Clan-aid?

David just sent me this link to a new documentary initiative. I shudder. But I guess it means that we won’t have to get Human Subjects approval, because what we do is humanitarian aid, right? Interestingly, though, there’s nothing about this wonderful project (which will produce an 8-episode documentary on the “900 separate groups of people that anthropologists believe exist” (as opposed to all the others that don’t exist)) on Geldof’s web site. And dictionaryofman.com is, shall we say, not exactly rocking. One quote stood out in particular: “It will give us the chance to meet and understand the people who share our planet in a way we’ve never seen them before.” It’s a real pity that even after all the efforts of linguists and anthropologists to avoid the paradigm of “us” studying “them” it’s going to come right back to the fore in projects like this.

Advertisements

6 responses to “Clan-aid?

  1. I hear you on that one yapa.

    I also wasn’t totally impressed with the call for abstracts for the Foundation of Endangered Languages conference… it also smacks of ‘us’ n ‘them’ and the oldfashioned ‘innocent observer’ anthropology. Or am I being too picky?

  2. @ Claire:

    “I guess it means that we won’t have to get Human Subjects approval, because what we do is humanitarian aid, right?”

    The BBC won’t have to get Human Subjects approval because Human Subjects approval is a stupid invention of American universities that does not apply to British television companies.

    ““900 separate groups of people that anthropologists believe exist” (as opposed to all the others that don’t exist))”

    OK, so you have a problem with scope ambiguity and relative clauses. Interesting.

    “dictionaryofman.com is, shall we say, not exactly rocking”

    You must be a psychic to be able to tell this from a placeholder page.

    “It’s a real pity that even after all the efforts of linguists and anthropologists to avoid the paradigm of “us” studying “them” it’s going to come right back to the fore in projects like this.”

    (a) How exactly does “meet and understand” mean “us studying them”?
    (b) Even if it did mean that: just because (some) anthropologists have decided to give up doing science using the excuse that they don’t want to be an “us” studying a “them” doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to share this sentiment. Unimpressed as I am much of the time with BBC documentaries, I think it’s quite clear that this project will do more to raise people’s awareness of other cultures than anthropologists have ever done (ooops, am I allowed to call them “other cultures” or is this already “othering”?).

    @Wamut:

    “Or am I being too picky?”

    Nooooo. Why would you think that?

  3. It’s precisely because it *is* a placeholder place that makes me say that. If you’re going to do a publicity stunt like this, breathtaking in scope as it is, you’d think that anyone half mediasavvy would have somewhere for interested parties to go for more information. And Geldof is not naive.

    You missed my point about human subjects entirely (and sorry to be picky about facts, but it’s actually not a stupid invention of American Universities, it’s ultimately a product of the 1964 Helsinki Convention of the World Medical Association, and the 1949 Nuremberg Code. My point was that linguists and anthropologists have to ensure that they are following a bunch of ethical safeguards, because what they do is recognised to have potentially deleterious effects to the communities they work in. We have to get people’s permission before we record research participants, even if “we” in that case is a community member doing a PhD on their own language and recording their grandparents, with full community support. My point was more about the status of IRB oversight for ethnography than about whether journalists should need IRB approval.

    It was the “share our planet” bit in particular – is our inclusive or exclusive here? I got the very strong sense from the quote that “we” get to see who else is on “our” (equal coreference with “we”) planet and learn about “them”. Given that the vast majority of the world’s population don’t have access to BBC TV, that sets up a pretty clear researcher/researched dynamic.

    I don’t have time now for a full discussion on how scientific method is compatible with community-oriented research. Buy my fieldwork book when it comes out in October.

  4. Actually, Frank, one more thing re “giving up” science before I go and teach my classes. I was being dogmatic – but that’s partly because I can’t see a) how to make an argument that ethnography used to be science (i.e. follows scientific method) and b) why it’s preferable to pretend that a pseudo-scientific method is scientific than to recognise the areas of bias and to work within that. (My point above about compatibility of community-oriented research and scientific method relates more to running experiments (as in field labphon) without alienating communities which have a long history of being experimented on.) I don’t see how an argument of that kind can be made, but it’d be interesting to have someone make a coherent one.

