Montag, 17. Oktober 2016

Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit

In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Berlin (forthcoming)

Von Flavia Alice Mameli, Josefine Londorf Sarkez und Anne Van Wetteren

Fotografie: Anne Van Wetteren, Flughafen Tempelhof 2015

„There is something sinister about the way up to hangar 1, walking in the dark”,  I think to myself as I head to the refugee camp located in the former Tempelhof airport-complex. There are not many people at this hour, only small groups of men standing in the dark corners having a smoke. I don’t know where to go and I feel uneasy. […] We are in the building now. I use the waiting time to take a look around. From the back of the canteen I can see the white tents through the window section. The penetrating smell of today’s menu reminds me of the canteens at hospitals or retirement homes. (Field diary, 02.11.2015) [1]

From Flughafen to Fluchthafen

The former airport Tempelhof, in the southern part of Germany’s capital Berlin, was once described by the architect Norman Foster as the „mother of all modern airports” (Lautenschläger 2014, 8). Not only as protected architectural landmark Tempelhof airport still plays a significant role in the perception of the city of Berlin (Lautenschläger 2014, 9). Yet, the ideas and images related to this site vary greatly. It is not only associated with a history of war and division, but is also perceived as an en vogue location for contemporary fashion, kite flyers and urban gardening. Moreover, today Tempelhof airport-complex is witnessing the effects of the biggest migration movement in European history since World War II. In 2015, more than one million refugees have come to Germany and more than 80,000 came to Berlin. On the 12th of November 2015 the city administration announced an emergency plan turning the former airport into a refugee shelter. Up to 7.000 people should be accommodated in the defunct hangars and in limited-period constructions, which should be positioned outside on the field. The hangars are used as transit camp, an emergency shelter for people waiting to get asylum papers and then moving on to a permanent accommodation. Yet, this is an awkward matter since a citywide referendum stopped the former government-housing plan for Tempelhof in 2014. Given the high numbers of refugees coming to the capital, Berlin’s state government suggested to leverage this construction ban in order to build more temporary housing for refugees. Supporters of the citizen initiative „100% Tempelhof”[2] see the undermining of direct democratic participation in this. Hence, „Volksentscheid retten”[3], a new initiative was founded to protest, which is until now supported by about 100 activist groups. Nonetheless, mayor Michael Müller demands a mentality change and „courage for uncomfortable solutions" in order to challenge and to master the present and the future. „It is an emergency solution and it is unavoidable" (Deutsche Welle, 27.08.2015).
Is Tempelhof airport inevitably turning into a powder keg of social inequalities, struggling with the high-density of cohabitation? Georg Classen of the Berlin refugees` advice says, he fears less aggression than „depression" in the hangars: „Two square meters per person, without privacy, without perspective. (…) Tempelhof is the biggest, the worst and probably the most expensive refugee shelter in Berlin“ (Tagesspiegel, 31.08.2015). In hangar 1, twelve men share one tent, in hangar 4 refugees are grouped in 25 squaremeters compartments. Makeshift partition walls are installed in order to create a bit of privacy. There are different day rooms like a dining room, a childcare and a language course room where daily German classes are offered. Moreover, there is the Kleiderkammer, a clothing depot, which supplies the refugees with second hand clothes and hygiene articles.
In the period of October to December 2015 we worked as volunteers in the Kleiderkammer. During our fieldwork, we faced many challenges, such as language barriers, prohibitions and taboos, which demanded our methodological creativity. Seemingly restricted to non-verbal communication and observations in this highly regulated field[4], we found the methods of sensorial ethnography most vigorous as research tools. We ground our approach on the work of the German ethnographer Regina Bendix who underlines the relevance of the senses in the research process and states that sensual sensations and emotions in general, are also a form of knowledge. Hence, doing sensorial participant observations means placing your body in the center of your research and consequently being exposed to not only what you see and hear, but also what you smell, taste or feel. This is what Bendix calls a „multisensory way of doing ethnography” (Bendix 2008, 13). Following Regina Bendix, the ethnological body is the key medium through which we encountered our field.

Doing Sensory Ethnography

Entering the Kleiderkammer at Tempelhof we quickly learned that this was a challenging and sensitive field to study. The participant observation, the ethnographical engagement in the field setting, represents the dual role of the ethnographer. To develop an understanding of what it is like to be a genuine part of the given setting, the researcher must become both, a participant and a distant observer, who describes experiences from a detached point of view. This is perhaps the most classical and primary source of ethnographic data. Even though we experienced how easy it was to access the Kleiderkammer as volunteers and though there were many people such as security staff, volunteers, refugees and translators running in and out we had difficulties getting in touch with the different actors. This challenged our ‘routines’ in participant observation, implying interviews or taking photographs and demanded new ways of approaching the field. We therefore expanded our research input as observing participants by accrediting the sensorial dimension of our experiences as valuable data. With the use of sensory ethnography we found an accessible way to adapt to the situation at the Kleiderkammer as well as giving space to a nuanced set of field notes[5].

The concept of sensual ethnography leads to a sensitization for everyday experiences and scientific observations. For Bendix the use of the body of ethnographers is essential to the sensorial approach. Ethnographers have to reflect on their physical indications such as stress, nervousness or anticipation to do qualitative empirical sensory research (Bendix 2006, 79). A central task of sensory ethnography is to appreciate the performance of the senses as somatic, individual and culturally trained organs. Every conscious or unconscious confrontation with their own sensorium or the one of others, affects the researchers and expands their perception skills.

