More on Morality and Anthropology

I’ve been challenged to provide some sort of definition of what I see as anthropology’s moral core. Though moving, illness, and teaching an accellerated course have kept me pretty busy, I have been trying to keep at least part of my brain engaged with the topics I raised a few weeks ago. Let me preface my remarks by noting that I don’t have any positive assertions to make — I have some ideas of what may or may not be integral to the practice of anthropology, but others are, of course, free to disagree. You won’t even hurt my feelings (much).

I also need to make a distinction that I failed to recognize earlier, and which may be one of the reasons why my post raised such consternation. Anthropologists are involved with moral issues in two senses; the first is in their personal, often politically-charged, response to the practices and beliefs they witness in the field or in their research. For instance, we might record instances of infanticide, or of government withholding of medical supplies, or of corporations breaking land-usage laws. Anthropologists may, despite cultural relativism, feel that such practices ought to be stopped or prevented, and depending on their politics and temperament may take an activist stance regarding such practices. This sort of thing has been covered quite a bit in the literature, and is the impetus behind much of the development of reflexive anthropology. It is not what I was getting at in my earlier post, though some of my examples led in this direction.

My concern is with the moral values and principles that are put into practice or embedded in the practice of anthropology itself. How do we justify our own existence? On what are our claims to authority premised? What do we hope to accomplish with our work? Obviously, there’s some grey areas between this sense and the sense I outlined above, but in many ways anthropology is a study of grey areas and I don’t find this overlap too disturbing. What I do find disturbing is the notion that anthropologists can adopt an attitude towards our subjects similar to that of a chemist or physicist (or engineer…). Thus, I would start an outline of moral principles with the simple recognition that we have an obligation not just to “do no harm” but to provide as honest and complete an account as possible. Note that I did not say “objective” — objectivity may be possible for gods and machines, but for human researchers (and this includes physicists and chemists) the best we can do is be honest.

But before we ever get into the field, there is the question of why we should even bother to deal with. We anthropologists are lucky enough to live in a world of massive specialization and fairly well-protected freedom of inquiry, but ultimately, we are still embedded in societies that have agreed to support us in exchange for our work. While I agree that “mere curiosity” about a people may well drive particular anthropologists’ work, this is neither a compelling justification of our field nor, in my opinion, a completely value-free proposition. Let me put it this way: why should state governments fund anthropology departments in public universites? What social good does anthropology provide?

I cannot even begin to fully answer all the questions I’ve raised, but here’s a “starter-list” of values I see at work in the discipline of anthropology as a whole:

  • Difference, either among members of a society or between societies, is at worst not a problem, and is generally a Good Thing.
  • The autonomy of self-defined groups of people should be protected wherever possible.
  • Reprsentations of individuals and groups should be constructed honestly and with consideration for their effect on the people being described.
  • The use of power to coerce individuals or groups is wrong, and is a demonstration of a failure of individuals, social institutions, or inter-group dynamics.
  • People have a right to make mistakes (with a nod to Sol Tax).
  • Race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, nationality, and other labels should not be used in ways that directly or indirectly restrict individuals’ or groups’ ability to function as a full part of the society or societies of which they are part.

Far from exhaustive, but a start. Some of these are probably controversial, and some are contradictory — for instance, when two groups use force in an attempt to protect their autonomy, does their right to autonomy take precendence or their right to be free from coercion? I’m completely comfortable with such contradictions — we are, after all, human beings, tricksy creatures under the best of circumstances. I can’t help but notice that some of these don’t seem to be very controversial at all: the AAA’s code of ethics — and the AAA is far from a radical organization — includes language that isn’t far off from some of these. The controversy lies, I think, in calling this “morality” — while “ethics” can be read as principles for good scientific research, “morals” necessarily invoke limited, local, personal definitions of “right” and “wrong”, which is not just unscientific to some, but anti-scientific. My basic contention is that ignoring the moral nature of our work is intellectually dishonest, and in fact hinders our claim to scientificity. As I noted above, personal moral convictions — and the way they come into play in the course of our research — have been addressed (if only partially and sporadically) with the rise of reflexivity in anthropology, so what I guess I’m calling for is a kind of “social reflexivity” to make explicit the values that we as a field bring to our subject matter. This would involve a close look at the practices with which anthropological knowledge is created, not just the “end-product” of ethnography and theory (sorry Clifford and Marcus — I love you guys, I really do, but there’s a lot that goes on before we start “writing culture”). We are used to seeing values enacted or embodied in the slightest gestures of our subjects; I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that note-taking, conference-presenting or -attending, publishing, teaching, grantwriting, interviewing, blogging, and the other practices from the field to the academy don’t similarly enact or embody values that, inasmuch as anthropology has some degree of unity as a discipline, are shared.

53 thoughts on “More on Morality and Anthropology

  1. tigerbear says:
    I’m afraid, but seriously, this makes me so mad to see anthropologists say things like this.

    Do you consider this discussion of inherent morality as backwarded, as regressive, as if Anthros toke up the criticism (by “hard sciences”) they ve struggeled hardly to overcome by decades and even not yet have fully succeeded? Am I wrong understanding your arguments considering oneman`s aim as counterproductive?

  2. @the ones refering to Max Weber,
    this discussion is NOT about the anthropologists`s subjecticity in the first place, but on anthropology`s embeddedness in culture and society.
    Having an analytic look on anthropologist`s moral cores only serves as tool to get closer to the discipline`s inner logic, which might be used similar to ´morality` in my view, because both provide the categorizing of “wrong” and “notwrong”.

  3. Pingback: Nomadic Thoughts
  4. Nancy wrote:

    Ah, but I’m not saying that the fieldworker should blindly promise benefits without explicitly saying what they will be. It’s not even a question of “benefits” being given by the researcher, like some kind of token. It’s a question of the research shedding light on a issue that is important to the community, something that matters to them, as opposed to something that only interests people on the outside who want to “study” them as one would study laboratory mice.

    Ok, I may be taking your use of the term “benefit” too literally. However, I am concerned about the rest of your comment. I’m not convinced that anthropologically there is anything intrinsically better in shedding light on something important to a community, than there is to doing anthropology which is absolutely neutral in terms of benefit to a community. Ethically, I think it may be better than doing something that is detrimental to a community, but I don’t see why my assessment of an anthropological project in terms of its successfulness necessarily includes any moral aesthetic. Perhaps I think in terms of people as laboratory rats (its these damn hominins I study. They’ve warped my brain).

    Secondly, doesn’t saying you want to do something which is a positively integrated project within the community’s ideas of what is important limit your ability to describe the structures of power, and mystification which exist in regards to the community itself? Isn’t doing so, in essence, culturally conservative (with a small “c”)? Doesn’t this limit anthropology’s potentiality for subversion*?

    * I wouldn’t argue that anthropology is essentially subversive, but that anthropology has many potentialities. This one doesn’t seem to be being expressed much in this debate.

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