Ethnographic Refusal: A How to Guide

This article follows from one of our most popular posts, Refusal as Research Method in Discard Studies. Readers have been asking how to go about using refusal in their own work. Alex Zahara provides some methodological starting points in this post. 

By  Alex Zahara

Activist researchers have the potential to uncover particularly sensitive information that, when revealed, may have very real social and material consequences for research participants and their communities. Examples of this could include the presence of contamination (in places, bodies or animals), access to knowledge that is considered sacred, or interview responses that are political and potentially identifying. Additionally, we might be given access to potentially painful community events and experiences. As researchers interested in social justice, how do we proceed helpfully and ethically in our research in such situations?

The concept of refusal is one way forward. Refusal is a method whereby researchers and research participants together decide not to make particular information available for use within the academy. It is intended to redirect academic analysis away from harmful pain-based narratives that obscure slow violence and towards the structures, institutions, and practices that engender those narratives. Doing so provides research participants the opportunity to (1) dictate whether knowledge is to be made available within the academy (or elsewhere); and (2) to determine how issues are responded to, when, and by whom. While anthropologists initially dismissed the concept of refusal for producing ‘incomplete’ depictions of marginalized groups (Ortner 1995), Indigenous theorists have reframed refusal as a decolonizing research method (Simpson 2007; Tuck and Yang 2014). According to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies (2012), decolonization requires attending to “…the implications of research for its participants and their communities” (p.19). For her and other Indigenous researchers, doing so necessitates community collaboration and control over research projects (Zavala 2013). Accordingly, the method is centrally concerned with a community’s right to self-representation, regardless of the community under study.



In this section, the term ‘refusal’ is used in two ways: first, to describe the action of when a research participant refuses to engage in a particular topic of conversation or suggests to a researcher that something should not be published; and second, when a researcher—based on their own understanding of a given situation, or in response to research participants—refuses to publish this information. Here are some strategies for identifying and collaborating with research refusals. 

Identifying what to refuse:

  • Preparation: Prior to conducting fieldwork, researchers should do ‘homework’ (Sundberg 2015), making an effort to understand the politics of the information that they’re gathering and producing. In doing so, contextualize your data within ongoing contestations, historical injustices, or hegemonic power relations. In many instances, this might best be done by conducting research in communities that we belong to or are otherwise already accountable to (Moffitt et al. 2015). Determine whether community members are already addressing issues on their own terms (e.g. Simpson 2007). If so, make contact and assess whether research is helpful.
  • Listen and reflect: When conducting interviews, identify not just overt refusals, but points of hesitation (Cameron 2015), changes in subject (Tuck & Yang 2014b), or semi/untruthful interview responses (Simpson 2007). These may be participant refusals, and should be contextualized or addressed accordingly.
  • Collaboration:  If you’re not a member of the community you are researching with, research partnerships are necessary for confirming whether or not the information you have access to should be made available elsewhere. Participatory Action Research methods ensure involvement in this process (Zavala 2013). Alternatively, researchers might seek advice from specific community members for whom they have already developed a trustworthy relationship (Cameron 2015; Keene 2016). Researchers might also engage in community peer review, presenting research to community members prior to publishing information elsewhere (or refusing to do so).


How to refuse:

  • Studying up: Rather than studying the suffering of marginalized groups, researchers should focus instead on the systems and people responsible for this suffering (e.g. corporations, governments, or others in positions of power). This particular method is referred to as ‘studying up’. For an overview as it relates to refusal, see Gaztambide-Fernandez (2015).
  • Knowledge production: Researchers are recommended to ‘engage generatively’ with refusals (Simpson 2007). Doing so involves interpreting refusals— without revealing their content— by analyzing them within their historical or cultural context. See, for example, Dr. Adrienne Keene’s (2016) excellent discussion (and refusal to discuss) Navajo understandings and spiritual practices, and how they have been misrepresented in popular culture (specifically by author J.K. Rowling on the ‘Pottermore’ website).
  • Image use: Academics using photographs or producing visual outputs should select or digitally alter images (Gonzales-Day 2016) to “shift[] the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments.” (Tuck and Yang 2014: 241). In doing so, the image itself produces a refusal. See also the images of e-waste centre Agbogbloshie taken by Alhassan Ibn Abdalla and featured in this post, or the example in Image 1 (below).


Image 1: 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.


Ethical Considerations

While researchers may not be required to include refusals in their institutional ethics clearance (since it is an action of not reporting information), there are a number of other ethical considerations that researchers might face. First, because the method is centrally concerned with community representation, refusal necessarily involves aligning with particular individuals or stakeholders. Doing so may result in tensions— with other research participants, partners, or academics— regarding whether or how something should be refused. In turn, researchers should engage in reflexivity (Rose 1997) or ongoing project evaluation (Mathison 2014) in order to ensure they are proceeding forward on the basis of one’s positioning, research goals and ethics (e.g. community self-determination). Second, a researcher has the authority to decide what information is to be refused or how this information is interpreted, resulting in power imbalances between researcher and research participants and creating opportunities for community misrepresentation. In turn, community and participant peer review is necessary to ensure community members are given the final say over what and how information is reported.


Further Reading

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). R-words: Refusing research. In D. Paris & M. T. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 223-247). Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1990). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London, UK: Zed Books.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’, and colonial citizenship. Junctures, 9, 67-80.



Cameron, E. (2015) Far off metal river: Inuit lands, settler stories, and the making of the contemporary Arctic. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Gaztambide-Fernandez (2015). Elite entanglements and the demand for a radically un/ethical position: The case of Wienie Night. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28, 1129-1147.

Gonzales-Day (2016). Erased Lynching.  Available Online

Keene, A. (2016, March 8). Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh. Available Online

Mathison, S. (2014) Research and evaluation: Intersections and divergence. In S. Brisolara, D. Seigart, & S. SenGupta (Eds.), Feminist evaluation and practice (42-58). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Moffitt, M., Chetwynd, C., & Todd, Z. (2015). Interrupting the northern research industry: Why northern research should be in northern hands. Northern Public Affairs, 4.

Rose, G. (1997). Situating knowledges: Positional reflexivities and other tactics. Progress in Human Geography, 301-320.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’, and colonial citizenship. Junctures, 9, 67-80.

Sundberg, J. (2015). “Ethics, Entanglement and Political Ecology.” In Tom Perrault, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. New York: Routledge: 102- 114.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014a). R-words: Refusing research. In D. Paris & M. T. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 223-247). Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014b). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20, 811-818. 

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd ed.). London, UK: Zed Books.

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, 55-71.


Alexander Zahara is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His PhD research examines issues of risk management and 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 as an ‘activist field guide’ 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.