„Indeed, one of the tasks of the emplaced active participant ethnographer is to learn how to interpret her or his embodied sensory experiences through other people's cultural categories and discourses, and as such to participate not only in their emplaced practices but in their wider ways of knowing” (Pink 2009, 80).

Even more, the Australian anthropologist Sarah Pink sees sensory ethnography as a reaction to the textual representation forms in the empiric cultural sciences and argues that the senses should be moved to the front in fieldwork and scientific research (Pink 2015, 38). The sensorial approach is closely connected to the auto-ethnographic method where the researchers personal experiences and state of being plays a crucial part in the research (Pink 2009, 29). Pink describes the ethnographic sites of sensing as events, which provide access to other people’s experiences and animate the readership to reflect on their own observations and consequently calls the researcher to reflect their own physical nature and sensuality (Ibid, 29).
Furthermore ethnographic analysis involves making connections between on the one hand, complex phenomenological realities, i.e. the specificities of other people's ways of understanding these, and scholarly categories and debates on the other hand. This inevitably involves processes of condensing and translating as well as constructing a narrative and arguments (Ibid, 121f.).

Sensing Tempelhof

I go through an unknown amount of sweaters. ‘Citrus, lavender, dust and mold’, the nauseating smell of old scented washing powder, dust and mold mixes together, fills my nose, and reminds me of going to camp as a child and the smell of clammy basements. As I go through the piles of clothes, I feel my way around by paying attention to the texture of the sweaters. Polyester, cotton, acrylic. I want to find her a wool-sweater. I find a dark colored sweater. I read the text on the small white mark sewed into the left side of the sweater “30% polyester, 70% wool” it says. I can hear the supervisor calling us to end the session and I bring it to her. (Field diary, 21.11.2015)

Throughout our fieldwork we have been concentrating on what lies beyond the spoken word. With an increased focus on smell, touch, sound and gesticulation we have aimed at creating a landscape of the senses as our way of redistributing our experiences at Tempelhof, both as researchers and volunteers. Sensory ethnography is closely linked to auto-ethnography since the ethnographer not only observes and documents other people's sensorial categories and behaviors, but also seeks routes through which to develop experience-based empathetic understandings of what others might perceive (Pink 2015, 9).

She [refugee woman] points to the pictograms taped on the table, which stands between us, separating us from each other. I assume that she doesn’t speak English or German, and I pay attention to the things she points to and notice her rough hands and bare feet in flip-flops. She uses her fingers to show me what size she wants, “three fingers and then nine and then she draws the number in the air” like she want’s to make sure I have understood which size she needs. (Field diary, 30.11.2015)

The relentless nature of our field itself influenced the choice of our research methods, too. Bearing in mind the hectic and overwhelming times in the Kleiderkammer as described above, we needed to develop creativity to investigate most effectively. In the meantime this offered, to us, new ways of studying [inter]actions. Regina Bendix supports the creativity that arises when researchers do not pay attention to the spoken word and instead seek out new ethnographic methods such as sensual or emotional impressions, as compensation for what otherwise would be said with words (Bendix 2006, 72).

A few minutes later the first group of refugees are let in and my thoughts are more or less put on pause. My hands are doing a lot of the communication. I use them to point to pictures or relevant body parts. Everything seems tight and concise. There is no time to really look at the people I meet or to absorb the atmosphere. I am slowly adapting to the fast pace and feeling a bit like a robot running between the refugees and the piles of clothes. As my shift comes to end I am exhausted and my head vibrates from the noise, odor and hectic in the room. (Field diary, 08.11.2015)

Sarah Pink argues for a focus on the emotional state of the researcher, and sees this as  „routes to knowledge and memories, that otherwise can be inaccessible, -a way of understanding other people’s biographical experiences” (Pink 2009, 65). Taking part in the different practices in the Kleiderkammer, we have discovered connections between our personal experiences and the everyday life at Tempelhof. Our subjective impressions of the field have been a highly important part of our research and redistribution (Behar 1997, 13). By paying attention to what we could sense meant almost constant impressions of smell, sound or touch. We experienced mixed feelings of drive, despair, frustration and relief - not knowing which feeling to give most credit to. During our research we have learned that going beyond words and visuals, challenges our own perception and feelings. Our field notes are in some cases marked by a somewhat confusing state of being, which is closely linked to an increased focus on our emotional state. However, Bendix points just to these emotions in doing sensory ethnography and highlights that they should not be reduced, but rather used as enhancement of the sensorial impressions and reflections (Bendix 2006, 78).

Fotografie: Anne Van Wetteren

Volunteering and Researching [in disguise]

At the same time, a subtle atmosphere of constant supervision is enforced on the volunteers. Being clearly instructed by the supervisor about do’s and don’ts and being automatically observed by the other volunteers about our morally good intentions there is not much space for hanging around, examining the structure of the social service or even asking critical questions! It seems like criticism would be an extra burden and much too time consuming for the supervisors and volunteers, not speaking of potential interviews [] (Field diary, 08.12.2015)

The German ethnologist Rolf Lindner argues that ethnographers at times struggle with their role as researchers when entering new fields. The process of establishing interpersonal relations can therefore act as an important source of data, since the subjects' primary definitions of the researcher come into play. On the other hand, by taking on a certain role (in our case as volunteers) the researcher is able to enter the field as an insider. During our fieldwork we were concentrated on balancing our aim as researchers without losing our roles as volunteers. Observing and participating in disguise led to a bipolar situation, where our concealment guaranteed us free access to the field, but also hindered us to fully immerse into it as researchers.

