Is it unethical to say something about someone that they cannot understand?

Do anthropologists have a moral obligation to make their work accessible to the people they are writing about? The answer, to me, is an obvious ‘yes’. Although as someone who has blogged for almost a decade I seem to think that the public waits with baited breath for a description of my breakfast so I am maybe not the best person to ask. Still, I think most people can agree that anthropologists have a moral obligation to share their research with the community where they worked as well as the public. But how much of our scholarly output should be this sort of work?

Some people argue that anthropology needs to be better written so that it can be more accessible to the general public — this is part of a general sense that anthropologists write in ‘jargon’. I am not particularly happy with this critique of anthropology as ‘jargon’. First, I agree that anthropologists need to write clearly and beautifully and without unnecessary jargon — but this is just to say that many academics are atrocious writers whose style we put up with because we are interested in the content of what we are saying. The most successful academics are those who write clearly and accessibly: the Benedicts and Geertz’s of the world. So it is not just the pubic that deserves some clear writing. (and please note what a kind thing I’ve just said about Geertz’s style!)

That said, I’m often struck by the way people believe anthropologists use jargon ‘unnecessarily’ while they rarely complain about the technical prose of geophysicists or molecular biologists. Granted, some would denounce geophysicists and anthropologists in the name of a thorough-going anti-intellectualism. But for most people the distinction seems to be that geophysicists ‘know something’ while anthropologists simply do not, and therefore hide the relatively common-sense nature of their knowledge in ‘jargon’. This I have less time for.

Beyond some basic stylistic issues there is a deeper question of what genres anthropologists write in. At times it seems like some people (Eric Lassiter I’m looking at you) would argue that all of our output as anthropologists should be written for the communities we work with and, contrariwise, that only way to treat our collaborators in the field is to do our best to turn them into anthropologists like us — a fate that, frankly, I wouldn’t wish on a lot of people.

Am I wrong in thinking that this sort of approach restricts the genres in which anthropologists can write to a very narrow band? And, ironically, when taken to an extreme such an approach could result in the situation which we have now, but in reverse: anthropologists who feel compelled to write only accessible pieces for a general public. Is this the future want? I am genuinely uncertain what most people’s answer would be. Votes for ‘yes’ seem to give up anthropology’s claim to specialist knowledge that requires training and expertise — or, as they might say, perhaps they are just coming clean on what a pipe dream that is. They also seem to be unconcerned with the idea that anthropologists can and should write in several genres, each of which appeal to different audiences.

Let’s return to the jargon issue. I often have students who complain that they must write ‘in jargon’ in order to be taken seriously. Often times, these students mistake obfuscation for alternate genre standards. What is ‘jargon’ on some occasions in ‘beauty’ to others. Need I remind one here of Lévi-Strauss?

So: is it ethical in principle to say things about people that they cannot understand (technical work) or that is written in a genre they don’t care for or ‘get’ (disciplinarily-defined beauty)? Beyond the obvious answers — that we should not only write in these ways, or that there are pragmatic lengths we must go to to make sure people do not misunderstand what we are saying in these specialized works and get made at us — this is a question that anthropologists have not answered. At least as far as I can tell.

My feeling is that the answer is yes, it is ethical in principle. In practice, of course, there are power dynamics, limited time to produce in many genres, and a variety of other factors that shape how we think about our work and our relationship with members of the lifeworlds we describe. But in principle? I think the answer is no yes. But I’d be interested in hearing what others think.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

25 thoughts on “Is it unethical to say something about someone that they cannot understand?

  1. This question resonates powerfully for me, not least because I would need to add a level of translation which I don’t think I could presently accomplish. That is, I could not write IN Lahu about Lahu in the same way that I can write about Lahu in English. I can address the central arguments, and I do that, in Lahu, but generally in conversation rather than in writing.

    I know, however, that when I talk about my work in Lahu my lack of an eloquent command of Lahu transforms the argument substantially. I make a point of providing copies of my work to folks who have a command of English, and perhaps this achieves some sort of balance, but many of the people about whom I write do not have a command of English.

    So yes, I think we have an obligation to make our work accessible, but I’m not sure that this means writing for those with whom we work. And I think we have to allow ourselves to be imperfect in the attempt.

  2. Rex, I may just be reading this wrong, but in your last paragraph you write that in principle you think writing in a style or venue that isn’t accessible to those we work with is ethical. But then you write, “But in principle? I think the answer is no.” I think I understand exactly what you mean to say, but that confused me a bit.

