Tag Archives: Ethics

The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

Continue reading

Anthropology Under the NSA’s Eyes

We now know that living abroad or corresponding with someone outside the US makes you fair game for government surveillance. Last year I wrote about the difficulties faced by anthropologists working in places like China, where there can be no expectation of privacy. We now know (as many long suspected) that nowhere is safe. What does this mean for anthropologists?

High levels of confidentiality may not be important for all types of anthropological fieldwork, but it can be hard to anticipate what statements might get our collaborators in trouble and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy to the best of our ability. As more and more of us are storing data in the cloud and more and more of our collaborators are communicating with us via email and on Facebook, we should be conscious of the fact that we cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything stored online. Continue reading

Writing about Bad, Sad, Hard Things

Writing is not always easy. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing about things that are emotionally weighty, heavy, and disturbing is a different kind of not easy.

Monday morning I wrote a political asylum report for a victim of political violence in Nepal. Monday afternoon, bombs exploded near the Boston marathon finish line, killing several people, injuring hundreds, and stunning many (including this Massachusetts native, runner, and former Boston resident). The next day, I read about a twenty-year-old Tibetan mother who self-immolated and died in Tibet, and I wrote two more Nepali political asylum reports, one especially gruesome, and then collapsed on the couch, paralyzed in a sort of grief and shock and despair at the bad things human beings do to other human beings.

Writing felt necessary but debilitating. I could only write about the particularly horrific asylum case in short increments, writing a sentence or two, then turning to something that would allow me to breathe freely, breathe in some goodness and hope, and then exhale the horror. Write the horror down. Make sense of the horror for a judge. Or at least try to. Continue reading

Quizzical notes on Zomia

State evasion is over

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.

The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).

Continue reading


so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly

this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade

Continue reading

friendship (2): friendships precarious or false

friendship in tamen’s sense also might suggest why “culture” is often what my taiwanese friends call a “twilight object,” something constantly in diminishment: associations of friends tend to situate their objects this way. think of the friends of the environment near you. as for culture and its various subsets and stand-ins, these nearly always appear in conditions of endangerment, too; and so, we might begin to ask ourselves whether our interpretive work powerfully connects us to other associations (friends of shellfish, sowalo no ‘amis, or indigenous media to name some to which i belong) who were befriending these objects all along, generally aware of their precarious quality. that does not mean that the type of precarity that these friends see–and that might explain their motives for working with us–is the same as our stance on the befriended.

again, take the environment as an example.

since i’m going in this direction, what about friendship as a type of advocacy, a value that some ethnographers fiercely hold and others just as fiercely question? one of the best statements on friendship in this regard comes from the work of the contemporary ‘amis songwriter, suming rupi. recently, many would-be friends of suming’s hometown have come to stay, all professing their love for the landscape, particularly the view of the pacific ocean. on the whole these would-be friends are well meaning and participate in a type of consumer environmentalism known on taiwan as LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. in response, suming has written a song which rejects this love

suming, “don’t say you love me” video 4:50 taiwan ©2012 wonder music

Continue reading

friendship as ethnographic virtue

friendship? I know. it does seem too obvious and perhaps disingenuous for an anthropologist to pose friendship as one of the internal, constitutive goods of ethnographic practice. but that’s the virtue i want to invoke here.

back in chicago, home of the haskell hall totem pole, there was–i wonder if anyone could tell me if it’s still there–a world map around which our administrator affixed fieldwork photographs of students and faculty of the department. back in those snail mail days before social media, this was about all the contact we could get with colleagues in the field. the map looked down from the stairwell up to the mezzanine, but was not without contention: was it part of a strategy of representation that reproduced anthropology’s complicity with colonial discourses? an attempt to employ images of rapport to shore up ethnographic authority? what the critics seemed not to get was that the map actually was a token of our friendships with our colleagues, focused on our common practices of fieldwork and writing.

but, right, critics of the map would likely consider friendship naive. there’s a history i could sketch here, but i’ll just go for the beginning and end points. if malinowski claimed in argonauts that through shared residence and daily activity the ethnographer could at least become “a necessary evil or nuisance, mitigated by donations of tobacco,” the discipline has long since shed the illusions we have of reaching even such a limited state of rapport: take marcus’s typically programmatic 1997 statement that even an assumption of the desirability of rapport had been displaced, with no replacement in sight. that marcus ushered “complicity” onto the runway as the new rapport might relegate friendship to some dusty haberdashery. i even hesitate to call it last season.

curiously, however, i had written about complicity unaware of the marcus article and came to see complicity in a positive light, as a means for sustaining a shared project in conditions of political opposition and entrenchment. because i’ve a book on that subject, i’ll just go back to bronislaw (whew!).