She comes a little closer to me, shyly trying to explain that she also needs some underwear and a set of sanitary pads. I have seen how other volunteers discretely hand over the sanitary pads. I imitate what I have seen, and I discreetly slide the sanitary pads into the hands of the woman. She looks at me, and smiles. (Field notes 30.11.2015)

When we put ourselves in the center of the field of study we „participate in other people's worlds [...] and try to do things similar to those that they do” (Pink 2009, 68). As volunteers we were a part of the everyday routines of the Kleiderkammer and had to get used to a range of procedures such as mapping out where the women sweaters or men’s shoes were to be found, or how to interact with the refugees and other volunteers. In order to learn the different codes of practice, paying attention to the interaction between other actors became crucial to us. This learning process demanded a lot of our time and energy. In some cases the process of handing out clothes made us forget why we were there in the first place, sometimes leaving us even with a feeling of neglecting our role as researchers.

Towards the end of my shift I overhear a student amongst the other volunteers who asks our supervisor if he could make an interview with him for his university project. Without looking up I felt tension arising and after a short silence Felix, the supervisor mumbles something like „ [...] only doing my job here.” (Field notes, 08.11. 2015)

It was not only the restriction of time and opportunities, but also the atmosphere of resistance against investigation that kept us in disguise, since we did not want to jeopardize our connection to the Kleiderkammer as our field of research. Indeed, one of us researchers made the attempt to reveal her "true" identity and was harshly repelled by a fellow volunteer. Hence our ‚unstructured’ and ‚unplanned’ feelings of confusion, affect and neglect became valid information in order to emphasize our sensorial experiences. Sarah Pink argues “being sensorially engaged through participation is not necessarily a planned or structured process of understanding” (Pink 2009, 68). As we have perceived; doing sensory ethnography demands that we sometimes need to adapt to unseen factors in the field e.g. being able to change the course of method when things do not turn out as planned. 

Sensing the „Other”

I am back in the Kleiderkammer. The little square between the glass doors and the tables are filled with people. A woman asks a young man what he needs, using her hands to point and communicate. She doesn’t know that he is one of the few translators that are available in the Kleiderkammer. Fortunately he does not seem offended by the mix-up and laughs about it instead. (Field notes 14.11.2015)

Going to Tempelhof airport-complex nowadays means going to the temporary homes of thousands of people fleeing from their home countries. Our interactions with refugees at the Kleiderkammer were limited to brief encounters across a folding table or a quick look inside the camp area when going to the restroom. We have seen hundreds of refugees during our fieldwork, but we have barely talked to anyone. So how do we prevent ourselves to perceive ‚the refugees’ as homogenous group when studying them from the other side of the folding tables? Edward Said’s work on Orientalism is a key to understanding the process of „othering” the refugee. Said argues that the Westerners way of shaping the Orient as the „Other” has become a way of creating the dichotomies „us versus them” (Said 2003, 22). In the Kleiderkammer we were each confronted with situations of othering regarding our own pre-assumptions about the camp-conditions and people there, often questioning the division between the different actors. Small structural arrangements in the Kleiderkammer like the folding tables created a physical line between the volunteers and refugees. This ‚boarder’ acted as a separation between „us” as volunteers managing the clothing-goods and the refugees as „those” who were not allowed to manage the selection of clothes for themselves. This structure of „us” and „them” functions as a way of creating collective identities and neglects the fact that we all are distinct people from distinct cultures. Instead it becomes a recitation of the relationship between the „strong” Europeans/volunteers and the „weak” Orientals/refugees (Ibid, 39-40).

I am wondering how frustrating it must be for these people to see these mountains of clothes, but still not finding what fits, what they like or is really needed.  I see the scramble at the door, the smile and joy when I call the next ticket in. Then first contact with the volunteer, “Hallo, was brauchen Sie, Pullover? Hose?” Some of the refugees try to imitate the volunteer, while others pluck at their clothes or point at the pictograms. Mostly it ends up in an English-Arabic-German language mixture and wild gesticulation scenarios were the volunteer and the refugee try desperately to make themselves understood. When we finally understand each other, there is a sort of an “Aha” effect and we laugh. That’s my favorite part of this job. Unfortunately, I often see the entering happy faces, leaving angry frustrated and I realize how chaotic the situation at the Kleiderkammer is. (Field notes 12.12.2015)

We quickly became aware of the fact that - despite their status as refugees - the people who came to the Kleiderkammer had a certain style and idea of what to wear, and sometimes did not accept what they were given. During our work as volunteers we have, even only briefly, been confronted with the refugees as individuals and have seen how the different roles in the camp were negotiated. By turning to Erving Goffman who argues that we act accordingly to the settings we are in, we can state that the intense chamber play of the Kleiderkammer confronts our „frontstage” and „backstage” roles as individuals by force (Goffmann 2004, 88). The biased roles of the refugees, the supervisors, security-men, volunteers and us as researchers in disguise are being carefully acted out among each other in a setting where each standing place determines how to act. We might ask the question of how our understanding of these roles are shaped and how we should deal with these biased understandings as ethnographers in order to reach a more neutral ground in our presentation of the field we study.

