Montag, 17. Oktober 2016

A research about an odd place

In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Berlin (forthcoming)

By Alejandra Parra

I know that while I write,
each word I choose will be examined
and maybe even invalidated.
So, why do I write?

While I write, Grada Kilomba

When the research project for the seminar “Ethnographische Methoden der
Stadtforschung” was presented, the proposal regarding the research was to look into
the emergency shelters for refugees whilst volunteering in them. Being a hot topic on
the media as well as in the academia, many of the students had reservations or
expressed indignation about the ethical validity of conducting research at a refugee
shelter, considering the conditions from which the people living there came from. The
repeated instruction not focus on the people living but on the operation of the shelters
didn’t seem to calm my fellow students down. This reluctance to accept the
parameters established at the seminar led to a debate in which academia and
particularly the rising field focusing on topics related to the refugees were accused of
showing a lack of sensitivity and even morbid fascination. If the seminar was about
research in/about the city, they argued, why did we have to go particularly there?
It was the first time I was being confronted with that kind of ethical considerations in
an academic context and somehow it seemed I was missing a piece of the puzzle.
Although it did seam fair to point out the substantial emotional component of the
field, it seamed to me absurd to present it as a reason for vetoing the place from the
research and in no way a solution for potential ethical problems. To support this
proposal various arguments were brought up: it would be insensitive to ask people to
talk about their experience; it would be frivolous to show interest in a traumatic
experience only in order to do a short research; it would be invasive to hang around
where people lived, specially taking into account they already had little privacy; we
were not trained to deal with their fragile state and could end up making it worse; we
could not just watch.
Although I could understand how in some ways the situation would be challenging,
the apprehension expressed seamed somehow contradictory. If we were instructed to
help as part of the research, I couldn’t see how whatever we were to do would lose its
value. To my complete astonishment many students then suggested a change of
location, which would in theory respect the parameters set for the seminar: the
research could be carried out in other kinds of shelters, such as those for the homeless
or for prostitutes. Those were also part of the city and were also set up to help people
in need. Worries about privacy invasion, traumas, fragility and ethical boundaries
were no longer at the forefront. What distinguished the people deserving more
consideration than others?
The unspeakable, the horrors of the war, marked an us and them thought it strangely
brought others together. Who would have thought, it turned out that German
anthropology students felt oddly closer to prostitutes and homeless! A few students
against the research talked about some experiences they had had with volunteering, on
the verge of tears. How rare must that pain be here that it seams unmanageable, I
remember thinking to myself. I saw again the faces, the tears, and the cardboard signs
flashing before my eyes. Back home, the horrors of the war had been knocking at the
car windows with no shoes at traffic light ever since I could remember. In Colombia,
the number of desplazados (displaced) has exceeded 6 millions since 1985 and people
have been running away to other towns and cities up until this day. The entire session
I worried we wouldn’t actually get to do the research at the refugee shelters. The
question had been haunting me for months: how will a country like this one deal with
it? Although the circumstances are very different, my country has been shaped by a
similar phenomenon: millions of people escaping war leave everything behind and
look for a way and a place to rebuild their lives. Then again, very much unlike
Colombia, Germany is a rich receiving country taking in people coming from other
countries. Even if the parallel falls short once the many cultural, political and material
aspects are taken into consideration, the situation remains: a society is brutally
confronted with pain. Sitting in the seminar room, I wondered if the fear I could hear
on the students’ voices was fear of the unknown.
Anthropology was alien to me, Germany also. I had never really had to work with
others in an academic context outside of typical presentations of texts, authors and
theories. The repeated instruction at the seminar of inquiring and registering
impressions about the location, the logistics and logics of the shelters whilst helping
was unusual. The reaction of those students was completely unexpected to me and
revealed an essential aspect of the ethnographic practice: vulnerability. The field
exposes it and demands it. The anthropologist is left with the task of transforming it
