ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P38)

Moral certainty and ambiguity in research: anthropology's enlightenment legacies and the politics of ethnography

Location Quincentenary Building, Seminar Room
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Richard Martin (University of Queensland) email
David Trigger (University of Queensland) email
Mail All Convenors

Summary

This panel addresses moral certainties and ambiguities in relationships between researchers and those occupying their field-sites. We ask how the enlightenment project of a science of society fits with anthropologists' personal political positions, social obligations and career investments.

Long Abstract

What has become of the enlightenment project of a science of society informed by sympathy for fellow human beings? How is scholarly research now complicated by anthropology's multi-faceted relationships with those once termed 'informants'? Are those with whom we work as research subjects also social movement collaborators, business partners and / or intimate friends? Much writing has canvassed overlaps and differences between theoretical analysis, research applied to social problems and self-reflexivity on the part of the investigator. Which strands of enlightenment thinking engage most with these diverse conditions of ethnographic inquiry today? In particular, anthropology's empathetic identification with those for whom research remains perplexing if not remote from everyday concerns, leads often enough to researchers' senses of ambiguity about the moral dimensions of our endeavors and ultimate outcomes from our intellectual work. This panel seeks papers from the wide range of settings in which anthropology's enlightenment aim of reaching understanding melds with other social, political and economic imperatives encountered in diverse 'fields' of inquiry.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The emotional, political, and analytical labor of engaged anthropology amidst violent political conflict

Author: Rosa Cordillera Castillo (Freie Universität Berlin)  email

Summary

Researching suffering such as those in contexts of violent political conflict implicates reciprocity and witnessing. It entails at the same time an emotional, political, and analytical labor and troubles the separation of the self and other.

Long Abstract

Given the harsh realities that my interlocutors live through in southern Philippines where there is rife human rights violations and violent political conflicts, it becomes difficult and arguably unethical to assume a position of neutrality particularly since my interlocutors often perceived me as a source of hope and aid. My particular persuasion follows the call of Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois for anthropological witnessing which "positions the anthropologist inside human events as a responsive, reflexive, and morally or politically committed being" (2003:26). But what does witnessing, engagement and reciprocity entail? I tackle in this paper the various tensions I faced and how I negotiated and strategized through these tensions in my ethnographic research in a Moro village where a secessionist movement holds sway and where violence waxes and wanes but never fully goes away. These tensions are not only limited to questions of reciprocity and witnessing but also to related questions of positionality and the formation of my own subjectivity as a researcher conducting an intellectual inquiry in a politically volatile and dangerous field site. I argue that engagement entails at the same time an emotional, political and analytical labor. My multiplex subject positions also troubles the separation of the self and the other in anthropological research.

Learning together: field research and inquiries among Capoeira practitioners in Salvador da Bahia and Barcelona

Author: Theodora Lefkaditou (University of Barcelona)  email

Summary

The paper discusses the creative process of carrying out field research and theoretical analysis among Capoeira practitioners. From learning about to learning from, I suggest that anthropology’s relevance lies in the possibility of learning with the people we meet in the field.

Long Abstract

The present paper aims to discuss the creative process of carrying out field research and theoretical analysis among Capoeira teachers and apprentices in Bahia, Brazil and Barcelona, Spain. As "praxical beings", both anthropologists and the people in the field may think and act together transforming the world. First, I consider the implications of changes in status -from immigrant, anthropologist, white female tourist, and non apprentice to apprentice- as ways of relatedness and involvement in different contexts. Then, I focus on how communication was built and made possible in a series of small and unexpected -for both researcher and social subjects-"discoveries" concerning history, myths, philosophies and human nature. By "(de)mystifying" history, questioning differences and similarities and reflecting on "ones' own philosophy" and desires, the social subjects engaged into conversations that preoccupy people living in today's changing world. By shifting perspective from learning about to learning from, as Tim Ingold argues, I suggest that anthropology's social and political relevance lies in the possibility of learning with the people we meet in the field.

Moral outrage and anthropological knowledge: what will stop the extermination of native Amazonians in voluntary isolation?

Author: Laura Rival (University of Oxford)  email

Summary

20 ‘uncontacted’ Huaorani were slaughtered and 2 girls kidnapped in retaliation for the killing of two ‘civilised Huaorani’. The Ecuadorian state abducted the girls and sent 6 warriors to jail. I analyse my attempts to make sense of the events and end with a reflection on ontological politics.

