FAQs in the Field: From Boring Objects to Faceless Social Relations

by Robert Frey, Columbia University

What is the Defense Base Act (DBA)? This question begins the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section of a website about a workers’ compensation insurance program. FAQs are lists of questions and answers that offer readers commonly sought information about one or more topics. The DBA FAQ addresses topics such as the scope of insurance coverage, procedures for filing claims and resolving disputes, and employers’ and insurers’ responsibilities within the program.

Initially, the DBA FAQ presented itself to me as a boring object. As someone who was personally familiar with FAQs, my instinct was that, in the context of my fieldwork, this document would be a source of technical information rather than a meaningful cultural artifact. As time passed, changes in how I understood the fieldwork I was doing allowed me to perceive the FAQ differently. Drawing on my research, I pose two questions: (1) As anthropology is a field science, how do anthropologists recognize that their activities constitute fieldwork when they’re not “in the field?” (2) How is the challenge of recognizing something as part of fieldwork complicated by engaging with seemingly boring objects that are similar to objects from the anthropologist’s personal life?

*          *          *

I encountered the DBA FAQ during my research into war-related injury and illness among United States citizens who worked as civilian contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. These workers are not uniformed military personnel and are ineligible for veterans’ benefits. The DBA, created during World War II, requires government contractors (i.e., the private corporations that hire civilian contractors) to provide workers’ compensation (medical, disability, and death benefits) for employees who work overseas. The DBA is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL), but the government itself does not pay the program’s costs. Instead, private, for-profit insurance companies create and operate DBA insurance policies with limited government oversight.

The DBA FAQ consists of approximately 30 questions and answers. Most questions are one or two sentences, and most answers are two to five sentences. The language used in the FAQ is neutral and measured, assuming a “best practices” version of events, in which all parties to the DBA act in good faith to make the system work as well as possible. The FAQ’s “master narrative” (Star 1999) is that of a path that is always moving in the direction of resolving problems and improving outcomes. However, this narrative conflicts with the experiences and perspectives of injured workers who participated in my research.

Consider the case of an injured worker who participated in my fieldwork. After being injured in Iraq, he filed a claim for health and disability benefits. Instead of receiving his benefits in the manner the FAQ would suggest, his insurance company began to dispute elements of his claim. After an unsuccessful attempt at mediation overseen by the DoL, he pursued a legal case against his insurer. He waited more than five years after a favorable ruling in the DoL’s administrative law courts before reaching a settlement with his DBA insurance carrier. In the time between ruling and settlement, the DoL levied no penalties against the insurance company. Documentary research from my fieldwork has led me to understand such actions as usual rather than extraordinary. Investigative journalism by ProPublica and the LA Times found that insurers initially rejected 44% of DBA claims involving serious injuries and more than 50% of claims involving psychological stress (Miller and Smith 2009). And an audit by the DoL Inspector General found that DoL staff penalized DBA insurers in less than 1% of all cases in which penalties were justified for late reports, late payments, and other failures to meet programmatic requirements (DoL 2011: 15).

*          *          *

When I first encountered the DBA FAQ, I didn’t think of what I was doing as fieldwork.

When I designed my research, I had planned to locate my fieldwork in the “local moral worlds” of injured workers and caregivers (Kleinman & Kleinman 1991, Kleinman 1992, 1999). I anticipated that face-to-face encounters would constitute the mainstay of my fieldwork and the raw material for most of my fieldwork data.

I discovered the FAQ while creating an inventory of the DoL’s online materials related to the DBA. This did not initially register as significant. Instinctively, I categorized the material I found as background information. The content of the DBA FAQ was technical in nature, like that of FAQs I had used throughout my life. As mere technical information, it was a supplement to what I perceived would be my primary materials, i.e., fieldnotes and interview transcripts. I saved the documents on my laptop and moved on. I figured I would use them later by extracting discrete pieces of information to support an interpretive analysis of fieldwork data. But as my fieldwork progressed, I found that my initial assessment of the DBA FAQ and my interactions with it was rooted in an error of thought.

My first several months of fieldwork produced two significant insights. First, insofar as any communities of former civilian workers could be said to exist, they did so across significant geographic distances, with members communicating via phone calls, email, and social media. Occasions when they got together in real life were rare. This challenged my preconceived notion of doing participant observation in “local moral worlds.”

Second, I realized that the bureaucracies injured workers navigated in their efforts to use the DBA were also geographically distant from the places where they lived. Moreover, these corporate and government institutions were geographically dispersed across multiple sites, and the processes of making and disputing claims were not localizable in just one or two real-world spaces readily accessible to a researcher.

I made sense of these findings through reference to a theme in Laura Nader’s scholarship: that of “faceless social relations” in disputes between consumers and corporations. In the 1970s, Nader began to argue that faceless social relations were replacing face-to-face relationships in contexts where citizens interact with corporations (1972, 1976, 1980). When corporations are privileged over people, facelessness becomes more prevalent as the powerful become less accountable to citizens in democratic societies.

The more I used these insights to reflect on my research, the more I realized that my interactions with the DBA FAQ and other seemingly boring documents were actually integral components of my fieldwork. My efforts to read them, and read them against each other, as I did in the case of the DBA FAQ and the DBA audit, were quintessentially anthropological moves. Reframing my inquiry as an investigation into faceless, rather than face-to-face, social relations, I was able to perceive the DBA FAQ as culturally significant rather than as a boring document.

*          *          *

Boring objects can be vital to the practice of fieldwork in anthropology. In the case of the DBA FAQ, what seemed boring when encountered in the course of face-to-face fieldwork became interesting when the mode of social life, the anthropological field, and the document itself were considered in terms of faceless social relations, such as those between the insurance company and the injured worker claiming benefits.



Kleinman, A., and J. Kleinman. 1991. “Suffering and Its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience.” Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry 15(3): 275-301.

Kleinman, A. 1992. “Local Worlds of Suffering: An Interpersonal Focus for Ethnographies of Illness Experience.” Qualitative Health Research 2(2): 127-134.

Kleinman, A. 1999. “Experience and Its Moral Modes: Culture, Human Conditions and Disorder.” In The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. 20. G.B. Peterson, ed. Pp. 357-420. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Miller, T.C., and D. Smith. 2009. “Injured War Zone Contractors Fight to Get Care from AIG and Other Insurers.” April 16. https://www.propublica.org/article/injured-war-zone-contractors-fight-to-get-care-from-aig-416.

Nader, L. 1972. “Up the Anthropologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology. D. Hymes, ed. Pp. 285-311. New York: Pantheon Books.

Nader, L. 1976. “The Problem of Order in Faceless Society.” In American Courts and Justice. G.R. Winters and E.J. Schoenbaum, eds. Pp. 169-182. Chicago: American Judicature Society.

Nader, L., ed. 1980. No Access to Law: Alternatives to the American Judicial System. New York: Academic Press.

Star, S.L. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377-391.

U.S. Department of Labor – Office of the Inspector General. 2011. OWCP Needs to Improve Its Monitoring and Managing of Defense Base Act Claims. Report Number 03-11-001-04-430. March 23.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email