Category Archives: links

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.



This is a public service announcement.

Proquest have digitised a lot more of the UMI dissertation holdings and many are available for downloading.

Happy searching…

Because I’m still busy…

An offering of fieldwork blogs and blog postings.

Ozpapers update

I’ve updated the Ozpapers blog. New papers will be released over the next week or so.

Arizona Linguistics Meeting

I’m at LAX on my way to Australia. I’ve just had a blast of a weekend at AZANLI. We were magnificently taken care of, wellhoused and wellfed, and there were lots of interesting talks. Off the top of my head (and apologies to the other talks I enjoyed but which aren’t coming to mind now), I learnt about Blackfoot lullabies and Moroccan hiphop, saw some excellent ethnographic films (final projects in an anthropology class) about Yaqui Easter celebrations, a Tucson drag club and Paiute weavers, heard a couple of different historical talks, including Jane Hill’s plenary on Uto-Aztecan and Andy Wedel’s simulation of divergence and convergence, and Chris Potts’ talk on exclamatives, which has given me a bunch of things to think about and test for Bardi. I believe that podcasts of the plenaries and talk handouts will be on the conference website soon.

Rice Annual Powwow

Rice’s annual powwow will be held tomorrow. Details are available from the Native American Students’ Association’s site.

Ozpapers updated

I’ve put a bunch of new papers on Ozpapers. The posts are timed to come up over the next 10 days or so.