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Unpacking Power and Doing Structure

Emily Kingsley's picture

One of the readings from my semester thus far that has felt most applicable to my summer experiences was actually for my sociology junior seminar on research methods. In her 2006 paper, “Into the Dark Heart of Ethnography: The Lived Ethics and Inequality of Intimate Field Relationships,” sociologist Katherine Irwin argues that research ethics has repeatedly failed to account for the ways in which scholars are “’doing structure’” when they go out into the field (Irwin 155). By this, she means that academics do not often step back to consider the larger implications of their presence in terms of power dynamics and systemic patterns. They do not get beyond the minutia of their personal interactions to consider the larger structures that they are engaging with in their work. This is a problem, Irwin asserts, because this lack of self-reflective thought can leave researchers ignorant about how “inequality, harm, and exploitation function in the lived research experience” (Irwin 160). I was struck by this idea of “doing structure” through engagement in research. And, even though my internship this summer was not research-based, I found that a lot of Irwin’s ideas applied pretty closely to my work this summer.

Indeed, the essay helped me put into words some of the ideas and intuitions that I had been grappling with all summer as I tried to navigate my positionality within The Haven day shelter. I thought a lot over the course of the internship about what it meant to be a white, upper-middle class woman within the context of the shelter. What did my whiteness, for example, communicate about dynamics of power, agency, and helper/helped dichotomies? How did my internship experience in the shelter reinforce systemic patterns of colonialism and imperialism— to what extent was I “eating” others’ trauma and lived experiences as fodder for my own personal development and academic growth? I found these questions deeply troubling, especially when I realized that I had no easy answers or reassurances to make myself feel better about what I was doing. I liked much of my work at The Haven, and I often felt proud of my role there. Yet, I was confronted again and again by these questions and uncertainties—was it okay for me to be in this space? How was I helping and how was I harming? Who benefited the most from my presence, and who was hurt by it?     

In many ways, these uncomfortable questions make up the backbone of what I want to explore in my independent study this semester. Throughout the summer, I felt at a loss as I confronted my own internalized imperialism and white supremacy. What baggage was I carrying into this internship with me, and how did it manifest in my work? I felt myself longing for some kind of roadmap, an activist rulebook that would lay out dos and don’ts for navigating positionality and power. It's not that easy, though.

One of my goals for this semester is to begin exploring some of the questions that felt so daunting this summer. By turning to both theoretical works and tangible examples of activism, I will begin piecing together an understanding of how colonialism, whiteness, and capitalism interact and intersect in helping and volunteering spaces. I will, as Irwin calls for in her essay, come to terms with what it means to "do structure" and reproduce inequalities in the field, even amidst a wealth of good intentions and a genuine desire to help.