From 1973 through 1988, the American anthropologist Katherine Verdery spent a total of more than three years conducting fieldwork and research in Romania, studying things like the social life of Transylvanian villages and how the writing of history shaped national identity. During that time, two people she knew in Romania revealed to her that they had been asked to file reports on her with the Romanian secret police. This was not too surprising: Romania was then ruled by the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose regime was notorious for its extensive surveillance.
The real surprise came in 2008, two decades after the revolution that ousted Ceausescu, when Verdery acquired a copy of her secret police file from a Romanian state archive. The file was enormous: 2,781 pages. She learned that at least 70 people had informed on her, not just passing acquaintances and the odd hotel receptionist, but also colleagues, friends and “intimates.” No less astonishing was the fact that the secret police had seriously considered her to be a spy — first carrying out military espionage, then collecting information for the purpose of disparaging Romanian socialism, then assisting a Hungarian opposition in Transylvania (“Verdery” was taken for a Hungarian name, though it is French) and finally colluding with intellectual dissidents. None of this was true. Reading her file, she realized she had been fortunate to leave the country in November 1988, shortly after the secret police had taken steps that might have led to her arrest.
These revelations were profoundly disorienting. They forced Verdery to rethink the research she had done, the relationships she had formed, the workings of the Romanian security state and the nature of her own conduct, including “how much of the practice of anthropologists” — snooping around, cultivating informants, using code names — “resembles spying.” In MY LIFE AS A SPY: Investigations in a Secret Police File (Duke University, paper), a fascinating, thoughtful and occasionally riveting book, Verdery tells the story of her time in Romania. She employs three different perspectives: hers at that time (as captured in her field notes and personal letters), the secret police’s (as captured in its notes and reports on her) and hers today. She also uses the file to track down and interview several of the officers who handled her case as well as friends who informed on her. She approaches these confrontations not in a spirit of moral reckoning, but as an ethnographer trying to understand the social logic of surveillance under socialism.
Unlike many Romanians who have retrieved their secret police files, Verdery has chosen not to publicly “out” her informers and case officers, protecting their identities with pseudonyms and redactions. Though she empathizes with the feelings of anger, violation and betrayal that so many Romanians have, and though some of them encouraged her to “deconspire” the pseudonyms, she stresses the importance of the distinction between anthropologists and the inhabitants of the places they study. Romanians whose lives were invaded and often ruined by the secret police, she writes, “can be utterly indignant about aspects of their society in a way I feel I can’t.” After all, they have to endure the situation; Verdery can always return home. “Although not outsiders,” she reminds us, anthropologists “are not insiders either.”
In HOW TO THINK LIKE AN ANTHROPOLOGIST (Princeton University), an affable introduction to the discipline, the anthropologist Matthew Engelke describes “two key features” of work in the field. The first is “participant observation,” the practice of deeply immersing yourself in another culture — but not to the point of “going native.” Engelke concedes there can be “a fine line” between the two states of engagement. But the important difference is that “going native” undermines “the critical distance you need to make an analysis.” An example of what this distinction looks like in practice is Verdery’s strenuous effort, having been the victim of Romanian state surveillance, to keep her personal judgments at some remove from her attempts to fathom the workings of that system.
The second of Engelke’s two pillars of anthropological work is “cultural relativism.” By this phrase he does not mean the philosophical view that there are no moral truths and therefore no culture’s values are better or worse than any other’s. Rather, he means a methodological commitment to a “self-awareness that your own terms of analysis, understanding and judgment are not universal and cannot be taken for granted.”
Here, again, Verdery is an exemplar. When she first read her file and discovered that many of her Romanian friends were working with the secret police, she felt betrayed. These individuals, after all, had made a decision to violate a mutual trust. Or had they? Wasn’t it possible, Verdery came to wonder, that they were “overwhelmed by a greater exigency to which I was insignificant?” Namely: the need to protect their families and social networks, whose possible infiltration by the secret police always had to be assumed. To learn to see the world like a Romanian, Verdery had to “drop my very American tendency to think largely in terms of autonomous individuals” as well as her very American tendency to see friendships as things that can form quickly, simply on the basis of good conversations and “a sense of interpersonal charisma.” Accusing her friends of cowardice made less sense — not just morally, in terms of outrage, but also descriptively, in terms of comprehension — once she abandoned these assumptions.
Verdery notes that her circumspection would not suit all her fellow anthropologists, especially those who “find they work better in situations that make them angry.” Indeed, some anthropologists believe they do better research when they embrace and act on their moral reactions to the world they are trying to understand. This is a trend in the field that has become more pronounced over the past two decades. In ENGAGED ANTHROPOLOGY: Politics Beyond the Text (University of California, paper), the anthropologist Stuart Kirsch aims to show how research that is deliberately mobilized for political purposes makes for good scholarship. Examples of the sort of action he is talking about include “participation in social movements, collaborating with activists and nongovernmental organizations, advising lawyers, writing affidavits and producing expert reports.”