Vulnerable Witness: The Politics of Grief in the Field

Vulnerable Witness: The Politics of Grief in the Field

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Scholars and practitioners who witness violence and loss in human, animal, and ecological contexts are expected to have no emotional connection to the subjects they study. Yet is this possible? Following feminist traditions, Vulnerable Witness centers the researcher and challenges readers to reflect on how grieving is part of the research process and, by extension, is a political act. Through thirteen reflective essays the book theorizes the role of grief in the doing of research—from methodological choices, fieldwork and analysis, engagement with individuals, and places of study to the manner in which scholars write and talk about their subjects. Combining personal stories from early career scholars, advocates, and senior faculty, the book shares a breadth of emotional engagement at various career stages and explores the transformative possibilities that emerge from being enmeshed with one's own research.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520297845
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kathryn Gillespie is a feminist geographer and critical animal studies scholar. Her work has been published in Gender, Place and Culture, Antipode, and Hypatia. She is the author of The Cow with Ear Tag #1389, and she coedited, with Patricia J. Lopez, Economies of Death
Patricia J. Lopez is Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College. Her work has been published in Gender, Place and Culture, and Environment and Planning. She is the coeditor, with Kathryn Gillespie, of Economies of Death

Read an Excerpt


"With You, Time Flowed Like Water"

Geographies of Grief across International Research Collaborations


It's not as if an "I" exists independently over here and then simply loses a "you" over there, especially if the attachment to "you" is part of what composes who "I" am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who "am" I, without you?

When I left after my first summer of master's research in 2006 in Diyarbakir, Zeynep scribbled her contact information in my field book, neither of us knowing when I would be back. Underneath her address she wrote, "seninle zaman su gibi akiyordu" (with you, time flowed like water). That summer, we walked kilometers of Diyarbakir's oldest streets, home at that time to thousands of displaced families, on a quest to understand what a more urban, postconflict, and still deeply poor Kurdistan looked like in Turkey. Our friendship began as part of a three-month thesis project and turned into eleven years of dissertation and postdissertation research together. Again and again we returned to these same streets by foot to visit friends. Since summer 2015 and a violent renewal of conflict between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state in urban centers in Eastern Turkey, however, time has not flowed like water; rather, time together is fleeting, broken, and uncertain. My regular and reliable visits to Diyarbakir and Zeynep's periodic visits to the United States are now as unpredictable as the political climate in Turkey. Even electronic communication is uncertain. During the state of emergency first implemented in the southeast region in 2015 and throughout Turkey in 2016, our daily communication over WhatsApp was interrupted for hours and sometimes days at a time due to state-sanctioned regional internet outages. The political transformations unfolding in Turkey, especially in Kurdish southeast Turkey, over the last two years have halted our ability to work together, transformed (and destroyed) the neighborhoods where we once worked, and brought into stark relief both the precarity existing in our relationship across vastly uneven political and economic conditions and the fundamental precariousness of our two lives now bound together as colleagues and friends.


Precarity and precariousness, two distinct concepts for Judith Butler, might be best understood through the term dispossession, a follow-up theme that Butler and Athena Athanasiou explore in a series of dialogues recorded in 2013. To be dispossessed "refers to processes and ideologies by which persons are disowned and abjected by normative and normalizing powers that define cultural intelligibility and that regulate the distribution of vulnerability." Precarity, then, describes the politically induced condition of being outside "norms of recognition" that cast certain lives as unlivable and, therefore, ungrievable. During the most intense periods of urban violence that beset cities in southeast Turkey in 2015–16, for example, the contours of human life were drawn in international and Turkish media to frame Kurdish lives, especially young Kurds' lives, as unlivable — as "terrorists." A common refrain heard in Diyarbakir refers back to a set of instructions given to Turkish soldiers in the early years of the Turkish Republic as they were tasked with suppressing any Kurdish resistance. The word Kürt, the soldier's service manual said, referred to the sound the snow makes when you step on it. The neighborhoods that flared up in conflict in summer 2015 in southeastern cities echoed the proverbial crunch of snow that has come to define life for many Kurds under the Turkish Republic, including Zeynep.

