Perceptions of anthropology

Tad at Fieldnotes has a post on “Resources for Researching Aboriginal Issues”: that I find quite interesting. The second resource that he mentions in his post is a researcher’s handbook by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called “Stolen Lands, Broken Promises”: . This is basically a guide for Aboriginal community members who wish to do research on various issues affecting their communities. The various chapters touch on different but related research topics of interest to anthropologists. What particularly caught my attention was chapter 8: “Anthropology Resources”: .

Unsurprisingly, the ethnocentric nature of some anthropological research projects is pointed out. In fact, the authors of this handbook are very well aware that the early anthropological project was mostly reflective of Western values that were tied into a colonial project in many ways. For example, the following statement jumped out at me:

Whatever the scope of your project, you will need to make sure you cafefully analyze the material you collect. Anthropological reports were most often produced by outside researchers with distinctly different cultural practices and expectations than the people they studied. They may include important information but they may also reveal more about the beliefs and values of the time and place in which they were created. Often, these studies may meet the standards of academic research but fail to accurately represent Indigenous Peoples and our communities. Consider the biases and limitations in the documents you encounter while extracting the information you need for your research.

To me, this touches on several of the topics we have discussed here on SM recently. More specifically, theory and morality come to mind. I’ve long been ambivalent about the process of theorising about a group of people with the goal of contributing to an overarching “scientific” project, particularly when the people being theorised about have little voice with regards to the theories constructed around them or little concern for the scientific project of theory creation. Therefore, I feel that Aboriginal peoples are justified in their wariness of anthropological research. We cannot deny that many ethnographies have unjustly portrayed Aboriginals and other societies, sometimes to the detriment of fruitful dialogue.

During my own fieldwork in Chisasibi, the comment was made to me that the Cree had felt misrepresented in some previous works and were now quite sceptical of what exactly anthropologists were trying to do. As noble as I felt my intentions were at the time (ie. to help foster inter-cultural communication), in the end my project benefited me much more than the community that hosted me: it got me an M.A. and a subsequent job at a publicly funded college. In the 7 years since my fieldwork, I have not yet even had the opportunity to go back to Chisasibi to give the band council a copy of my thesis as promised. I could mail it . . .but it wouldn’t be the same.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that anthropologists can and should be doing research that both meets the standards of academic research and fulfills a need that Aboriginal communities may have, taking into account their perspectives on self-representation. Of course, this may require changes in the criteria for academic research in the first place.

How are anthropologists supposed to preach cultural relativity if we can’t practice it with regards to cultural differences in the perception of how cross-cultural research should be carried out? This strikes me as a fundamental problem in anthropolical research, a sort of hypocrisy, that continues to plague us in spite of ongoing critiques by the people with whom we deal and to whom we owe our livelihood.

9 thoughts on “Perceptions of anthropology

  1. Nice observations about the book, Nancy … the tensions you identify in ‘our enterprise’ are very real and I, like you, felt them throughout much of my fieldwork stay. The handbook is an amazing document if for no other reason than it is first and foremost native people offering advice to native researchers … and the critiques of anthropology are explicit and implicit throughout.

    To add to the conversation, I offer a question one of my faculty members at UNM asked me after a talk I gave recently … what is or what should be the role of anthropology in aboriginal communities particularly when political projects like land claims are involved? What do we have to offer to them?

  2. I’m not sure programmatic declarations on this topic are appropriate. In the case of the indigenous community in Bolivia with which I worked, the kind of “help” I could collectively offer them was: just about nothing. And that’s a good thing. They wanted a copy of my thesis, but they had their own thing going on with government officials, NGOs, Bolivian researchers and consultants (people whom they chose and they hired). They let me do research in the community because they felt it couldn’t hurt, not because they foresaw any particular benefit from it. Though they didn’t put it in these terms, they seemed to value the notion of “pure research”. Part of this was their own sense that hell yeah, their language and their culture were awesome and why wouldn’t outsiders want to get next to them? Would that all indigenous communities were similarly lucky (and relatively empowered). I fervently hope that in time this kind of subordinate position becomes the default one for most anthropologists.

    The best way we can bring that happy day about is probably not through small local projects in small local elsewheres, but as activists in our own very powerful societies: that is, in putting our efforts into creating a more equitable world such that “the anthropologist” becomes like a kooky relative in the community, rather than a bringer of help from distant, powerful locales. The best thing I could do for Isoso is to help elect a different kind of U.S. administration, I think. In pretty much all other respects, they are doing a fine job of acting on their own behalf.

