Ghosts of the field: rendering and retaining meaning

There are two sets of ghosts that we experience when visiting and engaging with field sites. The more obvious are the people whose worlds we seek to study, such as empirical ghosts. The other is the philosophical ghost, which underpins how we approach a particular point of enquiry. This latter ghost travels with us to the field, resting on our observations and indeed guiding how we see. But which “field ghost” remains to sculpt our knowledge, guiding the essence of our study?

This notion, “ghost of the field,” emerged during a conversation I had with a fellow scholar who sought to demystify my “sensed” allegiance with the people who informed my study. This scholar’s stance was that it got in the way of discussing the topic itself. My first reaction was, how could this be when the experience of such persons was the topic?

My topic arose from spending several years engaging with the question of social suffering faced by postwar societies, themselves, in the midst of exploring questions of reconciliation.1During my trips and continued correspondence with local actors, members of NGOs, and international programs, including private citizens, I had accumulated a vast set of experiences, which inspired the development of my own relationship to the questions embedded in their experiences and the social processes they lived. With time, I had acquired a broad archive of field materials, ranging from countless conversations, often repeated with a set of interlocutors, to various documents having to do with formal and informal processes related to the topic.

When discussing the influences of my field engagement with the aforementioned scholar, the latter advised treating them as ghosts. “Leave them in the field,” the scholar emphasized, “you cannot serve their views.” Coincidentally, at the same time I had stumbled upon Joao Biehl’s 2013 essay “Ethnography in the Way of Theory,” in which Biehl seemed not to have struggled with his ghosts of the field, rather pointing out how such engagement is continuous and offers further opportunity to develop the knowledge we set out to achieve.2 But these ghosts of the field are not competing voices that hinder critical knowledge, which seems to be the secret sentiment of scholars. Instead, they anchor us when we grapple with the challenge of critically “framing” them.3


Interlocutors as empirical field ghosts

Interlocutors as “empirical ghosts” sit on the conscience of our writing. We drag their experiences into longstanding epistemological debates, where they gain critical trappings that ultimately strip the force of their meaning and convert experiences into calibrated celebrations of particular methodological approaches. In earnest, I acknowledge that this is a widely accepted procedure of applied theorists. But it continues to be a field struggle for grounded researchers, an awkward academic path grappled with as part of managing the field and the ghosts that we retain.

I was recently told to abandon my interlocutors (as empirical ghosts) for the sake of academic achievement, that simply those who feed my knowledge—who engage me in their world—were now to be disregarded. Pointing out that, ultimately, academic treatment of qualitative research ceremoniously pinches the surface of the experiences we encounter. Our observations are much more clinical than we are willing to accept: we simply collect samples, interpret them accordingly through the acquired microcontextual awareness we absorb during our time in the field, and through monitoring of the field when returned to our notebooks and distanced framework.

The scholar simply said that it was easier to analyze the world of these people with the clarity of distance. The scholar referred to seeing these people as indications rather than voices of meaning that present us with epistemological challenges, namely how to justly transport their accounts through our academic technologies. This indeed was troubling for someone whose field engagement emerged heuristically through a diachronic sequence.4

The work of Joao Biehl and Gilles Deleuze highlight the way we enter social life in the middle of an “unfinished” reality. In this vein, the interlocutors continue their worlds that we so desperately seek to enter into in order to understand the broader social phenomena of the day. Biehl claims they never end and that through our work their presence is almost omnipresent rather than dormant, dominated by critical conceptualizations. We don’t stop engaging. In fact, we continue our relationships with these interlocutors. They became our framework, through which we rationalize critical paradigms and theoretical approaches. At this point, you might say that this is indeed the “hermeneutic” problem, or rather cycle, that as field-based researchers we are challenged with.5


Empirical field ghosts as solace

I mentioned earlier that our interlocutors anchor us as we try to put them into theoretical context. Similarly, in these moments when we are far from the field, so the detachment becomes an unsteady critical processing of our observations into linear discourses. Another academic, a moral anthropologist who will be referred to as R., remarked that our role is to tell their story, but to freely return to them when the analytical pause derails us. R. went on to say that they wait for us by the sidelines, ready to be drawn into our accounts. At the other end are the philosophical ghosts who also wait by the opposite sidelines. They are there to guide the discourse into a distinct critical language. What seems a contest between the two sets of ghosts are actually two teams ready to be directed. R. reminded me that a return to the field happens metaphysically, because much like Biehl found, our interlocutors are present in how we go on to judge the adequacy of the framework we so strongly hold on to in moments when the field site challenges us with events and occurrences that bring up more questions than answers or explanations.


