Fieldwork as déjà vu: writing up to give up familiarity*

Sofía González-Ayala
(sofia.gonzalez-ayala [at]

The subject of my PhD in Social Anthropology with Visual Media at the University of Manchester is the exhibition Wakes and living saints: Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal communities or Velorios y santos vivos: Comunidades negras, afrocolombianas, raizales y palenqueras, which was open for three months in 2008 at the National Museum of Colombia, in Bogotá, and began travelling around the country since 2009. I got initially involved with that exhibition project as a research assistant for its temporary version at the Museum. Then, during the two following years, I was in charge of its travelling version, a set of 21 banners with printed text and photographs and a few objects that worked as a structure used to organize local versions of the original exhibition.

In my PhD research project I proposed to follow this moving display, which still travelled in 2012 and 2013. Therefore while doing ‘fieldwork’ for my PhD degree in Manchester I would not be away but ‘at home’—fieldwork was like a déjà vu. This implied that, although I met new people with whom I had to gain rapport and familiarity, perhaps it meant even more that I had to de-familiarize myself from my previous knowledge and expertise as a museum employee, local anthropologist, colleague and friend. This had implications not only during that year back in Colombia, as my colleagues, friends and even myself became my informants, because when I started writing up my ethnography I realised that they might also become my audience and this has triggered feelings of betrayal and guilt. I have felt ‘anti-social’ (Mosse, 2006) in relation to that possible audience as, precisely because of the roles I used to play while I worked for the Museum, there were things I did not talk about, I was not aware of or simply did not know.

In the paper I used the distinction made by Strathern (1987) between writer and author to discuss my position, showing also how as much as time and distance, the archive material produced in the exhibition research has helped me de-familiarize and deal with those feelings and thus be able to write. Furthermore, that archive has become an ethnographic source that has revealed traces of the public and academic character of the endeavour that made it possible. I see myself thus as an ‘insider ethnographer’ (Mosse, ibid.) who understands the exhibition Wakes and living saints, as a local ‘ethnographic genre’ (Strathern, ibid.) in the sense that it was the product of the work of locally legitimized anthropology practitioners, framed by museological, official and institutional practices.

*The paper I read in the CLACS seminar series on the 22nd of October 2014 was a similar version to the one I presented at the RAI conference at Brunel University on the 3rd of September 2014.


Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. ‘The limits of auto-anthropology’. In Anthropology at home. Edited by Anthony Jackson. Association of Social Anthropologists, Cambridge.

Mosse, David. 2006. Anti-social anthropology? Objectivity, objection, and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12, 935-956.


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