Continue reading

memos on ethnographic practice

I’m DJ Hatfield, one of the guest bloggers for this month on savage minds. When thinking about possible themes for my blog, I just happened to be reading one of my favorite books on writing, Calvino’s Six memos for the next millennium. Originally, these memos were planned lectures about the values of good writing that Calvino was to give at Harvard; he died before giving the lectures and, indeed, before finishing the work. It might surprise several people who read savage minds that Calvino’s six memos (well, the five that he finished!) are what I turn to when I want to think about my practice as an ethnographic writer. And I think that there is much virtue in the structure of Calvino’s little book: the task he set before himself in 1984 was to describe particular qualities that writing should have if it were to meet the challenges of the next millennium–something that might have been envisioned by the editors of writing culture if a peculiar parricidal impulse hadn’t motivated that work. Of course, as a graduate student, the project of writing culture fit my bill. Now that I have a book and a few articles behind me, it’s Calvino’s project that incites my questions about what we do as ethnographers. What are the values that we would think of as central to the practice, what Macintyre in After Virtue called the “internal goods”–those values that we cultivate as we do our work in the field and out? I’d like to start a conversation on this question. As I am not sure whether what I will discuss will be values in the sense of the ends of our practices or in the sense of what orients them, I’ll leave you to give your preliminary suggestions. My postings on some of these values, plus some discussion of recent work, will appear throughout the month of October. My first internal good: friendship


Workplace Ethnography 101—Interrogating the Unpaid Internship

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s prior posts: post 1 — post 2 — post3]

One paradox of practicing ethnography at the academic sidelines is that often the further one gets from the institutional “center” of the field, the more clarity is needed about the fundamentals of ethnographic method and analysis.  This need to get “back to basics” played out in my market research work in which my colleagues and I often needed to prove what ethnography could offer that consumer-data-gathering methods could not.  Here I offer another example of this paradox as I describe the adjunct teaching I currently engage in outside of an anthropology department.  The course I teach is a non-departmental seminar required of arts and sciences undergraduates who wish to receive academic credit in conjunction with unpaid internships not related to their majors.  For example, if a biology major wants to get credit for interning in the editorial department of a fashion magazine or an English major wants to work at an education non-profit that provides afterschool mentoring to kids, they would enroll in my 2-credit internship seminar and 2-credit fieldwork course.  The vast majority of my students are not anthropology majors and for most of them, my course is their first exposure to ethnographic theories and methods.  Those of us working on the margins of our field often have to take on a ambassadorial role vis a vis the discipline, explaining in clear and basic terms not just what ethnography is but also what ethnography can do.  In what follows, I describe what I hope ethnography can do for my non-major students engaged in unpaid internships.  Along the way, I also briefly interrogate the role of unpaid internships in undergraduate study in the U.S., arguing that they are an increasingly significant piece of the kind of workplace precarity we’ve been discussing throughout this series.

Unpaid internships have been much in the news lately—the intern suing Harper’s Bazaar magazine, unpaid interns toiling behind the scenes of the movie Black Swan, and even unpaid interns (over)working at liberal icon Charlie Rose’s show.  More about unpaid internships per se in a moment, but what, you may be wondering, has this to do with ethnography? A few years ago, I had feelers out for teaching work and started talking to someone who knew of my work with non-profit arts organizations and needed someone to teach an internship seminar in order to meet increased student demand for such a course.  The social sciences have long acknowledged the value of experiential learning, and student placements with non-profit, social service, or public policy organizations have been common.  With this in mind, I happily accepted the offer to teach an undergraduate internship seminar, with most involved (especially me) thinking that I would shepherd students through fieldwork in a range of non-profit and/or public-sector organizations.  What none of us really foresaw was how high the student demand would be for a course that could grant credit in conjunction with internships in for-profit workplaces. Over the several semesters I’ve taught the internship class, about three-quarters of my students’ unpaid internships have been in for-profit settings, most notably entertainment, magazine publishing, fashion, public relations, and banking.  Clearly, neither I nor any other faculty member could claim expertise in all of these industries, so my aim has become to equip students with a way of making sense of their internships beyond their sometimes-fuzzy goals of “networking” and “resume-building.’ Continue reading

