Prof. Dr. Sharon Hutchinson

'Perilous Knowledge: Reflections on the Ethical Challenges of War Zone Ethnographic Research'

- Report by Marlous van den Akker


‘It is never too late to negotiate’


Imagine a frog in pond. Now, if you put this frog in a pan of boiling water, it will reflexively jump out to protect itself. However, if you let it paddle for a little while in normal temperature and slowly heat it up, it will not recognize the danger and will calmly wait until it is cooked-through.


A jump from such a cruel scientific experiment to anthropology is probably not the most obvious one to make. Still, the metaphor was used by Prof. Dr. Sharon Hutchinson, the first keynote speaker at the WDO symposium, to sketch the experience of doing fieldwork in Sudan since 1980. Connecting to the theme ‘Anthropology and Controversy, Rethinking the position of the anthropologist through contested research’, she lavished and sometimes unannounced shocked us with her anecdotes. Although during all these years many concerned people must have tried to convince her to leave this war torn area, she kept on doing ethnographic fieldwork. ‘The problem was’ she points out, ‘that nobody else was going in and no other news was coming out. Because I started visiting Sudan before the civil war broke out and came to know so many people, I felt the ethical obligation to continue my research’. Of course there were many problems to be faced, but disengaging would also have been problematic. As a result of getting involved, she was left with no other option than to write about what was happening.


Excellent language skills and cultural knowledge saved her time and again from precarious situations, but could also get her into trouble. It gave her access to huge amounts of information but at the same time made her threatening to others. More knowledge is not always a good thing, and the question that arises is ‘what to do with all this information’? In the context of civil war, some publications might enflame things. But then again, when does an ethic of silence become an ethic of complicity? ‘I learned things I wished I didn’t know and at one point, everybody knew I knew too much’. At this point, her negotiating skills proved to be very convenient. Hiding films in her headscarf after an arrest, overhearing attempts to poison her and fighting her way out of possible rape affirms she has got the guts and unconditional dedication. Where the bulk of us would have fled in agony, for her ‘it’s never too late, to negotiate’.


Driven by an ethical commitment and a strong feeling of obligation to move beyond participant observation and to assist the people studied, she inevitably faced an unsolvable ethical conundrum: what do we owe to the communities we study? Is it intellectual honesty? Is it political neutrality or perhaps protection? At the moment she is involved in a non-profit organization concerned with building schools and providing education. Also, she is serving as an expert witness in a major U.S. Federal Court Case and has helped to organize grassroots peace activities in the past.