The anthropology of guilt and rapport: Moral mutuality in ethnographic fieldwork

Eric Gable


In this article I use Clifford Geertz’s backhanded defense of Malinowski’s seeming emotional hypocrisy—his dislike of the natives whose point of view he wished to understand—to argue that while empathy or at least sympathy are integral components of the intimacies of fieldwork, they are also the catalyst for the darker and usually far less openly discussed emotions that are associated with these feelings—guilt, anger, and disgust—that are also at play in the fieldwork encounter. Indeed these sentiments, inevitably intersubjective in origin and expression, are intrinsic to the kind of knowledge we produce as ethnographers. I explore how these emotions emerge from or shape conversation in the field and then inflect subsequent analyses. I review encounters I have had with Lauje of Sulawesi, Indonesia, and Manjaco of Guinea-Bissau, and museum professionals at Monticello where my interlocutors attempted to guide my research by enlisting my sympathy for their condition, and how such attempts to create fields of moral mutuality inflect in often unpredictable ways my understandings of social life in those places. My focus will be on how the fraught emotion of guilt emerges from and shapes the experience of moral mutuality in ethnographic encounters.


intersubjectivity, morality, guilt, fieldwork, Sulawesi, Guinea-Bissau, Monticello

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.010