Re: activism in Anthropology

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Thu, 11 Jan 1996 11:54:13 -0330

I come down generally on the side of the argument that anthropologists ought
to seriously consider being activists on issues involving the people they
have studied, issues about which they happen to have specialized knowledge.
I thus go beyond the motherhood statement that *everyone* should do the
right thing and stand up for justice, etc. Because of the intimate nature of
their guest relationship with the group they study, anthropologists with
field experience are often in a special position, one which carries with it
a very special responsibility.

Ethnographers are often in a unique position because field work, if properly
done, ought to give one access to a good general understanding of all sides
of an issue, compared with either someone with brief local experience (e.g.
a tourist or a journalist) or someone comming from a more specialized
discipline or a more limited professional role (e.g. medical practitioner or
development worker - although there are many anthropologists with a pretty
narrow, even blinkered, focus, I admit). In the best of all possible worlds,
activism is best undertaken solely by members of the local groups which are
directly involved in an issue. But the links anthropologists also have with
'outside' institutions often also contribute to their priviledged ability to
act as activists, at least in relation to their hosts.

Notice I say in the opening paragraph "ought to seriously consider"; unless
one undertakes to engage in activism as part of the conditions agreed to
with the host community when one undertakes a field research project, then I
respect the right of those who are uncomfortable with this role, or who find
their expertise includes nothing of use to the hosts on a specific issue, to
choose to opt out.

There are many hazards in the activist, or advocacy, role for the
anthropologist. However, I am not referring here to the issue that our 'job'
is to observe, document, analyze and explain, and advocacy is not covered by
this. This seems to imply that the activist activity might detract from
these other undertakings. The core of the anthropological field method is
participant observation. Every society I am aware of is in the widst of
change. Activism in the field often involves nothing more than engaging in
participant observation of social change. Activism, per se, need not detract
from a person's ability to also document and analyse according to the high
disciplinery standards of his or her peers. It is up to these peers to
demonstrate that a person's judgement is impaired when they review the
activist's published academic work. I ask for no special dispensation for
anyone because they also happen to engage in advocay. While you may be able
to cite examples of people who are activists and who appear to loose their
objectivity, I can cite examples of such people who do not. Loss of the
ability to rationally assess a situation as as fatal to activism itself as
it is to academic scholarship. This is, in my view, a false issue.

However, one of the possible hazzards I *am* particularly concerned with is the
potential for activism to create new forms of dependency. I think we must
keep an eye out for this problem, and take steps to alter our behaviour if
we see this process starting to occur. Another hazzard is anthropological
activists who limit themselves to "cultural preservation"; apart from
probably being a futile undertaking for an outsider, without there being a
strong indigenous movement already under way, it has the appearence of being
self-serving, by activily supporting anthropology's special interest in
cultural difference.

Finally, *every researcher* in the social disciplines ought to feel obliged
to make available the results of their research to their host group, in a
form which can be most suitably used by them to advance their own interests.

Adrian Tanner, Dept of Anthropology, Memorial University, St John's,
Newfoundland, Canada. A1C 5S7. email Tel 709 737
8868 fax 737 8686