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. Ok, I’ll throw my hat into the ring 🙂

    I agree that it is important to answer the question “what social good does anthropology provide?” The answer to this question relies on values and ideals that are part of the community (and nation) in which we live, and wider debates about what we as citizens and community members value — something that is certainly amenable to analysis, and I understand the project you propose as an ethnography of anthropology’s public effects.

    As Weber has said, those values direct what sort of research questions we’re interested in. But once choosen, the undertaking of research could very well have its own autonomous logic — indeed, we might value it exactly for its distance and ‘disinterestedness’ in this regard. So I agree that anthropology might have implications for the morals of the community in which its practitioners are embedded, but this does not mean that that community’s moral values are deeply embedded in the practice of anthropology (modulo concerns about the human rights of our informants etc.). There’s nothing about a DESCRIPTION of homosexual initiation that leads me to judge it good or bad — I do that with standards and values that I got from somewhere outside my anthropology course.

  2. There’s nothing about a DESCRIPTION of homosexual initiation that leads me to judge it good or bad—I do that with standards and values that I got from somewhere outside my anthropology course.

    Yes, but from your anthro course you’ve learned certain practices that you *should* follow to produce an adequate description. My contention is that those practices — the relativistic mindset, for instance — are moral claims, independent of a) the moral judgments we might make about the things we describe, and b) the practical concerns necessary for doing anthropology. That is, it is a good practical thing to do to describe a people in a fair way, because for one thing it helps facilitate future research by either myself or other anthros, but it is also a moral good, because these are people we’re dealing with, after all. Now, maybe the over-riding value is the reproduction of the military state — in this case, I might morally choose to describe this community negatively in terms of the loss of reproductive potential (I’m spitballing here, not trying to create an apologia for homophobic arguments about the lack of homosexual reproduction). But I don’t see this kind of analysis or description in anthropology, leading me to assume a different set of values at work (e.g. tolerance, pluralism).

    Of course, in “pure” description, this wouldn’t be an issue — but where have you ever encountered such a thing?

  3. No, I still don’t get what you’re trying to say.

    How do we justify our own existence? On what are our claims to authority premised? What do we hope to accomplish with our work?

    Crikey, that’s a bit full on, isn’t it? Personally, I don’t feel I have to justify my existence as an anthropologist to anyone. I don’t know why anyone would care about that. I’d have thought our claims to authority are based on the accuracy of our accounts (yes, and that term “objectivity” rears its apparently ugly head again. As Roy D’Andrade put it: ‘objectivity refers just to the degree to which an account gives information about the object being described’* sounds pretty harmless, shorn of needless associations with some sort of Olympian detachment, doesn’t it?). Plus, I’m not sure what we do accomplish with our work, though currently I’m pretty cynical**.

    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.

    I don’t get why we feel the need to justify anything? To whom are we justifying ourselves? I can’t believe its to state funding (do they do it out of “social good”, or the pragmatic value of having regional specialist scholars they could perhaps call on? What if the state has a particular ideological slant to its funding of anthropology, does this necessarily impact on the moral core – if there is one – of the discipline there, or do those anthropologists just mouth the words alongside everyone else?)

    The nearest I get to understanding what you mean is your last response:

    That is, it is a good practical thing to do to describe a people in a fair way, because for one thing it helps facilitate future research by either myself or other anthros, but it is also a moral good, because these are people we’re dealing with, after all.

    Even so, I can see the pragmatic benefit of being accurate, yet I don’t think this in and of itself presupposes honesty. I can also see the ethical good of being fair to people. Yet I think someone doing both in as an ethnographer isn’t being any more than pragmatic and ethical. I don’t see where the moral category is.

    * I’m in the middle of a dissertation write-up, (so this is procrastination!) and that’s why I happen to have my article collection to hand. Full citation if anyone cares: Current Anthropology Vol 36(3) p. 399-400.

    ** Yes, its because of the write-up.

  4. I don’t feel I have to justify my existence as an anthropologist to anyone. I don’t know why anyone would care about that.

    State funding was just an example, but let me put it bluntly: why should we (i.e. the rest of society) feed you? If you insist on not producing food, shelter, or other basic needs (and, in a specialized surplus economy, you don’t need to) what is your claim to a share of the resources produced by those who do? If you’re not producing something good, why shouldn’t we exile, imprison, indenture, or simply kill you?

  5. I’ve no idea, but since I don’t see it asked of anyone else around me, I don’t see why my particular instance of non-productivity need be singled out. This does remind me of the time I was at the JobCentre and the guy behind the desk said “We’ve got no need for anthropology ’round here”. Which I thought was so beautiful, it justified doing the degree in the first place.
    Am I immoral?

  6. Well Kerim accused me of providing “merely pure description”:/2005/06/20/two-anthropologists-one-piece-of-meat/#comment-385 just a bit ago! Seriously though, I appreciate your points, but to repeat what I’ve said before, it’s not clear to me why you would classify the professional standards of our discipline ‘moral’ in the same way as a moral imperative not to murder someone. I don’t understand your military state example either or how it fits into this — people in military states don’t like queer people or something?

  7. I can’t completely formulate what I’m thinking here . . .again, it’s late. But I would say that each individual justifies it differently according to her reasons for wanting to be an anthropologist in the first place. One who does it for the “scientific value” of recording and analysing data about cross-cultural human behaviour might use the “scientific” argument as a justification for their existence, a basis for their claims to authority and an arena within which to showcase the accomplishments of their work. And I think that to those with that particular leaning, it may, in fact, be difficult to comprehend why Oneman insists on an inherent moral core in anthropoligical work. Science is often seen as value-free; in this framework, one might say that anthropology as a science is detached from morality.

    However, I would say that even science itself is informed by a particular worldview so while there might not be a common moral core to anthropology, due to the very fact that we all come into it with different ideologies, the practice is not value free.

    Now, for the individual who becomes an anthropologist not with a purely scientific goal in mind but with a goal for social awareness or social change, there is perhaps more of a recognition and acknowledgement of this underlying morality. Without hesitation, I would put myself in this category.

    Now, how is this reflected in actual practice? Oneman’s right; it’s not just reflected in the written product but in the method’s used and even in the approach that is taken when trying to gain access to a location.

    Also, I’ve mentioned this before but I think that for anthropology to truly be able to justify itself, there needs to be an inclusion of cross-cultural notions of the shape anthropology should take and the goals it should have. If not, it will forever remain another tool of Western imperialism where Western ideals get imposed on those who don’t necessarily agree with these ideals.

    I have a lot more to say on this but I can’t seem to be able to formulate it the way I want. I’ll try again another time but in a nutshell, I agree with Oneman on this; maybe not on every single detail but certainly with the general scheme.

  8. I agree with Rex’s first post about the relative autonomy of the field from its own moral imperative. But I don’t think that “relative autonomy” makes it any less important to define those moral values, just as the relative autonomy of US case law doesn’t mean we can avoid big debates over the moral values embedded in the US constitution.

    Having said that, I have a problem with Oneman’s definition of those values. It sounds a little too much like the Star Trek “prime directive” for my tastes with all the talk about respecting the autonomy of “groups” and preserving cultural diversity.

    My own understanding of the moral core is more abstract. I would talk about issues like power and agency, which are issues that are relevant within groups as well as between groups. I have no desire to promote diversity while preserving patriarchy, or promote autonomy if it means preserving the quasi-feudal power of auto-diktats.

  9. Aren’t these questions predicated on moral judgement too? Why must anyone justify themselves at all, and why should they justify themselves according to their productivity? Does anthropology even need justification in the first place? We’ve got surplus, we can support a few lotus eaters. Art for art’s sake, anthropology for anthropology’s sake?

    This isn’t to say that I think anthropology is useless, just that a utilitarian view of it isn’t necessarily the only way to look at it. What use is anthropology? Err, it employs anthropologists?

