Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Jared Diamond Post at Crooked Timber: Just Because....

Feeling somewhat frustrated with the lack of coherency in all the never-ending discussion, I posted this up at Crooked Timber where the thread of comments on their post, Diamond's Vengeance seems never-ending:

Perhaps, it is true that we need a more populist voice for Anthropology because there is much very basic anthropology getting lost in this thread and, I might add, the exchanges at Savage Minds.

When I conducted my fieldwork in the 1980’s and 1990’s (before IRB’s), I was told many a story in a pick-up truck. Those stories were the jumping off point for my research. I would have followed that story up with formal interviews, with the notebook out, quotes recorded as carefully as possible, and having obtained informed consent as to what would be recorded and what published. It would have taken a long time to contextualize the meaning of that story. (Read that last sentence, carefully, because it speaks volumes about what Jared Diamond failed to do.)

The ethics dilema: As an anthropologist, I am compelled to “do no harm”. The determination of harm can only come from a detailed participant observation experience in which we struggle (with much weakness and some arrogance) to determine the consequences of our research. I, myself, have a pile of fieldnotes with names, dates, and detailed stories. In graduate school at Northwestern, where there is a large African studies program, we young students—anthropologists, historians, and political scientists, alike—drank many a beer while pondering the fate of our yet uncollected notes: should we keep them ourselves, place them on deposit in the library to be viewed upon request, seal them up with a 30 year rule. But, most importantly, how will we know what is “harm” when we doing that recording? At no time would we have concluded that a story in a pick up truck from one individual admitting to acts deemed illegal in a modern nation-state be appropriate for publication. This would clearly be harm. This is clearly unethical.

(I often point out to my students that a film like China Blue, which was made inside the PRC with hidden cameras, could not have been made by an anthropologist. We are simply not permitted those liberties according to our ethical codes.)

But back to our main point. Diamond’s ethical lapse reveals the reasons why we cannot place any stock in his anaylsis. Diamond, apparently, had no rapport with what we anthropolgists might call a research population. He did not have the kind of on-going, “boots on the ground” (if you will permit the tortured metaphor), hard-fought, give and take relationship with the individuals he purports to discuss. Had he that relationship, we would not be having this debate. Nor would we be speculating on his possible alternate motives. It would not be about him, if you will; rather, we would be discussing the data that he brings to the table, the multiplicity of stories and discussions that he should be citing to support his argument. But that would have been just another boring ethnography and, after all, who wants to read that?

I venture to say that the story seemed “sellable” because it tapped into that great white hunter/intrepid explorer meme. Driving with savages is way more cool than watching birds or sweating over fieldnotes. Sucks to be professional and ethical. (Before everyone jumps on the bitter anthropologist attack, I am laughing my ass off in this last bit.)

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