The unruly arts of ethnographic refusal: power, politics, performativity


  • Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, PhD Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research
  • Vani Sreekanta University of Oldenburg
  • David Mwambari, PhD Kings College London
  • Simi Mehta, PhD Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)
  • Madhurima Majumder University of Wageningen


Refusal remains a core concern in processes of research across the sciences. Drawing on previous anthropological theorisations, this paper contemplates on the manifold ‘arts’ of refusal during ethnographic research praxis, drawing on diverse thematic experiences and contexts across coastal India, Malaysia, and Uganda. We argue for a concerted engagement with refusal as more than an act of withholding co-operation and as an expression of resistance. While recognizing refusal as a locally situated and historically contingent sensibility, we ask in what other ways might the more generative qualities of refusal be explored, paying particular attention to the performative nature of refusal itself that may entrench as much as reverse power differentials in the ‘field’. Drawing on decolonial and post-development epistemologies and diverse experiences as scholars situated and working across different geographies and disciplines, we explore the many entanglements, articulations, and enactments that remain ubiquitous in everyday ethnographic research praxis through several thematic angles. These include the negotiation of uneven (and often violent) forms of research collaboration and co-optation, the enactment of benevolent sexism as an ‘ethics of care’, and embodied practices such as silence(-ing), together with play and humour in participants’ critiques of scientific truth-telling. While illustrating subtler manifestations of refusal across ethnographic research-based encounters, we also contemplate pedagogical practices of un/learning (to ‘read’) and to teach the arts of identifying and productively working with the many appearances of refusal – both manifest and less visible. 

How to Cite

Siriwardane-de Zoysa, R., Sreekantha, V., Mwambari, D., Mehta, S., & Majumder, M. (2023). The unruly arts of ethnographic refusal: power, politics, performativity. Fennia - International Journal of Geography, 201(2), 169–182.