    To comment on your question, I think that part of the difficulty with the discipline not answering the question exists within what kind of writing “counts” towards academic points. If I write an article for a popular magazine or give a lecture to a general audience, that doesn’t count (in most universities and research funding institutions) towards my academic accomplishments record. If we do write in an accessible, well-written manner (good writing is good writing and is always commendable, I think) in our academic publications then that’s one step forward, but how many of the people we work with in our research have access to those publications?

    The big question for me, and one that I keep exploring as PhD student thinking about the future of anthropology and my place in it, is why as a discipline we still seem so afraid to recognize efforts to make our work more relevant (and with that, perhaps, accessible). Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote recently that we have to be willing to do the extra work for a non-academic audience and not expect to get academic credit and points for it. However, if we accept that ethically we should be writing for the communities who allow us to do our research in the first place, where does that leave us? We all have to make choices about what we can do and can’t and if we have to choose career advancement over an ethical responsibility to make our work available to the people we work with, what does that say about the discipline?

    I do think we need to write for fellow anthropologists and that that writing might necessarily be less “accessible” to those outside the discipline. However, I do strongly feel that we have an ethical responsibility to our communities to share our work with them in a way that is accessible to them. I struggle with the fact that this seems to be a required ethical responsibility w/in the discipline and yet it doesn’t “count” towards our work. Meaning in practice we don’t really have to do it at all in order to maintain and advance our careers. As long as we continue to write and publish for each other, that’s what really counts in the end.

  3. Well, which study community are we talking about, and what are their exchange ethics?

    Assuming we’re going to impose our own ethics, what would full accessibility look like? Judy would have to write only in Lahu, using only concepts and images available in Lahu. She might then be permitted to translate this into English, but only if she takes special care not to smuggle in any concepts or images exclusively native to English.

    In terms of practice, this might mean that if the concept of ‘someone who goes to other peoples’ countries and tries to understand them’ is not available in Lahu, Judy might not be able to do what we call ‘anthropology’ at all. Of course she could creatively assemble something like anthropology out of local concepts, images and practices and this might be well worth doing, but she’d have to abandon anything she learned in school or conversation from academic anthropologists.

    Now, it might be that the locals would be willing to learn all about anthropology from Judy, and learn English so that they could get at the conceptual formation of the field and then the technical terminology into which long thoughts boiled down (deconstruction, for example, takes our own native apprentices some months to master), at which point they would be anthropologists.

    Then again when the plumber comes and fixes my toilet I’m not inclined to think I need a full working understanding of how she did that. In fact if I did I’d just fix it myself, but I’m pretty glad she’s taking care of it. The ethic between us is she does her job right and there it is, done. Just sayin.

  4. bq. That said, I’m often struck by the way people believe anthropologists use jargon ‘unnecessarily’ while they rarely complain about the technical prose of geophysicists or molecular biologists.

    I agree that a lot of the complaints about anthropological “jargon”: are unwarranted. These gripes tend to actually be justifiable complaints about “purple prose”: It’s hard to read an article in _Language_ because it’s techy; it’s hard to read an article in _ae_ because it’s convoluted. Sometimes the technical can be used in the service of convolution, e.g., semiotics in the hands of many a linguistic anthropologist.

  5. It seems to me that one of the central endeavors of anthropology is the translation (and analysis) of cultural matter to a different community. That different community inevitably speaks and understands differently. What would be the limits of our limitations if we were to say that everything must be entirely accessible to those we study. Rex, for example, uses such complicated words as “genre” in the very post where he is discussing accessibility. If I was to do research on playground culture among 7 year-olds, would I be required to write up my research like Dr. Seuss?

    The important issue seems to me to be not the style of writing for a given audience, but the possibility of the anthropologist being covert in his or her activities. I do think that we have a requirement to not conceal, and this requires us to be honest and open about our ideas and what we see. We need to be courageous enough to tell our subjects how we are interpreting their behavior, a process which may initiate worthwhile dialog.

    The more trenchant critique of jargon, however, is the one of obfuscation. Personally, I believe that clarity of writing correlates highly with intellectual confidence. We tend to obscure when we are afraid of contradiction and criticism. It is, after all, much harder to hit me if you can’t find the target.

  6. I actually disagree with your first “obvious ‘yes'”.

    Your work (I make assumptions here, of course) is part of a culture, assumably the western one, and to understand it, to have access to it, a person must have a working knowledge of part of this culture. The try to make your ‘yes’ possible will turn you into a missionary of western civilisation.

    A possible reaction to this is: An anthropologists can’t avoid this.

    Answer: Possibly, but you don’t have to do to push it.

    A possible role of the anthropologists is to mediate mutual understanding. That would mean: explain the greeks to the barbarians and the barbarians to the greeks. (and not: explain the barbarians to the barbarians with the words of the greeks, and mutatis mutandis. thats second lavel. first comes first.)

