If naming is fundamentally a process of recognition, how does the practice of using pseudonyms—masking names—undermine ethnography’s potential as an instrument of recognition? In this essay, I reflect upon the potential unintended consequences of pseudonyms in practice, in relation to three different ethnographic contexts: (1) research with members of the Thangmi community in Nepal and India about ethnic identity conducted in the 1990s and 2000s; (2) research about intersecting disasters in Nepal that I have been engaged in since the 2015 earthquakes there; and, (3) a collaborative research partnership with the Nepali-Canadian community in British Columbia, which emerged after 2015. In different ways, each of these experiences has prompted me to question the established anthropological practice of using pseudonyms, as well as the broader assumption that anonymizing research participants is always the most ethical approach.
For Indigenous knowledge holders, such as the late Thangmi shaman Rana Bahadur, name recognition was a critical part of the research and knowledge production process. It was equally so for the young Thangmi ethnic activists with whom I worked.Each of Rana Bahadur’s ritual recitations began by situating himself in place and time, incorporating me and other audience members by name into the recitation itself, locating all of us in time and place. Early on in my doctoral research, I discussed the possibility of anonymizing what he shared with me, in keeping with what my graduate training had emphasized as disciplinary best practice. This led to a near breakdown in our work together for some days.
Once he was ready to speak with me again, Rana Bahadur explained that to remove his name from these recitations would be akin to causing him bodily harm. This was because the knowledge he was sharing with me was embodied knowledge, embedded in his being through the practice of oral recitation in a way that could not be abstracted and circulated in textualized, discursive form (Shneiderman 2015, 63-67). To use a pseudonym would have amounted to doing just this: extracting Rana Bahadur’s recitations as generalizable, universal knowledge, in way that elided Rana Bahadur’s individual experience as a skilled knowledge holder living and practicing in a specific place and time.
I gleaned similar understandings from conversations with activists engaged in representing their community to the Nepali and Indian states. To mask their identities in my own writing, either as individuals or at the community level, would be to undermine the very agenda to which they understood my work to contribute. Moreover, many were named knowledge producers themselves, authoring books or newspaper articles, hosting radio shows and producing documentaries, often on the same themes about which I was writing. To attribute their verbal statements to a masked, pseudonymed version of themselves—when I was also citing their written and other forms of media expression by name—made no sense at all.
This was hit home to me after a radio interview with Tek Raj, the host of a Thangmi language broadcast out of Kathmandu (Shneiderman 2015, 97). When it was over, I asked if I could write about my experience in the studio with him, and whether he would want to be mentioned by name or anonymized. He looked at me quizzically and asked how I could possibly talk about the experience without mentioning his name, since our conversation had already been broadcast over the airwaves, and he was well-known in the community as a journalist and host of the show. Indeed, my scholarly production was only one strand of many that sought to discuss Thangmi language, culture, and activism in the public domain. To implement a regime of pseudonyms would mean that my writing was no longer a living document operating in relation to the community’s own forms of knowledge production, but rather a discrete, self-referential form of ossified knowledge that would by definition be limited to operating on its own terms.
When it finally came time to publish my research in book form, reviewers requested that I clarify my position on the use of pseudonyms. At least one colleague, another non-Nepali anthropologist working in Nepal, had already taken me to task in a verbal presentation for revealing too much about the identities of my interlocutors. I pushed back with the arguments that I have outlined above, emphasizing that to use pseudonyms would dampen the potential power of my work as a useful tool in the community’s own struggle for recognition. This was precisely the point, I was told; that anthropology must stay out of such political projects and pseudonyms were in part a strategy to ensure that scholarship could not be marshalled in the very way that I hoped mine would be. We had to agree to disagree.
In the book, I simply stated, “Most Thangmi with whom I worked asked explicitly to be recognized by name and place of residence. I therefore do not use pseudonyms in the text, although I occasionally omit personal names to honor the anonymity of those who requested it.” (Shneiderman 2015, xii). This was my practice in the field: as described above with Tek Raj, I discussed the range of possibilities for attribution with each interlocutor. I used real names for the majority who preferred them. Although there were very few who requested it, I found ways to anonymize those who chose that option. One strategy was to use general descriptors such as, “a woman in her 30s,” or “a member of the organization,” while another was to paraphrase individual statements and present them with a lead in like, “Some interlocutors explained that …” without using direct quotations or attributing the information to a specific individual.
These choices led to other complexities. The index to my book does list several personal names, but I realized after publication that some were inadvertently left out. This was brought to my attention by Tahal Thami, an indigenous rights activist. He had read the whole thing carefully, and in addition to raising questions about how I had presented the community’s internal debate over the category of indigeneity, he noted that while I described several conversations with him in the text, these were not fully indexed by name. I can only attribute this to an oversight and pledge to do better next time.
Such conversations clarified for me that the presumed distance between researcher and “subject” inherent in the logic of pseudonyms had collapsed in my case, and probably in many other contemporary ethnographic contexts, indicating a key shift in anthropology. I was not writing about my research with ‘others’ solely for scholarly consumption back home, but also writing about community dynamics for community members themselves, in relation to their own knowledge production about themselves. In this environment of mutual recognition, it made no more sense for me to anonymize or offer pseudonyms for them than it would for them to use a pseudonym for me when they mobilized my scholarship as part of their campaigns for recognition.
At the same time, part of my research was conducted during Nepal’s Maoist-state civil conflict (1996-2006), which presented a different set of concerns around identifying interlocutors. While the conflict was ongoing, I did find it necessary to mask identities of interlocutors, particularly in conversations with representatives of the Nepali state, as well as other officials (such as the US Regional Security Officer in Kathmandu responsible for monitoring the research of Fulbright scholars). I discussed these ethical challenges in a co-authored 2004 article (Pettigrew et al. 2004). With the exception of public political figures, my writing about the Maoist insurgency does anonymize interlocutors in order to minimize often unpredictable future political risk.
