- The Unintentional Activist:Questions of Action, Activism, and Accountability
I have never considered myself an activist. My problem with the term does not stem from debates about whether ethnography should be an activist endeavor but rather from the implication that ethnography could be anything else. If we think of an "activist" as someone who actively engages in the field, we must ask: What differentiates an activist anthropologist from an anthropologist who does not have activism as a central focus or goal? What are the limits and possibilities of action when it is conceived of in activist terms? Who or what has control over where action begins, ends, and takes shape? In this essay I explore what happens when our desires for—and understandings of—action do not coincide with those of our field consultants. By focusing on linguistic accountability as a realm of underexplored action in ethnographic contexts, I question how promises become constituted as actions and the effects this has on fieldwork relationships.
Many anthropologists have struggled with the role of communication—or miscommunication—in negotiating their place in a community or neighborhood. Jean Briggs writes explicitly about the problem of trying to find her place, as an emotional and expressive American anthropologist, among an Utku community in the Arctic, where "equanimity in the face of difficulty is a high virtue" (Briggs 1970, 230). Unlike the Utku she lived among, who "kept well under control whatever negative feelings they may have had," Briggs had a hard time not appearing emotionally volatile (279). When some white (kapluna) fishermen arrive to exchange a canoe they have borrowed from the Utku, Briggs notices a hole in the canoe that was not there when they first [End Page 102] borrowed it. In response to their request for another canoe, she "exploded," and lied in order to prevent them from borrowing a second canoe. Briggs's Utku friends, deeply upset by her actions, did not express their dismay directly. Instead, she finds a letter (not intended for her) in which an Utku friend calls her "a liar," "annoying," and explains that "she gets angry (ningaq) very easily" (286). From then on, even when she tries to communicate, with good intentions, Briggs is seen as emotionally disruptive and is consequently alienated from the community. Briggs's case illustrates the ways in which our best intentions may betray us. In a relatively new social sphere we can often say things that "act" in ways unbeknownst to us, with consequences that we do not intend.
Significant to both Briggs's story and my own are the different ways in which communicative practices are understood by different social actors, especially as emotional and practical commitments are negotiated between ethnographer and field consultant. We can see that while anthropologists may be acutely aware, analytically and theoretically, of the active and performative power of communicative and linguistic practices (in legally binding verbal contracts, or in spoken vows, for example), we may not be as apt to thoroughly consider how our own words translate into accountability and action. Often, when we meet people in the field, words are the first things to be exchanged: we say hello, we exchange contact information, we make commitments on the fly. While some anthropologists initiate verbal contracts at the outset of fieldwork, others start with written consent, simultaneously hoping to catalyze the trust needed for ongoing friendships and enduring relationships (Bowles 2010; Mathias 2010). Since the rise of sociolinguistics and language-in-communication studies in the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists have been attentive to the role of communication in the formation of relationships (Labov (1965] 1972; Hymes 1964,  1981). However, as ethnographers, are we as analytical about the impacts of our own commonplace exchanges? In fieldwork, when does talking translate into accountability?
When I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, during the summer of 2009 to conduct preliminary dissertation research on Romani activism and social relations, I called Ivalena—a friend of a friend—to meet about my research. She excitedly told me that her housekeeper, Nonka, was someone I should meet because she is a very "hard-working and intelligent" [End Page 103] Romani woman. We arranged an introduction the following week...