by Sara Shneiderman

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.

Rana Bahadur Thami, seated in front of his home in Balasode, Suspa-Kshamawati, Dolakha, Nepal. January 2000. Photo by the author.

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.