Protecting oneself from protectors

Lise recently sent my way a post purporting to be a guide for communities who wish to protect themselves from anthropologists. It reads rather more like the criminalisation of research, to be honest.

I have some comments on this document, not specifically about the need the need for such a document or the empowerment of communities (regular readers know I’m all in favour of these in principle and in practice), but about the content of this particular guide. (Note to non-regular readers: I’m a linguist, not an anthropologist, but the fieldwork principles are similar enough in general that the comments transfer from one discipline to another.)

  1. The “militarization” of the discipline. This document seems to merge academic and “applied” anthropology. I’d argue that’s a *big* mistake on both sides. Just as medical research, medical treatment, and medical experimentation (e.g. in prisons and concentration camps) are clearly different, so too we could, and should, draw a line between academics and ‘applied anthropologists’ (e.g. those employed by the CIA). It is up to the discipline to make sure that we are clear about the differences, for example by being explicit about the purpose of fieldwork, obtaining IRB approval and sticking to the protocols, and by not being involved with activism in the communities.
  2. … it is written with genuine concern for the wellbeing of those studied by anthropologists. Divorcing the well-being of the community from the well-being of the anthropologist might not be the most productive way to encourage community-empowered anthropology. Making fieldwork work well requires a considerable degree of trust on both sides, and so setting off the researcher and the community off against one another for the start isn’t likely to encourage good participatory fieldwork.
  3. Do not rely on anthropologists to keep your information confidential — they can be forced to surrender their material under the laws of their countries, and all of the documents and information they gathered from you can be seized, scanned, and copied when they travel to or through the United States or the United Kingdom.
    This is true, but it would be good to get some figures on how often this actually happens, whether it is a problem with travel to and from a particular area, and so on. Informed consent is not informed unless there is some quantification of the risks involved.
  4. Confidentiality that is respected with doctors and lawyers is not legally enforced with anthropologists;
    This implies that it’s the anthropologist’s fault. One could mention that the same is often true of journalists. That is, medical records are covered by special laws and lawyers are covered by a law called attorney-client privilege (that is, that conversations between a lawyer and their client cannot be subpoena’ed (or demanded in court). No such protection is given to anthropologists or linguists. (This is something that linguists at least have complained about.) The only option in some cases would be for the researcher to be held in contempt of court, which could lead to a prison sentence. Again, it’d be nice to know how often this has happened.
  5. Ask for original copies of the researcher’s bank statements, for a period of one year, along with proof of income.
    Sorry, that’s completely unreasonable. Researchers have rights too. Just as researchers don’t demand the bank statements of their consultants before paying them, there is absolutely no justification for financial investigation of researchers. Given that part of this document is aimed at professionalising the role of research participants, making demands like this is a step in the other direction. Besides, if the aim behind this demand is to see if there are large unaccountable sums of money in the account, don’t you think that anyone indulging in surreptitious activities would conceal bank activities?
  6. Demand to be provided with a full copy of all fieldnotes. There are plenty of situations where this is not a good idea, and where that it a violation of trust between the researcher and the community. For instance, if person X gives the researcher confidential information about themselves on the condition that the researcher not reveal that information to other members of the community, the researcher is required to abide by that.
  7. Sometimes a reseacher will tell you that they do not “pay for information,” because it contaminates the validity of the information, as if they had “bribed” you to get you to say whatever you in fact say. Keep in mind, however, that the researcher is being paid to produce the information for an audience, and that to get paid they agreed to research certain questions in certain ways, lest they risk not getting funded.  … 5.4 – If you are formally employed as a research assistant, you should be paid at no less than the minimum wage in the researcher’s home country, or your country, whichever is higher. You should expect to have your name appear on all publications and products that result from your assistance.
    Keep in mind that there research is not always being paid to produce the information for the audience, and in other cases that payment might amount to a tiny fraction of the cost of producing the research project. Payment is a complex issue, and payment out of scale can causes as many problems for individuals in a community as exploitation through underpayment. There are also circumstances where having a name on a publication could be dangerous (e.g. in areas where speaking a particular language is banned)
  8. 5.7 – As you become better acquainted with a researcher, look for formal ways of collaborating in their publication efforts, with yourself as the coauthor.
    I don’t think I’d be very keen on collaborating with someone who’d exercised points 5.1-5.6. but maybe that’s my post-colonial exploitative academic nature coming through.

