Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Friday, April 19, 2013


Applied & Professional Practice 1

University of Western Australia

Honours Seminar ANTH APP1


Marcia Helene Hewitt 10436125

3 May 2013


Essay question: What specific challenges arise for anthropologists working as activists?



Title: Voyeurs or Eyes of God?


What immediately comes to mind in addressing this question about anthropologists in dangerous fields is the statue of the three monkeys, with hands over their eyes, ears and mouth. The proverbial principle  is “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.


Well, for the activist anthropologist, it is easy enough to “speak no evil” but to see no evil or hear no evil is probably nigh impossible.


Patricia Omidian´s experiences  in Afghanistan illustrate the fact that activist anthropologists, in her case working with unarmed Quakers in Pakistan, were in precarious positions as to who they could or could not speak to.  In Kabul she was exposed to kidnapping and murders of young men between the ages of 15 and 30, who were often kidnapped on their way to school (Omidian, P., 2009). Kidnappings occurred on the accusation that a certain person may have said something rude or disloyal about someone who was held in high regard, such as Ahmad Shah Masoud, a war hero from the north. In these cases, engaging with someone politically or even socially could endanger the person.  An anthropologist in a situation like this would have to know who to speak to, who not to speak to, and whether to speak at all. Checkpoints for the Taliban were also points of danger. Foucault´s theory of historical a priori  is crucial here.  Every anthropologist should study deeply about the history of the region to which they will travel, and about all political conflicts and even potential political conflicts in the region of research.


The anthropologist´s oath to “do no harm” would oftentimes be difficult to keep, as one would not always know what the outcome of even a “harmless” conversation could be.


Whether to work with the United States military or not would also be a dilemma, as in some cases, this would compromise one´s safety.  Conventional wisdom  would tell us that being under the wing of the United States would be “safer” but in fact remaining neutral would often be the safer position, and would also mean that ordinary townsfolk would be more likely to tell you things.


Seeing and knowing can, in many instances, make one morally complicit. Does “do no harm” mean doing nothing? Philippe Bourgois´acounts of  crack culture in New York’s Spanish Harlem were poignant reminders that children growing up in the cocaine culture are sometimes used to run drugs  as young as four years of age( Bourgois, P. 2003 ). Bourgois, in his three years there, was deft at becoming friends with the locals, and accepted by them, and so in his case his accounts have been useful in policy about drug cultures in other areas.  The question in my mind when using child informants is obviously one of the ethics of knowing.  Once one knows what should one do next?  As anthropologists are not doctors or psychologists, one wonders whether we become voyeurs on the pain and suffering of others, or whether we are eyes of God, witnesses that can tell others what is happening in a specific area.  Bourgois´ethnography has been also a best seller so in his case, he has been a very successful “witness” to the world, and hopefully from his work there can be successful policy in the area of child welfare.


Those ethnographers who witness such human rights violations as female genital mutilation, lip enlargement with plates and neck stretching with rings around the necks of young girls can do little else than take photographs and write. Does seeing something of this nature engender powerlessness? Is this powerlessness sometimes incapacitating? Or is there power in joining up with such groups as Amnesty and local groups to stop human rights violations? The theoretical problem here is ; are anthropologists allowed to state that such cultural practices as these are indeed a human rights violation?  Anthropologists need to work with United Nations committees about rights of the child to have any real effect to change these situations.


The theoretical problem of ethnographic relativism also comes to mind.  For  Kayan women in Tibetan Burma, putting rings on the neck of a 5 year old, with a larger one each year, is interpreted by them as enhancing beauty, and ensuring that the woman will marry within her own tribe.  This all sounds very nice to the cultural relativist, but in fact, the rings push down the collar bone & compress the rib cage.  The neck is not really lengthened but the process deforms the clavicle (Mirante, E, 2006).


This type of “beauty enhancement”, defended by some cultural relativists, unfortunately is done without the child´s consent or understanding of the medical implications. Further, this procedure is now being used to draw tourism.  The young girl is sat in the street and people pay a bit of money to look at her or photograph her.  This surely is pure child exploitation.


