Thursday, February 26, 2009

Studying Up, Down, and Sideways

Last night I had a discussion (or a debate?) with a friend over what I perceive to be an overriding and problematic assumption in most anthropologists. My point of view could come across as annoying or insulting to some, and so actually my friend was quite gracious about it. But anyway, I want to develop a few more of these points (hopefully without annoying or insulting anyone, at least too much). I also must acknowledge that some of the points I want to make are implied in the stance Moises took in the comment thread a few posts ago, and while I may have argued against him, what he said has some real truth in it as well.

As my point of departure, I'm going to start out discussing a few things from a recent Savage Minds blog post (and, in particular, the comments it has provoked). The post is here. Basically, the post is about changes in the AAA (American Anthropological Association) code of ethics, revolving around the recent participation of anthropologists with the US military in Iraq, under the name of the "Human Terrain System" (HTS). A very small group of anthros has jumped on board, hoping to use "anthropological expertise" for some kind of humane occupation. I guess the idea is that anthropologists "know about culture" and a big problem the US had with Iraq is that they didn't understand the "local culture". For anybody not following, or aware, of this discussion, it has been front and centre of much ethics wrangling lately, especially in the United States. Most anthropologists don't think that anthropologists should be working for the military, intelligence agencies, or any other nefarious organizations, and they also aren't big on the Iraq war to begin with.

But in addition to these problems with the HTS, there is a also general concern about with-holding "research results". From the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (linked to in the savageminds post):
Among other things, the new amendments [to the AAA code of ethics] declare that clandestine fieldwork constitutes “a clear violation of research ethics” and that anthropologists “should not withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others.”

This point is reiterated in anthropological commensense, I would say, one exemplary is the comment on this post:
Ricardo Wadd says:

This clears things up.

Anthropologists seem to mostly have four basic choices.

1. The McFate Solution (do whatever we want without regard to ethics, all secrecy is fine, “THIS IS WAR!” etc.).

2. The Bad Organizations Solution (identify bad organizations that anthropologists should not work for, CIA, NSA, IBM, Human Terrain etc.).

3. The Time Release Proprietary Solution (reports made for CIA & Ad Agencies are made available to public after the public have been “impacted” AKA damaged by these studies).

4. Open Anthropology (not keeping reports secret from those being reported on).

All of these make things convenient for some, but not others, but only Open Anthropology does anything to look out for those being subjected to anthropological study. Choice 4 is the only one that primarily looks out for the interests of people being studied, so it would seem to be the only one doing what research ethics are supposed to do.

Right-on! At first glance that seems completely unproblematic, in fact, self-evidently an ethical imperative. I, for example, intend to share my dissertation and any publications with anyone at the lab who cares to read them... so what's the problem here?

Well, really, this simple sentence "not keeping reports secret from those being reported on" requires some analysis. With the cavaet that this may sound needlessly pedantic, who exactly are "those being reported on" (what exactly constitutes a "report" is to me also unclear but not my main point here)? I'll use some of my fieldwork to work through this point, trying to identify "those" we are talking about.

A first stab at it would be my fieldwork is the laboratory. There is maybe 10-20 people who sit around the same area as me, I have conversations with on a semi-regular basis, eat lunch with, and so on. These are "those"!!! These are the people who I should make sure get my reports, if I publish a book for example, I can send them a copy. No problem, right?

But you should also include my host family, those would also be people likely being "reported on". I take down notes all the time about various conversations we have, daily domestic life, and so on. Already, though, to me this starts to represent a major problem... because there may be reports that I cannot give to my host family, in fact may not be allowed to be disseminated beyond the company of the laboratory for IP reasons. This does not necessarily mean it is easy to separate them out of the report--because of the way anthropology is done, there is no specific quantified data that belongs somewhere in particular, it is rather an accumulation of knowledge and experience. To me this is beginning to foreshadow the concrete reality that shatters the illusion suggested in the above definition for "Open Anthropology".

Because, really, the people I will be "reporting on" are not just my host family and my laboratory. As part of my research I also try to frequent Japanese newspapers. If I start using evidence in my "reports" about, say, the media representation of marijuana (it dumbfounded me that Uni students smoking pot is a top national news story in Japan). Does that mean my reports should also be sent to the Asahi Shimbun? And who at the Asahi Shimbun? But what about the university students that were in trouble? The university? The police who busted these kids?

What about when I am on the train and I start noting to myself the different way people use cellphones? There is no way I can track down those people. Or reading ads on the train, the advertising companies? Or the people I observed in one of my first posts about the robot in the mall?