Generating Valid Results

It is almost impossible to be part of the hectic atmosphere at the Kleiderkammer without indulging yourself into the situation. Even if you would plan to go there only for scientific reasons, being there in the middle of your field, the situation would demand your participation in the form of volunteering. In this cramped chaos with the coming and going of people, between a multitudinous topography of clothes there is simply no space – psychologically and physically - for standing apart. In this sense the Kleiderkammer creates a binary situation that leaves hardly room for interpretation: Either you help or you go.

Our way of approaching the field has demanded an increased focus on our senses and emotional state. These elements are, in our case, seen as crucial, since the subjectivity of the observer has an influence on the research process (Behar quoting Devereux 1996, 6). At times we have felt uncertain about the great amount of personal experiences being too biased, and question whether these subjective reflections have any value in our academic work. However, there is naturally a dimension of subjectiveness in the narration of sensorial auto-ethnographic stories (Pink 2009, 67, Behar 1996, 5-6). Our goal as vulnerable researchers is therefore to reflect on our experiences in order to reach an unbiased ground (Behar 1996, 13-18) by combining as many views on the field as possible we avoid that individual assumptions turn into judgments. Instead we look at where our stories intersect and differentiate in order to create a more nuanced presentation that also challenges our own potential prejudices in our multiple roles as members of society. We argue that the intersection of our different perspectives and experiences as four individuals, i.e. the crossing of our sensorial torches in the Platonian cave of the Kleiderkammer, leads to a reliable picture of the ‚real’ situation in a specific realm of a refugee camp in Berlin.

Sensing Welcome Culture

Our experiences are so far limited to a handful of visits only lasting a couple of hours. Even though we have only been there in a short period of time of some weeks, we have seen a large number of migrants living very closely together, not having proper footwear or clothes. We have seen a lot of families, young males, a small amount of elderly and almost no young females or teenagers (both male and female). We have felt and folded an unknown amount of different textiles when working our way through stacks of clothes and shoes. We have seen underwear and sanitary pads discreetly being given to a female refugee. Men, women and children pointing to pictures of trousers, scarves or jackets, using their hands to explain what size they need. We have heard how it sounds when Farsi, Arabic, German, English and other unknown languages try to communicate in an emergency clothing depot. We have heard the voices of babies crying, children playing and screaming, mothers shouting and organizing leaders orchestrating the 15-minutes short clothes-hand-out sessions. Some of us have even dared to sneak around in the camp area in order to get a sense of the refugees living conditions. We have experienced a lice and scabies-epidemic among thousands of people, and seen the anxiety it creates in a small group of volunteers. In the great halls of the former airport Tempelhof we have experienced the smell of warm tea with sugar, food being cooked and children eating sweets, the smell of urine in dirty toilets, the smell of sweat from volunteers and migrants, the smell of handing out new and worn out clothes donated by people all over Berlin. It is hard to subsume the variety of impressions we made as individuals: Our time in the Kleiderkammer has been happy, heartbreaking, frustrating or even relieving and it has always been very intense.

Sensing Welcome Culture in our society

The camp is attacked by lice and scabies. The sign „attention; lice and scabies” makes me feel uneasy, but I decide to go in. As hygienic precaution the supervisors recommend that we all wear gloves. One of the supervisors says to me „We should give these people a piece of ‚Willkommenskultur’ and show them that we are an open society”. Eventually he decides not to wear the gloves. I watch how two volunteers go to the hand sanitizer every five minutes to disinfect their hands, while the nauseating smell of fumigant slowly fills the room. (Field notes 06.12.2015)

In a situation of uncertainty and linguistic barriers, our hands become an important device of communication. Indeed, the hand is the most frequently symbolized part of the human body, the „tool of tools” (Alpenfels 1955, 6). Hands are used as a utility, to complete tasks, and to express one’s self in a way that words often cannot.  They are expressive and symbolize strength, power and protection. Any human culture throughout history created rituals performed by manual gestures expressing generosity, hospitality and stability, as form of welcoming and friendship (Alpenfels 1955, 7). At the Kleiderkammer, we didn’t talk a lot to each other, neither to the refugees nor to other volunteers. We were there to help, in other words, ‚to lend a hand’. As our field notes portray above, we collected, sorted and grabbed in mountains of clothes. Although prehension is the major function of the hands, they are at the same time, one of our primary sense organs. Indeed, our hands became the main medium to interact with the actors of our field. With their hands people communicated their essential and aesthetic needs. Different hand signs, like ‚thumb up’, the painting of numbers in the air or waving somebody to come closer, we articulated our will to help, but also communicated the procedures of our service at the Kleiderkammer. Without touching anybody, moments of closeness and empathy rose in this regulated and controlled setting.

The irrational decision of volunteers not wanting to put on gloves in danger of lice and scabies, in order to avoid an atmosphere of othering is a key scene depicting how Welcome Culture is perceived in our western society. The glove is intuitively sensed as a ‚boarder’, separating volunteers and refugees, leading to emotional and rather unreasonable conclusions about how to perform ‚togetherness’. Volunteering barehanded is elevated as a moral obligation of expressing empathy and the willingness to help.  


