On questions of access, authenticity, and authority in ethnographic research.
Over the years, anthropology’s position on which type of ethnographer has the most advantageous position has shifted. During the 1970s and 1980s it was thought that only a non-native anthropologist, or a “true outsider,” would be able to objectively study the natives of a culture. This perspective hailed from the colonial roots of the discipline and predominated during a period wherein non-native anthropologists were the primary researchers featured within the discipline. This was certainly true for the anthropological study of Iran. Prior to 1978, non-Iranian Iran scholars such as Mary Hegland, Michael Fischer, William O. Beeman, and Erica Friedl authored many of the ethnographies that received wide circulation and attention, but shifting approaches in anthropology coalesced with the 1979 Revolution to drastically change the ethnographic terrain in Iran, raising methodological questions about access, authenticity, and authority.
Following the post-colonial turn, some wondered if native anthropologists actually had the more advantageous position due to their “intimate” knowledge of their interlocutors and in the years after the revolution native Iranian scholars, including Shahla Haeri and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, gained prominence within the ethnographic literature. During the Khatami era, those of us entering Iran to conduct ethnographic fieldwork were “halfies” or “somewhat native” anthropologists; Whereas the natives were Iranian-born, halfies were foreign-born but still claimed strong ties to Iran. What placed people like myself in this later group was a combination of having some Iranian heritage (my parents were born and raised in Iran and only migrated to the U.S. shortly before I was born), a somewhat native command of Persian (for me it was my first language, despite the fact that I was raised in the U.S.), and, for many of us, Iranian passports, which were crucial in gaining entry to Iran.
Following the post-colonial turn, some wondered if native anthropologists actually had the more advantageous position due to their “intimate” knowledge of their interlocutors.
As the turn toward reflexivity became increasingly important, some native and halfie anthropologists began to ponder their representations of “culture.” Though we had unique and intimate access to Iran, our vantage points were still liminal. Precisely who and what we had access to within Iran was heavily shaped by our outsider status, an important factor when studying a country where willingness to engage outsiders—and particularly Westerners—is a central tenet of Iranian identity politics that steers native and halfie anthropologists toward the study of particular types of subcultures.
For my fieldwork, being a halfie had an important advantage: I could fly low on the Iranian governmental radar. Unlike for many non-native researchers, I could enter essentially as a tourist or an Iranian returning home. This was a significant asset, one I should have more fully appreciated, as it afforded me a unique degree of mobility. I had a place to stay with family. My Persian was “kitchen-table Farsi,” which meant that I could communicate with my interlocutors—primarily young people—in their own vernacular. The street slang I spoke (much to the chagrin of my parents) was very similar to that of my interviewees.
Iranian authorities did not see me as a real researcher, so I was not followed for the first three years of my fieldwork. This dubious, but fortunate, distinction became clear to me in conversation with members of the social sciences department at Tehran University. A professor of mine had made an introduction for me to colleagues at the university. When I called at the university office after my arrival in Tehran, the professor appeared shocked. He indicated that he was expecting someone and something else. When I asked for clarification, he commented “I thought it would be a real farangi [a “foreigner,” usually meaning White] researcher, not an Iranian girl looking to do some research while having fun on her summer vacation.”
My status as “somewhat American” was also helpful when I made ethnographic mistakes such as misusing words or being overly blunt. My interlocutors generously chalked it up to my being farangi and not knowing any better, and for this, I was and remain eternally grateful. Later, critics would add that I took advantage of some young Iranians “westoxication” to secure my interviews. I will never know the true reasons for my interlocutors’ willingness to engage with me, but I suspect that they are complex, and I am grateful for how generously they opened their worlds up to me.
But following the publication of my book, Passionate Uprisings, my status as a halfie was used to question and in some cases undermine not just the authenticity of the research but also my own authenticity. Audience members at talks and Iranian scholars tested me on my language ability. Iranians in the U.S. wondered if I had not just misunderstood my interviewees. Some who attended my talks assumed that my research could not be true because I was not really Iranian and had not grown up in Iran, while others worried that I was too close to my interviewees because I was young and Iranian. On one hand, I was criticized for being too distant from the culture I studied, and on the other, for being altogether too close to it.
To be sure, the field of Iranian studies is not alone in facing these challenges. Rey Chow, a theorist who writes about diasporic intellectuals has pointed to similar patterns in writing about China. The question of authenticity, and the issue of having to prove oneself is the very reason that reflexivity about the heritage debate is so vital. Controversies also arise for ethnographers who are not seen as insiders, Consider for example the case of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and her writing about mental health in rural Ireland. Those about whom she wrote were angered by the way Scheper-Hughes had portrayed them, and felt that it was “unfair” for an “outsider” to represent the community in this way.
Without a doubt, issues around access, authenticity, and authority are all interconnected. Artificially grouping them into these different themes is an attempt to neatly organize that which is messy, complex, and spills over between disciplines, generations, and inside and outside academia. Many of the challenges with what I am calling authority have to do with access and authenticity. Perhaps if access to Iran were not so difficult, writing about and becoming an “expert” on Iran would not be so contentious. It is possible that if there were more researchers working on and in Iran, colleagues would have a greater desire to work together rather than at odds. It is also important not to ignore the larger context of the politics of Iran. The periods after the revolution and, most pivotally, during and after the George W. Bush presidency brought Iran into the limelight even more than it had been during the Shah’s time, and possibly more than during the Iranian revolution itself. Today, with Iran once again the focus of much controversy, and with many voices trying to claim the voice of the nation, the question once again becomes, who gets to speak for Iran?
Better US-Iranian relations could usher in more diverse portrayals of Iran—in popular literature and scholarship.
What literary invention can reveal about the reality of the Iranian Revolution.
How the Green Movement mobilized social media in the interest of social change.