Consolidating empirical and philosophical ghosts

This brings me to my final point, simply that we need to “consolidate” observations with samples from systems of meaning, which act to discipline our study.6 In the most obvious sense, the objective is to place us back in line with the goal, scripting our uses of the field, setting the critical ball back into an academic match before an interested audience. However, there are still uncharted aspects of dealing with social fields important to our inductive understanding, such as the in-between, which should not be read through contagion like variables (such as determinants):

… the ways social fields leak and transform (power and knowledge notwithstanding), and the in-between, plastic, and ever-unfinished nature of a life…those individual and collective struggles to come to terms with events and intolerable conditions and to shake loose, to whatever degree possible, from determinants and definitions …7

The uncharted should not be placed in the reserve category, either, if it does not fit neatly, as Deleuze noted: “No one needs philosophy for reflecting.”8 This view has become widely acknowledged by phenomenologists who explore the unfinished nature of the site, and the people they engage with to gain an understanding of the world they too belong to.9 This has produced a branch of scholarly perception that inductively seeks to observe how intersubjective processes “become.”10 The significance of this approach to complicated fields, which in my case was suffering postwar communities, allows us to interpret further the leaking and escaping (to borrow from Deleuze’s and Biehl’s terminology) aspects of society, and phenomena we “explore.” In this approach, the task of field research has less to do with “examination” and more to do with “exploration,” because in exploring we can seek out different possibilities and “ghosts” for understanding social fields, rather than rendering them in a particular way through a hierarchical reading of them navigated by preferential philosophical ghosts that regulate analysis, often at the cost of widening knowledge. Again, drawing Biehl back in, “through ethnographic rendering, people’s own theorizing of their conditions may leak into, animate, and challenge present-day regimes of veridiction, including philosophical universals and anthropological subjugation to philosophy. I am interested in how ethnographic realities find their way into theoretical work.”11 Ultimately, the two ghosts can both remain to guide the development of our understanding and systems of meaning we hope to make.

For critically and humanistically inspiring the piece, the author expresses gratitude to Rosa and Ilija Veljanovski, Adis Hukanovic, Vesna, Peter Locke, Shura, Boban, and those who live reconstruction processes.



1. I refer to my seven-year field engagement from 2004-11, when I visited and returned to several locations throughout Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia as part of a doctoral research project exploring local societal management of war legacies and international transitional justice processes.

2. Joao Biehl, “Ethnography in the Way of Theory,” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4 (2013): 573-97.

3. Nicholas Thomas, “Against Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology 6, no. 3 (1991): 306-22.

4. I refer to my ethnographic field visits, which included observing field continuities and changes through an extended case method. This allowed for retrospective development of findings, which drew on participatory techniques, such as exchanges with and responses of interlocutors to my interpretations. Such an approach was underpinned by the use of Michael Burawoy’s methodological assumption, which he calls “valedictory revisits,”specifically noted in the following two works: Burawoy, “The Extended Case Method,”Sociological Theory 16, no. 1 (1998): 4-33; and “Revisits: An Outline of a Theory of Reflexive Ethnography,” American Sociological Review 68 (October 2003): 645-79.

5. Chrysostomos Mantzavinos, “What Kind of Problem is the Hermeneutic Circle?” inPhilosophy of the Social Sciences: Philosophical Theory and Scientific Practice, ed. Mantzavinos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 299.

6. I refer here to systems of meaning alluding to the different philosophical lens we use to navigate through qualitative material.

7. Joao Biehl, “Ethnography in the Way of Theory,” 581.

8. Gilles Deleuze, “Having an Idea in Cinema,” in Deleuze and Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, ed. Eleanor Kaufman and Kevin Jon Heller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 14. For more, see also Clifford Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

9. Here I refer to the works of scholars dealing with social suffering as an intersubjective knowledge base for understanding social life, such as Joao Biehl, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman, eds., Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Biehl, “Ethnography in the Way of Theory”; Arthur Kleinman and Joan Kleinman, “Suffering and Its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience,” Cult Med Psychiatry 15, no. 3 (1991): 275; Arthur Kleinman, “Pain and Resistance: The Delegitimation and Relegitimation of Local Worlds,” in Pain as Human Experience: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. M. J. Good et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 169-97.

10. For more see Douglas Kellner, “Deleuze and Guattari: Schizos, Nomads, Rhizomes,” inPostmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, ed. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (New York: Guilford Press, 1991), 76-110; as well as Joao Biehl and Peter Locke, “Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming,” Current Anthropology 51, no. 3 (2010): 317-51.

11. Joao Biehl, “Ethnography in the Way of Theory,” 581.


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