Anger and Compassion on the Picket Line: Ethnography and Emotion in the Study of Westboro Baptist Church

Rebecca Barrett-Fox


Feminist ethnographic methods stress the role of empathy for research subjects and researchers’ willingness for their work to be useful to their subjects. When the research subjects are “unloved groups,” though—people whose actions or beliefs are hateful or harmful—some ethnographers argue that such empathy and empowerment is misplaced or leads to uncritical scholarship. In this reflection on the author’s ethnographic study of Westboro Baptist Church, a small Kansas-based congregation infamous for preaching its anti-gay theology at funerals, including the funerals of fallen servicemen and -women, she questions the usefulness of denying an emotional connection with “hatemongers.” Instead, she argues for compassion for both the victims and, more challengingly, the perpetrators of hate in order to protect researchers from the threat of desensitization.

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