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Josefine Løndorf Sarkez
Daring to trust the senses of oneself as a researcher has been an inspiring and eye-opening way of doing ethnography, which has led through unfamiliar ethnographic paths and towards new analytical insights. 

Flavia Alice Mameli
Coming from a design background and researching in the field of urban appropriation strategies it is the intersection of different disciplines, which I find most fruitful and productive during the process of knowledge production.

Anne van Wetteren
Curiosity, reading and writing are essential aspects of ethnography. This is more or less the case for all academic research. For me doing ethnography includes an important sensual component, which surfaces in researching. It's all about being tickled by first-hand experiences with the object in study and with one self.

Der Beitrag entstand im Rahmen des Master-Seminars "Ethnografische Methoden der Stadtforschung" bei Anja Schwanhäußer im Wintersemester 2015/16 am Institut für Europäische Ethnologie der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

[1] Berlin’s city marketing campaign established the brand „Tempelhofer Freiheit“
[5] „Eine die Sinne miteinbeziehende Feldforschungspraxis wird die emotionale Dimension (die sich bei manchen als Lust am Feld zeigt), nicht verringern, aber vielleicht doch einige Beobachtungs-und Reflektionswerkzeuge enthalten die den emotionalen Haushalt ergänzen“ (Bendix 2006, 78).

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren: 
Flavia Alice Mameli / Josefine Londorf Sarkez / Anne Van Wetteren (2016): Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic, Serhat Karakayali (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog),;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link

A research about an odd place

In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Berlin (forthcoming)

By Alejandra Parra

I know that while I write,
each word I choose will be examined
and maybe even invalidated.
So, why do I write?