    Now that you mention it, I’m trying to think of an unequivocal good that only anthropology provides or has provided, and I’m coming up blank. Perhaps we can say that instead of providing something unique, anthropology acts in tandem with other social “forces” (sorry, can’t think of a better word) to create tolerant societies? That is, anthropology by itself does nothing, but in conjunction with other things (feminism, anti-colonialism, etc.) it does help to reinforce ideals of inter-group and intra-group equality. Because after all, as Oneman said, despite claims of moral neutrality, anthropology does have a moral imperative.

  10. Aren’t these questions predicated on moral judgement too? Why must anyone justify themselves at all, and why should they justify themselves according to their productivity?

    Well, exactly. This is exactly it. I think the moral judgements, and this putative moral core are artifacts of a certain partial perspective. One, I might add, which patronises anyone who happens to disagree with it.

    For example, Nancy writes:

    Now, for the individual who becomes an anthropologist not with a purely scientific goal in mind but with a goal for social awareness or social change, there is perhaps more of a recognition and acknowledgement of this underlying morality. Without hesitation, I would put myself in this category.

    Which at once reifies the nature of the claim of a moral core (without at any point deigning to actually identify what it is), whilst also suggesting that anyone who disagrees with this has a lack of vision (and presumably, must therefore be an inferior anthropologist). How utterly patronising.

  11. It sounds a little too much like the Star Trek “prime directive” for my tastes with all the talk about respecting the autonomy of “groups” and preserving cultural diversity.

    Yes! Save us from Star Trek’s American middlebrow imperialism! I mean, by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came along, things were so bad they had an empath on board so people didn’t think or feel in the wrong way.

  12. Funny, I didn’t say anything bad about those who choose to go into this discipline with a scientific goal. I have nothing against them; I’m just not one of them. Interesting how my words are taken to be demeaning to a group with which I don’t identify.

    That being said. I have a question for Kerim who wrote: “It sounds a little too much like the Star Trek “prime directive” for my tastes with all the talk about respecting the autonomy of “groups” and preserving cultural diversity.”

    I don’t see why Oneman’s position seems that way. It doesn’t to me for several reasons. Here’s the main one: as fieldworkers, we are directly involved in the field situation. It is impossible not to interfere with the lives of the people with whom we are working in one way or another. I *think* that it’s more about respecting the humanity of . . .well . .. the humans we work with and acknowledging or positions vis à vis the group and within the group.

    The he wrote: “I would talk about issues like power and agency, which are issues that are relevant within groups as well as between groups.”

    See above.

    “I have no desire to promote diversity while preserving patriarchy, or promote autonomy if it means preserving the quasi-feudal power of auto-diktats.”

    OK; I have a whole bunch of questions and comments about this. I’m not quite sure I completely get this. What is it about respecting cultural diversity that necessarily entails preserving patriarchy? It seems to me that the very social structure that spawned the field of anthropology was one of the most vehemently patriarchal ones in existence at that time; so much so that the same social structure enabled the spread of patriarchal values and the economic/political structures through colonialism.

    So Western-based anthropologists who would like to be rid of patriarchy (among other evils) are in an awkward position aren’t we?

    I have a lot of other questions running through my brain about this particular comment but it’s hard to formulate them with a 5 year old trying to get my attention. Could you clarify? That might help *me* clarify as well 🙂

  13. A few comments-

    In law school, in ethics, it is hammered into the student’s head that his job is to assist his client. Recommendations given to the client must be based on the interests of the client, and NOT the financial interests of the lawyer involved. The norm that it is a very, very bad lawyer indeed who even considers his own financial gain in recommending a particular course of action is drilled into the student’s skull. You learn that it is bad, you will be punished if you do it, and no one will respect you. Bad, bad, bad. Bad.

    Now, as a practical matter, everyone knows that money will assert some influence on your decisions. No human being, knowing that between two options, one will cause them to earn several thousand dollars, and the other will cause them to lose several thousand dollars, can completely eliminate the influence of that knowledge. But professors generally decline to say this out loud. Because think of the message that would send. “Make decisions to help your client, not yourself. Of course, that’s realy impossible. So just try not to do it too much, ok?” Which regime is likely to stick closer to the ideal? The one which posits an idealized goal, impossible for normal humans to reach, or the one which provides a built in excuse for not reaching that goal?

    Does this ever concern anthropologists when they start commenting upon issues like objectivity in research? I rarely see a comment on objective research in relationship to anthropology without also seeing an immediate retraction. “An anthropologist should be objective. As much as possible. Of course, objectivity is impossible. Even pure science is rooted in social situations. By the way, I’m a normative critical feminist anthropologist who sees the moral reformation of the world as the purpose of my research, and this naturally informs my work.” Doesn’t this pretty much kill any stated goal of objectivity, whether phrased as objectivity, relativism, honesty, or however? Its saying that objectivity is important, until it conflicts with your views. Isn’t that when its most important, if the goal is creation of knowledge? But of course, for the reformer, creation of knowledge isn’t the goal, is it?

    Anyways, I’d like to suggest a danger to this course of action, this making clear the moral core of anthropology. Looking at your list of proposed elements, I find that I oppose several of them. I don’t want to go into specifics, but basically I find the perspective from which these are expressed to be philosophically objectionable in the manner in which group autonomy rights are considered separately from the individual rights of autonomy. Naturally these will conflict- the desire of many people to make america a Christian Nation of course conflicts with the desire of many other people to be free from government endorsed religion.

    Now, lets take it as a given that at least some people will disagree with these moral codes. The suggestion that these are integral to the field of anthropology suggests that I, or other people who disagree with this moral core, should oppose the existance of the field of anthropology. With an expressed moral core, it is, after all, a politically active group of people who cloak themselves in the aura of neutral academics, but who admit that they really pursue a distinct political agenda that is contrary to my interests. Why should I not oppose the enshrinement in academia of a group of individuals pursuing a political goal which I believe will make the world a worse place?

    Anyways, that was long and rambling, and probably could have been stated more simply as, “aren’t you just saying that Horowitz is actually right, you really are out to oppose the moral values of his constituents, and your only answer to his criticisms is to give him a rasberry? Do you actually have an answer for why that should be tolerated in the work of people who are part of an academia that is supposed to exist for the creation of knowledge, not the pursuit of a political agenda?”

  14. “Do you actually have an answer for why that should be tolerated in the work of people who are part of an academia that is supposed to exist for the creation of knowledge, not the pursuit of a political agenda?”

    Well, here’s my 2 cents again: who gives academics (anthropologists) the right to create knowledge at the (sometimes) expense of other humans? If many groups “under study” by anthropology have objected to the practice, have felt violated, have felt misrepresented, have questioned our motives . . . shouldn’t that be enough to see that there is a need to align research goals with community interests?

    Creation of knowledge is fine; but who gets to define what that knowledge should look like and how it should be obtained/created? Who gets to profit from that knowledge? As far as I can tell, with some exceptions, those who profit from the knowledge gained from anthropological work are . . .anthropologists who get reknown within the anthropological community and get jobs at colleges and universities.

    I think one of the points that Patrick is making, namely: “in the manner in which group autonomy rights are considered separately from the individual rights of autonomy” to be interesting. I think that maybe he is alluding (correct me if I’m wrong) to particular cases where the human rights of individuals within a group are being violated by those who have power within that group. These are certainly tricky cases; what I’ve been referring to (without making explicit, sorry) is more general ethnographic work. In the tricky cases, one certainly needs to clarify her goals and her position and her very reasons for being there just like in any other ethnographic context; it’s just a little bit more loaded, I guess.

    Now, as for Patrick’s comments on the whole objectivity thing: for my part, I place no inherent value on objectivity. I think that many of the people who have criticised the concept and the very possibility of being objective don’t even claim to be so. The idea of positionality is to identify oneself: identity with regards to the group with which one is working, gender-wise, political orientation . . .whatever might pose a hint of bias or slant . . .so that readers of one’s work can see how the collection, presentation and analysis of data was influenced.