    But probably my emotional reaction to your ‘yes’ comes, because I’m afraid of the change you will produce. And exactly this may be mistaken, of course. Change probably arrived even before you, and the aforementioned second level may give the needed reflection to the changing people.

  7. MTB’s distinction of techy and convoluted seems important to me. There are technical languages for all sorts of specialized functions. So we may or may not know the difference between an oscillator and a fiduzilator, but asking the people who do to constantly embed explanations in everything they write would be pretty frustrating.

    The question here may be whether a humanistic discipline like anthropology is entitled to technical vocabularies that won’t be immediately understood by the people it’s about. This question is no different for sociology or political science or contemporary literature. (History is mostly safe.) Marx spent four volumes of Capital working through what he meant when he said “capitalism.” Derrida intentionally disrupted plain meanings in order to critically get behind their apparent self-evidence. He is often superficially taken to be merely obfuscating, but the difficulty is purposeful. These are examples of the context-richness of academic cultural discourse. Will plain, accessible language do the trick in these and other cases? Should it? What context embedding do we commit ourselves to if we say yes?

    It doesn’t seem to me that we can entirely disentangle the ethical from the practical here.

  8. Scholars like anthropologists and linguists operate in at least two important economies of knowledge: that of their scholarly (sub)specialty and that of the communities with which they work. With some unusual exceptions, no work will be simultaneously adequate to the participants in both economies. I certainly can’t take seriously the notion that linguists, for example, can do without terms like ‘suffix’, ‘relative clause’, and ‘ergativity’, and as others in this thread have noted, explaining these terms each time they are used is not feasible in a publication aimed at a scholarly audience. If you judge producing technical work like this is in practice unethical, I think that amounts to dismissing most technically-oriented fields as unethical in practice, if not in principle. But this seems like a reduction ad absurdum to me — surely there are good grounds for taking seriously the notion of producing versions of work that are suitable for *both* economies.

  9. Thanks for the comments folks, and for correcting the confusion mechanical errors in the piece — you can see how quickly I whip these things off.

    Tabitha’s question about encouraging public anthropology is interesting to me, since I think our discipline is one of the most obsessed with its own relevance. That said, I don’t think its surprising, or even bad, that these outreach efforts aren’t counted towards tenure. After all, our peer-reviewed technical articles don’t count as outreach for communities we work with, so why should the reverse be true?

    It sounds like the commenters here feel 1) translation happens. Deal. (Bill Guinee) 2) technical prose is ok (most people, perhaps) but 3) writing in different genre standards (which have prose I call ‘beautiful’ but others here have called ‘convoluted’) seems to be the most problematic for people.

  10. bq. writing in different genre standards (which have prose I call ‘beautiful’ but others here have called ‘convoluted’) seems to be the most problematic for people.

    Just to be clearer regarding what I mean by ‘convoluted’—as an undergraduate I had a work study position as a tutor at my school’s writing center. If a client had come in with six pages written à la Homi Bhabha I would not have said, “Wow, there’s not a lot that needs to be done here!” Quite the reverse.

    A paper with in-text citations and unnumbered headings is written according to genre conventions; a paper with multiple dozen clause sentences is badly written. To paraphrase a conversation I once had with a Spanish professor regarding the merits of Lacan:

    MTB – “I don’t think he was a bad writer. He said he wanted to make his readers work for it to subvert their desire.”
    MC – “I think if you’re truly smart then you’re smart enough to write clearly.”

  11. The issue of making our work accessible to the people we study is not just a concern amongst the academic milieu, but one that is actively being combated by those about whom we study and textualise. And I do not think it is an obvious “yes”!

    When I first arrived to my field-site, it was made clear that I would have to produce a version of my thesis that was both in keeping with the nature of my research for the academic front, but also one which was devoid of all anthropological and philosophical jargon.

    A version in “plain english” is what was being requested. However, how feasible and practical is writing a “plain english” version, that much closer to the nature and concepts that arise from thesis (e.g.)? And how can these concepts–not merely words–be translated? I worked with an indigenous group who used their own set of cultural metaphors to define the world. Such a method of understanding has yet to find itself within my reach.

    However, I take great offense to the idea that much of anthropology is convoluted by jargon. Although, I do find that some scholars abuse terminology for their own egoist means, to reduce those concepts into something that becomes far removed from our own understandings may also be an issue that arises.