Long Abstract

I am writing this paper to clarify my ideas about moral relativism and ontological politics, and the ethical issues that Amazonianist anthropology has raised since the publication of Darkness in El Dorado. In retaliation for the 'spear killing' of a 'civilised' Huaorani couple (5 March 2013), 20 'uncontacted' Huaorani women and children were slaughtered, and two female children kidnapped (25 March). After months of evasiveness, the Ecuadorian state finally reacted by abducting the two little girls, and sending six warriors to jail (26 November). Each of these actions caused a moral outrage locally, nationally, and internationally. The paper discusses the ways in which I was successively called by Huaorani friends, Ecuadorian anthropologists, the police, and indigenous rights campaigners to use my knowledge and expertise to advise on the best course of action. I analyse my phronetic attempts to make sense of the events while remaining an objective witness, and my feelings of powerlessness. The feeling of not knowing all the facts, of being manipulated through hidden agendas, and of being an outsider all played an important part in the decisions I made throughout the crisis. I end with a reflection on the tension between explaining facts, behaviour, and values on the one hand, and guiding action on the other.

Ethnography, critique, and the ambiguity of ethical inquiry in the contemporary

Author: Richard Martin (University of Queensland)  email

Summary

This paper asks how critical indigenous theory might develop forms of ethical inquiry in contemporary Aboriginal Australia. I specifically focus on the challenge of writing and the meaning of ethnographic work about northern Australia's Gulf Country, both in the academy and in the context of litigation.

Long Abstract

With Writing Culture (1986) and other publications throughout the 1980s and 1990s, anthropology's claim to absolute knowledge and objective authority were critiqued. While holistic ethnographies continue to appear, such representations increasingly incorporate a reflexive turn, whereby anthropologists grapple with the challenge of 'being in culture while looking at culture' (as James Clifford puts it in The Predicament of Culture). At the same time, particularly in Australia, anthropology is often called upon to authorise a certain kind of 'truth' about Indigenous people for consumption by the government and other interested parties like the mining industry, as well as Indigenous people themselves, for whom epistemological questions relevant to the discipline may detract from projects of cultural revival drawing on ethnography. This paper examines this predicament by reflecting on my doctoral research about the Gulf region of northern Australia, which combined anthropology with the analysis of literary texts, and subsequent engagement in native title and cultural heritage work across the same region oriented towards the production of expert knowledge for court proceedings. Cognisant of the stakes involved for Indigenous research subjects caught within 'a system of distributed misery' (Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment), this paper asks how critical indigenous theory might develop forms of ethical inquiry within the contemporary that avoid the obvious pitfalls of immanent critique.

Scholarship, sentiment and strife in Australian anthropology

Author: David Trigger (University of Queensland)  email

Summary

The paper canvasses changing relationships with study participants over several decades of research in northern Australia. What have been the implications of being variously included, excluded, embraced emotionally and confronted? How do such relationships become entwined with research outcomes?

Long Abstract

Desire to achieve cross cultural understanding through empirical study, arguably informed by European Enlightenment ideals seeking a science of society, was a key motivation from the beginning of my fieldwork in northern Australia. My paid job was to record sites of significance to Aboriginal people and my broader doctoral ethnography addressed the complexities of intercultural relations in a post-settler nation. After 35 years of relationships with residents of the Gulf Country I now reflect on both certainties and ambiguities in my life as an ethnographer. My informants have been fictive relatives wanting to incorporate my family members in the city into the idiom of kinship, Christians hoping for my salvation, activists wanting my collaboration in a politics of indigenism, individuals desiring my support for their economic aspirations, claimants of rights in land and cultural heritage seeking my performance as an expert witness in court, and persons variously affectionate, inclusive, respectful, and yet at times aggressive, hostile and dangerously abusive. The paper will canvass these multidimensional relationships seeking explication of what it means for the researcher's personal life to engage so broadly with subjects of study encountered over many years.

The consequences of being unqualified: therapeutic interviewing and the vulnerable anthropologist

Author: Karolina Kuberska (University of St Andrews)  email

Summary

This paper explores the unintended therapeutic value of anthropological interviews on intimate and largely unspoken-of topics and the moral consequences for the anthropologist as a recipient of confidential information.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on fieldwork conducted among migrant women to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, on the topic of sobreparto, a traditional post-partum illness as well somatisation of emotions into illnesses. Research involved establishing relationships with female informants and multiple (mostly unrecorded) conversations about women’s life histories, punctuated with pregnancies. Because talking about past traumas may be difficult and painful, I tried to reciprocate this openness and vulnerability that my informants offered. With time, however, I realised that it was my listening to their personal narratives which constituted my “gift” to them, quasi-therapy sessions with an unqualified anthropologist. They would present me with narrations of their difficult times, I would acknowledge these – often previously unspoken of – reminiscences by taking them away with me. When I thought about those conversations I had with these women, it occurred to me that they were telling me things which they would not – or could not – tell people around them, for fear of being forever judged or because what they were saying might change the relationship with their children forever. Rapes, unsuccessful abortions, a persistent feeling of not wanting to be pregnant with a girl, hopes of miscarriage – I became the treasury and the treasurer, both strangely fortunate and overburdened. Rather than offering satisfying answers, this paper points to multiple issues, starting from whether this technically volunteered information can (or should) be recounted elsewhere, and ending with how the anthropologist-turned-accidental-therapist deals with the unsolvable burden of other people’s pasts.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.