Intimacy and Violence

At what point does a moment of mutual intimacy become intrusive, or even violent?

As ethnographers, we strive to learn the dance of our participants; we follow their lead as they generously guide us through their worlds. That dancing can be enthralling and as intense as it is intimate, and it can also invite unintentional violence.

I see intimacy and violence as deeply interrelated, and to perhaps epitomise how we come to know ourselves, and how to be with others. Being with people in ways that create and sustain meaningful connection do not come easily. In fieldwork and in life, we explore and sometimes curtail connections with others, depending on the meanings evoked for us in their company. If an interaction with someone feels intimate but benign to you, it can be hard to know if the other person feels it to be similarly benign.

Many of us aren’t very good at knowing how to engage with, or to disengage from, people we don’t know well (and we can know people for years and still not know them well, just like one can go through life being unsure of oneself). Anthropologists cultivate everyday intimacy with their participants and must sensitively navigate the impositions they find themselves making. In little ways like how we make eye contact, the potential for violence is there. 

The potency of eye contact

I realised quite quickly while doing fieldwork interviews that neither my participants nor I were that comfortable at holding eye contact while talking. But this level of ‘intermittent’ intimacy, or sporadic eye contact, seemed to work for us. Because, I realised when I was listening for long periods of time without doing much talking at all, how my eyes, instead looking directly into theirs, could unnerve my participants. 

Although interacting in clinical settings, it sometimes felt like the whole physical space we were in had been suspended. One day I was interviewing a woman who divulged a lot of her life story to me in more verbal and direct ways than most participants did. The themes of sexual abuse and the “power of prayer” ran throughout her intense outpouring. Within about twenty minutes of conversation, she panicked when she detected what she felt were “sexual vibes” in my eyes.

I soon learned how she was particularly sensitive to people’s gazes, commenting on how some doctors and nurses gave looks that were “too powerful”. She abruptly left some appointments when this threat via eye contact became too strong. Instead of walking out of the room that day with me, though, she simply asked me to look away from her, out the window.

I then spent most of the interview faced toward the window, until she felt safe. When she had told me most of what she wanted to say, a shaft of afternoon light began to stream through the window of the clinic room. Observing the light reflected in my eyes, she now saw in them the “Holy Spirit”. Assured, she said I could look at her again. It felt like we had been transported elsewhere, somewhere peaceful. We could finally just sit there together, without an overwhelming opacity in regard to what direction the interaction might take.

‘Democratic’ violence and intimacy

It is important for ethnographers that social interactions are in step somehow, even if these steps are ultimately interpreted differently for each individual. Anthropologist Nigel Rapport has written about how people come to interpret interactions in their own ways, despite being part of a subtle ‘democratic violence’. Rapport (2003: 251) said that, ‘[t]here is always violence in the everyday inasmuch as there is individual diversity and creativity’. This keeps social worlds (and lives) moving along in familiar, and mostly predictable, ways. 

The ways in which people adapt to the mundanely intimate, social ‘logic’ of an interaction don’t necessarily fit the meanings made from the interaction by the individuals experiencing it. My eye contact probably brought different meanings for each person I interacted with in the field, and other violations might have been similarly but discreetly steered in a more productive direction (e.g., my participants looking away from me, rather than asking me to not look at them).

Everyday intimacy, then, can be viewed as ‘democratically violent’ insofar as it operates between people as a form of social exchange that elicits meanings, which pertain to both ‘norms’ and something more personal. But any perceived permeations of personal space must at least begin to feel in step in order for the dance to work.

The ethnographic dance

Whenever I saw that particular participant thereafter, our connection seemed, to me, comfortable but distant. As though we had reached a mutual closure that previous afternoon. While I never asked her for another interview, it seemed unnecessary to exchange anything more than friendly smiles (and brief eye contact) again. To do so would have felt out of step. We had established an intimacy of some kind that was enough. We had moved past the initial danger she had felt through a gaze I inadvertently gave her, to the eventual trust experienced within that space and time.

Ethnographers, when entering social relations in the field, should be particularly aware of the power, and potential incongruence, of how intimacies are interpreted. This may be easier in field sites that are more immediately different from one’s own culture, as social cues like the receptivity of eye contact are quickly adopted.  But across all ethnographic circumstances we cannot ignore our potentially dominant position as a researcher, and the subtle intimacies we might impose or invite while trying to learn the dance. We must be careful, to not fall too far out of step, and this is a matter of inter-personal navigation with each participant. 

                                                                               [Image by Julia Brown]

2 thoughts on “Intimacy and Violence

  1. This is most interesting. I know the focus is on intimacy and violence, but I keep returning to this delicate balance between intimacy and power. In my work, and in my personal life, some of the most previously intimate moments have happened even when a definite power differential exists and in those moments the differential is often turned on its head. It feels very vulnerable, but there is incredible power in sharing your most intimate details with another person. Though perhaps this particular feeling of power depends on the listener’s reverence for your story?

    • Thanks, Madison, and I agree that power is a central thread here. And vulnerability is indeed key to human connection, so long as – like you say – people can or want to relate (sometimes a challenge). I highly recommend Rapport’s book (linked in blog) about the existential power of individuals too. Julia

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