  5. sorry to be picky about facts, but it’s actually not a stupid invention of American Universities, it’s ultimately a product of the 1964 Helsinki Convention of the World Medical Association, and the 1949 Nuremberg Code

    It may, in some twisted way that, as an Old European I cannot quite follow, be a product of these agreements, but I would still argue that it’s an American invention in the sense that none of the universities in the five other countries that I have experienced academically have regulations for human subjects that would apply to anthropologists or linguists (though I would certainly hope that they have regulations for medical research involving human subjects, or animals, for that matter).

    a) because I can’t see how to make an argument that ethnography used to be science (i.e. follows scientific method) and b) why it’s preferable to pretend that a pseudo-scientific method is scientific than to recognise the areas of bias and to work within that.

    I don’t know whether anthropology as a whole used to be a science — there are certainly spectacular examples of non-science from all periods of the history of the discipline. But it seems to me to be a very basic aspect of the scientific method that the researcher conceptualizes him-/herself as something separate from the subject matter — as an I/we studing an it/them. If one gives up this distinction, one gives up all hope of objectivity. Now, I’m not saying that the distinction will always be clear in practice or that full objectivity can ever be achieved — they’re idealizations. But they’re useful idealizations. Nothing pains me more than the skewed perspective and cavalier attitude towards basic academic quality requirements that are all too often present in the work produced by a “community member doing a PhD on their own language and recording their grandparents, with full community support”. On the other hand, there are excellent, rock-solid and well-presented analyses of languages and cultures produced by people who are ‘outsiders’ in the community and who do not identify with or even particularly care about the community. I’m sure the first kind of research situation makes everyone involved feel all warm and fuzzy, but the second kind of research situation typically produces more useful results. If you can combine scientific rigor with good community relations, that is, of course, even better.

    It was the “share our planet” bit in particular – is our inclusive or exclusive here? I got the very strong sense from the quote that “we” get to see who else is on “our” (equal coreference with “we”) planet and learn about “them”.

    Maybe that interpretation is due to some extent to a “deformation professionelle”. I spontaneously interpreted it inclusively — at least, as inclusively, as any member of a particular culture is likely to interpret any “we”. Because, let’s be honest, “we” is always exclusive to some extent, no matter what culture one is a member of. In fact, I have a suspicion that most of those “900” societies would very definitively see us as a “them” and laugh at the idea that our anthropologists are trying to convince us that there is no such distinction.

    Given that the vast majority of the world’s population don’t have access to BBC TV, that sets up a pretty clear researcher/researched dynamic.

    I’m sure that the BBC will manage to make a complete mess of their part of the project (they always do) but I would give Bob Geldof a little more credit. This is a man who has repeatedly proven his compassion for “them” as well as a willingness to alienate members of his own culture in order to make them care about “them”. Also, he has travelled extensively to “their” countries and talked with many of “them” about “their” needs.

    I don’t have time now for a full discussion on how scientific method is compatible with community-oriented research. Buy my fieldwork book when it comes out in October.

    I will actually do that. As I said, if you can combine science and community orientation, that’s great and I’m looking forward to reading your ideas as to how this might be achieved.

    (BTW, I’m sorry if I appear to be rude to you on your own blog. I actually enjoy reading your thoughts even if I don’t agree with all of them. I was in a quarrelsome mood, I thought (and still think) I am right, and so I may have gotten carried away a bit.

  6. Not rude at all! I’m always game for an argument!

    the researcher conceptualizes him-/herself as something separate from the subject matter — as an I/we studying an it/them ok, but the problem is that a researcher doing fieldwork isn’t really separate from the subject matter, even if they don’t identify with the community. They are asking questions, responding to the answers, the description is to a very large extent shaped by what they think to ask about, and, importantly, what their research participants make of the questions and how they relate to the researcher. For example, it’s very common to get a type of foreigner talk early on in language work, simply because that’s how people tend to talk to outsiders who don’t know their language. That will diminish as the researcher is more able to communicate in the language (if they learn it – that’s not at all a given). But it illustrates the point nicely that the data can be shaped by what research participants feel the researcher can handle.

    One thing that’s been very interesting about the whole Pirahã debate recently is that no one’s pointed out that Everett should not be the one administering any of the tests and doing the translating. He’s made a claim about how the language works and everyone how tries to test it has to work through his analysis. Hardly rigorous.

    I agree absolutely with you about laughing at the idea about no such distinction, and I didn’t mean to imply that it doesn’t exist. However, this idea of “us” going to do research on “them” has been incredibly damaging in parts of the world, and people like my wäwa Wamut spends a huge amount of time working with endangered language community members who are sick of linguists coming and collecting data and leaving nothing to show for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s