The Researcher’s Role in Militant Ethnography

Sympathy and Strain with the Research Context

Convenor: Stefano Boni (Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia)

This panel will illustrate and discuss methodological and ethical issues emerging when carrying out militant qualitative research. In comparison with more politically neutral ethnographic styles, militant research produces a particularly charged blending of political positioning in the interaction between the ethnographer and the research context. Militant ethnographers refuse to limit themselves to a mere academic role and aim to use their ethnographic experience and knowledge to assume – through personal involvement – a political role, aimed at a concrete transformation of power relations. In this process the ethnographer necessarily interacts with the political agenda of the research context, especially when this is very lively, as for example in social movements, unions, grass-root activism or labour and street protests. The political interplay between militant ethnographers and politically charged contexts may interest at least four domains: a) the ethnographer’s political positioning in relation to that of the activists (ranging from total alignment and support, sympathy mixed with reflexive critiques to hostility emerged since the begging or during fieldwork); b) the research’s effects on power dynamics within the activists (positions of leadership, decision making processes); c) the research’s effects on the wider political milieu within which the activists interact, composed of other groups that are addressing similar issues (groups may collaborate but at times there may be competition, and this may affect the ethnographer); d) the research’s effects on the relation between activists and the real or presumed beneficiaries of their struggle, for example migrants, exploited labourers or homeless. Papers should address the specific methodological and ethical dynamics resulting from the political entanglement of research and activism in their fieldwork context, attempting at the same time to sketch their stance on broad methodological and ethical issues able to resonate with other researchers. Papers based on qualitative research are welcomed from all human and social sciences (anthropology, sociology, geography, pedagogy) as well as papers based on research carried out in professional contexts (for example in refugees’ assistance).

Open Questions 

What was the degree of your political alignment with the research context? Did strains, tensions or misunderstandings with a political relevance emerge during fieldwork; if yes, for what reasons? Did your sympathy or hostility to the research context condition your research techniques? What were the methodological implications of your political positioning vis à vis the research context? Can an active engagement of the ethnographer as a facilitator, bridge or mediator between contexts inspire new political practices? Do you believe research can help provide activists tools to improve their action; if yes is this achieved through alignment or a reflexive and critical stance?


Militant ethnography, social movements, activism, methodological positioning, political positioning.

Fields of Study

Political anthropology, public anthropology, political sociology, ethnography of social movements, action research.

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