While I write, Grada Kilomba

When the research project for the seminar “Ethnographische Methoden der
Stadtforschung” was presented, the proposal regarding the research was to look into
the emergency shelters for refugees whilst volunteering in them. Being a hot topic on
the media as well as in the academia, many of the students had reservations or
expressed indignation about the ethical validity of conducting research at a refugee
shelter, considering the conditions from which the people living there came from. The
repeated instruction not focus on the people living but on the operation of the shelters
didn’t seem to calm my fellow students down. This reluctance to accept the
parameters established at the seminar led to a debate in which academia and
particularly the rising field focusing on topics related to the refugees were accused of
showing a lack of sensitivity and even morbid fascination. If the seminar was about
research in/about the city, they argued, why did we have to go particularly there?
It was the first time I was being confronted with that kind of ethical considerations in
an academic context and somehow it seemed I was missing a piece of the puzzle.
Although it did seam fair to point out the substantial emotional component of the
field, it seamed to me absurd to present it as a reason for vetoing the place from the
research and in no way a solution for potential ethical problems. To support this
proposal various arguments were brought up: it would be insensitive to ask people to
talk about their experience; it would be frivolous to show interest in a traumatic
experience only in order to do a short research; it would be invasive to hang around
where people lived, specially taking into account they already had little privacy; we
were not trained to deal with their fragile state and could end up making it worse; we
could not just watch.
Although I could understand how in some ways the situation would be challenging,
the apprehension expressed seamed somehow contradictory. If we were instructed to
help as part of the research, I couldn’t see how whatever we were to do would lose its
value. To my complete astonishment many students then suggested a change of
location, which would in theory respect the parameters set for the seminar: the
research could be carried out in other kinds of shelters, such as those for the homeless
or for prostitutes. Those were also part of the city and were also set up to help people
in need. Worries about privacy invasion, traumas, fragility and ethical boundaries
were no longer at the forefront. What distinguished the people deserving more
consideration than others?
The unspeakable, the horrors of the war, marked an us and them thought it strangely
brought others together. Who would have thought, it turned out that German
anthropology students felt oddly closer to prostitutes and homeless! A few students
against the research talked about some experiences they had had with volunteering, on
the verge of tears. How rare must that pain be here that it seams unmanageable, I
remember thinking to myself. I saw again the faces, the tears, and the cardboard signs
flashing before my eyes. Back home, the horrors of the war had been knocking at the
car windows with no shoes at traffic light ever since I could remember. In Colombia,
the number of desplazados (displaced) has exceeded 6 millions since 1985 and people
have been running away to other towns and cities up until this day. The entire session
I worried we wouldn’t actually get to do the research at the refugee shelters. The
question had been haunting me for months: how will a country like this one deal with
it? Although the circumstances are very different, my country has been shaped by a
similar phenomenon: millions of people escaping war leave everything behind and
look for a way and a place to rebuild their lives. Then again, very much unlike
Colombia, Germany is a rich receiving country taking in people coming from other
countries. Even if the parallel falls short once the many cultural, political and material
aspects are taken into consideration, the situation remains: a society is brutally
confronted with pain. Sitting in the seminar room, I wondered if the fear I could hear
on the students’ voices was fear of the unknown.
Anthropology was alien to me, Germany also. I had never really had to work with
others in an academic context outside of typical presentations of texts, authors and
theories. The repeated instruction at the seminar of inquiring and registering
impressions about the location, the logistics and logics of the shelters whilst helping
was unusual. The reaction of those students was completely unexpected to me and
revealed an essential aspect of the ethnographic practice: vulnerability. The field
exposes it and demands it. The anthropologist is left with the task of transforming it
into knowledge.
Given the shortness of the project and the limited contact we ended up having with
people on the field, the research methods as well as the process itself proved more
telling about the running of ethnographic research and the ethnographer’s role than
about the field itself and in my case, about what I perceived to be specific to my
position as a non-native researching about other non-natives. I came to be confronted
with a level of self-awareness that was problematic for me all along the research
process and the posterior stages (including writing this report). Nevertheless reflecting
on that discomfort came to be necessary and inseparable from the revision of the
material gather during the research period. This report therefore will present the
different methods used to inquire about the field during different stages along with
excerpts from field notes and memos. The relevance of the “personal side” of the
anthropological research has been denied, explicitly and implicitly by trying to
establish standards and methods that pretend to ensure objectivity and impartiality. In
her introductory chapter to the collection of essays The Vulnerable Observer, Ruth
Behar reflects on this attitude:
No one objects to autobiography, as such, as a genre in its own right. What bothers
critics is the insertion of personal stories into what we have been taught to think as
the analysis of impersonal social facts. Throughout most of the twentieth century, in
scholarly fields ranging from literary criticism to anthropology to law, the reigning
paradigms have traditionally called for distance, objectivity and abstraction. The
worst sin was to be “too personal”. (12 1996)
My particular reluctance to writing about the personal side of an experience set in an
academic context comes from the fact that every experience becomes personal when
language, culture and place change. As a foreigner, I feared from the beginning of the
project not being able to establish the kind of distance necessary to observe others and
learn from them.
Following the agitated preliminary stage of definition, my group chose the emergency
shelter for refugees located in Karlshorst, where the person who would be our contact
ran a project with workshops involving the youngsters from the shelter, in which they
had built and set up a space to watch movies. Unlike some of the other shelters, the
members of my group and I picked this one because the project implied an active and
creative involvement form the side of the people living there. This meant however
that our presence at the shelter would be tied to the schedule of the meetings
regarding that specific project. We established contact via mail with the person in
charge, who welcomed our participation and informed us we needed to have a
certificate of conduct to be allowed in. For us it seemed to be a burocratic trap, not far
from a dissuasive tactic for keeping away those willing to help. Whatever its intended
purpose was and its additional consequences, it impacted immediately and
permanently the course of our research for we ended up submerged in endless
calculations about personal schedules coinciding to go to the registration office to get
the certificate, being able to obtain in time to take part at the meetings in the shelter
and being able to attend enough meeting to collect a relevant amount of data. We
never got the certificate and never got into the shelter.
The topic of how difficulties with access are a part themselves from the ethnographic