  12. Michael Warner makes a brilliant case in favour of opaque writing in ‘Public and Counterpublics’ (chapter 3). I wont attempt to summarise it but will quote from one of the many gems to be found there:

    ‘The possibility I would like to raise here is that those who write opaque left theory might very well feel that they are… writing to a public that does not yet exist, and finding that their language can circulate only in channels hostile to it, they write in a manner designed to be a placeholder for a future public.’ (pg. 130)

    In other words, writing clearly and making one’s work accessible are not necessarily analogous operations. It depends who’s your public – and where you would like your work to have political effect.

  13. Stephen Owen makes a similar point in _Traditional Chinese poetry and poetics : omen of the world_, arguing that every genre implies a particular set of readers. In the case of Tang lyric (long celebrated as the epitome of classical Chinese poetry), the poet assumes a reader with an education in the Chinese classics and imperial histories. Thus, for example, when Du Fu writes of the moon reflected in the water at a certain bend in the Yellow River, the reader is expected to know that Du Fu is fleeing the sack of Changan, the imperial capital, by the Tibetans while the Chinese armies were distracted by the rebellion of An Lu-shan, an event that led to the death of the imperial concubine Yang Guifei, demanded by the soldiers accompanying the fleeing emperor. It was, of course, precisely this sort of knowledge, utterly esoteric to the illiterate masses, that distinguished the elite mandarins who governed the Chinese empire.

  14. As long as we’re on the topic of writing, there’s only one appropriate usage of “baited breath,” and it’s in the poem “Cruel Clever Cat” by Geoffrey Taylor:

    Sally, having swallowed cheese,
    Directs down holes the scented breeze
    Enticing thus, with baited breath,
    Nice mice to an untimely death

  15. Something that they cannot understand? Or, something that they don’t like or agree with?

    This post touches on a few questions I’m wrestling with as I’m on the field. Putting aside the issue of indecipherable jargon, what do I do when I’m asked by the people I’m working with what I think about a situation in their country and they disagree with my opinion? This isn’t a question of being understood or misinterpreted. On the one hand, there’s a strong value in having our work be identifiable to the people in it (i.e., that they feel known and faithfully depicted in our writing). On the other hand, at what point does this value conflict with our own intellectual integrity. As I am “studying up,” my interlocutors seem more familiar with the intellectual conventions I’m working under. That “understanding” doesn’t mean that they like or agree with what I’m saying, though.

    The tenor of the post and the comments seems to assume (correctly, in my situation) that the projects we’re writing about take place somewhere other than “home.” What about those of us who are doing work in the United States (i.e., my home)? Those of us who are working in cities, in settings of rural poverty in the US? What about those of us who are doing work among communities whose political beliefs we might strongly disagree with (e.g., the religious right in the US)? How do the ethics of intelligibility, correspondence, and, well, “do I agree with this assessment or not” touch down here?

  16. Christine raises important questions. The only answer I can think of is the habit recommended to therapists. Listen with an open mind and check to be sure that you do, indeed, understand what is being said. Techniques like paraphrasing, repeating what you think you have heard in your own words and giving the other a chance to say, “No, what I was saying was….” can be useful here. Then be sure to own your conclusions: “When I heard people say X, I felt/thought/imagined Y.” If the tone is non-judgmental, the other will most likely not be offended.

    If, however, the people you are working with remain offended, you have a choice to make. You can say what you believe and accept the consequences or filter what you believe to fit what they want you to say. In journalism that’s called selling out. In a courtroom it’s called perjury.

  17. Christine raises important questions. The only answer I can think of is the habit recommended to therapists. Listen with an open mind and check to be sure that you do, indeed, understand what is being said. Techniques like paraphrasing, repeating what you think you have heard in your own words and giving the other a chance to say, “No, what I was saying was….” can be useful here. Then be sure to own your conclusions: “When I heard you say X, I felt/thought/imagined Y.” If the tone is non-judgmental, the other will most likely not be offended.

    If, however, the people you are working with remain offended, you have a choice to make. You can say what you believe and accept the consequences or filter what you believe to fit what they want you to say. In journalism that’s called selling out. In a courtroom it’s called perjury.

  18. I wonder if it might not be productive to explore what we mean by writing for a particular group? I do tend to feel that in some ways I write on behalf of Lahu people, as a sort of amorphous and difficult to identify unit. I want to communicate to a wide audience the sophistication with which 21st century Lahu individuals construct identities which seem to me to be both Lahu and modern. (My research this summer involved several discussions, in Lahu and Thai, of how to say “media” and how to say “modern” in Lahu.)

