Fieldwork Under Surveillance: Rethinking Relations of Trust, Vulnerability, and State Power

Caitlin M. Ryan and Sarah Tynen, “Fieldwork Under Surveillance: Rethinking Relations of Trust, Vulnerability, and State Power,” Geographical Review, 13 November 2019: 38–51


Tynen and Ryan’s article is centered around the difficulty and the practical reality of conducting fieldwork in contexts of state violence, surveillance, and/or outright hostility.


Encounters with the surveillance state during fieldwork are common, raising practical and intellectual challenges for qualitative research methods. Despite a number of studies on this topic, surveillance in illiberal and liberal contexts tend to be treated as separate problems. We provide a comparative case study that addresses the impacts of surveillance on sensitive research topics in the relatively weak state of Kyrgyzstan and the stronger state of China. Drawing on stories about negotiating the surveillance state with our research participants, we argue that (1) surveillance changes the relations of trust and rapport that are essential for knowledge production, (2) that it operates across unevenly positioned subjects, and (3) that the effects of surveillance on research outcomes do not substantially diverge across different state formations, such as China and Kyrgyzstan. The stories illustrate the intimate geopolitics of surveillance.

Keywords: Ethnography, Surveillance, Methodology, Intimate Geopolitics, Uyghur