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“In dreams begin responsibilities”

The ethics of researching and writing trauma
Fiona Murphy
p. 91-101


On May 26th 1997, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) tabled one of the most shocking and painful reports that Australia had ever seen. The Bringing Them Home report (Wilson and Dodson, 1997) was the result of months of consultations right across the continent of Australia, and established that between the years of 1910 until the late 1970’s between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families. This paper argues that an ethnographic exploration of trauma (while just one modality of understanding suffering) calls for a more involved and deliberate methodological approach. Key to this is understanding the question of how to represent, write, and articulate the difficulties of lives caught in the moral web of suffering. This article concludes with a focus on the issue of writing to do justice to these very lives arguing for a commitment to our research participant’s anxieties and concerns with the anthropological writing project.

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Researching Trauma : Methodological Reflections
The Ethnographer as Witness
Writing Trauma

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Confessing, re-telling, bearing witness to the story of Aboriginal Australian child removal, Peter moves through the streets of Redfern, one of Sydney’s largest Aboriginal districts. He stops to speak to those who amble along – to those who tarry and have time to bear witness to this shared Australian-Aboriginal history. But he also dares to stop those who move with alacrity, scowling for they may miss their train or their bus. I, as ethnographer, walk with him one day, as he tells me that his rationale for confessing his ‘total’ self was inspired by religion. Born again now, he believes that a public confessing of all his past discretions is what is required of him to move forward but also to educate. He tells me as we walk that his testimony of suffering should be seen as a gift to those who hurt him, and to his family whom he had hurt. This wandering is healing and instructive ; but he is berated, ignored, congratulated, and pitied as he moves through the streets. The...

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Bibliographical reference

Fiona Murphy, « “In dreams begin responsibilities” », Civilisations, 64 | 2015, 91-101.

Electronic reference

Fiona Murphy, « “In dreams begin responsibilities” », Civilisations [Online], 64 | 2015, Online since 30 December 2018, connection on 22 February 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/civilisations.3879

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About the author

Fiona Murphy

is a Research Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queens University Belfast. She received her PhD in anthropology from Maynooth University in 2009 for research on the politicisation of trauma and memory amongst Australia’s Stolen Generations. She is co-author of Integration in Ireland : The Everyday Lives of African Migrants (Manchester University Press, 2011). She also has developing research interests in migration, sustainability and consumption studies. [Institute for the Study of Conflict transformation and Social Justice, Queens University Belfast, 19 University square, Belfast, BT7 1NN, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom –]

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