anthropologist is open to the opinion of the Other, and this openness implies that one puts the opinion of the Other in some kind of relation to one’s own set of opinions, i.e. one puts oneself in a certain relation to the Other, one does not disappear in the Other. Understanding the other in no way implies an act of conversion to their codes and values. In the case of the study of the Colombian military, the uncomfortable ethnography implies understanding that within the military institution there are narratives that are in tension, that contradict each other. It means noting that, within the army, professional soldiers and senior commanders give different meanings to war, to life within the army and to emotions towards the institution. We can remember that understanding puts “the other” in the light of a horizon that is alien to it, and we can emphasise that this in no way neutralises the difference between images of the world. All understanding is always more than just a reliving of someone else’s opinion. The receptivity necessary to grasp the unquestionable of the “Other”, let us remember, presupposes neither neutrality nor complicity.

In other words, an ethnographic approach to the institution has allowed me to understand the polyphony that prevails there. Returning to Clifford (1988), I understand that polyphony is not a tour de force that seeks to suffocate the force or contradictions existing among the multiple discourses. Dealing with polyphony: the multiple voices that coexist in the ethnographic context analysed, implies attending to the heteroglossia of the same term and to the different contexts of meaning production, to the different practices, and to the different ways in which meaning is produced in the ethnographic context. For this reason, one of the purposes of the research on the military has been to privilege the multiplicity of meanings in which the subjects define their enrolment and permanence in the institution. The uncomfortable ethnography does not lead then to justify their actions or to agree with their moral codes; rather than breaking the researcher’s moral codes, it leads to a permanent positioning and repositioning, a permanent search for the right question.

At this point, it is worth noting that in 2015 I first presented a report to the senior commanders who opened the doors for me to work on the institution. One of them asked ‘What have you been doing? You have not understood anything about the army and you are very severe with us, we thought we had found a better interlocutor’. Another said to me: ‘I don’t understand why, after so much work, you publish articles of a few pages in which you do not commit yourself to make it clear that the institution is not the bad guy of the ride, that it is a wounded institution that lacks the support of the civil society’. With their affirmations, the high command demanded what any community studied by an anthropologist wants: to recognize itself in the affirmations made by the researcher.

How, then, to represent the encounter with otherness? How to respect the desired dialogic character of the anthropological exercise when it has to do with a military elite that has had a complex relationship with the civilian population? How to establish the desired complicity with otherness when the anthropological exercise analyses a group described as victimizers? The dialogic exercise of anthropology, or at least that of the anthropology of discomfort, cannot be limited to giving voice to the other. It cannot be limited to promoting a multi-handed writing. The desire, or better yet, the Cliffordian utopia of a plural authority that confers on collaborators, not the simple status of independent enunciators, but rather that of writers, is not always attainable, is not always desirable (Forero Angel, 2017).

It is clear so far that the exercise of understanding does not imply assuming as one’s own the moral codes of the community being listened to, nor does the exercise of writing presuppose a dialogic exercise in which four-handed authorship is privileged. This leads to a second question: how to write while respecting the listening demands of the military? How to make one’s own ethical positioning evident? How to account for the hiatuses in the ethnographic exercise?

Discomfort and writing process


“AMFA: This makes me think about my own practice. I work with soldiers: I hear atrocious stories; I do a curatorial exercise with their narratives. I choose what is left, what to hide. The discomfort is obvious. It is related to openness and vulnerability, but above all to the question of writing, aesthetics, and politics. How to give an account of these encounters? How not to demonise or sanctify the soldiers? They are not victims; they are not victimisers. Discomfort invites me to break categories, the rupture is visceral. I think obsessively about every word I use and the form writing should take. I return to my recently recovered manifesto: Donna Haraway (2016), Michelle Rosaldo (1984), and embodied thoughts, Bakhtin (1984), and the privilege of conflict in characters” (García-González et al, 2022).


Assuming that the ethnographic approach to the Army is made through its narratives, it is explicit that the research objective is to understand the fictions of the members of the military community, that is, the discursive constructions in which beliefs, moral codes, and practices are justified. Now, if one accepts the premise of authors such as Clifford (1988) and Strathern (1999, 2015) who insist that in contemporary anthropology a continuum is established between fieldwork and writing, it is necessary to ask how these fictions should be represented, how to emphasize their character of social construction. It is worth asking then what form to give to the continuum fieldwork on military narratives and writing and how to respect the existing polyphony. These questions have led me to explore different forms of writing. In other words, at different points in the ethnography of discomfort I have explored various ways of accounting for the instability inherent to the movements of understanding the other. Thus, the question of how to write has become inescapable. Returning to M. Strathern (1999), the question of how to make the ideas and narratives that make sense in the daily experience of fieldwork make sense in the context of arguments and analysis of other audiences is mandatory. The same author, in her 2015 writing, appeals to the power of creativity. Ethnographic writing begins in the field, early on it accounts for the relationships and the emotions we build, and therefore must draw on a variety of literary resources. There is no such thing as a single ethnographic genre, not even the same author writes in the same way throughout his or her career.