into knowledge.
Given the shortness of the project and the limited contact we ended up having with
people on the field, the research methods as well as the process itself proved more
telling about the running of ethnographic research and the ethnographer’s role than
about the field itself and in my case, about what I perceived to be specific to my
position as a non-native researching about other non-natives. I came to be confronted
with a level of self-awareness that was problematic for me all along the research
process and the posterior stages (including writing this report). Nevertheless reflecting
on that discomfort came to be necessary and inseparable from the revision of the
material gather during the research period. This report therefore will present the
different methods used to inquire about the field during different stages along with
excerpts from field notes and memos. The relevance of the “personal side” of the
anthropological research has been denied, explicitly and implicitly by trying to
establish standards and methods that pretend to ensure objectivity and impartiality. In
her introductory chapter to the collection of essays The Vulnerable Observer, Ruth
Behar reflects on this attitude:
No one objects to autobiography, as such, as a genre in its own right. What bothers
critics is the insertion of personal stories into what we have been taught to think as
the analysis of impersonal social facts. Throughout most of the twentieth century, in
scholarly fields ranging from literary criticism to anthropology to law, the reigning
paradigms have traditionally called for distance, objectivity and abstraction. The
worst sin was to be “too personal”. (12 1996)
My particular reluctance to writing about the personal side of an experience set in an
academic context comes from the fact that every experience becomes personal when
language, culture and place change. As a foreigner, I feared from the beginning of the
project not being able to establish the kind of distance necessary to observe others and
learn from them.
Following the agitated preliminary stage of definition, my group chose the emergency
shelter for refugees located in Karlshorst, where the person who would be our contact
ran a project with workshops involving the youngsters from the shelter, in which they
had built and set up a space to watch movies. Unlike some of the other shelters, the
members of my group and I picked this one because the project implied an active and
creative involvement form the side of the people living there. This meant however
that our presence at the shelter would be tied to the schedule of the meetings
regarding that specific project. We established contact via mail with the person in
charge, who welcomed our participation and informed us we needed to have a
certificate of conduct to be allowed in. For us it seemed to be a burocratic trap, not far
from a dissuasive tactic for keeping away those willing to help. Whatever its intended
purpose was and its additional consequences, it impacted immediately and
permanently the course of our research for we ended up submerged in endless
calculations about personal schedules coinciding to go to the registration office to get
the certificate, being able to obtain in time to take part at the meetings in the shelter
and being able to attend enough meeting to collect a relevant amount of data. We
never got the certificate and never got into the shelter.
The topic of how difficulties with access are a part themselves from the ethnographic
process was discussed both among the members of my group and in various sessions
at the seminar. As noted by Hammersley and Atkinson, the process of obtaining
access to the data “is not merely a practical matter. Not only does its achievement
depend upon theoretical understanding, often disguised as ‘native wit’, but the
discovery of obstacles to access, and perhaps of effective means of overcoming them,
themselves provide insights into the social organization of the setting ” (54 1983).
Even though those difficulties are to be treated like valuable information about how
the field works and therefore as data themselves, in retrospective I find equally telling
our lack of “effective means of overcoming them”. Those kinds of difficulties can
also bring out the researcher’s own limits. How far would she be willing or able to try
to obtain access and how would this affect the research?
In our case, the facts that there were a fairly limited amount of workshops during our
semester, the uncertainty of how long it would actually take us to be able to ask for
the certificate and get it or that we had to pay for it, quickly bought up individual
limits that determined the course of the research. Our project was simultaneously
defined by our first visit to the shelter, set up to get a sense of the place and the
moment of arrival, even though we knew we would not be allowed in.
We walked along the Köpernicker Allee. The way from the station to the NUK is not
too complicated and at the beginning we thought it was in the middle of a residential