Fighting Back

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

As my friend and co-blogger Lane responded to my Facebook posts about selling out, “I prefer to think of myself as a virus, any prospective employer as a host. ‘Selling out’ is somewhere in that hazy zone between keeping your host (and yourself) alive and promoting the best environment for others of your species!” It would seem to me that many readers of this blog would agree, even in the most difficult and ethically compromised of research environments. After all, if we – as academically trained anthropologists and ethnographers – do not move to change the kinds of problematic research practices that serve to produce the feeling of “selling out,” it is somewhat unlikely that anyone else will.

Two recent posts here on Savage Minds describe examples of doing that viral work that I think deserve particular mention. First, one of Laurel’s blog posts provided a great discussion of what it’s like to enter into a particular variety of market ethnography. Second, in response to my last post Ben commented on his work as a military ethnographer, and the various pressures and constraints he has faced in such a role. Keeping Lane’s statement in mind, it seems to me that individuals like Laurel, Ben, Gottlieb, and John deserve more attention within academia. As a student, I was rarely exposed to anyone who had chosen to leave academia after finishing their degrees. Thinking back to the process of inviting speakers for colloquia and various departmental events, names of those who had pursued other career trajectories simply never came up. I can only recall one instance in which one such individual – a former graduate of our department turned consultant – came to address us, and even then, there was absolutely no discussion of how or why he came into his new role.

As Gottlieb and John point out, for many, the desire to be connected to the academic community does not simply vanish after taking up careers outside academia. Arguably, we could do much to resist the stigma of selling out, while simultaneously keeping a line out to those who may not hold academic positions, simply through more early doctoral student exposure to graduates who have pursued non-academic careers. In addition to serving to resist the stigma, such exposure would provide Ph.D. students with the professional contact networks they need to more easily find corporate and government work, along with providing a much needed glimpse of potential career routes. There is clearly enough demand for this kind of information, as a number of former academics have made careers for themselves guiding recent grads and struggling academics to non-academic jobs – one such site is actually entitled “Selloutyoursoul.com”. Continue reading

Dialogue with the Public: Adam Yauch and Academic Snobbery

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Carole McGranahan.

Who is the audience for academic knowledge? When does that audience include not just fellow academics, but also the public? These questions are harder to answer than they should be. Our courses require enrollment and tuition. Our writings require effort to find and afford and read. Our conferences tend to be closed to outsiders and sometimes even to other scholars. As a profession, we simply do not have spaces where we regularly talk with an interested public about our research.

This is a story about academics silencing a public audience. It is about Ivory Tower condescension and how I once defended Adam Yauch’s right to ask a question. Here is what happened:

In April 2002, I participated in a conference on Tibet and the Cold War at Harvard University featuring distinguished scholars of China, India, and Tibet. The conference was a perfect fit with my research on Tibet and the CIA and was fantastic in many ways, until it wasn’t.  Continue reading

When the guiltiest guy in the room, is the room

This one is a shout out to David Weinberger, who I stole the title from.

Is Obama inappropriately receiving credit for killing Osama bin Laden? Given the upcoming presidential election it is a question that might be asked for longer than one news cycle. As someone who tries to keep from plunging his head too deeply into the endless torrent of opinion that is the blogosphere, I have to admit that I haven’t fully probed the variety of answers that people are asking here. But as an anthropologist I do want to comment briefly on what anthropology might have to add to this debate.