process was discussed both among the members of my group and in various sessions
at the seminar. As noted by Hammersley and Atkinson, the process of obtaining
access to the data “is not merely a practical matter. Not only does its achievement
depend upon theoretical understanding, often disguised as ‘native wit’, but the
discovery of obstacles to access, and perhaps of effective means of overcoming them,
themselves provide insights into the social organization of the setting ” (54 1983).
Even though those difficulties are to be treated like valuable information about how
the field works and therefore as data themselves, in retrospective I find equally telling
our lack of “effective means of overcoming them”. Those kinds of difficulties can
also bring out the researcher’s own limits. How far would she be willing or able to try
to obtain access and how would this affect the research?
In our case, the facts that there were a fairly limited amount of workshops during our
semester, the uncertainty of how long it would actually take us to be able to ask for
the certificate and get it or that we had to pay for it, quickly bought up individual
limits that determined the course of the research. Our project was simultaneously
defined by our first visit to the shelter, set up to get a sense of the place and the
moment of arrival, even though we knew we would not be allowed in.
We walked along the Köpernicker Allee. The way from the station to the NUK is not
too complicated and at the beginning we thought it was in the middle of a residential
neighbourhood. Slowly the surroundings turned extremely unfriendly. Too empty, a
few cars, even less people. The place showed very few signs that indicated there was a
shelter there. A tiny chit of paper with the words “Emergency Shelter” and a couple
of green and yellow arrows show the entrance only for those who are looking for it.
Otherwise you can’t really recognize it from the street. Everything is grey! The
building, the walls, the fences (everywhere), the sky, the air... What a depressing
colour and atmosphere... So much for Willkommenskultur! (...) Men gathered in small
groups, two, three, they walk and stop for a smoke. Milk. The boxes of milk outside
the windows and empty ones scattered on the street, that’s how you know someone
has a life at this place. Three people go in while we are seating in front of the
entrance, with bags that looked like they were filled with clothes to donate. (Field
notes 26.11.15)
View of the entrance way to the shelter from the Köpenicker Alle.
The shelter from the Eastside.
The setting was almost imposing itself to us. The obvious question was how were the
people who inhabited it perceiving it. As we found out later, the Köpenicker Allee,
the street we walked down to get from the train station to the shelter, was the same
one that connected the shelter to the youth centre, Rainbow and the people from the
shelter walked or biked through it to get there. Both the “impossibility” of access
along with the strong impression that first visit made on us, led us to re-establish the
surrounding area to the shelter as our research and experimentation field. Initially, it
was disappointing for me. We had managed to somehow avoid finding ourselves in
the situation I had argued to defend! The question that concerned us thereafter was
how to define and study the atmosphere of the area, which according to our
experience was practically wasteland. At the centre of the analysis of this grim
atmosphere was the awkwardness and discomfort we felt wandering at the
surroundings. I couldn’t stop thinking how much of my perception was determined by
my own personal referents that were probably extremely different went not opposite
to those of my classmates.
“Our presence at the place is absurd, beyond the fact we are here ‘to watch’. The
feeling of uselessness and ridicule slowly takes over me. The fence separates us and
we are sitting looking inside. Doesn’t look like we’re doing much besides looking
from the outside. Why does X says she doesn’t want to go in? Why do we have to do
this in groups... They are Colombian desplazados...they are Colombians escaping
violence. In Berlin just like in Bogotá despite the freezing air many of them are
wearing rubber sandals. Flüchtlinge, Geflüchtete. To come here and do what? Watch.
(...) We limit ourselves to make shallow observations and then be quiet, awkwardly.
Or it seems so. They agree that at least is nice that the gardens are in front, for the
spring, because that way they have the nature. The nature! Those fucking gardens,
parodies of nature in the middle of the city”. (Memo 26.11.15)
The method of the participant observation was being set a side at least for the time
being. To pay attention and try to understand how the mood of this place worked was
somehow a shy attempt from our side to identify distinctive elements of an
unwelcoming place towards which we already had an unconscious demand: it was
supposed to be welcoming. When we established the research methods, it is fair to say
we already knew what we were looking for. Besides the actual task of registering,
describing and reporting what the place looked and felt like, we had an urge to show,
almost to prove the isolation we assumed the people from the shelter were
We chose the approach of sensorial anthropology using methods that would allow us
to convey those feelings, mainly a thorough photographic documentation of both
sides of the Allee from the main street to the shelter; a count of steps, people and
autos along the same way and a detailed record of sensory impressions during our
first Wahrnehmungsspaziergang. We eventually managed to take part once event at
the youth centre giving us the chance to practice the participant observation method.
Through the photographic documentation we came to have a better understanding of
spatial and architectural elements that not only were characteristic to the place but
how their disposition created a progressive sense of isolation. The repetition of
specific types of constructions, colours and some elements like walls, fences or even
broken windows characterized areas that belong to the urban landscape but also
screamed anonymity and indifference.
We observed a transition from family residencies and schools to a semi industrial
peripheral looking setting marked by large buildings, empty plots, on-going
construction sites as well as a relative deterioration of the surrounding infrastructure
(reduction of the streetlights, semi unpaved roads) and finally the garden plots which
to me had come to symbolise a dry emulation of what a good life actually be. How is
a human being supposed to feel when her news surroundings are safe and perhaps
clean and organized but with no signs of care or consideration?
I was aware of how partial my view of the situation was, very aware that I had not
exchanged a single word with anyone actually living at the shelter and that I was
infuriated by something that many could consider aesthetic concerns. Nevertheless I
read in the location a gesture, a way of hiding or turning invisible and silent.
The only opportunity we had to research through the participant observation method
took place between the youth centre, the street and the door of the shelter. During four
short hours we got a taste of the task that was volunteering, always subject to the
unpredictable. A backing activity planed for ten to fifteen children and mothers was
supposed to take place at the kitchen of the youth centre. Almost one hour after the
time agreed, we were called to go to the street and help bringing the people from the
shelter to the centre. A few minutes after the call, we were on the street passing a long
line of children and veiled women. I was asked to look for a woman left behind,
wearing a white veil. I found her quickly, just a few meters behind with a small girl
on her arms, walking next a tiny stroller caring a boy pushed by an other young child.
She looked young and said hello with a smile. She then asked me something in a
language that I couldn’t understand. In a clumsy reflex, I spoke in German and she
asked in English with a sceptical gesture on her face if I was German. I burst out
laughing and we tried to have a conversation, short and simple because she couldn’t
find the words. She was escaping the war and one her boys, the one on the stroller,
was sick. I couldn’t find the words.
