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Dec.4: Ethnographic Distance and the Agency of Knowing: Two Cases from Fieldwork Experiences inChina

Date: December 4, 2023 (Monday) Time: 5:00PM Venue: Room 758, 7/F Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Details and registration: All are welcome. No registration required.


Chaoxiong Zhang, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, CUHK

Yang Zhan, Assistant Professor, Department of Applied Social Sciences, PolyU


Aaron Jeffrey Hames, Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, HKU

As two cultural anthropologists who work with "vulnerable groups" (drug users and rural-to-urban migrant workers, respectively) in China, our emotional, cultural and epistemological distances from our interlocutors cannot be ignored. In many cases, the distances are considered barriers. We often assume that it is through overcoming the distance that anthropologists can "get" our interlocutors. Other times, ethnographers intentionally maintain ethnographic distance to ensure "objectivity" and avoid "doing harm to" our interlocutors. In either case, we assume ethnographers are able to, or at least responsible for, maintain a proper distance from our research participants. However, we often encounter scenarios where our interlocutors take the initiative in defining the "ethnographic distance" (epistemological, emotional, cultural) when interacting with us. By doing so, they actively push us to be cautious and reflective. In this paper, we pay special attention to the often-overlooked actions of distancing by our research subjects. We view such actions as less an assumed negative/passive avoidance, but more a positive/active negotiation. We further argue our interlocutors' actions of distancing have methodological and epistemological significance. First, the actions of distancing allow our interlocutors to access their agency and keep a balanced power relationship. Second, the actions of distancing enable critical knowing. Third, acknowledging the emotional and epistemological distances pushes ethnographers to be more honest about the limitation of our positionality.

Chaoxiong Zhang is a cultural anthropologist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research investigates the politics and ethics of drug addiction and treatment in southwest China and examines how socially and morally marginalized Chinese drug users invent legitimate social relationships during their everyday treatment encounters.

Yang Zhan is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Applied Social Sciences and a member of the China and Global Development Network at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Zhan was selected a research fellow of China India Institute at New School for Social Research in 2021. She is the winner of 2020 Eduard B. Vermeer Prize for the Best Article and was shortlisted for Holland Prize in 2022.

Society of Fellows in the Humanities


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