In 2017, for example, I wrote a book that simulates a play, ‘El coronel no tiene quien le escuche: una aproximación a las narrativas militares’. In the text, I describe a scenario, set out four acts, and build an interlude. In the four acts, I strengthen the image of the military world, give life to the narratives of the historians of the institution, and respect the sense (meaning they have in their image of the world). In the interlude, I corrupt these narratives and generate an experience of estrangement so that the reader remembers that they are immersed in a fiction, in a mise-en-scène (Goffman, 1956). This strategy allowed me to respect the inconsistencies, the tensions present in the narratives and allowed me to ethically position myself in front of what I was listening to. The choice of form is undoubtedly also an aesthetic choice and therefore a political one (Rancière, 2000).

I am currently working on a graphic novel, ‘Ortiz’, with the artist Esteban Borrero. Its main characters are a synecdoche of the anthropologists who investigate armies and professional soldiers in Latin America. The three chapters of the graphic novel stage the history of research on the military, the history of the question, and the history of the different positionings.

In the novel, constructed with ethnographic rigor and patience, I accept the criticisms made of the representational task of anthropology and assume that ethnography is a literary construction in which ethnographers authorize topos and tropes, and in which it is impossible to remove emotions and the belonging to a horizon. In the first part of ‘Ortiz’, the life of the anthropologist A. is narrated, the relationship she had with the military since childhood is told. A. synthesizes the life and academic choices of some “children of the Latin American left” who concentrate their efforts in developing an anthropology of discomfort. The second part narrates the life of Ortiz, a professional soldier, and recounts different emotional events: joining the institution, the death of the lance, war wounds, having to deal with madness and the uncertainty of the future in “the civilian”. The soldier Ortiz brings together the tropes and topos of the narratives of the professional soldiers interviewed. Thus, the novel, free of academic jargon, shows the relationship between biography, emotions, research questions, and writing, a moment in which the speculative nature of knowledge strengthens. And we can remember that Speculative here means the same as the reflection in the mirror. Reflecting is a kind of continuous impersonation. Something is reflected in something else, the castle in the pond for example, and this means that the pond gives the image back to the castle. The reflected image is essentially linked to the aspect of the original in the centre, which is the observer. It has no being for itself, it is like an apparition which is not of itself, and which nevertheless allows the original image itself to appear reflected (Gadamer, 1999).

These two examples of writing speak of different ethnographic moments, of the need to resort to different topos in order to carry out an exercise of translation (Asad, 1984). Creativity and experimental writing are an attempt to respect the aforementioned totalizing character of the ethnographic experience, its unfinished and anticipatory character.


In the simulation of the play and in the graphic novel, the stories of my research questions are narrated, that is, it is narrated how the military have become visible in multiple ways in my horizon, provoking experiences of shock that are an obligatory prelude to understanding, to the expansion of the limits of what is visible from my perspective. In other words, the exercises of (re)location implicit in the investigations led to an inescapable reflection on form, on writing, on how to transmit what was heard. ‘El Coronel no tiene quien le escuche’ and ‘Ortiz’ are exercises that recognize the tensions, contradictions and emotions inherent to fieldwork. These texts seek alliances, collaborations (Marcus, Elhaik, 2010) with forms of writing that move away from papers, from academic essays. The writing I believe in is close to theatre and art. In these exercises, these forms of knowledge are indispensable allies in the construction of - no longer only - ethnographic texts. The anthropology of discomfort brings with it a weariness towards the forms of expression that the traditional academy rewards. Discomfort, academic affection (Petillo, 2020), has led me to recognise the limits of the traditional tropes and topos (Asad, 1984) of anthropological production. Thus, the challenge is to invent new forms of enquiry, new forms of writing and ethics for an anthropology of the contemporary (Rabinaw et al, 2008). And the problem is the following: how to rethink and remake the contemporary conditions of knowledge production, dissemination, and critique in the interpretative sciences? These questions are a different kettle of fish.


I finish writing this chapter on the 7th of May, 2021. In Colombia, the government has militarised the marches. The NGO Temblores reports 1443 cases of police violence, the army veterans’ group asks that soldiers should not be called upon to repress marches: they admit they do not know how to do it. The training received and the weapons provided are inadequate. The veterans do not want soldiers to ‘end up in trouble over human rights issues’. Plainclothes policemen shoot at citizens and the prevailing language is mostly emotional: on Facebook, the Colombian flag upside down reigns. The red stripe is at the top: SOS they are killing us. Some university professors ask students to pass us their names and ID numbers and to send us their location: ‘we will be tracking you all the time’. Our biographies want to serve as a protective umbrella for those who take to the streets. Emotions are inescapable, they are constitutive of our social practice.

This morning, a colleague and I had a meeting in a government office to discuss how to study monuments, their meanings. The monument we were going to start with was torn down. The original people expressed their anger. The meeting was cancelled. Emotion, discomfort, are fundamental in constructing research questions and setting political agendas.

Figure 1

‘Ortiz’, Illustration by Esteban Borrero
‘Ortiz’, Illustration by Esteban Borrero

Figure 2

Illustration by Esteban Borrero ‘Ortiz’
Illustration by Esteban Borrero ‘Ortiz’

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