    And, by the way, “for the reformer” . . . I’m not sure what you mean by that. When I talk about an anthropology that is for social change, I’m talking about creating knowledge that will open people’s eyes and make them aware of things that are going on, of how their actions as individuals and as societies have an impact on others (eg. North American overconsumption and its impact on the peoples that are being exploited by multinationals, White privilege, etc). So it’s not that the goal is against the creation of knowledge; it’s about creating knowledge for a purpose *other* than getting prestige within the academy or getting tenure.

  15. Its not about who has the right to define what the goal of anthropology is. Its about the fact that, as a practical matter, my university has an anthropology department. It is heavily supported by the state, as are all academic departments. It doesn’t have to be. Lets say that many people in my state feel that my university’s anthro department holds political goals to which these people object. Why shouldn’t they call up their state legislator? If anthro is just a competing view in the marketplace of ideas, shouldn’t those who disagree compete with it?

    I think part of the ethics, or moral core, or whatever of academics generally, is, or ought to be, that the state will not be placed in that position. The rejoinder to people who feel that academics threatens their beliefs or values should be, “your beliefs and values must take into account the facts. You are not entitled to the set of facts which makes you most happy. Deal with those facts which are true, and adjust your beliefs accordingly.” Conceptualizing anthro as a field on a mission negates the very premise of that response. What else do you have to offer?

    Basically, I’m suggesting that while intending to justify the existance of anthropology, defining a moral core that is anything other than the objective discovery of knowledge (which seems to have been rejected out of hand by many anthropologists) may create such a justification for anthro as a concept, while simultaneously destroying the justification for the existance of actual anthropology departments.

    Anyways, the discussion about the nature of objectivity in research and about the conflict between individuals and the groups in which they reside is probably off topic for this thread, and I don’t wish to hijack someone’s blog. But in short, disclosure of perspective only discloses the potential for subconscious influence. There’s more. For instance, if anthro is to consider the interests of the groups it studies when publishing its results, that leaves the door open for intentional omissions of data. In fact, I have seen anthropologists criticize each other for publishing something which led to disapproval of a studied group by peoples which read the publication. The obviously implication is that at least some anthropologists believe that work should be actively editted in pursuit of political goals. This is not disclosed by giving one’s perspective.

  16. Nancy,

    You said,

    I think one of the points that Patrick is making, namely: “in the manner in which group autonomy rights are considered separately from the individual rights of autonomy” to be interesting.

    That is really all I was trying to say. Sorry if Star Trek only confused the issue.

    Well, that isn’t exactly true, I wasn’t really talking about “the individual” but marginalized groups within the “culture.” The point was that Oneman’s moral cores get much more complex if we remember the power differences within cultures as well as between them.

  17. Patrick; One could say that about law as well or any other discipline.

    Also, my other point is that if anthropologists don’t make sure that their “knowledge” is used in less-than-ethical ways, then anyone could hijack it to their own ends. For instance, Rex’s pure description of homosexual initiation could be used by violent homophobes with ammo as an excuse to destroy a group of people for being “dirty, disgusting and immoral” if he doesn’t somehow show that this practice fits with a particular social and cultural context. This is regardless of his own views on same-sex behaviour.

  18. Kerim; OK, I understand better now and there is no disagreement on my part that the issues get more complex when we consider intra-societal power difference.

    There’s another curve ball to be added to that though. There is always a danger from the outside to label a particular group as oppressed when they don’t necessarily identify as such and to assume that particular customs are symptomatic of oppression. For instance, there has been a tendancy to assume that male-female segregation of any form implies female oppression. Menstrual taboos and public/private dichotomies come to mind here. However, alternate analyses of these practices sometimes show other views and that women may actually feel empowered by some of these practices for men are no more permitted to enter the women’s domain than vice versa. So to assume that such a practice reflects male dominance is in and of itself a projection of outsider ideas about male/female dynamics.

    But now I’m the one hijacking the thread with off topic comments; sorry. I actually plan on posting on this topic sometime soon so I will save my comments for that. For now, just to bring this comment back in line, let me just say that the fieldworker dealing with intra-societal power differentials still needs to address her own rationale for being there and decide what exactly s/he wants to do with the information s/he gains.

  19. Oh, and to reply to Patrick again: in terms of the legitimacy of having anthro departments, etc: I will just reiterate that anthropological knowledge has at stake the lives of people who are far removed from the world of academia. The fine line on which many anthropologists walk, then, on ethical, moral, scientific or what-have-you grounds is trying to please both the academy and the people whose lives form the basis for anthropological knowledge. My moral question in all of it, and I’m not sure that Oneman was necessarily getting at this, is how do we justify privileging Western views (yes, I realise that “Western” is a problematic term and that there are more and more non-Western anthropologists but anthro is nonetheless “Western” based) of all the societies that are used for anthropological research *over* the views that people within these societes have of themselves? I’m getting at the issue of representation which is a big issue particularly among Aboriginal studies in North America. I’m not sure what kind of issue it is elsewhere.

  20. Patrick says:

    If anthro is just a competing view in the marketplace of ideas, shouldn’t those who disagree compete with it?

    This kind of gets at the core of what I’m saying. As much as I’d like to believe that my training and experience make me infallible when it comes to describing and explaining human behavior (and, of course, they do and I am), and aas much as I’d like to believe that such infallibility will be instantly recognized and deferred to by the public at large, this simply isn’t the case. The reality is that anthropology is and has been subject to contestation, both from the people we’ve studied and the people who read (or pretend to have read) our work. This is a reality whether or not we discuss morality. There are two possible responses: a) we insist further on an objectivity that we know we cannot demonstrate, or b) we accept the nature of the debate and honestly lay out our position, morality included. This doesn’t mean, and I see no way that it can be made to mean, that anthropology does not have any authority; it means that our claims to authority are grounded, in part, in the values that we appeal to in our work.

    Now, one thing I am not trying to do is set up a body of “moral criteria” to act as “gatekeepers” for entrance into the field — although I would argue that such gate-keeping exists, and is at least somewhat based on moral principles. How long would you expect someone to last in the discipline, in this day and age, who felt that the only response to the increasing gap between the living standards of industrialized peoples and indigenous peoples was the forced assimilation of those people and extermination of those who resist? If they even made it through grad school with their position intact, they would have an awfully hard time getting a position, publishing (through the peer-review system), getting grants, etc. This is not a matter of my personal opinion of whether such a person should or should not be considered an anthropologist — the reality is that even if I were a plumber, this person would have a hard time working as an anthro.

    Now, I fully agree with Kerim’s focus on power and agency — these are important focuses (focii? You hardly know I!) in my own work. But this is what prompted this line of thought in the first place — we talk about the use of state power to make populations “legible”, the oppression and repression of difference within communities, the disempowerment of women and minorities, various forms of cultural resistance, colonialism, post-colonialism, neocolonialism, and so on with a fairly clear critique of the use of power to coerce. I have not and do not expect to read an article or monograph which critiques a people or set of practices on the grounds that they fail to see what’s good for them and conform to the expectations imposed on them by the state, one that challenges a people for their stupid insistence on maintaining their own practices in the face of military force, or any similar work that sides with colonial/state power. We might fall back on the claim (a moral one, as well as a pracitical one) that it we have an obligation to protect the people we study from harm (point 1 in the AAA Code of Ethics) — but then what are we to make of David Price, who has taken as his subject the American government, particularly its intelligence apparatus?

    Just about everything I’m talking about is summed up in Kerim’s statement that “I have no desire to promote diversity while preserving patriarchy, or promote autonomy if it means preserving the quasi-feudal power of auto-diktats.” If morality is not and cannot be an issue, if we must reject out of hand the notion that moral values inform our practices and ideas, then what could possibly matter about Kerim’s desires? If we were simply recording machines — culturometers — what could we say aside from “In culture x, patriarchy is the norm”? As I said, some of our values are contradictory, and of course my take on what those values are isn’t necessarily final or uncontestable — but I can’t see how the argument could be made that anthropology simply does not relate to morality. Maybe someone thinks it should not, that’s another issue, though I might point out, a moral one.

