Activism and Applied Anthroplogy

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Private, Public, and Professional Voice: The Commodity of Culture in Applied Anthropology

The relationship between activism and anthropology is something that all anthropologists must confront at some point. For this paper, the definition of an advocate will be one who attempts to promote a certain behavior or change regarding their subjects of study.

The range of this dispute lends no better understanding of the matter. Today, research is often chosen because it lends itself well to activism, or is chosen because the evidence may help bolster an argument. Rules exist regarding how an anthropologist should protect his or her subjects and what one may do with the data recovered from study, but this overlooks a very important effect of anthropological study.

Anthropological praxis has changed considerably since the persecution of advocates in the 1940's and 50's. At that time, anthropologists who championed the rights of indigenous cultures faced political criticism from a McCarthyistic government and social mistrust from a people deeply concerned about Communist activities in the United States and abroad. The resulting oversimplification of anthropology's goals had a lasting impact on the perception of anthropologists who took up the cause of their subjects. Today, the search for new patents in biologically diverse environments such as the Amazon basin have placed anthropologists on a thin line separating indigenous peoples and profit-seeking corporations. Increasingly, anthropology's political and rhetorical power is being utilized on behalf of one side or the other, resulting in a factionalization of the profession.

My thesis is that advocate anthropology is detrimental because it promotes the commoditization of culture. That is, instead of recognizing culture as a distinct entity, anthropologists who engage in activism on behalf of their subjects endanger that culture by taking up a position in a system of power brokering where social, political, and economic rivalry and inequality are pervasive. In such a system, indigenous or marginal cultures are inherently endangered by their own peripheral existence; without the power, they are often destined to lose battles where they are pitted against a much more dominant culture or social institution.

In the 1970's, Norwegian anthropologist Georg Henrikson was asked on behalf of a Native American tribe in Canada called the Naskapi to conduct land-claims research. Since Canada had, in effect, determined the laws around which the research was to be done, including setting arbitrary definitions that delineated different tribes, the Naskapi saw the white lawyers and anthropologists as an alienating force. Henrikson recounts how a leader of the tribe refused the help of the anthropologists, because, "in his viewas long as land-claims are conducted only on the authorities' terms, the Indians are bound to lose too much" (122).

This demonstrated to Henrikson that successes might be seen as belonging to the anthropologist rather than the culture. The Naskapi saw the advocates as a "confirmation of their lack of power" (122) and as a pandering to the dominant authorities that ultimately undermined the goals and wellbeing of the tribe itself. The anthropological intercessor came from the very other that the tribe was trying to combat. This impressed on them the severity of their subjugation and powerlessness. Not only could the dominant authorities define the parameters of the lands-claim research from the outside, but they could also decide these critical issues from the inside via the anthropologists and other advocates. Thus, even though it was the goal of the advocates to have the tribe's best interests in mind, many in the tribe saw the "white advocates" as arguing with themselves, leaving out the tribe entirely.

At issue here is anthropology's role as a discipline and how that role coincides with the wellbeing of the subjects of study. Certainly, an anthropologist's first duty is to the safety of their subjects. Yet it is that same duty which makes the application of the role of advocate to the anthropologist somewhat difficult to pin down. As literal and cultural translators, anthropologists stand at a nexus of information. It is therefore necessary for an anthropologist to use his or her judgment regarding how best to present the data collected from fieldwork, including the medium it is presented in. Sensationalized accounts of a remote tribe's exotic behavior may indirectly harm them if it is in conflict with the accepted social norms of the majority. Because of the potential for misuse, this position necessarily implies a high degree of ethics.

The question is whether this role as translator can be extrapolated into a role of advocate. In many cases in South America, there is evidence of anthropologists falsifying data, including the exaggeration of population sizes in census estimates (Hill and Hurtado 206). Not only is this type of misinformation unethical but it is also detrimental to the people being advocated for. A study of reports on the genocide of the Ach people of Paraguay by Salzano and Hurtado revealed several cases where anthropologists deliberately misinformed the public to gain sympathy and, as the director of a European indigenous rights organization said, to destabilize the Stroessner military dictatorship that was in control at the time (207).