Butler and Athanasiou describe dispossession in a second way, as that which "encompasses the constituted, preemptive losses that condition one's being dispossessed by another: one is moved to the other and by the other — exposed to and affected by the other's vulnerability." In this sense, precariousness requires a recognition of the ontological human condition in which all life inherently and necessarily exists in relationships of dependence and vulnerability. In Frames of War, Butler specifically focuses on the experience of grief as a foundational moment in the understanding that "one's life is always in some sense in the hands of the other." In my case, I apprehended the precarious nature of my own life when I confronted deep loss and the possibility of loss beginning in 2014. In the United States, my mother was rediagnosed with cancer, a fight she ultimately lost in December 2016. In that time and since I continue to be haunted by one question: Who am I without you? Simultaneously, in summer 2015, the neighborhoods where Zeynep and I spent months and years listening to people's stories became the stage for fighting between a youth wing of the PKK and the Turkish military. The violence led to the mass displacement of families, several thousand deaths, and the destruction of physical communities. During this time, I would wait for a response over WhatsApp for an indication that Zeynep and her family were OK. The same question returned again: Who am I without you? My sense of self as a researcher, a teacher, a human is profoundly intertwined with my life in Diyarbakir, the sisterhood and familyhood that I entered into in 2006. My sense of self was upended in 2015 and 2016 as two pivots of stability and security spun out, faster together, probably, than apart.

Butler writes: "When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost 'you' only to discover that 'I' have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost 'in' you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related." The ethics of precarious life calls us to recognize the deep ways we are constituted by and within others; this, in turn, requires that people and places cast outside "norms of recognition" be apprehended not according to an externally defined set of principles or rights but to the survival and wellness of one's own and every being. What follows is a testament to my friendship with Zeynep that explores the precarious life of our now eleven-year research collaboration. I asked Zeynep if she would like to coauthor this chapter with me. She declined. She was able to read a copy, though. My intention in this piece was not to speak for Zeynep. In addition to trying to convey as much from my own perspective as possible, my words echo many conversations that Zeynep and I have had together. Our plan is to publish together freely one day and for her, especially, to share her stories of Diyarbakir.


I returned to Diyarbakir a week before the June 7 Turkish general elections in 2015 to begin a period of reconnaissance work for a new project with Zeynep. The trip marked nine years and seven trips since we met in April 2006, when Zeynep appeared in the lobby of my guesthouse one evening after I had spent a long day searching for a female translator. She was also a graduate student and was learning English, and we were keen to put our respective language skills (my Turkish and Kurdish, her English) to the test — however unsuccessfully we might. She gathered my items and immediately marched me to the home she shared with her mother, father, and four siblings. As Zeynep says, I "never left." What began as translation services turned into an intimate research partnership. Since 2006, Zeynep has become a best friend, a sister, and, we joke, my "partner in crime." In the time leading up to 2015, we passed two comprehensive exams; wrote and defended two master's theses and one doctoral dissertation; participated in two international conferences together, one in Diyarbakir and one in Seattle during Zeynep's first visit to the United States; and greatly improved our language skills.

Our research examines questions around women and development in Diyarbakir's poorest neighborhoods. The research, like our friendship, was formed and nurtured over long conversations tracing and retracing our steps through Diyarbakir's many "back streets." It was here that we marveled at the kader (fate) that brought us together. This routinely included lamenting the "normal path" that we did not take as women in our respective cultures and musing on the people we would have been had we not met ("boring," I say; "married, most likely," Zeynep laughs, turns up her nose, and adds, "with five children"). We also talked about who we are for meeting. I remember our walk home together after one interview in Diyarbakir in spring 2009, when Zeynep told me that she was reconnecting with a past she had altogether buried in the wake of gunshots in the street and fears of walking to school in the mid-1990s at the peak of PKK-state conflict. Hearing stories of resilience from women who escaped to the city and raised families as single mothers made her proud because this was also her story as a Kurdish woman. I lived with Zeynep's family for most of the research, sitting out on the balcony during the summer late at night eating sunflower seeds, drinking tea, discussing our interviews, sharing stories of old Diyarbakir and hopes for political futures near and far that seemed more achievable when we were together.

