Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies

By Alex Zahara

Researchers examining waste issues have the potential to uncover particularly sensitive information—that specific places, people or animals might be contaminated— that has very real social and material consequences for communities being studied. We also might be given access to report on potentially painful community events and experiences. As researchers interested in social justice, how do we proceed helpfully in our research?

The concept of ‘ethnographic refusal’ is one way forward. Ethnographic refusal is a practice by which researchers and research participants together decide not to make particular information available for use within the academy. Its purpose is not to bury information, but to ensure that communities are able to respond to issues on their own terms. An ethnographic refusal is intended to redirect academic analysis away from harmful pain-based narratives that obscure slow violence, and towards the structures and institutions that engender those narratives. It is a method centrally concerned with a community’s right to self-representation.



This image is the Facebook profile photo of a ‘Stop the Dump Fires’ group in the Arctic community of Iqaluit, Nunavut. It features a pregnant Inuk woman and activist, and was taken during a four month long dump fire that occurred during the summer of 2014. During the fire, pregnant women and women of childbearing age were warned not to go outside due to risks caused by dioxins. The Inuktitut syllabics written on her hand read ‘Taima’ or ‘enough’, referring to the decades of government underfunding that contributed to this and many other dump fires. The image is an example of refusal, as it refuses to depict Inuit as passive victims of slow violence and redirects attention towards government institutions. The image was distributed to media outlets before becoming the protest group’s profile photo. Photo courtesy: Shawn Inuksuk, 2014 from the ‘Stop the Dump Fires’ Facebook page.

This method comes out of an ethical commitment to decolonize research. For example, the recent ‘ontological turn’ in discard studies encourages researchers to engage with Indigenous knowledge systems and ontologies, as a way of better understanding how issues of contamination and waste are understood and experienced within Indigenous communities—something that is easily (and often) misconstrued by non-community members, including academics. In turn, researchers might have access to internal conversations, knowledge that is considered sacred, or that the academy otherwise “doesn’t deserve” (Tuck and Yang 2014a: 813). Engaging in ethnographic refusal as method, then, is intended as an ethical intervention that provides research participants the opportunity to dictate whether knowledge is to be made available within the academy (among other places), how environmental and human health issues are responded to, and by whom.

The following annotated bibliography is an introduction to ethnographic refusal. The first two texts in this bibliography (Tuhiwai Smith 1999; Zavala 2013), provide overviews of decolonization as a methodology, outlining the colonial traditions that inform contemporary anthropological practices and the need for decolonizing research. Both texts indicate the importance of research collaboration and emphasize efforts by Indigenous people to take control over their representation in research. The more recent piece (Zavala 2013), suggests that decolonial research must place Indigenous perspectives and interests as the marker through which research is evaluated and practiced. Based on readings written primarily by Indigenous researchers, I suggest that ‘ethnographic refusal’— whereby certain information about Indigenous knowledge and experiences is kept out of the academy— is a method that helps keep researchers accountable to the communities they research. The different perspectives on ‘ethnographic refusal’ held by Ortner (1995) and Simpson (2007) showcase how the method developed through two different bodies of literature, driven by very different goals and objectives. The final papers by Tuck and Yang (2014a & b) provide examples of ways that researchers can incorporate ‘refusals’ throughout their research process.


This is an image of an abandoned military and metal dump, located in Iqaluit, NU. This is one of at least 6 dump sites found in the Iqaluit community, most of which were abandoned by the Canadian and American militaries in the mid 20th century.  Photo: A. Zahara

Annotated Bibliography on Ethnographic Refusal

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books: London.
This book examines the colonial traditions that have informed contemporary anthropological research practices, and describes the ways in which colonization continues to be enacted through ethnographic research. She argues against having settler (i.e. white) academics conduct research on Indigenous communities, as it places Indigenous knowledge in the authority of non-Indigenous people. Doing so often results in the harmful misrepresentations and appropriations of Indigenous knowledge. Tuhiwai Smith encourages Indigenous academics to conduct research in their own communities, privileging participatory research methods rooted in community-specific ways of knowing and learning. She does not provide a framework for settler researchers to continue conducting research as is. She suggests that settler scholars involve themselves in participatory or collaborative research projects in which Indigenous people define research goals and objectives. This book provides historical and theoretical evidence, as well as case studies, to suggest that decolonization necessarily requires participation and collaboration with Indigenous communities.

