Yanomami Referendum

Oops. I’d been thinking for several days that it seemed odd that the results of the referendum on rescinding the report of the El Dorado Task Force had not come out. I kept checking the AAA website — where, to my knowledge, they don’t appear in any obvious way — and finally decided to google search “yanomami referendum”.

Well, this is probably not news to many of you, but

“Members of the American Anthropological Association, weighing in on a dispute that has divided their discipline, voted 846 to 338 to rescind a controversial 2002 report on allegations of research misconduct by scholars studying the Yanomami people.”

This is from Inside Higher Ed.

I do belong to the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America but feelings about this have been so sore that there seems to be a collective decision not to discuss the issue at all on the listserv, thus I didn’t get the results from any flurry of discussion over there.

This outcome, while not surprising, is pretty saddening. First, doesn’t the AAA have something like 11,000 members? What a tiny turnout. And it’s not at all heartening that the association president herself — even now that the voting is over — refuses to say how she voted on it. Of course it’s her perfect right to keep her vote private, and I can imagine an argument for her not publicly stating her position before the vote. But why maintain silence even now?

I fear that the outcome recapitulates a contemporary disciplinary tendency: an incredible willingness to stake positions at an exalted, empyrean level and an utter refusal to say anything at all on small, messy, immediate issues except to ignore and/or dismiss them. For the record, I voted absolutely against the movement to rescind the report. The whole obfuscatory process that culminated in the effort to rescind reminded me of certain trends in U.S. public life — say, the discrediting of that 60 Minutes report about Bush’s national guard service on the basis of challenging the particular authenticity of certain documents rather than the substance of the report itself — and made me want to puke.

The only thing that makes me feel slightly cheered-up is the thought that with referendums like this one, a highly mobilized base can hijack the outcome. I hope this is what happened: that most people got what Rex has called “Yanomami fatigue”, stopped paying attention, and just sort of felt nonplussed by the time they got the ballot question (which was posed, in classic tricky-referendum form, as a double negative). Still, this vote is now a part of our disciplinary history, to our grave collective discredit.

7 thoughts on “Yanomami Referendum

  1. I agree that the vote is to our grave collective discredit (disclosure: I didn’t vote), and I also agree that the most interesting part of the whole affair is the incredibly small turn out. I wonder, though, in your continuing attempt to draw a bright and clear boundary between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ whether you might not have misplaced it in this case? I suspect that most people, like me, didn’t vote because they felt that rescinding the report or not would have no tangible effect on Chagnon or anyone else and was part of the interminable politiking that occurs in the hot house of AAA politics. to little or no effect in the ‘real world’.

    In fact, To the extent that the report, the rescinsion and so forth represent little more than abstract statements of principles that will not visit any clear sanction upon anyone, they seem to take place at exactly the ‘exalted, empyrean level’ you dismiss. This isn’t to say that it’s not important (I don’t believe in this distinction between staking positions in general and dealing with ‘small, messy issues’ on the other), but I do think it’s ironic that this sort of thing — where the ‘fighting was so fierce because the stakes were so small’ — should come to represent for you the authentic ‘on-the-ground’ politics that is so important for you.

  2. What you are pointing out is something that shadowed the whole debate. It’s not a fight most of us would have picked. On the one hand, Chagnon’s star had been falling for years — his ethnographies out of fashion, his empirical claims in ruins as a consequence of devastating restudies. For academics, this is on its own is already the ultimate ignominious defeat. So the stakes, as you point out, were all wrong and opened up a shambling discussion of ethics codes, professional ethics, whether the AAA should be empowered to administer spankings to bad anthropologists, and the like. This muddied the real problem, as the AAA is not and cannot become a professional licensing entity that disbars people or forbids them to practice ethnography.

    Nevertheless — though we didn’t get to pick the fight — once it was underway it would have been nice had more of us picked a side. The purist “oh please, what a stupid game, I’m not playing” reaction allowed the people who do play for tiny stakes to switch the playing field from real scholarship to a “disciplinary controversy”. Result? Even though Chagnon’s research is not widely respected in the field, even though most anthropologists reading about his methods find them both repulsive and stupid, Chagnon’s band of supporters has managed to make the rescension of a report critical of him the OFFICIAL POSITION OF THE AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION.

    The whole thing reminds me of, for example, ” intelligent designers’ ” attempts to make an end-run around peer-reviewed scholarship and insist THEIR approach also be taught in high school and university classrooms, in the interest of “fairness”. The Chagnon supporters made a successful end-run around the real standards of our fine discipline, and I think it’s just awful that they succeeded — in large part because many of us were unwilling to make even the minimal, corny, unhip effort of voting in what was, yes, a silly silly referendum.

    As for the fillip at the end of your post — obviously, the outcome was not a world-historical event. The connection I was trying to make was about the dangers of refusing to stake imperfect claims. Most of the time, imperfect claims are the only kinds we are called upon to stake — whether in regard to small disciplinary controversies or big political battles. You may disagree with that point, but I didn’t confuse those two levels in making it.

  3. First — and this isn’t a rhetorical question — what does it matter that this is the official position of the American Anthropological Association? What effect will it have? I really don’t know — I’m guessing that answer is ‘none.’ This is opposed to Intelligent Design people who show up to school board meetings and actually change how our children are being taught. Will this vote have any concrete effects like that?

    If not, why does it matter to you? As I’ve said in the past and as Markell points out, the _only_ kinds of claims we can make are ‘imperfect’ ones that are contingent and only partially in our control (this reading of the human condition is the basis for his critique of a desire for sovereignty). My point was not that you slipped between ‘two different levels’ but that I believe it is a mistake to hold that there are two separate levels — ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ — at all. This is a mistake for two reasons: First, it results in you assumming that I am only interested in ‘one level’ and not the other (some sort of quietistic philosophizing) and second, your own interest in the AAA’s official position as important for it’s own sake (regardless of its ‘real’ outcomes) indicates that at some level you yourself don’t perhaps believe it.

  4. howdy — I’m a little unclear on what the referent of “it” is at the end of your last sentence. At any rate, if you scroll back through my posts, I’ve never advocated a hard and fast line between “theory” and “practice” (nor even used those terms). What I have talked about is the kind of logical and ideological purity that is possible in scholarship / the life of the mind (what I’ll call category A), and the way that everyday, walking around/going shopping/reading the paper/signing the latest move-on petition/chatting with pals (what I’ll call category B) sometimes directly contradicts principles pursued and valued in category A.

    A commonplace observation, yes? Centerpiece of many a barstool and/or coffeeshop conversation in grad school, yes? that relies on recognizing that these are two different categories, yes? so *all* that I added to this was the observation that sometimes academics, for whom category A is important and life-shaping, foot-drag a bit when faced with having to make category B actions that conflict with category A principles. Sometimes the result is good, and sometimes the result is bad. I personally felt that this conflict and consequent foot-dragging was in play in the case of the referendum, and that the outcome in this case was bad.

    As for why I care — well, I care because it makes me mad. I feel that the referendum was a kind of scholarly cheating, and that its architects swindled our profession and, worse still, that they managed to pull off the scheme with our collective tacit permission. Each of your posts has urged me to put it on a hierarchy of badness: it’s not that big a deal in grand political terms, it’s not as consequential as the anti-evolution scholarship to which I compared it, it’s a boring tempest in a old-fashioned teapot. I concede all points: many things are worse than the successful passage of this particular referendum. I still say it sucks.

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