ABSTRACT. This paper on “war ethnography” revisits the author’s 1994–5 participation in one of 150 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the post-genocide Great Lakes region – Rwanda, Burundi, South Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) – as an anthropologist to “listen, analyze, and offer philosophical reflections of what happened.” Alongside an account of the settings of this engagement, the paper examines the sources and applications of anthropological expertise acquired during relief and mediation fieldwork. The methodology of this inquiry involved straight-forward ethnographic inquiry – listening to stories and discussions – as well as interpretation and analysis, in the following ways: contextualizing the narratives collected in terms of community settings and sequences of events; balancing the “ethnographic imperative” of informants’ desire to tell their story with full identification, vs. preserving their anonymity along the lines of academic and human rights protocols; determining rights violations while protecting subjects from revenge attacks; reading the emotional register of the narratives – an indicator of trauma; explicating the ethical dilemmas and standards for anthropology in conflict situations; assessing ownership and control of expert knowledge; and offering recommendations to young anthropologists or workers with NGOs in conflict situations. pp. 75–103
JEL codes: O15; D74

Keywords: narratives; contextualization; ethnographic imperative; trauma; expertise; ethics

How to cite: Janzen, John M. (2016), “Ethnography in the Service of Understanding Human Conflict,” Psychosociological Issues in Human Resource Management 4(2): 75–103.

Received 18 January 2016 • Received in revised form 29 April 2016
Accepted 30 April 2016 • Available online 20 May 2016


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Department of Anthropology,
University of Kansas, Lawrence

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