Zavala, M. (2013). What do we mean by decolonizing research strategies? Lessons from decolonizing, Indigenous research projects in New Zealand and Latin America. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 2 (1): 55-71.
This methodology paper draws on previous texts about decolonizing methodologies and the author’s own experiences as an Indigenous researcher and activist to argue that decolonization is less about method and more about providing space for Indigenous people and voices. Zavala examines several grassroots Participatory Action Research (PAR) projects, which he describes as spaces that occlude colonial, academic decision making practices. He then contrasts the PAR research methods advocated for by Tuhiwai Smith with those that he engages with in Latin America. While the two approaches to PAR engage in very different, traditional vs non-traditional, research methods, they have similar decolonial outcomes in that they place Indigenous sovereignty at the centre of decision-making practices. He concludes by stating that decolonial research is not contingent on a given method but requires always honouring the perspectives and interests of the communities and individuals being studied. Zavala’s analysis suggests that it is possible for settler and university-affiliated researchers to engage in decolonial work. How this is done must be decided through ongoing collaboration and consultation with communities and individual research participants.

Ortner, S. B. (1995). Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (1): 173-193.
This highly cited paper is the first to coin the term ‘ethnographic refusal’. As defined by Ortner, the term describes a process in which ethnographers refuse to write fully about a topic because they are worried about the political implications of their findings. Specifically, researchers in the field of ‘subaltern studies’ might worry that their research reflects poorly on already marginalized individuals, and, as a result, choose to not write about particular topics. According to Ortner, the decision to do so results in ‘ethnographic thinness’, which she argues dehumanizes marginalized groups by removing their complexity. She argues against engaging in ‘refusals’, which she suggests have more to do with the unwillingness of certain researchers to discuss potentially problematic research findings. This paper does not use a decolonial methodological framework, nor does it specifically refer to ethnographic research being conducted within Indigenous communities. While the paper’s central concern— the misrepresentation of marginalized groups— provides an important critique of research conducted by outsiders, her interpretation of ‘ethnographic refusal’ does not take into account ‘refusals’ that are initiated by research participants, or the negative historical legacies of research in particular marginalized communities.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’, and colonial citizenship. Junctures 9: 67-80.
In a separate genealogy of ‘ethnographic refusal’, anthropologist Audra Simpson uses the term to describe how Indigenous people are actively shaping how information about Indigenous culture and experiences is made available to the academy. Simpson draws from her personal experiences as a Kahnawake academic conducting ethnographic research in her home community. In doing so, she describes how research participants avoid discussing topics that they do not want known or misrepresented by outsiders—particularly academics. Academia’s historical and ongoing involvement in settler colonialism is examined, with Simpson discussing how anthropology has simultaneously portrayed Indigenous people as inferior, while misrepresenting and laying claim to Indigenous knowledges and experience. In contrast with Ortner, Simpson argues that ‘refusals’ are a two-way process, often initiated by research participants. Refusing in solidarity is framed as a necessary aspect of achieving decolonial research outcomes. Simpson suggests that ethnographers should ‘engage productively’ with refusals, though avoids being prescriptive with how this might be done. This paper provides an important intervention aimed at the ethical and representational practices of conducting ethnography in and with Indigenous communities.

Note: A more recent iteration of this paper, entitled ‘Ethnographic Refusal: Anthropological Need’ is included in her book, Mohawk Interruptus (2014, Duke University Press). This iteration provides more information regarding how the ‘ethnographic refusals’ she encountered during her fieldwork informed her decisions about what not to write.

Tuck, E. and K.W. Yang. (2014a). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry 20 (6): 811-818.
This paper examines ‘refusal’ as an anti-colonial method for analyzing and communicating research data. The researchers draw on the work of Indigenous scholars, to argue that so-called ‘objective’ methods of ethnographic data analysis are colonial in that they reduce individuals and experiences to ‘objects’ that are extracted and claimed by the academy. Specifically, the authors assume that: 1) Studies focusing on the pain of marginalized groups are exploitative and unhelpful; 2) That there are some forms of knowledge that should be kept out of the academy; and 3) Research might not be the most appropriate intervention to a given situation. Using these points as a guide, the article provides concrete examples of how refusal can be incorporated into research design (to focus on institutions and power, rather than the ‘social problem’s of marginalized groups), data collection (being attentive to the refusals made by study participants) and analysis (to refuse to report these refusals within the academy).

Tuck, E. and K.W. Yang. (2014b). ‘R-Words: Refusing Research’ in D. Paris and M. T. Winn (Eds.) Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications.

