Sensations from the field: barefoot ethnography in the Sahara Desert
(University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
This paper revisits six years of ethnographic research in the Sahara Desert to experiment with the ‘writing back in’ of contextual sensations that are conventionally disregarded in the pursuit of science. It explores how ‘barefoot’ data may instead be rich in ethnographic significance.
Paper long abstract:
Deserts and nomads are places and people of timeworn clichés: vast and ‘empty quarters’, inhospitable and uninhabited, peripheral and insecure, mobile and unstable. These provide ample paradoxes and paradigms for discussions of ideas in movement and tensions. A chance reading of Ingold’s Being Alive (2011) in the Sahara Desert made me question how much of the ‘ephemeral stuff’ may be being written out of the ethnographic record. Likewise, the ethnographer may become progressively written out (‘unlived’) of their own ethnographic record. This paper experimentally reflects upon, and attempts to re-apply, the sense of going ‘barefoot’ (cf. Scheper-Hughes 1995; Rabinow 1996). Drawing on six years of ethnographic research in the Sahara Desert, I discover handwritten annotations in my original field notebooks that are discounted because they are not scientifically objective, but which record the sensory ephemera of desert phenomena around me. Importantly, these records are accompanied by the Saharan nomads’ own handwriting, drawings and stories which explicate their desert knowing, dwelling and moving. In another sense, my doctoral research has unfolded from everyday life lived on carpets laid over sand. Yet my thesis will be examined from an elevated seated position. Here lie tensions between the writing ‘up’ or ‘down’ of science; of the ethnographer going into the field-site barefoot and returning booted (or vice versa). Temporarily putting aside the conventionally accepted field data, I test if the disregarded contextual sensations can bring valuable ethnographic meaning in their own right.
The best of 'Ideas in Movement': papers from the RAI Postgraduate Conference