It is my argument that advocating for a people in an anthropological capacity can lead to these types of falsifications which are harmful to the people being studied and the respectability of future studies. Once an anthropologist enters the realm of advocacy, he or she becomes a spin-doctor, removing the critical objectivity necessary to establish a holistic context. The anthropologist turned advocate threatens to remove his or her subjects from the debate entirely, further sequestering them from the political and rhetorical machinations being set in place for indefinite purposes by members of different cultures. In cases where the anthropologist may have a bad professional reputation, his or her representation may actually taint the research presented with disbelief or suspicion. While in any context such a reputation would be harmful to the integrity of the data collected by such an unscrupulous anthropologist, the difference is that, as an advocate, the personal failings of that anthropologist would threaten not only the veracity of the data but the very research subjects themselves.

This is not the specter it appears to be. There is room for an ethical advocate anthropological. However, before this may be possible, there needs to be more work done to include the research subjects in the debate. In the long run, it is far more effective for the cultures to argue for themselves rather than having a representative in the anthropologist. As advocates from the culture they represent, they are not bound by the specific ethics of the anthropologist and are in a position to release information that an anthropologist may not be able to.

This brings up the three spheres of representation in anthropology: public, private, and professional. The "public voice" refers to the transparency of anthropological fieldwork and includes publications done on fieldwork, interviews, and any presentations of data collected in the field. In contrast, "private voice" refers to the dialogue that occurs within the ethical framework of anthropological research. This includes any information that is gathered that cannot be presented, either because an informant does not give his or her consent or because the situations surrounding the data involve ethical violations. The "professional voice" is the one used by anthropologists in the fashion of their role as anthropologist. Thus, utilizing field work and presenting it on behalf of an indigenous people as a way of supporting an argument those people are trying to make would be an example of a professional voice. It is this last that is the subject of this paper.

Weeks and Schensul (1993) describe this as the difference between evaluation and ethnography. Evaluation implies a value judgment is being made, and that there exists an assumption of positive and negative outcomes (54-55). It is necessary, when doing ethnography, that one be willing to explore both the positive and negative outcomes. In the case of an advocate, this means facing evidence that may be destructive to the argument that he or she is attempting to make. Here it is apparent how a conflict of interest wishing to present a culture in a certain, advantageous light may lead to falsification of data, purposeful or otherwise.

As stalwart promoters of understanding the context of a culture, those who read it make certain assumptions about the completeness of the study. However, it is, in many cases, in the best interest of the advocate to verbally obfuscate their subjects to make them seem larger in population and more deserving of whatever it is the advocate is trying to get.

This alone should be troubling for anyone seeking to promote applied anthropology. In weighing the benefits of this approach, one must recognize that the situation of an advocate anthropologist inherently suggests unethical behavior. I do not question whether or not ethical advocacy can be achieved, because I believe it can, but rather whether or not it is advantageous to risk the myriad of ethical violations that may occur when anthropologists take up such a position in relation to their subjects.

Rhetoric and power brokering will never stop, but I believe it is dangerous for an anthropologist to employ their professional voice towards specific political agendas. Research should be conducted not for the purposes of persuasion, which necessarily implies a high degree of obfuscation and unwarranted emphasis, but for the purpose of understanding. Exploiting the anthropologist's role as cultural translators will only lead to increased hardship for the people being advocated for. Therefore, given these pitfalls and the benefits of a population presenting their own representation, I believe that anthropologists should not participate in advocacy on behalf of their subjects.

-Works Cited-

Paine, Robert. (editor)
1990 Advocacy and Anthropology. Memorial University of Newfoundland,
Newfoundland, Canada.

Salzano, Francisco. and A. Magdalena Hurtado. (editors)
2004 Lost Paradises and the Ethics of Research and Publication. Oxford University
Press, New York.

Weeks, Margaret and Jean J. Schensul
1993 Ethnographic Research on AIDS Risk Behavior and the Making of Policy, in
Speaking the Language of Power: Communication, Collaboration, and
Advocacy. David Fetterman, editor. The Falmer Press, Bristol, PA.

More about this author: Bran Herbert

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