Dr Susan Wardell, a medical anthropologist at the University of Otago, recently began a study of online practices of care following the white supremacist terrorist attack at two Christchurch mosques earlier this year. We spoke with her about her project, “They Are Us.”
They Are Us: Practices of care in digital environments, after the Christchurch mosque attack
New Zealand’s official response to the white supremacist terrorist attack at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019 was commended worldwide. The public also offered intense performances of collective grief: with flowers piling up outside mosques, and tens of thousands attending public vigils. Yet much of the public experience of, and response to the event was digitally mediated: from exposure to the terrorist’s livestream, to a proliferation of profile frames, emotive images, and messages of love directed at imagined communities of Muslims throughout the country. In addition, there were well over 100,000 separate donations to crowdfunding campaigns for victim’s families.
This study focuses on understanding the lived, embodied and affective experiences of digital spaces during this time of mourning and debate.It aims to explore how the digital is a site of both moral engagement and action – and how actions taken online both reflect and constitute the cultural politics of New Zealand. It focusses on digitally-networked ‘publics’, as comprising mediated relations between strangers, which are being challenged and re-mapped by ‘they are us’ rhetoric.
The study is guided by the following research questions:
In what way did the aesthetic, material, and dialogical qualities of digital spaces shape affective and embodied experiences of the shooting?
How do people in New Zealand understand (and navigate) the moral qualities of their actions in digital space?
In what ways has the mobilisation of affect in digital space since the attack, formed, reformed, or reinforced different layers of national, regional, religious, and racial identity and belonging?
1. What prompted your scholarly interest in the response to the Christchurch mosque attacks?
I found myself positioned rather uniquely to contribute to understanding these events through a scholarly lens. Primary research interests of mine include the anthropology of emotion, care, mental health and wellbeing, burnout and secondary traumatization. I also have experience analysing digital and social media. At Otago I coordinate papers on Religion and the Supernatural, on Death, Grief, and Ritual, and on the Anthropology of Evil, and I teach into a course on Cultural Politics. Basically, I could draw all these as a big diagram, and then plot the Christchurch attack right at the very centre of it all!
I’ve also just begun a new major focus on digital crowdfunding and moral emotion. I had been reading heavily in this area, and putting together an interdisciplinary panel for the AAA/CASCA conference in Vancouver this year. The panel’s focus is on how crisis and suffering are performed, and care enacted, in digital spaces. Many of the panellists are experts on medical crowdfunding. So seeing crowdfunding emerge as a significant part of the online response to the events – to the extent that it ‘broke’ Give-a-little – was very compelling to me.
2. Can you tell us about your research design?
I wanted to combine an intimate, phenomenological lens, with the critical one this event undeniably calls for. I focussed my research design primarily around in-depth, open-ended phenomenological interviews (approximately 20). I did wrestle with what particular demographic or group I might focus on – whose experiences was I interested in? – but ending up (perhaps not very ethnographically!) leaving it open. Some interviews are being done in person, others via phone or video-calling, but the goal is to elicit stories that get under the skin of the interplay of the senses, emotions, thoughts, and decision-making, in digital spaces, after the attack.
There are issues with pursuing research on traumatic events in a way that is a) timely, 2) ethical, and 3) valid. Asking people about what they observed, felt, and thought online, up to 10 weeks after the event, has significant limitations, especially for a phenomenological approach. Furthermore for many reasons what people said they did, and what they actually did, will not be the same. However one useful technique I have employed is a modified version of photo-elicitation, where participants either bring with them, or later supply, images that relate to what we have discussed. They often choose to show me examples of posts or pictures that affected them particularly, or screenshots of (digital) interactions they had around both positive or troubling posts. These give me more of a sense of seeing through their eyes … albeit at a remove.
As a secondary focus, I designed the study to include dialogical and discursive analysis of the crowdfunding campaigns themselves.