neighbourhood. Slowly the surroundings turned extremely unfriendly. Too empty, a
few cars, even less people. The place showed very few signs that indicated there was a
shelter there. A tiny chit of paper with the words “Emergency Shelter” and a couple
of green and yellow arrows show the entrance only for those who are looking for it.
Otherwise you can’t really recognize it from the street. Everything is grey! The
building, the walls, the fences (everywhere), the sky, the air... What a depressing
colour and atmosphere... So much for Willkommenskultur! (...) Men gathered in small
groups, two, three, they walk and stop for a smoke. Milk. The boxes of milk outside
the windows and empty ones scattered on the street, that’s how you know someone
has a life at this place. Three people go in while we are seating in front of the
entrance, with bags that looked like they were filled with clothes to donate. (Field
notes 26.11.15)
View of the entrance way to the shelter from the Köpenicker Alle.
The shelter from the Eastside.
The setting was almost imposing itself to us. The obvious question was how were the
people who inhabited it perceiving it. As we found out later, the Köpenicker Allee,
the street we walked down to get from the train station to the shelter, was the same
one that connected the shelter to the youth centre, Rainbow and the people from the
shelter walked or biked through it to get there. Both the “impossibility” of access
along with the strong impression that first visit made on us, led us to re-establish the
surrounding area to the shelter as our research and experimentation field. Initially, it
was disappointing for me. We had managed to somehow avoid finding ourselves in
the situation I had argued to defend! The question that concerned us thereafter was
how to define and study the atmosphere of the area, which according to our
experience was practically wasteland. At the centre of the analysis of this grim
atmosphere was the awkwardness and discomfort we felt wandering at the
surroundings. I couldn’t stop thinking how much of my perception was determined by
my own personal referents that were probably extremely different went not opposite
to those of my classmates.
“Our presence at the place is absurd, beyond the fact we are here ‘to watch’. The
feeling of uselessness and ridicule slowly takes over me. The fence separates us and
we are sitting looking inside. Doesn’t look like we’re doing much besides looking
from the outside. Why does X says she doesn’t want to go in? Why do we have to do
this in groups... They are Colombian desplazados...they are Colombians escaping
violence. In Berlin just like in Bogotá despite the freezing air many of them are
wearing rubber sandals. Flüchtlinge, Geflüchtete. To come here and do what? Watch.
(...) We limit ourselves to make shallow observations and then be quiet, awkwardly.
Or it seems so. They agree that at least is nice that the gardens are in front, for the
spring, because that way they have the nature. The nature! Those fucking gardens,
parodies of nature in the middle of the city”. (Memo 26.11.15)
The method of the participant observation was being set a side at least for the time
being. To pay attention and try to understand how the mood of this place worked was
somehow a shy attempt from our side to identify distinctive elements of an
unwelcoming place towards which we already had an unconscious demand: it was
supposed to be welcoming. When we established the research methods, it is fair to say
we already knew what we were looking for. Besides the actual task of registering,
describing and reporting what the place looked and felt like, we had an urge to show,
almost to prove the isolation we assumed the people from the shelter were
We chose the approach of sensorial anthropology using methods that would allow us
to convey those feelings, mainly a thorough photographic documentation of both
sides of the Allee from the main street to the shelter; a count of steps, people and
autos along the same way and a detailed record of sensory impressions during our
first Wahrnehmungsspaziergang. We eventually managed to take part once event at
the youth centre giving us the chance to practice the participant observation method.
Through the photographic documentation we came to have a better understanding of
spatial and architectural elements that not only were characteristic to the place but
how their disposition created a progressive sense of isolation. The repetition of
specific types of constructions, colours and some elements like walls, fences or even
broken windows characterized areas that belong to the urban landscape but also
screamed anonymity and indifference.
We observed a transition from family residencies and schools to a semi industrial
peripheral looking setting marked by large buildings, empty plots, on-going
construction sites as well as a relative deterioration of the surrounding infrastructure
(reduction of the streetlights, semi unpaved roads) and finally the garden plots which
to me had come to symbolise a dry emulation of what a good life actually be. How is