Once we got to the shelter, it became obvious how unprepared we were for the
amount of people. Instead of ten there were at least thirty children, with mothers and
some fathers. We were four. We stood in the middle of a kitchen full of screaming
children, a plastic bag with carrots, onions and rice (for an possible meal) and flour
and sugar for the cookies. The women in charge of the activity were vey nervous,
trying to keep the children calm and start the baking. A group of mother came up to
me. In the blink of an eye, with no word being understood, they organized into a chain
of production to bake the cookies and cook the food. Salt, oil, tomatoes. Through
various ways (cell phone translators, mimics, constant repetition of the Arabic words)
they tried to get three basic ingredients that none at the centre had thought about. My
voice joined theirs to ask for what seemed to me like the basic of the basic. All I got
every time was “It’s not important, there’s no time to get it! Just keep cooking!”.
Once again I was remained of the garden plots. I saw disappointment even though I
could not speak Arabic. I saw a good gesture turn into a mess and spiral into ridicule.
To keep the children under control keeps getting harder. They smell the food, the
cookies and want to eat. They are bored, the run around and the hoven keeps making
the kitchen hotter and hotter. M comes to me and pull me to the side. ‘I can’t
understand what they’re saying!’ she says and takes me to the group of mothers
again. ‘You are a people person’ she says before turning away. Right next to me I
hear L pant, annoyed. With an almost childish tone, she goes to E and says: ‘One of
them stole carrots!’. I almost laugh at the absurdity of the accusation, the words used,
the tone. ‘Which one?’ she answers to my astonishment in an exasperated tone,
looking around for the child. ‘Who is stealing the carrots?’”. (Field notes 8.12.15)
I saw the ridicule of the situation and felt ashamed. I went and bought the ingredients,
knowing it was to late and it changed nothing. I kept thinking how we would have
been laugh at for not having those things if we were in Colombia. Once the
flavourless food was gone and the cookies were unequally distributed, I volunteered
to help gather the children and bring everyone back to the shelter.
We ended up heading back with a still fairly big group, just two men, about seven
women and five children. About five other children were a couple of blocks ahead,
ridding bikes. (...) One of the women encouraged the kids to sing. Some of the women
did as well. It was considerably colder than in the afternoon. It was also considerably
quiet as we past the intersection and started walking down K.A. The signing was
progressively lower. (...) The child holding my hand showed me a train map and we
stopped for him to show me the places in the city he knew and had marked in his map.
A school, Lageso and the shelter were market by a circle indicating the closest
station. Other two stations were marked but I wasn’t able to understand what they
stood for. The majority of the group was walking in front of us and became
progressively animated and louder. Laughter and some occasional scream from the
children. As we approached the shelter the group was taking more space, walking on
the street and children running around. The atmosphere seamed more relaxed than
when we left. Two of the women with whom I interacted the most in the kitchen slowed
down when I came close to them and they kept talking while I walked beside them.
They smiled at me many times and asked my name. (...) Some heads came out the
windows of one of the shelters buildings. A few women called to order but would
laugh most of the time. At the entrance of the everyone took out a plastic ID they had
to show to the guards at the entrance. The air was very cold and everyone wanted to
get in fast. The guards had a very harsh tone and behaviour, telling everyone to wait
for their turn, reacting with suspicion to any misunderstanding and one female guard
was loudly complaining about a woman who forgot her ID inside. There was a sort of
formality when we said goodbye to the two women. A distance suddenly marked by
them thanking us for everything. They hugged L. We smiled to each other, they
thanked us and I thanked them. I actually wanted to apologize. (Field notes 8.12.15)
On the way back and a couple of times more, when we came back to gather more
material, I saw the streets under a completely different light. To see how radically my
own perception was altered just by seeing how, even if just fleetingly, they
appropriated and transformed that space, finally broke the illusion. I kept seeing the
children riding their bikes and hearing them singing and laughing. It was just so
obvious we had no idea how they felt in that place. All I knew was how it made me
feel and how I would not like someone else to feel because of it. But I didn’t know.
On his book on cooperation in modern society, Richard Sennett analyses the
difference between sympathy and empathy:
Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but the one is
an embrace, the other an encounter. Sympathy overcomes differences through
imaginative acts of identification; empathy attends to another person on his or her
own terms. Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment than empathy
because ‘I feel your pain’ puts the stress on what I feel; it activates one’s own ego.
Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get
outside him- or herself. (2012 21)
One could say that our small research exercise started out as a practice of sympathy.
The concerns that most of the members of the seminar came from a first moment of
identification, from different backgrounds and experiences, where we all somehow
tried to imagine the pain others are going throw and tried to respect it or somehow
minimally soothe it. However it is essential to distinguish and establish the difference
with the empathic response, both for the production of knowledge to which in theory
anthropology aims at. The ethnographic method and in particular the auto
ethnography could be a practice of empathy if it succeeds at pointing out the limits of
our own imagination in those acts of sympathetic fantasy. It could point out when and
where we think we knew but we are failing to listen to the others. To ignore the
connections with our personal experience when we are at the research field is
potentially preventing us from identifying our blind spots. To deny subjectivity
cripples the possibility of self-criticism and production of actual knowledge in
academia because it denies its obvious source; “Theorie hat mit Biographie zu tun
und Biographie mit Theorie. Wissenschaft wird von einer Person produziert, von
einer Person geschrieben. Diese Person hat eine Biographie, eine Fragestellung,
Emotionen”(Kilomba 2016).
Listening to others in ethnographic process should at some points begin the act of
listening to ourselves, both as a differentiating strategy, to prevent falling in a typical
mistake in anthropology of trying to give a voice to others confusing it with one’s
own and as an enlightening tool to point out common ground.
That doesn’t require a full-length autobiography, but it does require a keen
understanding of what aspects of the self are the most important filters through which
one perceives the world and, more particularly, the topic being studied. Efforts at
self-revelation flop not because the personal voice has been used, but because it has
been poorly used leaving unscrutinized the connection, intellectual and emotional,
between the observer and the observed. (Behar 13-14)

Behar, R. (1966). “The Vulnerable Observer” in The Vulnerable Observer (1-33).
Boston: Beacon Press.
Hammersley, M. und Atkinson, P. (1983). “Access” in Ethnography: Principles in
Practices. London and New York: Tavistock Publications. 54-76
Kilomba, G. (2016/04/22) Interview mit Grada Kilomba. Wenn diskurs persönlich
wird. Retrieved from:
Kilomba, G. (2015/05/11) While I write. [video file ] Retrieved from:
Sennett, R.(2012). Together: the rituals, pleasures & politics of cooperation. London:
Penguin Books.

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren:
Alejandra Parra (2016): A research about an odd place. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog),;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link