Again the anthropologist is faced with the question “am I imposing Western liberal views on this culture” or should I appeal to the United Nations and write what I have seen? The defense of these practices as theoretically culturally particular do not always weigh up to the damage they do to the child´s physical and psychological development.


Where is the line?


Serious questions of ethics arise when doing activist field work. If there is a universal line between “moral” and “immoral” then when does one cross that line being a witness to torture, or beheadings?  Is seeing even immoral?


When seeing in itself becomes a travesty occurs in the case of activists who study pornography.  With all good intention to improve the world in which we live, activists might view pornography to see when that industry “crosses the line” and how to go about classifying pornography.  Substantial studies have shown that viewers of pornography are at risk for increased gender violence, self-harm, addiction, increased infidelity within marriage and desensitisation (Lubano, K. Dr. , 2006). This brings up the very real question, like the three little monkeys, how much can one see before one is oneself corrupted or polluted?


In cases of activists studying or participating in various cults or witchcraft, are these anthropologists in danger of being put under “curses” or “spells”.  I spoke with one anthropologist who told me that he had been with an Aboriginal tribe for about a year in the Northern Territory and now suffered from terrible stomach aches. He had been in some kind of disagreement with a tribal member who engaged in witchcraft and he was afraid that he was under some kind of “spell”. (Dring, D. 2008,  Personal communication).


To conclude, anthropologists, and activists in particular , are exposed to a range of moral, physical and psychological (and even spiritual) threats. The challenges of physical safety are more obvious ones, but the challenges of moral obligation, ethical strictures, psychological effects of seeing, and in fact post traumatic stress disorders from various field engagements. There is also the stress of negotiation, when those whom the researcher must protect are at odds with government agencies, with whom the researcher must maintain good relations. Whilst having a commitment of transparency, there are times when researchers in politically charged areas must hide their identities.  Researchers are very often working in cultures whose paradigmatic axioms are totally different than their own, as in the case of neck rings on young girls.  In these cases researchers often suffer from not being able to stop the pain and exploitation that they witness and write about.


As I have written this with the episteme of an applied anthropologist, I would like to suggest that universities and other funding organisations of anthropological research who are the beneficiaries of the anthropological findings provide more comprehensive preparation for entering dangerous fields and even offer debriefing time and psychological support for anthropologists who return from dangerous areas of work.


The possibility of true moral jeopardy that can cause ongoing psychological harm, such as has been studied in people who view hardcore pornography over a long period of time, needs to be taken into account by universities who fund people to do work on pornography or torture and other high risk areas.





Bourgois, Phillipe. 2003. In Search of Respect. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.


Dring, David. 2004. ABC documentary   Filmmaker. Customary Law. Personal communication. 2008.


Foucault, M. 1979. Power, Truth and Strategy.  Working Papers.  Pp. 29-48. England. Penguin Books.


Fukui, Atsumi & Westmore, B. 1994. “To See or Not to See: The debate over pornography and its relationship to sexual aggression”.  Journal of Psychiatry for Australia and New Zealand.


Lubano, K. Dr. 2006. “Pornography putting viewers to deviant tendencies” online journal Digital Standard London.  Kenya Medical Research Institute. Seniour lecturer at University of Nairobi.

[accessed 19 April 2013]


Mirante, Edith, T. 2006. “The Dragon Mothers Polish Their Metal Coils” Guernica Magazine.

http.// dragon_mothers.

[retrieved April 16 2013].


Omidian, P. 2009. “Living and Working in a War Zone: An Applied Anthropologist in Afghanistan. Practicing Anthropology. Vol. 31, No. 2. Spring 2009.


Rastorfer, Jean-Marc. 1994.  On the Development of Kayah & Kayan National Identity. Bankok. Southeast Asian Publishing House.


Sider, Gerald M. 2009. “Can Anthropology ever be innocent” Anthropology Now Vol 1 (1): 43-50.





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