  21. On more point, on withholding data: I’ve known some excellent anthros who have refused to publish part of even all of their work based on the dangers of misuse. In one instance, a change of regime in the host country prompted the abandonment of several years of work, even though the anthro was already home and writing up. Who can say that an anthro has to be responsible for the harm that can befall his/her subjects when they are identified through the anthros work by a Pinochet, Hussein, or Bush? Does “scientific knowledge” have a higher calling than the safety of our friends and acquaintances, and if so, why?

  22. Funny, I didn’t say anything bad about those who choose to go into this discipline with a scientific goal. I have nothing against them; I’m just not one of them. Interesting how my words are taken to be demeaning to a group with which I don’t identify.

    Look, the argument goes like this: if the “moral core” of anthropology exists and it is important to anthropology, it follows that a truly deep understanding of anthropology requires anthropologists to be familiar with it. To paraphrase, they must be able to recognise and acknowledge this underlying morality. Failure to do so will impinge on an anthropologist’s ability to make truly insightful interpretations.
    You say that:

    Now, for the individual who becomes an anthropologist not with a purely scientific goal in mind but with a goal for social awareness or social change, there is perhaps more of a recognition and acknowledgement of this underlying morality. Without hesitation, I would put myself in this category.

    So, you say that you, yourself and other anthropologists like you who have ‘a goal for … social change’ “perhaps” have this special insight that other’s lack. You are indeed better anthropologists because of an attachment to a (set of) self-identified moral category(/ies), which inferior (scientistic ?) anthropologists can’t see. Either the “perhaps” isn’t accurate, and you don’t feel that, or you honestly do believe that people with ‘a goal for … social change’ are better anthropologists than ones who don’t.

    Well, here’s my 2 cents again: who gives academics (anthropologists) the right to create knowledge at the (sometimes) expense of other humans? If many groups “under study” by anthropology have objected to the practice, have felt violated, have felt misrepresented, have questioned our motives . . . shouldn’t that be enough to see that there is a need to align research goals with community interests?

    Er… no. I’d presume that you’d feel no amount of questioning of motives, or “feeling violated” (which could mean just about anything)would make you think that an ethnographer should align their research goals with community interests if they were engaged in an ethnography of Orania.

  23. “Does “scientific knowledge” have a higher calling than the safety of our friends and acquaintances, and if so, why?”

    Thanks Oneman . . . this is the kind of question I was trying to get at. In cases where people’s well-being may be risked by anthropological exposure, either because of the presence of a military regime or simple because of the possibility of social marginalisation, it becomes very tricky for one who does not want to expose individuals to physical or social harm.

  24. Nancy-
    Actually, one can’t say this about law. The purpose of law departments, whether their inhabitants agree or not, is to train lawyers who will go out and perform a function in society. Law school is a glorified trade school. There are some (many) who romanticize it, but at the end of the day, if law schools stopped training people for a vocation, they’d cease to exist.

    oneman-
    This discussion of authority is interesting, but somewhat confusing to me. Lets say that now, I am in the know. I have hung out with anthropologists, and they reveal to me that not only have some of them altered data by omission (by more? I don’t know. If not by more, why not? What argument justifies omission but not falsification?) in pursuit of political goals, but they consider this to not only be ok, but actually morally mandated by the fundamental presuppositions of their field. If I agree with the political goals, I may be morally ok with this specific omission. But should I trust anthro research? Further, there is a serious difference between 1) as anthropologist who looks at the political situation in the nation in which he has studied, and decides that to publish his research would start a firestorm of oppression, and then declines to publish, and 2) an entire academic discipline which explicitly endorses this course of reasoning. In the first case, we can discuss the ethics and morality of specific acts in isolation. In the second, we have to discuss the likely long term effects of people becoming comfortable with this power. The second is much more likely to destroy anthropology than the first, I think.

    There are a few analogous legal issues. They are places where the buck stops, and one person, if they desire to, can nullify the entire law created by their entire nation, and impose their own will. Presidential recess appointments come to mind, as does jury nullification. It is a very different question to ask whether one particular example of jury nullification was a good idea, versus whether jury nullification should be affirmed as a beloved core of the legal process. It is the difference between refusing to convict a man accused of aiding slaves escape the pre civil war south, and between deciding that juries, as a general rule, need only look at the law as mere advice.

    As for this question: “Does “scientific knowledge” have a higher calling than the safety of our friends and acquaintances, and if so, why?”

    Stop looking at the issue, for a moment, as being the question of what an anthropologist should do in such a situation. Once you posit that you are in fact going to do an ethnographic study of a culture, it is easy to move straight to the question what to do with the information obtained. Move back further in time.

    Imagine a man who comes to the government of his nation, and says:

    “I wish to travel to a far away land, and study the people who live there, then come back and report to my nation on what I have found. Here is a document explaining the moral reasoning which underlies how and why I want to go about this. In it, it explains that I will not feel bound to tell you the truth about what I find, if telling you the truth will lead to political consequences to which I object. Furthermore, it contains a list of moral views which pretty much explain what political consequences I will find objectionable, and the political ends I hope to advance by means of this research. Now, please give me money so that I can go do this.”

    Now, imagine that I am an advisor in this government, and that I disagree with the moral views expressed in the document. What reason do I have to approve this expense? Pursuit of knowledge will not work well, as I cannot trust that the knowledge I receive will be accurate. I disagree with the political ends of the research. Shouldn’t I advise my government to decline this requests for funds?

    Now imagine a second man:

    “I wish to travel similarly. However, I come from a profession in which pursuit and accurate reporting of fact is the highest goal. I admit that I have personal political leanings, but I will do my best to minimize them, and report only the truth. Altering or omitting data is considered a great sin amongst my profession, and would result in my ostracization. Please give me money to go abroad and obtain this knowledge.”

    Even if I disgree with this man’s political views, I may not disagree with his pursuit of knowledge. Furthermore, I have assurance that I can place trust in what he tells me. If I view knowledge as an admirable goal, I may support this man even if I suspect that nothing would make this man happier than to find information that supports political ends that he likes, and I do not.

    I realize this is coming close to saying that anthropology should conceal its motivations to obtain money. I’m really not saying that. What I am saying is, the ideals of academia, the political neutrality, the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and the ruthless honesty, coupled with harsh reprisals for those who violate it, give a nonpolitical justification for the existance of academia that should be compelling even to those who disagree with particular results academia uncovers. If you reject these, and say that an academic field should pursue a particular political agenda, what reason does society have to subsidize academia other than a crass political motivation to support views with which they agree? And if they do not agree, why not end that branch of academics?

    Anyways, that’s my amateurish attempt at justifying academic neutrality and the ideals of knowledge. Its a bit shoddy, since it presupposes that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is an ideal of at least some value, and I haven’t tried to justify that here. It’s not that I think those ideals outweigh other moral concerns, its that I think those ideals are the only ones which ought be enshrined directly into a field of academics, because enshrining other ideals gives an irrefutable reason for society to destroy academia for political reasons.

    Hmm. This argument, parodied, short form.

    Horowitz- your branch of academia is just an illegitimately government subsized arm of the political left!
    Anthro 1- actually, we’re just academics trying to discover truth, and its not our fault if truth conflicts with your views.
    Anthro 2- damn straight! Bring it on!

    Anthro 2 had better be ready to have it brought on.

  25. That example of the two anthropologists should be, “and then decides to NOT publish.” The whole paragraph makes no sense without the word “not” in there… Of all the words to admit, a negation is the worst…

    My apologies to everyone who was unbelievably confused when they read that.

