Facing Risk: Levinas, Ethnography, and Ethics



This article examines methodological and ethical issues of ethnographic research through the lens of Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy. Levinas is relevant to a critical analysis of ethnographic methods because his philosophy turns on the problematic relationship between self and other, among other important problems that define and guide contemporary anthropological research, including questions of responsibility, justice, and solidarity. This article utilizes Levinas's philosophy to outline a phenomenology of the “doing” of fieldwork, emphasizing the contingency of face-to-face encounters over controlled research design. This account provides a basis for going beyond the polarized opposition between objective and subjective ethnographic approaches. Levinas allows for an ethically informed ethnography premised upon an acknowledgement of risk and uncertainity over researcher control or reflexivity. Providing a handful of concrete examples, the article argues that critical self-reflection about the fundamental face-to-face dimension of fieldwork is central to ethnography's ethical possibilities.