Tuesday, February 28, 2012


This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. It came up in the closing Panel Discussion I attended at the Inquiry Conference last Friday, and relates to the many articles I read from Self, Sex, and Gender in Cross-cultural Fieldwork, not to mention some ethical tie-ins with IRB approval. I've been wondering: how should I present myself to others in the field? There are two levels to this, the decision to represent myself in a certain way, and then how to assure that I'm successfully doing so.

I think this is trickier because of the cross-cultural context. I have a working social knowledge about professionalism and very specific ideas about my role as a researcher from my own culture's point of view. But does the role of a scholarly researcher have a place in this other culture? And what about professional comportment? Even if professionalism is a similar concept in another culture, there may be slightly different ways to signal it. I'm assuming that there is a difference on these points, but where can I find out more about how I will be seen while in the field? I will probably not be able to communicate fully and clearly my ideas on professionalism, the importance of anthropological field research, etc, to my informants. But I at least want to try to make myself distinct from ecotourists and other Westerners, right? What will be my role in the community and my impact on it, from their point of view?

Part of the reason I'm concerned about this is just the desire to do the right thing and satisfy the demands (as much as I can) of both cultures, but there are practical considerations as well as the abstract ideal. For example, I want to understand and define my role in another community in order to form relationships with informants, and I hope those relationships will provide me with data. I also sincerely want to form human connections, but I shouldn't completely overlook the fact that I want something from them. (Thanks to Ashley for pointing this out in lecture.) This brings up the concept of reciprocity, which was mentioned in class and on one of the IRB forms we reviewed for class as well. I would like to practice appropriate reciprocity and will bear that in mind when I'm in the field, but it still seems vague to me and I wish I had someone to tell me exactly what to do and when to do so.

Here's a concrete example of my reason for questioning professionalism: in a short documentary* I watched the other day, there is footage of an anthropologist landing in a remote area and greeting the people of an isolated Amazonian tribe he works with. He is a head and shoulders taller than these people and looks like a typical gangly white anthropologist man, and greets the unclothed Amazonians (on film, by the way, how/why is there footage of this?) warmly, touching their heads and hugging them. The way he touches their heads seems jarringly condescending to me, though in all likelihood it's a proper greeting and a may be a sign of respect in their culture. His close physical contact with them defies my sensibilities of professional behavior and makes me cringe slightly, to be honest. But probably he knows what he's doing and is doing it well. To my understanding of social situations in different cultures, his behavior isn't beyond normal, it's just my idea of work and science being separate from sociality, and my expectation of professionalism, that creates this contradiction for me. If he were to act like a stereotypical clinical or corporate professional would in our culture, he would probably seem like an alien. (I think I chose “alien” here for connotations of sterility and cold logic in our culture based on common portrayals of extraterrestrials.) On the other hand, he does exhibit behavior here that's “alien” or at least possibly inappropriate based on my cultural frames.

So how do I go from noticing this conundrum to solving it? Perhaps I shouldn't overstate the issue. I tend to think that Spanish cultural views of professionalism aren't too far off from American ones, and maybe Ecuadorean culture is close enough to Spanish on that point to gloss over the difference. Going even a step further, Quechua indigenous peoples have had contact with Spaniards and other Westerners for several hundred years, and consider themselves to be more civilized that other indigenous peoples like the Achuar (their perception, according to Dr. Nuckolls in lecture). It's apparent here that I would be stretching it to assume that there are no cultural differences about these things, but maybe I don't need to stress about it too much either. Just remember that I'm working with other human beings, not aliens, and be willing to readjust my frames and behavior when I realize that the situation calls for it. It's hard to live with an answer like that, but for now I'll pretend like I think it's somewhat conclusive.

*The film is called Amazon and was directed by Kieth Merrill in 1997 for IMAX, and narrated by Oscar winner Linda Hunt (she played Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously). It's a terrible documentary though, I'm afraid it creates stereotypes about the exotic Amazon jungle and "primitive Natives" rather than serving a true educational purpose. Actual quote from the script about the many isolated and/or undiscovered tribes deep in the Amazon: "with no sense of time beyond tomorrow, they live in hiding, cradled in an everlasting present." (In context this refers both to tribes that have had some contact with us before fleeing and those which have yet to be contacted or located.) Bit of a generalized assumption about other cultures' perception of time? I think so.

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