  26. How about this: To find the moral core of anthropology, find the moral core of anthropologists. What political and moral beliefs do anthropologists as a group hold, and what political and moral beliefs do they reveal in their actions? If we find that a majority of anthropologists believe in this or that, then we could say that anthropology either attracts this kind of thinker, or it creates them.

    I think it would be possible to find common political and moral beliefs in practitioners of the discipline. We would have found what anthropology seeks to create, despite what the practitioners profess. I know, I’m essentially espousing a functionalist analysis of the political and moral behaviour of anthropologists which ignores the meanings created by anthropologists themselves, but I think it’s essential for penetrating the willfull blindess of anthropologists to their discipline’s implicit political and moral position.

    A study of this would be very interesting to read, I think.

  27. If you reject these, and say that an academic field should pursue a particular political agenda, what reason does society have to subsidize academia other than a crass political motivation to support views with which they agree? And if they do not agree, why not end that branch of academics?

    Society – or more precisely, society’s elites – subsidize academia in order to produce more elites for future rule. The point of academia is to make judges, businessmen, professors, lawyers, doctors, and other powerful leaders. That is what I see as academia’s social purpose. The pursuit of knowledge, then, is merely an interesting byproduct that has been elevated to an ideal. I think Oneman’s attempt to find anthropology’s moral core is an attempt to find academia’s moral core, which is essentially about controlling and reproducing power. That’s what I believe when I’m feeling cynical, anyway. When I’m not, I acknowledge the existence of alternate meanings for academia which actively rejects this emphasis on power. But elites go on being produced anyway.

  28. Patrick:

    Anyways, that’s my amateurish attempt at justifying academic neutrality and the ideals of knowledge. Its a bit shoddy, since it presupposes that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is an ideal of at least some value, and I haven’t tried to justify that here.

    I don’t reject what you are saying — aprt of my intent here is to begin to address just this sort of issue. The thing is, I don’t think the anthro who professes neutrality is being very honest, with him/herself or with his/her funders. In any case, s/he is still making a moral claim, an appeal to shared values between him/herself and the funder: “I believe that research founded on an [illusory] neutrality is superior to that informed by an anthropologist’s particular politico-moral beliefs”. I interject the “illusory” because the position we place ourselves in, speaking about and often for other people (whether we are authorized to or not), is necessarily an interested one. But let’s go a step further: Dr. Objectivity and Dr. Political enter the field. Dr. Objectivity assures his/her subjects that any and all events s/he experiences will be reported as truthfully and accurately as possible, while Dr. Political assures them that s/he will be as sensitive as possible to the potential uses (and misuses) of the data s/he collects. Despite the (increasingly limited) availability of state funding for our endeavours, anthros are not solely an extension of the state — we have to balance the interests and concerns of our funders, our academic supporters, our research subjects, our audiences, and ourselves. Whatever course of action we choose to take is necessarily informed by a set (or sets) of values, some of which I believe are integral to the practice of the field itself, inculcated in our training and embodied in our methodologies and rhetorics.

    My argument is two-fold. As an historian of anthropology, I am concerned not so much with what *should* be anthros moral core (as I’ve called it, though perhaps that word “core” gives the wrong impression) but with what I see as being already present in the work I study. As an anthropologist who works with people about whom I make representations, I am concerned with making them as honestly as possible, and part of that is the discolsure not only of my personal motivations and predispositions but also the abovementioned disciplinary conventions and restrictions that inform my collection and use of data. The only argument I’ve seen against this is that it would tarnish our ability to seem objective, and I don’t find that a very convincing argument.

  29. Here we are again with the misapplication of a set of moralised value judgements where they really don’t go:

    The thing is, I don’t think the anthro who professes neutrality is being very honest, with him/herself or with his/her funders. In any case, s/he is still making a moral claim, an appeal to shared values between him/herself and the funder: “I believe that research founded on an [illusory] neutrality is superior to that informed by an anthropologist’s particular politico-moral beliefs”.

    The D’Andrade article is very good on ideas such as this: ‘Every moral model must contain at least partially objective terms if it is to apply to things in the world’ (p. 400 again). Here the term is “illusory” which must refer to some set of pseudo-objective terminology within the moral model. Somehow, despite objectivity not existing, its still possible to tell what is an illusion(?).
    Anyway, somehow we can tell this, and this reflects badly on the “honesty” of the anthropologist who professes their neutrality. This anthropologist it seems, for Oneman, is either dishonest or naive.
    Needless moral condemnation for doing no more than saying they will attempt to produce an objective account.

    I’m still trying to work out what’s wrong with Dr. Objectivity (he’s bad because in 50 years time his work could be used by a dictator?!), and why we should cheerlead for Dr. Political, who goes into Orania, is sensitive to the wishes of the lovely far-right Afrikaans living there and produces a lovely moral pamphlet on their behalf which would make Stalin proud.

  30. (Admixing my analogies, I’m afraid, but seriously, this makes me so mad to see anthropologists say things like this).

  31. I am extremely sympathetic to Patrick. The fact that humans live in the world means they can never be ‘objective’ in some sort of cosmic sense and that is something most of us have gotten over. But this doesn’t mean that some very strong and valuable form of neutrality is achievable in human relations — think of a really really good judge, for instance. Consistently using the word ‘objectivity’ confuses matters by making the natural sciences the paradigm of this sort of judicious disinterestedness.

    An anthro saying to a funder that they “believe that research founded on neutrality is superior to that informed by an anthropologist’s particular politico-moral beliefs” obvously (and trivially) invokes values. But they are not anthropological values — they are civic or communal values that the funder and antho share.

    Anthropology of course has an internal logic for the evaluation of evidence and the use of sources etc. etc. but these are not ‘moral’ values in the same sense that an obligation not to murder someone is. They are professional standards and compelling because all practicioners, regardless of their ‘moral values’ — the power of social scientific analysis is that its arguments can convince through force of evidence and reasoning, regardless of the differing moral values of the two interlocutors in other areas. Whether you value THAT sort of explanatory power is of course up to you — and basd on value commitments you make OUTSIDE of the discipline. I may agree with Tigerbear that he is a waste of carbon, but I don’t think that because I’m an anthropologist.

    Your argument has shifted over the course of this debate. You seem at times to advocate an ethnography (or perhaps history) of anthropology’s embeddedness in contemporary society. That sounds like a great project. But then you provide a list of values you derive from the discipline of anthropology itself. I disagree with the idea of distilling moral positions solely from a certain logic of research.

    Now you argue that some sort of confessional, exculpatory transparency is necessary for your research. Scrutinizing your psyche and social position is a rewarding activity, I’m sure — the puritans seemed never to tire of it! But this concern with ‘honesty’ and ‘disclosure’ seems to draw, despite your claims to the contrary, on some sort of desire for a purity of vision which is similar to what many of us have been arguing for. So on the contrary, no one has argued against this (somewhat omphalic) project of self-interrogation — reflexivity is obviously an important part of trying to remain neutral and balanced. But this project is very far indeed from attempting to describe the ‘moral core’ of anthropology.

  32. Rex:

    But this doesn’t mean that some very strong and valuable form of neutrality is [not] achievable in human relations—think of a really really good judge, for instance.

    Yes, a judge. A judge’s job is to decide who is right and who is wrong in a given case, right? According to a set of principles put forth in law?

    In any case, I’m not arguing against neutrality, or any other practice. I think neutrality is great. But here’s the rub: why adopt this neutral stance in the field? Or, to address Patrick’s concerns, why not withhold data? Why not completely fabricate data? Why not cherry-pick our data to support our argument, especially when dealing with under-researched topics on which we may have the only body of detailed data?

  33. How judges decide hard cases is famously complex. Principles certainly have something to do with it. Obviously.

    We adopt neutrality in the field, discourage the fabrication of data, and do not cherry pick because the project of our discipline is to provide a full and detailed account of how the humans experience is mediated by culture or, to put it another way, to understand how we humans float around in a cultural medium. Our ability to do this is impoverished when people provide incomplete, politicized, or tendentious information. This being a human endeavor, nobody is perfect, but we do the best we can. That’s why.

