Reflecting on Silence and Anthropology

PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review‘s second installment of the Emergent Conversations series is Reflecting on Silence and Anthropology, which summarizes an Invited Session sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, Silence in/and Ethnography: Cartographies of Power and Knowledge in Anthropology and its Publics, which took place at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Meetings.

An excerpt by the panel organizer, Natasha Zaretsky, is below. The full conversation is available to downloadAdobe_PDF_file_icon_32x32

Reflecting on Silence and Anthropology | by Natasha Zaretsky

Image by Sean MacEntee

Image by Sean MacEntee


How does silence shape our fieldwork and ethnographies, and consequently, inform the contours of the knowledge we produce as a discipline? These questions inspired the creation of the panel, Silence in/and Ethnography: Cartographies of Power and Knowledge in Anthropology and its Publics, an Invited Session sponsored by APLA and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology at the 2014 AAA Meeting.

Since the 1980s, anthropology as a discipline has devoted considerable attention to narrative and text, questions of ethnographic authority (Clifford 1983) and the interpretive nature of our work, the “webs of meaning” (following Geertz 1973) in which we are suspended, together with our subjects, in the field and in the ethnographies we produce. These issues of representation have become particularly pressing as we engage subjects that highlight the uneven cartographies of power in which we move as researchers and writers, as well as the challenges to representation presented in the aftermath of political violence and trauma.[1]

The reflexivity devoted to the process of writing and ethnography has been integral to the evolution of anthropology as a discipline; however, a focus on narrative cannot be disarticulated from an attention to the silences that shape our experiences in the field and the ethnographies we produce. Such silences – as they exist in the field and in the knowledge those field encounters generate – reveal the broader dynamics of power in which we continue to participate as we produce anthropological knowledge.

How does silence inform our field encounters and experiences? What gets left out of our ethnographic texts? Which voices are included, and excluded, from our narratives? Why are anthropologists silent in many public debates about issues that matter to our discipline? These are the questions that animated the papers in our panel (described in more detail by each contributor below), drawing on fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, and the United States. As a session, we examined what silence reveals about the ongoing workings of violence and war, the tensions between structural violence and agency, the political uses of visibility, the public engagement of anthropologists in media representations, and how silence articulates with difference and alterity.

In the discussion that followed, the key points that resonated focused on how we produce knowledge as we navigate the boundaries of the field. One line of inquiry examined the importance of what happens before going to the field, and the way advisors and funding sources can shape our projects, thus inflecting our work with a different set of silences.

Other questions explored what happens when you step outside the traditional field of anthropological publishing, engaging media representations (the focus of Rachel Newcomb’s paper). Just as advisors and funding shape the contours of what we study, the public sphere and even government agencies can engender their own resistance to our work, often in ways that present limits due to safety concerns for ourselves and our research participants.

As ethnographers, we also determine how we engage the silences we encounter in the field. There are many complexities involved in writing and productively exploring the many valences of silence. During the discussion, we pursued the importance of probing that silence and engaging the discomfort it might engender, instead of shying away from that which might not easily fit or cohere.

In the papers we presented, it was clear that anthropologists are always embedded in multiple layers of relationships – with advisors, research subjects, students, funders, government agencies, and broader publics. If we understand knowledge to be produced dialogically, these interlocutors shape and reshape our narratives, engendering new meanings, and of course, new silences as well.

Synopsis of Discussion: “Hope in Silence”

The papers in our session share two major threads: a concern with the limits of knowledge derived from ethnography and a focus on silence as tool for pointing out such limits and the reasons behind them.

Accordingly, a recurring theme in these papers turns on the pervasiveness of silence; how silence envelops actors and field-workers, ethnographers and readers. This is manifest in Zaretsky’s discussion of the arbitrariness or chance in the choice pertinent voice, in Sheriff’s notion of “cultural censorship” that channels the understandings of participants and observers alike, in Moodie’s concern with historical forgetfulness and its political dimensions, in the primacy that Kingsolver attaches to the silenced aspect of public debates, and it is overtly spelled out in Newcomb’s list of the areas affected by silence in the anthropological enterprise.

Not only do we have to deal with limited access and limited vision, these papers suggest, but also with various levels of covert and overt manipulations, some of which are unconscious, so that questions regarding the actual versus the imputed experience of informants become primary. In her research on undocumented migrants, Zaretsky bemoans the generational silences that curtail our understanding of “dreamers.” Unveiling the actual experiences may involve breaking down ideologies erected in part for self-protection, as Sheriff found with her research on racism in Brazil and the age-old insistence on its denial, when memory is too costly. “Cultural censorship” serves as cover against the pain and shame of memory for blacks and as buttress for the class position of whites. The personal and structural import of silence is also intimated by Moodie’s work with post-war Salvadorans who are caught between a need to forget and a desire to remember. Examining whose self-interest is protected by the reliance on silence or its rejection may ease this tension.

These authors are sensitive to the complex relationship between the pull of testimony and the push of denial. That is how silence works, I have argued, that is how it becomes a tool for the exercise of power: in the interstitial spaces between presence and absence (Achino-Loeb 2006).

Silence is useful as analytic tool in that it permits us to question what stands behind it. What it is covering up. That may be the real task for anthropologists, least we be relegated to irrelevance, as Newcomb worries in her paper. That is the task Kingsolver undertakes in her work. The questions she asks of her data make clear how, and perhaps why, we can use “silence” as a portal toward unpacking any and all social facts and getting to their deeper level, most often veiled for reasons of self-interest. Her point is that surface articulations are untrustworthy precisely because of their role in concealing the turmoil that simmers right below.

What all these papers intimate is that silence is not nothing; rather, it is the domain of deferred presence – of behavior, experience, analysis. Because it is often misconstrued as absence, silence is central to ideological manipulations at the heart of power. It is, in fact, the locus for the sleight of hand where actuality is trumped by ideology. But, as all these papers show, the manifest never manages to hide the latent fully. And so we study silence.


Achino-Loeb, Maria-Luisa, ed. 2006. Silence: The Currency of Power. New York: Berghahn Books.

Clifford, James. 1983. On Ethnographic Authority. Representations 2 (Spring): 118-146.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Warren, Kay B. 1993. Interpreting La Violencia in Guatemala: Shapes of Mayan Silence and Resistance. In Kay Warren, ed. The Violence Within: Cultural and Political Opposition in Divided Nations. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 25-56.


[1] While there are many ethnographic examples of such work, the earlier contributions of Kay Warren (1993) to the workings of silence during the violence in Guatemala inspired some of the initial ideas about silence for this panel.

Recommended Citation

Zaretsky, Natasha. Reflecting on Silence and Anthropology. Emergent Conversation. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 30 March 2015.

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