In early 2010, at the start of our dissertation research, Zeynep's father passed away. I sat by her and her family in their grief. I had never lost a parent. At thirty, Zeynep had lost two, her father and her second mother. While open mourning — crying, yelling, moaning — is an appropriate and almost expected response among women during the weeklong Muslim burial process, I observed how grief transformed into a more solitary and private affair in the weeks and months that followed. I shared this time of isolation with Zeynep, and it was on our journeys to the neighborhoods to work that we shared stories of her father. To honor her father and his kindness in welcoming me into his family, my parents and I traveled to Diyarbakir for Zeynep's brother's wedding in 2012. When my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in fall 2014, my relationship with Zeynep and her family and the beliefs and rituals around death in predominantly Muslim Diyarbakir allowed me to navigate grief in meaningful ways. After my mother passed, Zeynep's brother, the new patriarch still thirty years junior to my father, would call over WhatsApp every several days to order my father to leave the house and take a walk. "It is healthy. We will all be together soon ... inshallah," he said, as he imagined out loud his mother and father, now passed, sharing a cup of tea with my mother. The shared grief of losing a parent is one of many experiences on which our work together is built, especially in the environments where we work, where loss is a regular part of everyday life. These moments together in grief, joy, and contemplation, mapped across many years now, have inextricably linked Zeynep's fate to mine as researchers and as friends, fostering an ethical responsibility not only to each other and our families but also to the vastly different places we are from. Butler writes, "To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanism of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear and in what ways." The injury that loss (or the prospect of loss) inevitably imposes upon the self exposes the raw vulnerability that binds all beings together. To see and feel that fragility of self is both a terrible and a beautiful process that nurtures an understanding and a curiosity of the nature of others' suffering and especially its connection to one's own.


When I arrived in the earliest days of June 2015, Diyarbakir was singing. After decades of PKK-Turkish conflict, a pro-Kurdish party was positioned to achieve parliamentary representation for the first time in history and a two-year peace process was under way. Diyarbakir is popularly referred to by some Kurds as the "unofficial capital of Kurdistan" and has long been a focal point for Turkish and Kurdish ethnic and nationalist anxieties. In recent years, a continued and important need to memorialize the past had been overwhelmed by a stronger desire to position the city as a voice for peace and multiculturalism in the future. It was these motives that drove families, young giggling girls, and old men and women to the train station to support a new era in Turkish-Kurdish relations, embodied visually in the large Turkish flags floating alongside the Peoples' Democratic Party flags below the main stage. Zeynep and I were also there that day. In our years of overly cautious and thoughtful work together, it was the first time we had ever ventured to a political meeting, a testament to the sense of peace we felt.

The peace — or hope for peace, at least — that afternoon was short-lived. In the early moments of the rally, two bombs were detonated, allegedly by ISIS (although some accuse the Justice and Development Party administration), killing four and wounding two hundred. The pro-Kurdish party would go on to win a historic number of votes and secure parliamentary representation for the first time in history. Four months later, however, a second election would return single-party power to President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, a victory fashioned, in part, through a campaign of fear around Kurdish "terrorism." The bomb on that sunny July afternoon was a symbolic and literal declaration for a new period in Turkish history, one that has severely limited the ability of many Turkish citizens, and especially Kurdish citizens, to live and work freely. As is often the case, the names and photos of the victims were nearly impossible to find in the media coverage of the aftermath. This invisibility at the national level was echoed in the months that followed in international media coverage. In the month following the July general elections, a Kurdish youth movement organizing since 2013, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), took up arms against the Turkish state and declared neighborhoods in cities across the southeast autonomous — including two of the neighborhoods where Zeynep and I worked in Diyarbakir. Turkish security forces responded with heavy military force. Today, those two neighborhoods are gone. We knew many families who were uprooted. We knew several children who had joined the YDGH.