    Reading about others’ field situations, I know this isn’t true everywhere — other indigenous communities don’t always have it quite as together as the Isosenho happen to. AT the same time, I feel that there are a lot — A LOT — of anthropologists looking to create “helping” roles and “helping” narratives for themselves. This seems not so much hypocritical as flat-out self-aggrandizing. Whether this is the right thing to do will always depend, I think, on the specific dynamics of the specific community in question. First it’s worth asking if they even want our help, you know?

  3. I agree that part of the impetus to presume/assume a ‘helping’ role in relation to people we study as anthropogists has to do with self-lionization: the sometimes egomaniacal appeal of the intrepid and the heroic, which unfortunately too often informs both the epistemology of ethnographic fieldwork (the ‘harder’ it is, the more true) as well as its ethics (we sacrifice ourselves for the communities we study). Correlatively, the idea that anthropological works are vaunted repositories of power and that our representations have consequential effects on the world I think oddly over-estimates our importance in the name of critiquing it. Unless we’re brilliant retailers of ourselves, most of our work will be read by just about no one (including those it is ostensibly about).

    I exaggerate for emphasis, and it is obviously true that in certain critical cases in the Pacific and elsewhere, anthropologists have become embroiled in conflicts over (especially) property rights and compensation claims, as well as in development projects of various sorts, often related to natural resource extraction. Certainly in those cases, our representations have some impact — though limited, and they are only impactful to the extent that they are legalally legible. Much as I think it is a deeply problematic work, Povinelli’s The Cunning of Recognition is an thought-provoking reflection on that problem.

    But for me the rub of the question as to ‘helping’ our informants pertains to the form it takes: the question of helping people “collectively.” For me, ethnographic research is deeply personal and guided necessarily by a personal ethic. While collective benefit is terribly difficult to achieve for all sorts of reasons, and in fact rests on certain retrograde presuppositions about how indigenous ‘communities’ are constituted (by ‘social groups,’ for example), it is *always* true that anthropologists create knowledge through very concrete and specific social relations. The people who house and feed you in the field, the ones who traipse off after codeine when you have a high fever, the ones who sit with you and patiently explain or illustrate kinship terms and rules, or what have you. And it is *those* specific relations that I seek to honor both through my work, in my writing, as well as through gifts when I can make them. It’s a rather obvious sentiment that I express here, but I find that it is not often explicitly described in our work, probably because it verges on the maudlin.

  4. Maybe less maudlin than modest? I think most anthros don’t document those personal (as opposed to collective) returns because it would be like making a list of all the Christmas presents you ever gave your friends and family and how much they cost. Of course, there is the big picture fact that no matter what you do, it’s never enough and doesn’t change structural inequality; but there is also the small picture fact that there are basic human reasons those returns go without saying.

  5. Thank you for that interesting analogy (Christmas presents). Of course, auditing relations in the manner you describe probably sounds offensive to most North American ears… Yet, where I do fieldwork (highland New Guinea), such an ‘auditing’ is *exactly* how social relations are reified and negotiated. At Christmas even: when pig kills are staged and lists drawn up and money distributed to specific people in recognition of acts of care or generosity performed on previous occasions. Wads of money held aloft, the amount announced publically. So I would query the ‘basic human reasons’ that ‘those returns go without saying’… do they?

    There are of course different styles of relating to people ethnographically, and culture is part of it. I know anthropologists who actually screen off or bracket deeply personal and reciprocal relations with informants precisely because of the burdens such relations place on a researcher. I’m trying to avoid a romantic discourse here (which I characterize as “maudlin,” and I’m thinking of Ruth Behar’s ‘anthropology that breaks your heart’ when I say that), and yet I find that when I think back over what has enabled me to write ethnography, I feel an incedibly burdensome sense of obligation to the specific people who took care of me while I was in the field. Part of me thinks that writing excellent ethnography is a good form of reciprocity in this respect. But another part of me knows that those peole want their stories in my work.

  6. Kathleen wrote: “AT the same time, I feel that there are a lot—A LOT —of anthropologists looking to create “helping” roles and “helping” narratives for themselves. This seems not so much hypocritical as flat-out self-aggrandizing.”

    Maybe in some cases, that’s the case. Maybe in others, the anthropologist has a genuine concern for a group’s well-being and wants to simply be an ally. Being an ally can take all kinds of forms including lobbying and awareness actions “back home”. But, as an anthropologist, I feel that the actions that can be taken “back home” are enabled by some knowledge of the realities of the particular community with which one is concerned and ethnographic work can help with this.

  7. Of course, those are also not mutually exclusive. One can genuinely care about another, and simultaneously want to create a dramatic narrative in which one is the star.

  8. Yes, of course 🙂 That is quite possible 🙂

    I just don’t like to assume things about people’s intentions one way or another. In the end, the impact is what will be remembered and felt.

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