Physicists hate it when Anthropologists misuse Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to give added weight to the commonplace observation that the ethnographic observer has an impact on the subjects and activities being observed. Not only is it unnecessary to evoke physics, it is bad physics:
Another common misconception is that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is equivalent to the statement, “You can’t measure a system without changing it.” In fact, it applies to unmeasured states and does not really take account of the effect of measurement.
Nonetheless, it has become anthropological shorthand to refer to our academic concerns that we (the observer) might be unduly influencing what we observe. The same concern affects documentary filmmakers, as it is not uncommon for the presence of the camera to have a strong influence on the events being recorded.
This fact struck home yesterday as we were interviewing a key subject. His kids came tearing across the frame: an older sister chasing her younger brother. As she ran, the sister yelled: “They should film our fight!” As shooting anything else had become impossible, we complied.
PS: I’m happy to say that DER has made our short film (which the current project is building upon), Acting Like a Thief, freely available from Google Video in its entirety. If your university library doesn’t yet have a copy of the film, please request that they purchase one. Doing so will help us demonstrate the wisdom of such an Open Access model, as well as supporting our current production!