Correction on “critical distance”

The cool thing is that my 2010 article in Geoforum, “Neither friends or foes: Thoughts on ethnographic distance” (PDF) was recently cited by someone. The not so cool thing is that my point was completely misread.

Annette Watson. “I crashed the boat and wept: Localizing the ‘field’ in critical geographic practice.” Emotion, Space and Society (2011).

Critical geographers are critical of injustices and inequalities—they take positions on political issues—but more often resort to the voice of the anonymous Subject to make their truth-claims. There is an assumption that what it means to be “critical” is that one’s advocacy for political change comes from an objective study of an issue, such as when Han (2010) opposes proximity to the “critical distance” necessary for understanding. Even Haraway (1988) advocates a “passionate detachment.” Yet such positionings can disenfranchise indigenous peoples or other local communities that do express emotions/affections for their homelands.

Huh. This is not what I said. “[Opposing] proximity to the “critical distance” necessary for understanding” — this is not at all what I argued. I don’t believe for a second that proximity or “critical distance” is necessary for understanding. If anything, my point was precisely to imagine a critical ethnography that goes beyond the duality of proximity and distance. What I did write was this:

Critical ethnography requires that differences not be sublimated through empathy or similarities amplified through solidarity. Rather, it insists that the ethnographer stand in productive tension, moving in spaces both familiar and strange, negotiating the constant fluctuations of distance and proximity. It is not only in moments of empathetic proximity that profound knowledge is produced, and it is certainly not only in moments of apathetic distance that accuracy in knowledge can be guaranteed. It is precisely the tension in-between that has the potential to generate most revealing insights about the complex social worlds that we all inhabit.