In this paper, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang develop their three ‘axioms’ or guidelines for refusal, which are briefly mentioned in Tuck in Yang (2014a). The authors suggest that refusals are conducted in three parts: 1) first a research participant refuses to engage in a particular conversation; 2) a researcher agrees to also refuse; and 3) as a result, Indigenous sovereignty over a particular knowledge claim is maintained. After doing so, the chapter examines what it means to engage with ethnographic refusals ‘generatively’, as per Simpson (2007). They suggest that all refusals are generative because they redirect the focus of research towards processes of power, thus decentering narratives of damage or destruction. Doing so sets limits to what issues are known by, and therefore responded to, through a logic of settler colonialism.

Additional Reading:

Cameron, E. (2015) Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
Emilie Cameron’s Far Off Metal River is an example of research that engages in refusal as a research method. The book draws on decolonial and feminist methods (e.g. collaboration, reflexivity) to examine the role of stories and storytelling in Nunavut’s colonial history. Regardless of whether stories are true, Cameron argues that stories matter because they inform community identity and relations. Through ethnographic research and interviews, she showcases how some of the stories that matter to Inuit are not divulged to settlers. Refusing to pursue these stories, Cameron argues, involves respecting the rights of Inuit to their own knowledges and experience. According to Cameron, interpreting what is ‘not knowable’ is an ongoing relational process.

 Gaztambide-Fernández, R. A. (2015). Elite entanglements and demand for a radically un/ethical position: The case for Wienie Night. International Journal for Qualitative Studies in Education 28 (9): 1129-1147.
Drawing on the work of both Simpson (2007) and Ortner (1995), Gaztambide-Fernandez differentiates between the two approaches to ‘ethnographic refusal’, suggesting that there should be a different ethic and method of refusal for research conducted on already powerful institutions. His paper examines an encounter at an elite boarding school that challenges the institution’s masculine, heterosexual image. In response to being told by his university not to report this event, he suggests a radically ‘un/ethical’ research position—whereby the ethical choice is to have distinct ethical parameters for powerful and marginalized actors.

Gonzales-Day, K. (2016). Erased Lynching Series. Available online.

In this photo series, Ken Gonzales-Day removes lynched bodies from photographs taken at lynchings in the mid-20th century, USA. By doing so, he causes viewers to focus- not on the victims- but on those perpetrating the crime. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2014b) use images from this series as examples of an ethnographic refusal, which “shifts the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments.” In this way, “[r]efusal helps move us from thinking of violence as an event and toward an analysis of it as a structure” (p.241). Photos from this series, in addition to a write-up from Ken Gonzales-Day, are available through the artist’s website.

 Moffitt, M., Chetwynd, C., and Todd, Z. (2015). Interrupting the northern research industry: Why northern research should be in northern hands. Northern Public Affairs 4 (1).
This text argues that the best way to avoid misrepresenting data is to conduct research in one’s own community. Reflecting on their experiences as researchers from, or conducting research in, Arctic Canada, the authors examine the different standards of ethics and accountability that local researchers encounter. Zoe Todd provides an example of ethnographic refusal through her refusal to engage in research in communities for which she is not a part.


Alexander Zahara is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His PhD research examines issues of uranium contamination in Northern Saskatchewan. His Masters of Environmental Studies thesis (Queen’s University) examined issues of waste and waste management in the eastern Canadian Arctic.

This post was originally written for a graduate seminar on Activist Research Methodologies taught by Dr. Max Liboiron at Memorial University. I am grateful for Max’s thoughtful feedback on a previous draft.

Update 22-March-2016 An initial version of this post included a different second image and photo caption, which have since been changed.

Updated Reading List (Oct/ 2017):

Keene, A. (2016). Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh. Native Appropriations. Available Online.

McGranahan, C.  (ed). (2016). Special Issue: Theorizing refusal. Cultural Anthropology 31: 319-325.

Simpson, A. (2016). Consent’s Revenge. Cultural Anthropology 31: 326-333.


2 thoughts on “Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies

  1. Reblogged this on Genetic Fetishism, Sex, and Social Progress and commented:
    Here is an excellent blog discussion on ethnographic refusal in the academy. It has me thinking about writing an article on transhistorical approaches to colonial eugenics in psychiatry and right of refusal among ethnic patient populations to focus on genocidal abuses in psychiatry. There is a need to facilitate engagement of the patient community (which includes family members) in historical and medical research from their perspectives. This includes creating material pathways to promote inclusion in research to inform current treatment and practice.

  2. Pingback: Table Manners | The Non-Plastic Maori

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