  34. oneman-

    To put it that way, why be an anthropologist at all?

    Because it allows you to further a political agenda while dishonestly cloaked in the borrowed glory of the objectivity-pursuing academic world? Because doing the exact same job while not standing next to fields of study which do their human best to rigorously pursue truth would deny you of a weapon in the arsenal of the advocate?

    If anthropology is so dangerous to the studied peoples that an anthropologist must forego neutrality and instead act as an advocate, then perhaps anthropology should not be practiced as an academic discipline? Wouldn’t that be an ethically preferable choice, to do no research, rather than do research and then alter the results for political reasons?

    Oh, and I am also having difficulty understanding how people can simultaneously argue that it is VERY VERY IMPORTANT to disclose one’s potential biases, but that its also VERY VERY IMPORTANT to censor oneself in order to accomplish what are essentially political aims. It seems that one would negate the other.

  35. Wow. It seems several people have taken the idea that there may be *certain* severe circumstances where one may need to withhold info to protect one’s informants to imply that it is desirable to constantly alter or supress information. I don’t believe that either Oneman or myself ever said this.

    Now, as for trying to present an accurate and truthful portrait of what is going on in a particular social/cultural group: OK, fine. But no one can deny that one individual anthropologist cannot obtain a whole, accurate truthful portrait *because* of her identity. This identity will directly affect who one has access to in the field (males, females, people of a certain social class or age group, etc) and what people are willing to disclose to the researcher.
    So it is misleading to claim that one simply presents the “accurate truth” when any account can only be partial.

    Now, there seems to be another misunderstanding here: that the “morals” or values or ethics or whatever-you-want-to-call them that an anthropologist holds will prevent them from achieving the goals of rigourous investigation and analysis, or that being politicised will get in the way of doing valid scientific research. I certainly don’t think that this is the case. My position is basically that a politicised anthropologist will tend to do research with a goal other than knowledge creation for its own sake. The goals will perhaps influence the research question, methods and theoretical framework but this does not necessarily take away from the validity of the research or the value of the knowledge that is obtained and interpreted.

    A researcher ultimately has to back-up her claims just like anyone else, regardless of whether or not s/he is working with a moral or political goal in mind. The politicised researcher is no more and no less likely to omit data outside of cases where it’s absolutely essential to the well-being and safety of people in the field.

    And speaking of data omission, what fieldworker in the history of anthropology has discussed every single observation made and every single comment that was made to them by an informant? It’s impossible; one uses the information that is useful for their particular research project. To do otherwise would just not be practical. What can happen with this is that different anthropologists may consider the same “fact” as differently relevant. . . but that, again, is a whole other thread.

  36. By the way, I’ve heard several non-political anthropologists claim that they felt that teaching anthropology, in and of itself, was leading to social change. Exposing young minds in universities to cross-cultural knowledge, regardless of whether or not they pursue anthropology as a profession later on, is seen by many as increasing social awareness and leading the way to people in various professions being more culturally sensitive.

    I certainly feel that I am doing that in my job, seeing as I teach at what Americans would call a Community College (even though Cégep is actually different in several ways) where most of my students will go on to myriad other professions.

    I think that this stance represents a set of values in and of itself and it goes to show that one does not need to be doing research for explicit political ends to be making some kind of statement and some kind of contribution to a wider social goal.

    On a final note, according to Ruth Benedict, “The goal of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” The idea of anthropology being more than just a process of creating knowledge is nothing new in our field. I think a lot of this is just rehashing of old ideas; and we see that today, people still disagree on a lot of these points. . . which is fine and what keeps the discipline from stagnating.

  37. Rex says:…the project of our discipline is to provide a full and detailed account of how the humans experience is mediated by culture or, to put it another way, to understand how we humans float around in a cultural medium.

    Thank you. And why do we do that? What good does that do?

    And:

    Our ability to do this is impoverished when people provide incomplete, politicized, or tendentious information.

    Not if nobody finds out. If I want to make a political point, and I feel fairly certain that nobody else has data on the topic I’m addressing, why not just say “The Bangangan practice abortion through the foetus’ 28th year” or whatever? But more to your point, I’m with the reflexivists who say that unless the subjective state of the anthropologist is taken into account, the information provided is necessarily incomplete — only I’m not so concerned here with the personal whatevers of each anthropologist, I’m concerned with the discipline as a whole (or at least large parts of it).

    Nancy reports:

    …according to Ruth Benedict, “The goal of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    And, finally, tigerbear writes:

    why we should cheerlead for Dr. Political, who goes into Orania, is sensitive to the wishes of the lovely far-right Afrikaans living there and produces a lovely moral pamphlet on their behalf which would make Stalin proud

    Interestingly, I see this the other way around. Orania isn’t much different from any more or less homogenous small town, even down to the local currency (Wikipedia lists over 70 local currencies in the US alone). The only difference is the moral dimension. I actually wouldn’t mind giving Orania a looksee. But here’s the thing — Dr. Objectivity, constrained to “mere description”, can only describe the particular beliefs that have led to the community’s origin; any critique (and this is my general point not only about Orania but anthro as a whole) must necessarily be along some moral line (given that there’s no reason it shouldn’t function as well as any other homogenous community, regardless of their ideological concerns). It is Dr. Political, not Dr. Objectivity, who has the potential to go beyond the depiction of happy Oranians without a care in the world.

    That said, I’m assuming Dr. P goes into it with the same stance of withheld judgment and attemppted neutrality that we as a discipline demand for adequate description. Racist as they may be, the Oranians are still people, struggling to maintain their sense of dignity and autonomy in a world that has changed rather quickly around them. Any anthropologist who cannot deal with this community as a community of humans worthy of consideration, if not admiration, is failing at her/his task. And that is, I believe, apart from any pragmatic considerations — I mean, it is virtually impossible to do anthropological fieldwork in a community you have already decided is evil, backwards, wrong-headed, or stupid, but it’s also wrong.

  38. To repeat, we ‘do’ anthropology because of the social good it does our community. I would spell out that is, but I’m afraid it would sound patronizing. In such an explanation, none of my account of what constitutes ‘social good’ are drawn from the discipline of anthropology. They are drawn from from the values of my community. Anthropology may be particularly valued by a society, but that does not mean that anthropology need have the values of any one particular society.

    Indeed, to the extent that any anthropologist did, they would loose the ability to convince others with good reasons. As Weber points out, it is that external commitment that causes one to adhere to internal disciplinary logic which includes a certain neutrality of comportment. Obviously, as you’ve indicated, there is a temptation to be a free rider on a discipline’s self-enforcement to make a political point. I suppose a psychologist or institutional economist could model why people do or don’t choose to free ride. My hunch is that is because more of them agree with me than with you 🙂

    I think it is a little sad that you see all of the possible modalities of civic engagement available to an anthropologist collapsed into the act of fieldwork. It is precisely the ethnographer who produces the most judicious and disinterested work — not the ‘political’ one — who is most empowered to speak when acting in their capacity as a public intellectual (assuming this is something that they value doing). Nancy describes this approach perfectly — a researcher with a political interest does as impartial work as possible so that their impartial findings can then be used in other spheres of life. Boas would agree. Skulls were the shape that they were because they were that shape, not because he had decided that his findings ought to make the world safe for cultural difference. He did not use the liberal values of anthropology to dictate what Americans should think, his arguments marshalled impartial findings in order to speak to the liberal values of Americans. Indeed, if we were to find a Boasian doing violence to data on, say, life in Samoa in order to make a partisan point about our own sexual mores, they would loose the ability to convince and their own credibility.

