14 Ethics of Witnessing: Method as Intervention

Nergis Canefe

This paper provides a critical discussion on ethics of witnessing as a form of responsibility in relation to doing scholarly work in areas concerning human vulnerabilities, historical injustices, dispossessed populations, marginalized groups, mass political crimes and structural violence. It is my conviction that scholarly work has to be more aggressively engaged with socially embedded and politically potent processes of violence, injustice and dispossession. In this quest, a critical approach to scholarship as witnessing lends a particularly sharp tool for developing an accurate understanding of both the structural causes and the consequences of the phenomena under investigation.

Approaches including critical ethnography, radical ethics of care, action research and methods of relational comparison already provide ample tools for reconfiguring research methodologies. Methodologies discussed in this site further encourage a grounded approach to social, moral and political problems at large and they invite the scholar/researcher to focus directly on structural reasons for historical injustices and rely on the idea of a relational self. In this context, ‘witnessing’ is defined as a profound form of ethical engagement and embodies a marked form of responsibility resting on the shoulders of the researcher/scholar/student.

Critical Scholarship as Praxis

The concept of ethics of witnessing as a form of responsibility, and its practice as a method amounts to the kinds of interventions essential for undertaking critical scholarly work.[1] An in-depth knowledge of consequential aspects of research practices could lead to a deeper and more engaged understanding of how to address societal and global inequalities. This approach to scholarly research requires us to rethink the practice of academic work in tandem with the needs of the community and the society at large, and the complex web of relationships between the two. As such, one takes a deliberate stance against reigning patterns marking the existing social and political order as well as against systemic violence that serves to reinforce established practices of dominance at the expense of the needs of society and in particular, vulnerable groups and individuals.

In this context, it is essential that we regard critical scholarship as a form of praxis.[2] Marxian notion of praxis refers to the relationship between theory and practice and dictates a dialectical understanding of social and historical change. Presenting a perspective towards scholarship based on the will to transcend the theory-practice dichotomy is the first step towards establishing a methodology for praxis-oriented knowledge production.

This is the specific context within which I explore ethics of witnessing as a method that would allow students/researchers to directly address social and political realities concerning the intersection of class, political subjectivity and gender. Subjects such as: excluded and vulnerable groups seeking representation in front of the state and its bureaucracies; and groups effected by constitutional or special decree measures that adversely affect their rights and freedoms, including freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, the right to life, freedom from detention, the right to environment, right to justice and other such basic rights claims, each have dimensions directly related to historical injustices.

Through engagement with this new kind praxis-oriented scholarship, students are invited to practice taking ownership of their insights, problem assessment, and problem-solving skills as they relate to urgent social and political issues on the ground. If achieved, emergent forms of scholarship could be systemically contextualized in terms of increased awareness of the socio-economic and socio-political milieu within which the scholar/researcher operates.[3]





[1] I am indebted to Obiora Okafor and his analysis of TWAIL (Third World Approaches to International Law) as both theory and method in my formulation of ethics of witnessing as both method and intervention. See Obiora Chinedu Okafor, “Critical Third World approaches to international law (TWAIL): theory, methodology, or both?.”International Community Law Review 10, no. 4 (2008): 371-378.

[2] For a directly applicable theoretization of critical scholarship as praxis in the area of race theory, see Chandra L. Ford and Collins O. Airhihenbuwa. “Critical race theory, race equity, and public health: toward antiracism praxis.” American journal of public health 100, no. S1 (2010): S30-S35. The authors argue that critical race theory provides fertile grounds for developing a transdisciplinary methodology that grounds scholarly analysis in a transformative vision of social injustice.I make a similar argument in the context of feminist work on forced migration emanating from the Global South though the methodology I propose is a direct engagement with ethics of witnessing.

[3] According to Charles Kurzman and Lynn Owens (2002), there are at least three broad trends that define the role of the scholar/intellectual in the society: the Dreyfusards and “new class” theorists including Pierre Bourdieu treat scholars/intellectuals as potentially a class-in- themselves; Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and in general theorists of “authenticity” treat scholars/intellectuals as representatives of their group of origin and thus class-bound; finally Karl Mannheim, Edward Shils, and Randall Collins treat intellectuals as relatively classless and able to transcend their group of origin to pursue their own ideals as well as articulate new ideals for the society at large. In this work, I take side with the last of these three categorizations.


Ethics of Witnessing: Method as Intervention Copyright © 2022 by Nergis Canefe. All Rights Reserved.

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