Continue reading

Protecting Informants in a Time of Digital Thievery

The NY Times has an article about how corporate executives and government officials leave their laptops behind when they go to China or Russia, for fear that corporate or government secrets might be compromised by advanced spyware.

it has become easier to steal information remotely because of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones and the inclination of employees to plug their personal devices into workplace networks and cart proprietary information around. Hackers’ preferred modus operandi, security experts say, is to break into employees’ portable devices and leapfrog into employers’ networks — stealing secrets while leaving nary a trace.

I mention this because it is also a serious concern for anthropologists I know who do research in China. We here on Savage Minds have written a lot about using digital tools for research, but it is also worth thinking about the vulnerabilities such tools create for one’s informants. There are a lot of tools one can use to encrypt data, but they are useless if some Lisbeth Salander has already hacked into your computer and stolen the password. How paranoid should we be? What steps can we take to protect our digital data? Please use this as an open thread to discuss these issues.

Thinking About Research Ethics

I’m currently on a committee which has been tasked with developing a set of ethical guidelines for visual ethnography in Taiwan. While I agreed to take part in this process because ‘image ethics’ are something I take very seriously, I am also very skeptical about the application of a medical ethics model to anthropology. For this reason I was happy to come across a paper by Bill Simpson entitled “Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography” which is a free (if not “open”) download from JRAI.

Simpson is focused on institutional review more than ethical guidelines, but since one exists largely to facilitate the other, it is worth looking at the problems Simpson argues emerge within the review process:

At the outset, there is a serious disjunction between the way in which research is thought about in the context of ethical review and the way in which ethnographic research unfolds according to its own temporality and logic: that is, following the contours of social life as these are revealed by the persons with whom one engages in the field.

Continue reading

Valuing Life, Death, and Disability: Sorting People in the New York Times

[This post is a departure from my usual topics related to war, but since thinking about injured soldiers (as I do) means thinking about moral categories of embodied personhood, I hope the connection will be clear.]

I want to begin by applauding the New York Times and Danny Hakim for devoting considerable energies to their Abused and Used series exposing the deadly peril within NY state’s system of care for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not exactly a hot topic for an exposè.

But I was angry that in their contribution to the series this weekend, Hakim and co-author Russ Beuttner fed into ideas about people with disabilities that are part of the same deadly system their work has the potential to undermine.

Their focus on broken rules and poor regulation presents people with developmental disabilities as troublesome things to be managed and “dealt with.” Even their retelling of the story of James Taylor’s death conveys his life through burdens felt by others. Despite the candor and care of his mother and sister, visible in this accompanying video, Mr. Taylor’s life is primarily depicted as dead weight.

To be fair, the coverage reflects a double bind: these lives are not valued, so the series focuses on death and abuse in order to get attention. But in focusing on death and abuse, the series suggests it is deaths rather than lives that are worth attention, intervention, and resources.

So why do we care more about how some people die than how they live? As Mr. Taylor’s sister puts it: “these sorts of people are not valued in society”. This is true, but unsatisfying. We need also to ask what makes some people, but not others, people of “these sorts”.

The Used and Abused series confirms a common sense answer: These people are sorted by the biological facts of impairment; the neck that doesn’t support the head any better than a newborn, the brain that is ‘developmentally equivalent’ to a three-month-old’s. Those are facts of Mr. Taylor’s impairment due to cerebral palsy as described by Hakim and Buettner.

But this common sense is nonsense. Mr. Taylor was a 41-year-old man, not a baby. Comparing him to an infant is an (evocative, ubiquitous, offensive) analogy, not a statement of biological fact. And the strength of his neck does not explain why he was made to live in conditions that killed him.

I did fieldwork with injured U.S. soldiers rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As the NYT, Washington Post, and others have reported, soldiers often sustain brain injuries with major cognitive consequences. But we don’t evaluate injured soldiers the same way as Mr. Taylor—even when their brains are injured or literally missing.

Yet there may be no quantifiable difference between how someone with cerebral palsy can think and how a brain injured soldier can think. Nonetheless, we actively support the life of an injured soldier but merely try to prevent the death of people like Mr. Taylor.

The difference between these two “sorts of people” (or kinds of people, as Ian Hacking might put it) is one we make. It is rooted in morally weighted social facts, not biological ones. It is about the lives we value as a society and those we do not to. This is a basic human inequity for which we bear collective responsibility. Luckily, it is one all of us can work to change.