a human being supposed to feel when her news surroundings are safe and perhaps
clean and organized but with no signs of care or consideration?
I was aware of how partial my view of the situation was, very aware that I had not
exchanged a single word with anyone actually living at the shelter and that I was
infuriated by something that many could consider aesthetic concerns. Nevertheless I
read in the location a gesture, a way of hiding or turning invisible and silent.
The only opportunity we had to research through the participant observation method
took place between the youth centre, the street and the door of the shelter. During four
short hours we got a taste of the task that was volunteering, always subject to the
unpredictable. A backing activity planed for ten to fifteen children and mothers was
supposed to take place at the kitchen of the youth centre. Almost one hour after the
time agreed, we were called to go to the street and help bringing the people from the
shelter to the centre. A few minutes after the call, we were on the street passing a long
line of children and veiled women. I was asked to look for a woman left behind,
wearing a white veil. I found her quickly, just a few meters behind with a small girl
on her arms, walking next a tiny stroller caring a boy pushed by an other young child.
She looked young and said hello with a smile. She then asked me something in a
language that I couldn’t understand. In a clumsy reflex, I spoke in German and she
asked in English with a sceptical gesture on her face if I was German. I burst out
laughing and we tried to have a conversation, short and simple because she couldn’t
find the words. She was escaping the war and one her boys, the one on the stroller,
was sick. I couldn’t find the words.
Once we got to the shelter, it became obvious how unprepared we were for the
amount of people. Instead of ten there were at least thirty children, with mothers and
some fathers. We were four. We stood in the middle of a kitchen full of screaming
children, a plastic bag with carrots, onions and rice (for an possible meal) and flour
and sugar for the cookies. The women in charge of the activity were vey nervous,
trying to keep the children calm and start the baking. A group of mother came up to
me. In the blink of an eye, with no word being understood, they organized into a chain
of production to bake the cookies and cook the food. Salt, oil, tomatoes. Through
various ways (cell phone translators, mimics, constant repetition of the Arabic words)
they tried to get three basic ingredients that none at the centre had thought about. My
voice joined theirs to ask for what seemed to me like the basic of the basic. All I got
every time was “It’s not important, there’s no time to get it! Just keep cooking!”.
Once again I was remained of the garden plots. I saw disappointment even though I
could not speak Arabic. I saw a good gesture turn into a mess and spiral into ridicule.
To keep the children under control keeps getting harder. They smell the food, the
cookies and want to eat. They are bored, the run around and the hoven keeps making
the kitchen hotter and hotter. M comes to me and pull me to the side. ‘I can’t
understand what they’re saying!’ she says and takes me to the group of mothers
again. ‘You are a people person’ she says before turning away. Right next to me I
hear L pant, annoyed. With an almost childish tone, she goes to E and says: ‘One of
them stole carrots!’. I almost laugh at the absurdity of the accusation, the words used,
the tone. ‘Which one?’ she answers to my astonishment in an exasperated tone,
looking around for the child. ‘Who is stealing the carrots?’”. (Field notes 8.12.15)
I saw the ridicule of the situation and felt ashamed. I went and bought the ingredients,
knowing it was to late and it changed nothing. I kept thinking how we would have
been laugh at for not having those things if we were in Colombia. Once the
flavourless food was gone and the cookies were unequally distributed, I volunteered
to help gather the children and bring everyone back to the shelter.
We ended up heading back with a still fairly big group, just two men, about seven
women and five children. About five other children were a couple of blocks ahead,
ridding bikes. (...) One of the women encouraged the kids to sing. Some of the women
did as well. It was considerably colder than in the afternoon. It was also considerably
quiet as we past the intersection and started walking down K.A. The signing was
progressively lower. (...) The child holding my hand showed me a train map and we
stopped for him to show me the places in the city he knew and had marked in his map.
A school, Lageso and the shelter were market by a circle indicating the closest
station. Other two stations were marked but I wasn’t able to understand what they
stood for. The majority of the group was walking in front of us and became
progressively animated and louder. Laughter and some occasional scream from the
children. As we approached the shelter the group was taking more space, walking on
the street and children running around. The atmosphere seamed more relaxed than
