Certainty, doubt, and ethnographic knowledge production

In her CSSH article “Tomorrow belongs to us”: Pathways to Activism in Italian Far-Right Youth Communities” (CSSH 64-1, 2022), Agnieszka Pasieka shows the value of long-term ethnographic study t0 facilitating deeper understanding of the communities of young, far-right activists in Italy with whom she works. Historically situating contemporary activism in connection with the “fascist heritage” it engages was critical to that effort. In this new work, Pasieka turns her attention to the present. What was “tomorrow” in Pasieka’s initial research has become today. By examining the current commitments and endeavors of her former fieldwork consultants, she reflects now on the limits of ethnographic knowing.

What happens when our research participants – whom we have made the key protagonists of our writing – decide to give their lives a new direction? 

In my article, “Tomorrow belongs to us,” I told personal stories about three Italian far-right activists I met during fieldwork. These were Leo, a young leader of the Milan chapter of Forza Nuova (FN), and two people related to the Lealtà Azione (LA) movement: Francesca, a student of history and leader of a group advocating for persecuted Christians, and Livio, also a history student and a utopian thinker. The article draws on several years of research, with the main fieldwork occurring between 2018 and 2019. By the end of 2022, it seems that none  of the protagonists of my article is pursuing the path they were following when we first met. Granted, there is nothing unusual about people changing their lives. Best matched couples divorce, devout Catholics turn atheist, and radical Marxists convert into free-market capitalists. To expect far-right activists to behave any differently is to exoticize them, thereby reinforcing assumptions that, I argue, are detrimental to our understanding of the far right (Pasieka 2019). Instead, I want to consider how these life changes relate to ethnographic knowledge production and how they might enrich our accounts of young, far-right activists.

Although I can adopt a somewhat distant analytical style when talking about Leo, Livio, and Francesca, I realize that recent events in their lives have had a profound emotional impact on how I think about my research, my findings, and their broader implications. At first, I simply feared that my data were becoming irrelevant. I was frustrated by ethnographic method and writing, both of which are so time-consuming. I also doubted the validity of my observations and interpretations. Eventually, these feelings pushed me to look again at my fieldnotes, at interviews, clippings, and diary entries, at published, not yet published, and forever abandoned articles. I also revisited comments made by anonymous reviewers and fellow anthropologists. All this to discover that, when stating that none of the protagonists of my articles seems to be pursuing the path on which I met them, I must put the emphasis on “it seems.” 

Let me start with Leo. Like most Milan-based activists, in 2020 he decided to leave Forza Nuova and join the new Movimento Nazionale (National Movement). The official explanation for this communal decision was discontent with the corrupt practices of FN leader, Roberto Fiore. Since the latter had long been public knowledge, the background issues were obviously more complex. Of greater interest to me, however, was the shifting position of people like Leo, who, only a few months earlier, had said: “I could never abandon Forza Nuova.” So why did he? Given that Leo refused to elaborate on that question, my only source of insight was the ethnographic material I had already collected. Searching through my notes, I found numerous comments by FN members expressing their eternal faithfulness to FN. I also found comments by FN’s competitors, such as members of LA who, despite being critical, acknowledged that “Forza Nuova may die, but forzanuovismo – no.” Forzanuovismo was understood as a type of activism and commitment, as a socio-political phenomenon. Through my engagement with FN’s competitors, I came to realize that, for people like Leo, joining the new movement was an act of fidelity to old values. 

Millennial in action. (TheNEBstudio, Wikimedia)

Francesca’s break with the movement was clearer, and in many ways was more surprising. A highly engaged activist, Francesca temporarily left the university to devote more time to LA. She fit perfectly Kathleen Blee’s (2002) description of the “centerwoman.” In the predominantly male environment of the Florence chapter of LA, Francesca established herself as a person to be reckoned with, a designer and manager of multiple initiatives. The movement’s national leaders proposed that she lead one of LA’s sections. For Francesca, LA was a milieu in which she could fulfill her passions. She could develop her ambitions and talents there, and she told me that she never felt discriminated against as a woman. Yet she left the movement a few months later. After talking to one of her close friends, I concluded that clashes with the male leader of the local section led her to quit LA. Although she is described as a traitor by members of the movement, Francesca probably feels that she was betrayed, not only by an individual leader, but by the entire movement. I say “probably” because unlike Leo, who is still in touch with me, Francesca cut ties both with me and with her closest friends in the movement. This lack of contact hurt me more than I was prepared to admit, considering the differences in our political outlooks. A reviewer of the CSSH article helped me make better sense of things. My description of Francesca, they observed, suggested an especially strong relationship between us. 