There are webs of relations and associations which are far reaching. At least in my example, I would say that "those I study" are spread all across Japan, but also Asia, Europe, and really the entire world (robotics is an international field, let's just say my laboratory is not just Japanese people, and even the Japanese people are in scientific dialogue with other roboticists). As I said to my friend yesterday, potentially the people an anthropologist studies would be everyone on earth (at least conceptually). This makes sense, given the literal meaning of anthropology.

Okay, so maybe the idea is not that we go and make sure we put a hardcopy in each person's hands. Publish your work and its at least out there, anyone can go and get it, spread the knowledge. This is basically the ethic of academia, of which I am actually quite positive about. If it was possible for all knowledge to be spread to everyone, this just seems like great stuff of the Enlightenment, afterall. But in reality, this is not feasible nor desirable. I already gave one example, which is the IP concern with the laboratory, yet this is hardly the only one. Anthropologists routinely use strategies to hide specific information they gathered because this has to be done to protect people (I have not yet worked out how to write specific things about people on this blog in an ethical way, and so I have tried to veer towards abstract posts about ideas rather than nitty-gritty gossip). In fact, it is an ethical imperative to hide some data, from the mundane fact that to do otherwise would be muckracking and betraying trust to the sometimes quite serious problems (which are not my concern but are concerns for people I know) about the real threat of violence against some marginalized people if the bad men got hold of all their notes. Which is ironic, considering what this "Open Anthropology" is really meant to do. It is meant to protect marginalized people from these organizations, states, groups, and so forth that would exercise this real threat of violence.

Which brings me to my major point about what the hidden assumption is behind this ethic. The assumption is that anthropologists study poor and marginalized people (usually a roughly bounded group of poor and marginalized people). If you take that as your assumption, then the ethic makes perfect sense. Because how it is meant to be understood is that you are studying this group of Amazonian indigenous people, Bali villagers, or Papua New Guinea highlanders and they are constantly marginalized and threatened by agents of a big mean State, imperialism, colonialism, money-grubbing megacorps and so on. And to give information to these big powerful people and hide this fact from the poor Bali villagers is really a bad thing to do. Those Bali villagers are "your" people, they are who you "study". You gotta protect 'em.

But really those states, mega corps, imperialist agents etc. are also part of the study, in an obvious way once you look at a lot of current anthropology. And this point will hardly be controversial, anthropologists will tell me I am beating a dead horse. Laura Nader did after all tell us to Study Up like 40 years ago. But this logic ends up following the same points I was making of my own project above, and in case anyone thought that mine might be "special" in this way, I think that is quite wrong. Everyone is studying a mass network of people, not all of whom are poor and marginalized (nor are they necessarily mustache twirling, cigar smoking, super powered elites, the secondary default position, if a distant secondary at that). But anthropologists, I have to be emphatic, really do assume that the people they study, and the people who are legitimate groups to study in anthropology, are bounded groups of poor and marginalized people.

So I think then is that there is two contradicting viewpoints held at once. And I maintain they are both held very strongly, just one is implicit and the other is explicit. Because you can't understand and agree to that ethical stance of Open Anthropology without accepting that anthropologists study a bounded group of poor and marginalized people exclusively, and yet you can't really find an anthropologist now who would come out and say right to your face that anthropologists should only study bounded group of poor and marginalized peoples.

The reason I am making this point is not so much about this specific issue of ethics and open anthropology (of which, overall, I am favourable towards). I'm using it as a vehicle to examine this major assumption because it is radically fundamental in almost all discussions of theory, ethics, and methods. Its what I think underpins a number of different questions and comments I get about my project: you need to consider gender (aren't women marginalized here?), you need to consider class (aren't robots just for rich people?), you need to make sure your project is about serious issues not just frivolous stuff (where's the suffering?)---and on and on, various permutations exist. At the core, all of these are "wait a second, where are the poor marginalized people? You can't do a project without poor and marginalized people!" Now, there are a couple of qualifiers: first I don't want to overstate this, most anthropologists I've talked to are quite intrigued by my project and are not really hostile, second there are studies that are exceptions obviously as anthropologists projects are wideranging and idiosyncratic. My point, though, is this mindset is there, very real, and very problematic considering what anthropologists say they are or should be doing.

Edit: Also, I don't have a problem with people studying the poor or marginalized. Just a problem with the idea that this is (or should be) the entire of anthropology.

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