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Epistemophilic obsessions: Espionage, secrets, and the ethnographer’s will to know

As a young ethnographer, I was weirdly obsessed with closed doors and what was going on behind them. To some extent I still am. How come? Starting from my own obsession with closed doors and secrets in a fieldwork setting particularly prone to secrecy and mutual spying, namely the Nigerien gendarmerie, this essay is as an investigation into the practical, not just theoretical, problem of knowledge in anthropology, as called for by Johannes Fabian, by way of exploring the practical, not just theoretical, problem of ethnographic epistemophilia—the ethnographer’s will to know. What emerges is an uncanny resemblance between my own and the gendarmes’ performances of epistemophilia and concealment (real or imagined). The general point is this: If knowledge in anthropology is relational, then so is the ethnographer’s will to know. And this has implications for who we think we are—as anthropologists.