    The thing I want to get to here, though, is that when I write I’m generally engaged in something which I can at least to some extent conceive of as being for (on behalf of) Lahu people. Is that conception of mine potentially offensive, though? How to I avoid, or do I need to avoid, the apparently dominant position I place myself in? To draw on John’s analogy, should(n’t) I place (some? known? my contacts among?) Lahu in a position of responding to me: “Hey, don’t you psychoanalyze me!”

  19. I made a point of first publishing my book, based on the diss. fieldwork done in India, in India. In it I’d made some comparative points about T. Parsons’ sick role concepts not working unversally across cultures. The book was also in part a critique of the way R.L. Coser wrote about Life in the Ward (USA).

    Life in Indian wards was very different. In that Christian mission hospital, patients were allowed to see visitors often and to rely on their escorts for meals that were suitable to their particular religious and personal requirements (rather than being forced or expected to eat food made in the hospital kitchen). Patients’ families were not exiled from the Indian hospital as they were in the USA, in those days (the ’60s). I wanted Indian readers of my book–written in English since that was the language of anthropological publishing there–to see that there was no need to deplore their ways of delivering health care in hospitals by comparison with the social anthropology of “our” institutions that was on offer at that time. An unintended consequence of publishing my book in India was that it started the field of medical sociology as a university specialty in India.

    There were places that I realised I could not go in interviewing patients: family income, marital problems (unless the patient talked about them on her own), and even the number of children (talk about which was a cause of anxiety over the evil eye among some of the patients). I had ways of estimating or even finding out number of children because someone, probably a husband, had already given that information on the hospital intake interview. There’s much more about the issue of publishing one’s analysis locally, reader reception, etc., but I think I’ve spoken sufficiently to this thread from my own experience.

  20. This may now be a dormant thread, but I’ve been meaning to ask how these questions might overlap with artistic practice and ethics. Specifically, my wife, who grew up on a subsistence farm, is working on a series of fine art installations that redeploy common farming tools, practices and products to say things about a vanishing way of life, anxiety, nostalgia and control. Although she is doing a lot of what might be called ‘fieldwork’ to assemble her materials and she is fundamentally sympathetic with farmers, she is not devoted to reporting their perspective or advocating their interests. Moreover, she is working in a fine arts milieu and idiom that has its own rules developed over at least a century and is completely foreign to most farmers – as we regularly note in conversation with her own family, who wish she was painting landscapes. Any thoughts?

  21. I don’t know if it will wake this thread back up, but I think your post raises some really interesting issues. The use of field work that collects data such as “tools, practices and products” and then represents them out of context “to say things about a vanishing way of life, anxiety, nostalgia and control” is a description of a great deal of the output of contemporary anthropologists in all four subfields. I wonder what you would get out of a focus group that asked a room full of professional anthropologists to consider anthropological practice and ethics vis-à-vis artistic practice and ethics? A lot of anthropologists think of their discipline as belonging with the humanities but I suspect that a lot of those same people wouldn’t like having their publications compared to works of fine art—issues of patronship and of the relative contributions of the artists/author vs. the source community might prove a little uncomfortable, for example.

    I would suggest that your wife should have an ethical concern with documenting the provenance of anything she collects. You might try asking some folklorists these same questions. In my experience your average folklorist is more likely to have articulated such questions to themselves (

  22. The reason this thread refuses to stay dormant, I suspect, is because so many of us wrestle with the question and want a real engagement of it. It’s interesting to see how it touches down in different ways– while Carl is asking about artistic practice and ethics, I continue to struggle with, er, political practice and ethics.

    What I mean is that I often hear (and say) “you didn’t understand what I said/meant” when someone else does not come to the same political conclusion based on the data/story told. Perhaps this is because we find it hard to believe that people, having fully understood what we have said, would come to a different analysis and conclusion. And since my work is about politics and government, this often shows up as a tension between what people in my research site see as the cause/solution to problems like insecurity and poverty versus what I see.

    Will I upset some people when I write my dissertation? Probably. Will they say “she’s wrong because she just doesn’t get it, she didn’t understand what she was seeing, she talked and listened to the wrong people”? Probably.

    And are some of the people who I’ll upset not the sorts of people who anthropologists typically upset when they write politically controversial stuff? Most likely.

  23. Ahh, pointlessly commenting on a long-dormant thread, but to me the question seems to be: what are the political implications of speaking to the “technical,” anthropologically informed public? When anthropologists write articles with intended political impacts, have they selected the right audience? How appropriate is it for anthropologists to, for instance, publish in genres and venues which primarily advance their individual careers rather than any interest of the people they’re writing about?

    To some extent this is a financial problem, since most anthropologists need to use the resources of universities in order to do their fieldwork and writing at all–and having access to those resources ultimately requires the anthropologist to publish in scholarly contexts.

Comments are closed.