3. Is there ever a right time for anthropologists to approach an event like this?
Even though it was clearly in my academic area, I felt emotionally resistant to applying an academic lens to the topic, for several weeks. I was torn up about the attack, and busy trying to care for students and teach thoughtfully during a time of vulnerability and high emotion. I had also just finished teaching a section of my ‘Anthropology of Evil’ class which is devoted to unpacking the methodological and ethical dilemmas of studying violence, conflict, and suffering. Fair to say my awareness was at peak!
There was the wish to do something, partly to alleviate my own sense of helplessness, and partly stemming from the guilt of privilege – for my own safety as a Pakehā Christian woman, and also as a publicly-funded academic. Then there was a sense of not wanting to throw myself amidst someone else’s story just because I could. And finally there was the worry that applying a reductive, analytic lens to experiences that are irreducible (Jackson 1986, in Beatty 2010), would be a form of violence in itself, to the (Jackson 1986, in Beatty 2010).
But as I chewed it over, rather painfully, I came up with an idea that flowed naturally out of my other research, and that didn’t unnecessarily target victims but rather focussed on broader public experiences of responding to the attack. Framing it within the ‘anthropology of good’ (Robbins 2013), I realised I could help elucidate not only what went wrong, but what went right – with a rich sense of context, an eye to the outworkings of power, and the very human (and humane) lens, that anthropology can offer.
A total lack of funding, and time management around an already chock-packed schedule, were and are major issues with ‘emergency’ anthropology like this. However when I eventually decided to go ahead, I was lucky to at least fast-track my ethics in record time. By the time I started it was about 4 weeks after the attack. My delay added a degree of emotional safety – meaning that I wasn’t asking anyone to respond out of the very depths of grief and chaos.
In addition, I’m learning to lean into my own discomfort as an ethical heuristic (Caduff 2011). Discomfort doesn’t signal something is wrong, it means we are doing something right – indicating a sort of reflexive and recursive dwelling in the complexities of our work, our positionality, and the social worlds we plant ourselves amidst. So yes, I feel discomforted every day, to be analysing a racist massacre, dissecting both pain and empathy in anticipation of presenting it in cold print to academic ‘others’. But I think as long as I’m uncomfortable, it’s a good sign I’m being attentive to the responsibility this involves.
4. How has the response to your project been so far?
I have been approached by a variety of generous people, offering to participate. The diversity of the respondents has been a surprise and a joy! An absolute spread of ages and life experiences, and social positionalities. Each affected in different ways – including one person whose immediate family were injured inside Al Noor mosque, and many who’ve acted as informal or formal community organisers. I feel so privileged to carry all these stories.
5. What kinds of themes are starting to emerge from your research?
I’m exploring the notion of the digital crowd; the sense that the numbers of people clicking, liking, sharing, or commenting, seems to outweigh the articulateness of any particular post. I’m being told repeatedly that there’s one terrorist, but tens of thousands of others making themselves visible against racism and hate, online. Yes people do read the nasty comments (and wrestle with how to invest limited energies in responding, or not), but they see the positive posts too, and I’m sensing that social media can be a kind of quantitative metric of hopefulness.
Control, or rather a lack of control, are a major anxiety point..Not being able to choose what you are exposed to, in terms of sensitive content or repugnant opinions. Yet people find strategies for managing content – from deleting accounts, to muting, or blocking, or ending friendships (online and off) in some cases. Trying to filter information and disinformation can be part of this anxiety – with many people taking an active role in doing this for others, too, which I think is also a sort of care act.
I am only just at the tip of the iceberg! I will be wrapping up interviews over the next couple of weeks (and beginning analysis then), but have a few more ‘spots’ if anyone else is interested.
Beatty, A., 2010. How Did It Feel for You? Emotion, Narrative, and the Limits of Ethnography. American Anthropologist 112, 430–443. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01250.x
Caduff, C. (2011). ‘Anthropology’s ethics: Moral positionalism, cultural relativism, and critical analysis’, Anthropological Theory, 11: pp465 - 480
Robbins, J., 2013. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. J R Anthropol Inst 19, 447–462. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12044