I’d like to add that it’s worth remembering that researchers, in the vast majority of cases, are not out to exploit communities, to rip off individiuals, or to spy for their governments (or as mercenary anthropologists for another government). However, researchers are often from a different community from the one they are researching. There are cross-cultural issues in negotiating research projects. Research projects work best when there’s respect on both sides. There is no requirement to participate in a research project, but projects are opportunities for communities as well as opportunities for the researcher. It’s up to individuals and communities to make the most of them — ask lots of questions about the research and the project.

For a less combative guide for communities (with explicit information about rights and suggestions for interacting with researchers) see the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guide for (Australian) Aboriginal Communities.


3 responses to “Protecting oneself from protectors

  1. Thanks very much for your own take on these issues. In some cases I understand that you have a different view, and you make valid points. In other cases however it seems you might have missed some news or you raise issues that I think are problematic. Let me respond to the above points:

    1. I am not merging academic and applied anthropology. These points have to do with the Minerva Research Initiative which renders all research funded by the Pentagon “applicable” for national security and counterinsurgency. In other words, I am not the one whois guilty of blurring any lines here. The discipline, for those following news concerning the American Anthropological Association, is at best ambivalent — hence my growing alarm.

    2. In many if not most cases they are separate and distinct entities. My list of recommendations does not create that situation. The well being of communities studied by anthropologists is the focal concern of the document — it is not written for anthropologists. Generally, in my experience, researchers are excellent at protecting their self interests, and I certainly do mean that in all possible senses.

    3. We cannot defer the safety of individuals and communities to the time when someone, somehow gets some figures. Risks do not need to be quantified to be appreciated as risks — they just need to be possible, and they definitely are as I am alluding to laws that are in place both in the US and the UK. For more on this see:

    4. No, I do not imply it is the anthropologist’s fault. I am stating what is a fact in North America at least. If anything, I am implying the exact opposite of what you understood — we have no control over the fact that we can be forced by the authorities to surrender our confidential materials. Also, I am not concerned with quantification — it has happened indeed, and for me it only needs to happen to me just once, and the same for the people involved with me.

    5. Good point, and I know I was being extreme, but it was meant to get people thinking about possibilities.

    6. Also an excellent point. I will need to incorporate this into a revised draft. There are cases of shared fieldnotes outlined in Roger Sanjek’s book on Fieldnotes, and that is what inspired the idea. At this point it would seem wise not to record anything that could be of harm if shared, which means reverting to mental notes and memory, and not divulging those kinds of notes.

    7. Good point about having a name on a publication, and of course it’s up to the local collaborators to decide what is best for them. The payment issue may not be negotiable — some communities demand it, and researchers must be prepared for that. What we should not do be doing, at all costs, is be seen as lacking even the will to provide some benefits even if discussed hypothetically.

    8. You are being honest, and so are others…which is why one finds few if any anthropologists doing any work in Canadian First Nation communities anymore. That does not mean these communities disappear — instead they take their own representation into their own hands and are increasingly producing their own scholars.

    At any rate, I am making the mistake of writing these notes in haste, and I just wanted to say thanks again for your own thoughts and observations on these issues.

  2. Re point 3: see and my brush with US/UK customs and field tapes. I disagree about the need for at least approximate quantification about relative risk. I could spend a lot of time warning my comsultants that the data might end up in the hands of the FBI, but it’s far more likely that the data will be accidentally destroyed by fire, flood or theft. Just like it’s possible that a plane will crash on my house, but I prefer to worry about crossing the street. From what I know about the storage practices most linguists/anthropologists have for their field notes, we should be much more worried about betrayal of trust to communities through losing data than having fieldnotes seized by the RBI. If we do not have some implicit or explicit relative risk assessment, we make bad decisions.

    6. That gets tricky too, as the person might feel that the researcher doesn’t value what they say if they aren’t writing it down.

    7. and payment. Maybe this is a difference between linguistics and anthropology; in linguistics it’s pretty standard to pay people, but there’s also a drive these days to make it appropriate (e.g. paying AUD$30 per hour in the Sepik is inappropriate because the day-to-day ecnomony isn’t based on case, and the linguist would be much more useful bringing in locally unobtainable stuff).

    8. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of collaborative fieldwork. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in the places I’ve done fieldwork. I’m prepared to work collaboratively; I’m also prepared to be employed by a community to do a specific linguistic job where the parameters of that job are closely controlled. But I’m not willing to do the second job under the guise of the first. Negotiation and collaboration doesn’t mean that one side sets all the rules. Now, of course, in the past, a lot of research has been one side (the academics) setting all the rules, and thank goodness those days are over.

  3. Pingback: How to Protect Yourself from an Anthropologist: A Code of Ethics from the Bottom Up (2.0) « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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