And then there is Livio. An eccentric young man with a Che Guevara look, his passion for red skinhead music and blatantly racist views made it hard to place him on the map of radical activism. As it turns out, Livio himself struggled with finding a place. He contacted me in the summer of 2022, saying he needed to talk to me urgently about something I had made possible. I froze upon reading his message. Given that I was constantly surprised by his patchwork ideas and utopian plans, I worried that he had done something I would not want to hear about (or be made co-responsible for). I was wrong, luckily, and the only proof of my anthropological intuition was that Livio did indeed surprise me. During our phone conversation, he informed me that he had abandoned LA and the far-right environment altogether. He is now in a relationship with a radical left-wing activist, but instead of pursuing with her a (new?) utopia, he has decided to take a regular job. He thanked me for helping make it happen. I was astonished. I never tried to “convert” Livio, and I rarely managed to express my convictions during our conversations, which were more akin to monologues. Yet Livio said he wanted to thank me precisely because I respected him as he was, and treated him seriously. “There was so much anger with me. I was so angry with the world.” This is how he described his path toward – and away from – the far right. We talked about other passions Livio is faithful to, and the interests that still bring happiness to his life. 

At the Punta Trento crossroads, near Monte Velino (Grawal1, Wikimedia)

What do these three cases tell us about ethnography, ethnographic research, and ethnographic writing? First, they remind us that anthropological knowledge production is a collective enterprise, and it is “collective” in a very broad sense. Not only is fieldwork a space of dialogical knowledge production, so are the numerous aspects of ethnographic research and writing that come after fieldwork. The collective can at times be annoying and bothersome, but ultimately it is a true gift to scholars whose work is mostly solitary. It links our work to the sociability and transformations that characterize the lives of our subjects.

Second, in light of recent attempts by anthropologists to question the very nature of evidence, my (evolving) research findings suggest that evidence is not to be misread as “indubitability” (Engelke 2008: 3), nor can ethnographic data be divorced from their emotional and sensual components, their unique (non-replicable) and negotiated character. Whether this renders anthropology stronger or weaker among the social sciences is a different question, one to which there is not a clear, yes-or-no answer. Young people’s “anger with the world,” their search for fulfillment and a community in which to belong and be understood – these are subjects that generate evidence, and call for analysis, of this very peculiar kind.

Finally, the three case studies remind us that an anthropological sensibility entails sensitivity to the contingent nature of the phenomena we observe and openness to changing circumstances. At times, this can mean changing our focus entirely (e.g., Shore and Trinka 2003). I would go a step further and suggest that an anthropological sensibility requires an acknowledgement – which is not to be confused with resignation – that there are limits to what we can know about others. However much we explore and interpret, there will be an element of “it seems” in all we claim to understand. 


Blee, K. 2002. Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engelke, M. 2008. The Objects of Evidence. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), S1-S21.

Pasieka, A. 2019. Anthropology of the Far Right: What if We Like the “Unlikeable” others? Anthropology Today35(1): 3–6.

Shore, C. and S. Trnka. 2013. “Introduction: Observing Anthropologists: Professional Knowledge, Practice and Lives,” in Up close and personal: On Peripheral Perspectives and the Production of Anthropological Knowledge. New York: Berghahn Books.

Agnieszka Pasieka is currently a visiting professor at University of Bayreuth and research fellow at the University of Vienna. Her scholarship brings together anthropological and historical approaches to explore the different ways in which social actors deal with inequality and exclusion. She has conducted a series of ethnographic projects and has taught on religious pluralism, multiculturalism, nationalism, political radicalization and social movements. She is the author of Hierarchy and Pluralism: Living Religious Difference in Catholic Poland (Palgrave, 2015). Her new book project, “Living Right,” is an ethnographic exploration of the phenomenon of “transnational nationalism” and cross-border exchanges among European youth far-right movements.

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History