But by the time my book was ready for publication, the conflict had already been over for several years. This is not to say that there were no longer risks to identification, but rather that by that time, most of my interlocutors saw the benefits of recognition in the moment of post-conflict political restructuring as outweighing the risks. I bring these different temporal moments into the conversation to emphasize that there is no singular answer to the question of if, when, or how to use pseudonyms or otherwise anonymize interlocutors. Such choices are contextual and may shift over time. These are conversations to have with the people whom they affect, in relation to their agendas. Understanding such rationales, and remaining attentive and open to changing expectations and needs is itself an important part of the research process.
More recently, I have been thinking about how social media intersects with such dynamics in the context of ongoing disasters. I first joined Facebook in order to stay connected with my research partners and friends in Nepal. Now many of them use Facebook as a primary means of communicating, amongst themselves and with friends and relatives around the world.
These forms of connection have become increasingly important in the face of the multiple disasters of recent years: Nepal’s devastating earthquakes of 2015, the Covid-19 pandemic, and ongoing climate change induced displacement through flooding and landslides. At all of these moments, close friends and research partners have reached out to me over social media—tagging me by name—with requests to raise funds and mobilize other forms of support. There is no question in my mind about engaging in such projects. In large part, I do so publicly over social media in contexts where my interlocutors are not only naming me, but publicly naming themselves and the organizations with which they are affiliated. For me then to disguise their names when I write would make little sense, and would dislocate and universalize their suffering, rather than recognizing their individual, situated and agentive responses to it. In short, the presumed distance between researcher and subject is further collapsed via social media.
Such mutual entanglements are difficult to represent accurately and honestly within the logic of Behavioural Research Ethics Boards (BREB), as they are called in Canada, cognate to the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) familiar to colleagues in the USA. In several recent projects, I have found a tension between the BREB’s presumption of distance between researcher and “participant,” and the realities of community-engaged research, where such distance is collapsed in the ways I’ve described here.
In a collaborative project with the Nepal Cultural Society of British Columbia (NCSBC), funded by a small research grant from UBC specifically intended to foster research partnerships with community organizations, we encountered several categorical challenges in securing BREB approval for a series of workshops and an online survey with the Nepali-Canadian community. The first issue was in defining the difference between “researcher” and “participant.” In this case, several research team members are both scholars with PhDs and Nepali-Canadian members of the community organization. These colleagues were both involved in research design and implementation, and participants contributing their experiences and knowledge to the research. As researchers they had to be named in the BREB protocol, but as participants the default position of the BREB was that they should remain anonymous. The second issue was that NCSBC wanted to use the online survey as a means of outreach to community members who might not otherwise be engaged with the organization, but to do so would require collecting identifying information, which required special permissions.
Both of these issues were resolved through a series of conversations with BREB officers and the NCSBC board. The official BREB guidance notes state, “The easiest way to protect participants is through the collection and use of anonymous or anonymized data, although this is not always possible or desirable.” 1 The second clause appropriately leaves open the possibility of naming participants, but in our experience this choice had to be rigorously justified through multiple revisions to our protocol. In another section, the guidance states, “Interview participants may prefer to have their comments attributed in publications rather than to remain unnamed. The BREB recognizes and accepts this possibility, provided that there is no unacceptable risk to the participant … If you are planning to disclose the identity of participants, this should be specified in the consent process.” I have been encouraged by the potential that such guidance offers for charting new pathways, but there is little recognition that doing so requires intensive effort on the part of researchers, community members, and particularly those individuals who bridge both roles. Such work and the time it takes are not readily recognized in institutional funding, workload allocation, and merit models, even in academic contexts like UBC where collaboration, local and global engagement, and partnership are highlighted as key strategic objectives. 2
For Indigenous and other interlocutors who seek recognition for themselves and their communities through research and other forms of knowledge production in the public domain, to be told that these desires cannot be named due to the need for anonymity is an affront. Bureaucratic systems of academic legitimation may see a paradox when the multiple positionalities of researcher, community members, and participant exist simultaneously, but these assumptions and the regimes of identity-masking that they entail should be questioned. Developing frameworks for consultative processes that begin from a place of openness, recognition, and relation with all of those involved—rather than assumptions about what constitutes “ethical” research—will be a good starting point. If we wish to build genuine foundations for respectful and collaborative research, conducted in full relation to the agendas of those with whom we work, we must acknowledge that the distance of anonymity may not always serve our shared purposes.
Acknowledgments: I thank Mark Turin, Carole McGranahan, and Erica Weiss for their engagement with these ideas.
Pettigrew, Judith, Sara Shneiderman, and Ian Harper. 2004. “Relationships, Complicity and Representation: Conducting Research in Nepal during the Maoist Insurgency.” Anthropology Today 20: 20-25. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0268-540X.2004.00248.x
Shneiderman, Sara. 2015. Rituals of Ethnicity: Thangmi Identities Between Nepal and India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Cite as: Shneiderman, Sara. 2021. “Collapsing Distance: Recognition, Relation, and the Power of Naming in Ethnographic Research.” In “Rethinking Pseudonyms in Ethnography,” edited by Carole McGranahan and Erica Weiss, American Ethnologist website, 13 December 2021, https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/rethinking-pseudonyms-in-ethnography/collapsing-distance-recognition-relation-and-the-power-of-naming-in-ethnographic-research
Sara Shneiderman is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and School of Public Policy & Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.