when we left. Two of the women with whom I interacted the most in the kitchen slowed
down when I came close to them and they kept talking while I walked beside them.
They smiled at me many times and asked my name. (...) Some heads came out the
windows of one of the shelters buildings. A few women called to order but would
laugh most of the time. At the entrance of the everyone took out a plastic ID they had
to show to the guards at the entrance. The air was very cold and everyone wanted to
get in fast. The guards had a very harsh tone and behaviour, telling everyone to wait
for their turn, reacting with suspicion to any misunderstanding and one female guard
was loudly complaining about a woman who forgot her ID inside. There was a sort of
formality when we said goodbye to the two women. A distance suddenly marked by
them thanking us for everything. They hugged L. We smiled to each other, they
thanked us and I thanked them. I actually wanted to apologize. (Field notes 8.12.15)
On the way back and a couple of times more, when we came back to gather more
material, I saw the streets under a completely different light. To see how radically my
own perception was altered just by seeing how, even if just fleetingly, they
appropriated and transformed that space, finally broke the illusion. I kept seeing the
children riding their bikes and hearing them singing and laughing. It was just so
obvious we had no idea how they felt in that place. All I knew was how it made me
feel and how I would not like someone else to feel because of it. But I didn’t know.
On his book on cooperation in modern society, Richard Sennett analyses the
difference between sympathy and empathy:
Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but the one is
an embrace, the other an encounter. Sympathy overcomes differences through
imaginative acts of identification; empathy attends to another person on his or her
own terms. Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment than empathy
because ‘I feel your pain’ puts the stress on what I feel; it activates one’s own ego.
Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get
outside him- or herself. (2012 21)
One could say that our small research exercise started out as a practice of sympathy.
The concerns that most of the members of the seminar came from a first moment of
identification, from different backgrounds and experiences, where we all somehow
tried to imagine the pain others are going throw and tried to respect it or somehow
minimally soothe it. However it is essential to distinguish and establish the difference
with the empathic response, both for the production of knowledge to which in theory
anthropology aims at. The ethnographic method and in particular the auto
ethnography could be a practice of empathy if it succeeds at pointing out the limits of
our own imagination in those acts of sympathetic fantasy. It could point out when and
where we think we knew but we are failing to listen to the others. To ignore the
connections with our personal experience when we are at the research field is
potentially preventing us from identifying our blind spots. To deny subjectivity
cripples the possibility of self-criticism and production of actual knowledge in
academia because it denies its obvious source; “Theorie hat mit Biographie zu tun
und Biographie mit Theorie. Wissenschaft wird von einer Person produziert, von
einer Person geschrieben. Diese Person hat eine Biographie, eine Fragestellung,
Emotionen”(Kilomba 2016).
Listening to others in ethnographic process should at some points begin the act of
listening to ourselves, both as a differentiating strategy, to prevent falling in a typical
mistake in anthropology of trying to give a voice to others confusing it with one’s
own and as an enlightening tool to point out common ground.
That doesn’t require a full-length autobiography, but it does require a keen
understanding of what aspects of the self are the most important filters through which
one perceives the world and, more particularly, the topic being studied. Efforts at
self-revelation flop not because the personal voice has been used, but because it has
been poorly used leaving unscrutinized the connection, intellectual and emotional,
between the observer and the observed. (Behar 13-14)

Behar, R. (1966). “The Vulnerable Observer” in The Vulnerable Observer (1-33).
Boston: Beacon Press.
Hammersley, M. und Atkinson, P. (1983). “Access” in Ethnography: Principles in
Practices. London and New York: Tavistock Publications. 54-76
Kilomba, G. (2016/04/22) Interview mit Grada Kilomba. Wenn diskurs persönlich
wird. Retrieved from:
Kilomba, G. (2015/05/11) While I write. [video file ] Retrieved from:
Sennett, R.(2012). Together: the rituals, pleasures & politics of cooperation. London:
Penguin Books.

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren:
Alejandra Parra (2016): A research about an odd place. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog),;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link

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