In the days after the rally, Zeynep and I cried and laughed. Humor has carried us through a lot in the course of our friendship, particularly in the tensest moments. Zeynep would laugh with her friends and family retelling the story of me interrupting her shower, fearful of a rhythmic booming coming from outside. The evening of the attack, as word spread across the city, residents came to their windows to flicker apartment lights and bang pots and pans to contest the violence and honor those who had died. When I finally understood what was happening, we too joined in the chorus of mourning, flipping the light switch on and off, on and off. It was healing. We also joked about what the headlines in the US newspapers would say if the two of us had been hurt or worse: "One American, and a few others injured," we imagined. The unevenness of our political and economic positions is often the butt of our jokes. I returned to the United States three weeks later and have not returned to Diyarbakir since.

My grief for the loss of these neighborhoods is also and always intertwined with my grief for my friend. In the following years since that summer, various opposition and activist efforts have been quashed, particularly after the attempted coup in summer 2016. Zeynep visited Reno again that winter. On the other end of her WhatsApp calls home, her mother would quiet any political talk in case someone was listening. We have been careful to limit our conversations to secure lines, such as encrypted WhatsApp, but our conversations are still self-censored. Zeynep was generous enough to FaceTime my introductory human geography class to talk about the role of Kurdish language in her identity, but I was careful to divert any questions from students that were overtly political. Some, but not all, could appreciate the enormity and privilege of her virtual presence in our classroom. I am aware that as a Kurd and a Turkish citizen, her role in our research — and her voice and image on the other end of the computer and phone — is infinitely more dangerous than mine. While I have always had the privilege to leave the field, and to write and speak freely about our research, she cannot. Safety, rather than collaboration, now shapes the priorities of our work. And safety means silence, a silence that permeates national and international coverage of conflict in Kurdish Turkey and a silence that also lingers in the figurative seat that my "partner in crime" occupies next to me.


Excerpted from "Vulnerable Witness"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Kathryn Gillespie and Patricia J. Lopez.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Patricia J. Lopez and Kathryn Gillespie

1. “With You, Time Flowed Like Water”: Geographies of Grief across International Research Collaborations
Jessie Hanna Clark

2. Grieving Guinea Pigs: Refl ections on Research and Shame in Peru
María Elena García

3. An Immigrant in Academia: Navigating Grief and Privilege
Yolanda Valencia

4. The Mongoose Trap: Grief, Intervention, and the Impossibility of Professional Detachment
Elan Abrell

5. The Authentic Hypocrisy of Ecological Grief
Amy Spark

6. Scale-Blocking Grief: Witnessing the Intimate between a Confl ict Leopard and Confi nement
Kalli F. Doubleday

7. On Missing People in the Field
David Boarder Giles

8. Grieving Daughter, Grieving Witness
Abigail H. Neely

9. The Researcher-Witness of Violence against Queers: One Scholar-Activist’s Pathway through Lament
William J. Payne

10. Unsteady Hands: Care and Grief for Conservation Subjects
Jenny R. Isaacs

11. Grieving Salmon and the Politics of Collective Ecological Fieldwork
Cleo Woelfl e-Erskine

12. Witnessing Grief: Feminist Perspectives on the Loss-Body-Mind-Self-Other Nexus and Permission
to Express Feelings
Avril Maddrell and Elizabeth Olson

13. Self-Care and Trauma: Locating the Time and Space to Grieve
Dana Cuomo

Patricia J. Lopez and Kathryn Gillespie


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