Anthropology at the Ragged Edge of Silence

Anthropology at the Ragged Edge of Silence

In this blogpost, Fiona Murphy discusses how understanding silence can deepen empathy and meaning in ethnographic research. She reflects on her Catholic upbringing in Ireland, its impact on family and society, and its role in Irish history, including Church abuse. Her anthropological work explores silence among Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers, emphasizing its complexity and significance.

I grew up in a society where silence and shame have always been very neatly interwoven. As a young child, I would holiday in my grandparents’ house in the South West of Ireland, a place of unrelenting beauty, gentle rivers and rustic pathways into mountainous silence.

Growing up who I was, experiencing a 1980s Irish childhood, I could not escape the imprint of Catholicism. In my grandparent’s house, I would often struggle to fall asleep. Their rural cottage, painted a bright glowing yellow, was, like many Irish homes of that time, a sort of shrine to Catholicism. Religious paintings and statues adorned the walls and hallways. In the crepuscule of short summer nights, I somehow feared these paintings and statues. I believed the sunken eyes of these religious figures were surveilling me as I twisted and turned into an anxious sleep.

Years later, a putative post-Catholic Ireland would come to understand the extent to which our Catholic upbringings had steeped us in silences of all kinds. With undimmed fury, stories of child sexual abuse, Industrial schools, Magdalene women, and mother and baby homes began to circulate and wound in their pointing out of a subterranean truth. My personal familial history intersected with some of these revelations. I remember watching my beautiful, kind mother crying as news story after news story expounded the tormented conditions that children in industrial schools in Ireland were forced to live through. This story was our story, the story of my grandfather and grandaunt. This story was our story of silence. We never discussed these revelations with my grandfather, my mother and aunts worried about upsetting him. Now, death has made this silence even more impenetrable.

Some of these experiences have defined my relationship to silence in a very particular way. As a child and then teenager witness to the slow but sure unravelling of the Catholic church in Ireland, I understood silence (not in these exact terms) as an existential straightjacket. I knew intuitively- that like many other families in Ireland- we had been held captive by the successive cataclysms of a very particular Irish Catholic silence. Battles of will over such silences have featured large in everyday life in Ireland with the 2015 Gay Marriage referendum, in 2018 with the Repeal the 8th movement and campaigns against the Irish asylum system-direct provision. Such debates show the heat of our divergences-the luminous propositions about what a contemporary Ireland should stand for.

It is probably not surprising then that in my professional life as an anthropologist, I have found myself working with tropes of loss, trauma and silence in the context of a number of anthropological projects. As an anthropologist working predominantly with Indigenous Australians (Stolen Generations) and asylum seekers and refugees in a number of settings, my work has frequently brought me to the edge of the unsayable. It is not a naïve proposition to suggest that all ethnographers struggle with silence in one way or another regardless of subject matter. In ethnography (just as in life) what cannot be said and what goes unsaid plays a formative role in our encounters. Absences, erasures, and shadows ironically often act as the best filters through which we can make sense of our ethnographic relationships.

In some kinds of work, however, interpreting silence presents an even more profound challenge. Silence, a portable trope, can mean a multitude of things-solidarity, resistance, peace, restfulness, suffering, pain, loss, power, or disempowerment (to name but a few). Silence can be strategic or enforced. It can play a critical role in the maintenance of privilege and power or vulnerability and loss. We both seek out and reject silence in our fast-paced, frenetic lives. We cannot, it seems, make up our minds about silence.

In my research on Australia’s Stolen Generations, silence has always hung in the convalescent air of recovery, restitution, and reconciliation. Stolen Generations are Indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and communities and placed in institutions or adopted by white families as part of Australia’s by now infamous assimilation processes. My work focused on the politicisation of trauma and reconciliation in the context of Stolen Generations post the Bringing Them Home Commission of inquiry. The challenge for me, in the context of this work, has been how to engage with silence as an ethnographic object. My research participants’ silences were/continue to be so firmly carved into their everyday realities and political subjectivities that they often became difficult to navigate.

For many members of the Stolen Generations, there are numerous stories that they feel cannot be told-both positive and negative. Stories of positive relationships with institution managers or adopted families, when others were abused and humiliated. Stories that one does not want to share with family, but only amongst fellow Stolen Generations. Stories about lost mothers and fathers, lost communities and languages. Stories about failed attempts to reunite, to recover, to repair or heal. Silences which either fuel or impede their personal ceremonial of recovery and reconciliation. Then there are those stories of mothers and fathers who were never given the chance to voice their suffering and despair at the removal of their children, banished to an eternity of silence.

Some anthropological work in the context of violence, conflict and trauma has constructed its engagement as a means of ‘giving voice’ and doing justice to victims/survivors. I too have constructed much of my work in this vein, but Carol Kidron (2009) asks us to consider silence as more than a form of political or ideological absence and to seek deeper phenomenological accounts of how silence operates in the lives of our research participants. Such a challenge to engage with the everyday practices of silence is one which collectively this series of blogs continues to undertake.

Silence casts a long shadow. Whether as a child lying awake in the night-time silence of my grandparent’s house or later, as an anthropologist attempting to navigate its complex presence in my research participants’ every day, silence has configured and reconfigured my different lives. Understanding its presence and its conjuring should, however, serve as a way of helping to differently inhabit the imaginations and experiences of our research participants, as well as our deeper selves. This will push us steadily, as ethnographers, beyond the ragged edge of silence into a space of meaning-making and understanding.

Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist and Research Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast. She specialises in Indigenous politics and movements, refugees and mobility studies, and sustainability in Australia, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Turkey.

This blogpost was originally posted on 16 February 2018 on