Why do researchers pick up a particular theme? How does their own life history influence their choices. We often assume and assert that our interest in particular topic is only motivated by the desire to do science. Often of course this is not entirely true. It is I think important to reflect upon our own histories, backgrounds in relation to the research we do. Does it create a particular bias, does it create particular blind spots and what can our research teach us about ourselves and vice versa?

One of the the world’s leading experts on violence and evil, Jessica Stern has lectured at Harvard about terrorism and is the author of a respected book, “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill” (2003). Her book Denial: A Memoir of Terror is different from her earlier work. In this book she takes a different angle:

NYT – Books – Violence Expert Visits Her Dark Past

On Oct. 1, 1973, when Ms. Stern was 15 and her sister 14, the two of them, alone in a suburban house in leafy Concord, Mass., were raped by a man who cut the house’s telephone lines before walking inside and leading them upstairs.

Ms. Stern describes that evening in brutal detail. It was a night that changed her and taught her a dire lesson: “Shame can be sexually transmitted.” The crime wasn’t properly investigated. The police didn’t believe her when she said the rapist was a stranger. Because her story and those of others were not publicized or taken seriously enough by the police, the same man was able to rape some 44 girls — an incredible, heart-collapsing number — from 1971 to 1973. “The entire community,” she writes, “was in denial.”

The next video is from a Dutch TV program where Jessica Stern is interviewed. The start is in Dutch, but after about 30 seconds the talk will be in English.

Her book is not only a powerful complaint against people denying the experience of victims by ridiculizing, pressing them to move on, trivializing and so on and shows also how such mechanisms can have a strong social function as well (they indeed did move on).

This is not an easy endeavour as she herself explains:

I usually write about events in the political world. I am a witness. I do my best to report what I observe, objectively; and I often rely, at least in part, on other scholars’ previous work. People might disagree with my conclusions, but at least they can follow the trail of evidence and the logic of what I say. But here I am writing about what goes on in my own head. I am the sole expert. I cannot hide behind footnotes referring the reader to other scholars’ work. Nor can I share observations or test my conclusions against those of other experts. I play both roles: observer and observed. I have only myself to blame if I get it wrong or if I don’t push deep enough, past the layers of shame, toward a truth.

I was worried that writing about myself – not as an expert but as a victim – would make it harder for people to see me as an objective authority on terrorism. I find that when an “expert” reveals his biases and experiences to make clear to the reader that he knows the limits of his own objectivity, I trust him more, not less; but I’m not sure that all readers feel that way.

The interesting aspect of Stern’s account as that she uses her own emotions as an analytical instrument without reducing these emotions to mere typologies or products of cultural contexts. Emotions do not hinder good research or analysis, but can contribute to it; something that is certainly relevant for anthropologist (Stern is not) for whom the tensions of fieldwork produce particular emotions that are part of the experience of doing fieldwork.

The danger however with accounts such as these is that there is no way of making sure that her experience of fear, humiliation and shame are the same as those of rapists and terrorists. At the end of her memoir Stern proposes the thesis, connecting her experience with suffering and overcoming the trauma with her research, that many extremists have been sexually traumatized. The resulting shame and humiliation she suggests may be an important factor in the motivations of terrorists. This is not the most convincing part of her book. Now she may share particular meanings attached to her feelings, but her experiences and raw emotions can be different as well. Emotions have to be placed into a particular context and within a particular set of social relations and her personal story gives us some clue as to how to do that and in what particular context. Her story enables her and the reader to make sense of those emotions. Her personal experience as a tool to understand others is however less convincing because she does not adequately put her cases of the terrorists in their context. The emotions of terrorists may, or may not, be different even if all describe them in terms of shame. The fact, for example, that in the case of terrorists we are mainly talking about boys and men is probably one such difference.

This doesn’t mean it cannot work; using one’s own personal experiences as a starting point for an analysis. Anthropologist Beatty in a recent article in American Anthropologist refers to this when he criticizes different approaches regarding emotions in anthropology. He refers to different examples of ‘intimate ethnograpy’ from accounts on the holocaust that show:

the difficulties attending intimate ethnography: the complex negotiation of roles, the construction of a “truthful” account, and so on. What legitimizes the project in each case— and contrasts it with […]analogous experience— is the authors’ insider status as children of their informants, their necessary involvement in the reconstitution of personal history. Only when the stories are made to address broader themes do we feel the power of the original testimonies weakened as memories are distilled to familiar lessons about dehumanization and structural violence.

Based upon these examples Beatty pleas for relocating emotion in practice by using a narrative method. Indeed, as he acknowledges, not new but I think a necessary plea anyway. Also in the case of Stern’s book. Her book is a brave account that deserves to be read. There is a Dutch translation as well now. The book is a very useful step in analyzing emotions of the researcher and the researched. A narrative approach such as advocated by Beatty however may enable us to go beyond our own experiences (how useful they may be) but perhaps also to avoid reducing emotions to outward factors. Narratives, as Beatty explains, can show the personal significance of emotions while describing them in detail relating them to past social relations and particular events. In the end of course it will remain difficult to do justice to people’s emotions.