  39. As I said in earlier posts on the topic, and is repeated by Patrick, part of the solution is to conduct an ethnography of anthropologists. (Open access to field notes would perhaps facilitate such an endeavor.) What are the moral principles that actually gide anthropologists, as opposed to those they claim to abide by?

    I think this is a very different question from the social good that anthropology supposedly provides the community as a whole.

    Also, it would be interesting to figure out to what extent the moral framework adopted by anthropologists is adapted to those of funding agencies and institutions over the course of their careers?

    Finally, Anthropologists have very diverse political ideologies, even if the majority are on the “left.” It seems to me that the same moral values will mean very different things to people based on their own political philosophy as to how best to bring about their own ideal world.

  40. Rex: I didn’t say anything about impartiality for I do not believe that this is possible. The fieldworker is physically and emotionally involved with her informants: s/he lives with them, works with them, eats with them, has heart-to-heart talks with them, plays with them, has sex with them, sometimes even marries them. Thus the importance of being open about one’s social position vis a vis the group and *within* the group.

    However, I did say something about rigourousness in research. Also, let me reiterate that I’m not advocating the falsifation of data.

    With regards to your repeated claims that the morals which guide the individual coming from *outside* of the difference: sure, I’ll buy that, I’m sure that it’s true for some people. However, I’m sure that I’m not the only person on the planet who has been opened up by the discipline in terms of respecting societies who do things differently from me and of detecting the many injustices that have been propagated towards various peoples (this does not mean that I support every single thing that is done in the world . . .far be it for me to go to the extremes of moral relativity).

    Maybe this hits home a bit for me since I worked with Aboriginals who have become quite vocal of these issues and quite critical (rightly so, in many cases) of the anthropological project.

  41. Kerim says: “Finally, Anthropologists have very diverse political ideologies, even if the majority are on the “left.” It seems to me that the same moral values will mean very different things to people based on their own political philosophy as to how best to bring about their own ideal world.”

    Oh, certainly. That’s why I don’t feel that there is necessarily a common “moral core” in the practice . . . everyone has a different reason for doing it. Nonetheless, everyone has *a* reason for doing it. Sometimes the reasons are more similar than we think; as we’ve seen in this thread, positions that looked radically different at the outset seem to (“se rejoindre” . . damn, I can’t think of the expression in English . . . “) meet up (?) somewhere.

    As for providing open access to fieldnotes . . I still have to think about that one. I’m not against it in principle. I’m just not sure it would be practical for all methods of “notetaking”.

  42. Oneman wrote:

    Interestingly, I see this the other way around. Orania isn’t much different from any more or less homogenous small town, even down to the local currency (Wikipedia lists over 70 local currencies in the US alone). The only difference is the moral dimension. I actually wouldn’t mind giving Orania a looksee. But here’s the thing—Dr. Objectivity, constrained to “mere description”, can only describe the particular beliefs that have led to the community’s origin; any critique (and this is my general point not only about Orania but anthro as a whole) must necessarily be along some moral line (given that there’s no reason it shouldn’t function as well as any other homogenous community, regardless of their ideological concerns). It is Dr. Political, not Dr. Objectivity, who has the potential to go beyond the depiction of happy Oranians without a care in the world.

    The problem is twofold.
    One, a critique of Orania need not be predicated along moral lines (it only has to be if you insist on the insertion of a priori moral categories – ie you’ve decided that any critique even if it is in itself a critique entirely derived along different lines, economic let’s say, must in some sense be moral*). So the intervention of morally weighted categories need not appear. Second, both Dr Objectivity and Dr Political have the potential to go beyond mere description. The difference is, I wouldn’t expect this potential to be an influence in Dr Objectivity’s ethnographic work. Dr Political has already said it is, and doesn’t see what’s wrong with it. In the previous entry you did on this subject, you wanted some description of something you found morally odious to be suffixed with “and its wrong!”. The obvious problem is this (from Rex:

    Nancy describes this approach perfectly—a researcher with a political interest does as impartial work as possible so that their impartial findings can then be used in other spheres of life

    Obviously “and its wrong!” gets in the way of this use in other spheres.

    The odd thing is that there are definitions of objectivity lurking about all over the place. Here’s one:

    That said, I’m assuming Dr. P goes into it with the same stance of withheld judgment and attemppted neutrality that we as a discipline demand for adequate description.

    I wish there weren’t two definitions of objectivity, one that exists for the rest of mankind, and one which appears to exist solely within social anthropology.
    The first looks like what’s described in the above. It goes something like “attempted neutrality in the description of things pertaining to the object of study”. Y’see I’m currently studying** teeth in Plio-Pleistocene hominins and I have to deal with (the effects of, in a metrical dataset,) inter-observer error too. But these observers were striving for objectivity in the sense that I’ve described.
    At no point does anyone work with the soc anth description:
    “With my objective nature I stand above thee object of study and I understand everything about it, LIKE A GOD!! BWAHAHAHAHA! whilst twirling their positivist moustaches***.

    * If you think that, then I don’t think there’s any way you can derive validation of that concept from any evidence.

    ** Evil positivist scientist aren’t I? Er, no. I used to study ethnographic film and make video installations and stuff.

    *** Apart from late period Comte. And he wouldn’t know anything about teeth. And he’s been dead for 150 years. And he didn’t have a moustache.

  43. Oneman wrote:

    Interestingly, I see this the other way around. Orania isn’t much different from any more or less homogenous small town, even down to the local currency (Wikipedia lists over 70 local currencies in the US alone). The only difference is the moral dimension. I actually wouldn’t mind giving Orania a looksee. But here’s the thing—Dr. Objectivity, constrained to “mere description”, can only describe the particular beliefs that have led to the community’s origin; any critique (and this is my general point not only about Orania but anthro as a whole) must necessarily be along some moral line (given that there’s no reason it shouldn’t function as well as any other homogenous community, regardless of their ideological concerns). It is Dr. Political, not Dr. Objectivity, who has the potential to go beyond the depiction of happy Oranians without a care in the world.

    The problem is twofold.
    One, a critique of Orania need not be predicated along moral lines (it only has to be if you insist on the insertion of a priori moral categories – ie you’ve decided that any critique even if it is in itself a critique entirely derived along different lines, economic let’s say, must in some sense be moral*). So the intervention of morally weighted categories need not appear. Second, both Dr Objectivity and Dr Political have the potential to go beyond mere description. The difference is, I wouldn’t expect this potential to be an influence in Dr Objectivity’s ethnographic work. Dr Political has already said it is, and doesn’t see what’s wrong with it. In the previous entry you did on this subject, you wanted some description of something you found morally odious to be suffixed with “and its wrong!”. The obvious problem is this (from Rex):

    Nancy describes this approach perfectly—a researcher with a political interest does as impartial work as possible so that their impartial findings can then be used in other spheres of life.

    Obviously “and its wrong!” gets in the way of this use in other spheres. Instead of you impartial work informing your partial stance in other spheres, your partial work (which you totally acknowledge to be partial) informs you partial stance.

    The odd thing is that there are definitions of objectivity lurking about all over the place (The use of the term “impartial” in the above). Here’s one:

    That said, I’m assuming Dr. P goes into it with the same stance of withheld judgment and attemppted neutrality that we as a discipline demand for adequate description.

    I wish there weren’t two definitions of objectivity, one that exists for the rest of mankind, and one which appears to exist solely within social anthropology.
    The first looks like what’s described in the above. It goes something like “attempted neutrality in the description of things pertaining to the object of study”. Y’see I’m currently studying** teeth in Plio-Pleistocene hominins and I have to deal with (the effects of, in a metrical dataset,) inter-observer error too. But these observers were striving for objectivity in the sense that I’ve described.
    At no point does anyone work with the soc anth description: “With my objective nature I stand above thee object of study and I understand everything about it, LIKE A GOD!! BWAHAHAHAHA!” whilst twirling their positivist moustaches***.

    * If you think that, then I don’t think there’s any way you can derive validation of that concept from any evidence.

