Accepted paper:

The consequences of being unqualified: therapeutic interviewing and the vulnerable anthropologist


Karolina Kuberska (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the unintended therapeutic value of anthropological interviews on intimate and largely unspoken-of topics and the moral consequences for the anthropologist as a recipient of confidential information.

Paper long abstract:

This paper is based on fieldwork conducted among migrant women to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, on the topic of sobreparto, a traditional post-partum illness as well somatisation of emotions into illnesses. Research involved establishing relationships with female informants and multiple (mostly unrecorded) conversations about women’s life histories, punctuated with pregnancies. Because talking about past traumas may be difficult and painful, I tried to reciprocate this openness and vulnerability that my informants offered. With time, however, I realised that it was my listening to their personal narratives which constituted my “gift” to them, quasi-therapy sessions with an unqualified anthropologist. They would present me with narrations of their difficult times, I would acknowledge these – often previously unspoken of – reminiscences by taking them away with me. When I thought about those conversations I had with these women, it occurred to me that they were telling me things which they would not – or could not – tell people around them, for fear of being forever judged or because what they were saying might change the relationship with their children forever. Rapes, unsuccessful abortions, a persistent feeling of not wanting to be pregnant with a girl, hopes of miscarriage – I became the treasury and the treasurer, both strangely fortunate and overburdened. Rather than offering satisfying answers, this paper points to multiple issues, starting from whether this technically volunteered information can (or should) be recounted elsewhere, and ending with how the anthropologist-turned-accidental-therapist deals with the unsolvable burden of other people’s pasts.

panel P38
Moral certainty and ambiguity in research: anthropology's enlightenment legacies and the politics of ethnography