    ** Evil positivist scientist aren’t I? Er, no. I used to study ethnographic film and make video installations and stuff.

    *** Apart from late period Comte.
    And he wouldn’t know anything about teeth.
    And he’s been dead for 150 years.
    And he didn’t have a moustache.

  44. why we should cheerlead for Dr. Political, who goes into Orania, is sensitive to the wishes of the lovely far-right Afrikaans living there and produces a lovely moral pamphlet on their behalf which would make Stalin proud

    The reason why I brought up the above example, is an argument against something that Nancy discussed:

    Well, here’s my 2 cents again: who gives academics (anthropologists) the right to create knowledge at the (sometimes) expense of other humans? If many groups “under study” by anthropology have objected to the practice, have felt violated, have felt misrepresented, have questioned our motives . . . shouldn’t that be enough to see that there is a need to align research goals with community interests?

    Now I’d content that there’s no absolute reason why anthropologists should feel guilty for the above. I think it falls down on the assumption that the people we study are somehow necessarily “nice”, or that their feeling “misrepresented” or “violated” (I think all ethnography has the potential to “violate” someone’s beliefs/conceptions in a general sense, but only in the sense that I think all human interaction has the potential to “violate” someone’s beliefs/conceptions) isn’t actually a means of promoting a political perspective with the anthropologist as their voicebox. I’d contend that while this sounds nice and lovely (and it obviously isn’t for urban ethnographers and other social scientists who study far-right groups and neo-fascists etc), this can also serve to mystify the possibility of understanding the power relations within the society itself and reify the positions of the brokers of that power: the primary informants of that ethnography.

    Of course, Dr Objectivity may not reveal all possible things s/he has described, due to ethical constraints of his funding bodies (etc), the reason they would follow that would be out of pragmatism, and not necessarily her/his moral convictions. The ethical contraints themselves may indeed be pragmatic, not morally based.
    Yet her/his account overcomes the problems with mystification through morally-induced attempts to overcome “misrepresentation”.
    Dr Political, on the other hand, is royally screwed.

  45. Looking at my original comment, quoted by Tigerbear, I said that “many” groups object and then discussed the issue of representation, doing research that’s compatible with local interests etc. I’m not referring to *all* groups. I’m specifically talking about cultural groups that are still more often than not the focus of anthropological work, not to all the subcultures and counter-cultures that exist. A group such as that described by Tigerbear is a whole other ballgame and we can’t extrapolate the process whereby a researcher would go into that particular field and make decisions about how to conduct research and analysis to all the fieldwork areas that come under anthropological inquiry.

    And saying that we should avoid gross misrepresentation and take our informants seriously has nothing to do with assuming that they are all “nice.” Niceness has nothing to do with anything. *Some* of the Cree that I met discriminated against local Inuit residents so I personally did not feel that these individuals were all that nice. I also didn’t think it was nice that *some* Cree had prejudice against their own people who had problems with alcohol. But this doesn’t make all the actions committed against the Cree by the Canadian and Quebec governments OK nor does it make it OK for *some* anthropologists to have used the Cree and their culture for their own professional benefit. I certainly don’t think it would be OK for me to go there and *use* them as data without their community getting some kind of benefit. I’m still working out what exactly that benefit could be but it’s certainly a priority for me.

    Now, as to the repeated comments by (I don’t remember who) that local interests should have no bearing on our research: well, guess what? It’s quite possible that this very attitude could prevent one from even gaining overt access to the field. If the anthropologist is only there to “create knowledge” without any intention of that knowledge being useful for the host community somehow, and in some cases going directly against the wishes of the community, why the heck would said communities agree to have anthropologists there at all?

    There is always covert research. I suppose if there are no morals involved in anthropology, this would be considered OK. Or would it?

  46. Rex:

    It is precisely the ethnographer who produces the most judicious and disinterested work—not the ‘political’ one—who is most empowered to speak when acting in their capacity as a public intellectual (assuming this is something that they value doing). Nancy describes this approach perfectly—a researcher with a political interest does as impartial work as possible so that their impartial findings can then be used in other spheres of life. Boas would agree.

    Somewhere along the line, as Nancy pointed out, my argument has been twisted from “we exercise neutrality in the field because we think it’s better to provide as fair and honest a representation of the people we study as possible” to “it’s ok to lie, cheat, and steal as long as it advances your particular agenda”. Both of these statements are, of course, based on appeals to particular moral claims, but it is the first — which nestles closely to what Nancy said — that I feel is essential to anthropology, and which I see reflected in the practices of most anthropologists. Look — nobody advocates impartial and accurate reporting more than human rights workers, who realize that their work not only has to convince a reading public but possibly a jury, but I don’t think we would say that their interest was mere curiosity.

    Also:

    …none of my account of what constitutes ‘social good’ are drawn from the discipline of anthropology. They are drawn from from the values of my community.

    Anthropology, like every other discipline, is embedded in society (or societies, though I agree with Nancy that it still betrays the traces of its origin in Western society) — I don’t see that the fact that some of the values that anthropology realizes are external to anthropology or are not solely held by anthropologists invalidates what I’m saying.

    And:

    I think it is a little sad that you see all of the possible modalities of civic engagement available to an anthropologist collapsed into the act of fieldwork.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this — I thought I was pretty clear that I was speaking of practices ranging from grant-writing to fieldwork to writing-up to teaching.

  47. Kerim:

    I think this is a very different question from the social good that anthropology supposedly provides the community as a whole.

    I agree, but I think there’s a mediating factor — what anthropologists believe is the social good they provide in their society. The values which inform anthropology stem more from that — as in the case of the human rights workers I just mentioned whose recording practices are as thorough and accurate as possible because their ultimate goal is to stop human rights abuses and to persecute those that occur. Falsifying data might seem to make more sense in terms of the short-term persecution of some scumbag or other, but in the long-term, would hinder their efforts more than help them, and of course, people’s lives are literally at stake. Remember, if you can, the outcry over David Stoll’s attack on Rigoberto Menchu’s fabrications.

    And:

    Finally, Anthropologists have very diverse political ideologies, even if the majority are on the “left.” It seems to me that the same moral values will mean very different things to people based on their own political philosophy as to how best to bring about their own ideal world.

    Yes — after all, morality is not an etched in stone kind of thing (America’s fundamentalists excepted) — it is a process of interpreting, enacting, and balancing often conflicting claims. Take Felix Moos (please!) — though as conservative as I am liberal, I’m sure that he would not dare falsify data any more than I would, and I’d bet that, if pressed, his vision of a pluralistic society looks a lot like mine, though we obviously imagine very different ways of getting there.

  48. I certainly don’t think it would be OK for me to go there and use them as data without their community getting some kind of benefit. I’m still working out what exactly that benefit could be but it’s certainly a priority for me.

    Look, I used the urban ethnography as an example because its something I’ve come across, and its an important issue and outlines the point that simply that because “many” groups feel misrepresented, doesn’t necessarily presuppose that many groups have been misrepresented.

    Now, I don’t know about your research with the Cree, but say you went into work with Group X, some of whom you got on with, some of whom you didn’t and thought were reprehensible (as you’d expect, really). You feel that they should get some benefit from your research, but after a while, you can’t work out what it is. Representatives of Group X start to feel chafed at this, because you said you’d give them some benefit, and you haven’t. And then you decide to give them what you consider to be a benefit to them, but they don’t agree. From their perspective, it seems like you misrepresented yourself to them, violated your agreement, and, by deigning to give them what you consider to be an acceptable repayment, have in fact just become the latest in a long line of imperialists paying them off with some more bloody beads. They don’t want what you’ve given them. They want you promoting their political position. This is a muddle, and I don’t see any way out of it for the moral position.

  49. 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.

    This should be figured out before the research is done, not in hindsight. Again, in my own work, this is something I plan on figuring out more concretely, with Cree input, before I go back and do further research there.

Comments are closed.