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To Stand Up or Stand Back: A Question of Ethics and Activism in Anthropology

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      A picture is worth a thousand words but to some, a thousand words can create a thousand pictures. In the world of documentary film making and photo journalism a picture must say it all. In the past, much like photojournalists today, anthropologists have been used during wartime to not only document the culture and chaos of certain events, but also retrieve information about certain groups in order to provide the United States with valuable information about “the enemy”. In addition, anthropology is said to have been a large part of the colonial project. Some have said that, anthropology has often rationalized and even justified, in scientific language, the domination of some people by others (think colonialism and the ridding of indigenous populations). On account of this negative reputation that was attributed to the area of study, within the past few decades guidelines and ethics have been placed on studies in order to police the work being done by anthropologists all over the globe. This was done in hopes of protecting vulnerable populations and the subjects anthropologists choose to work with.

      Though these rules and guidelines have been put together in hopes of preventing similar incidences, there seems to be debate surrounding the ethics of anthropological roles within the discipline and the broader context of the world. Many types of anthropological works exist and expose the seriousness of several issues that occur worldwide. Often times these findings are released through different mediums such as photographs and documentary film. Another form most often used is that of the text. Through photographs, films, and texts many forms of academia, including anthropologists, have been able to display some intimate and horrifying details about certain societies and cultures. Among these include practices of cannibalism, head hunting, child neglect, and starvation in times of famine. Many argue that it is our responsibility as human beings to bring peace and intervene in many of these instances but as an anthropologist our work flourishes on this concept of “participant observation” and the need to not interrupt the lives of our subjects. Does it not? The field of study has evolved from arm chair anthropology to field and empirical study but now that we are there what can we do?

      The question of how engaged an anthropologist should be with their object of study is one that has not only brought about a good amount of discussion but will continue to change, evolve, and bring about more debates throughout academia for other disciplines as well. I write this paper to not only explore the conversation that exists currently but to work through my own ideas and opinions on the engagement of academics and my role as an anthropologist and humanitarian.

The field of engaged anthropology, also known as applied anthropology, has emerged due to the number of anthropologists interested in research of human rights and policy today. According to Foster, "'applied anthropology' is commonly used by anthropologists to describe their activities in programs that have as their primary goals changes in human behavior believed to end contemporary social, economic, and technological problems, rather than the development of social and cultural theory" (1969: 54). Others write, "applied anthropologists use the knowledge, skills, and perspective of their discipline to help solve human problems and facilitate change" (Chambers, 1985:8). Among those who have jumped into this area of research and action, they have since faced many challenges that deal with in terms of ethics in their work and the activism they seek to encourage.

      Anthropology was originally about observing and reporting and at some point researchers felt it was necessary to step in and take action on certain matters that they felt were necessary. According to some scholars, critiques came from various areas of study, which included the “subjects” but also feminist, postmodern, postcolonial, and race theorists (Speed, 2006: 67). All of these scholars challenged anthropological representations of “the other” and pointed out the negative traits of  the discipline’s history and involvement with colonial power. Another issue was the production of representations that supported “othering” and dividing of people by nation or culture. This discourse and data seems to portray a time when people were not only questioning the ethics of the discipline and work done previously, but also taking the time to push for action within and across academia.

      With all this discussion and finger pointing going on throughout the discipline, it was important for anthropologists to do something to show that their intentions were not “bad”. This field of engaged anthropology was a way to make changes to human behavior that we may observe on the field, and we felt may be destructive or dangerous for the lives of others and the subjects we were studying.

      Two examples that depict my tension with the ethics of anthropology and the role I believe we as humans should play first can be seen through the works of Nancy Scheper-Hughes in Death Without Weeping and Renato Rosaldo’s Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. In Death Without Weeping, Hughes observes a practice among mothers in a shantytown of Brazil that most would call “inhumane”. In this town, conditions of high fertility and high infant mortality was extremely high, thus the death of a child was the norm for a lot of the poor families. Hughes observed that the mothers did not grieve when a weak child died, and the acceptance or desensitization the mothers felt towards child death seem to put the lives of some children at risk. They would invest only in those infants likely to survive and distance themselves psychologically from unhealthy infants and withdraw love and care.

      As an anthropologist Hughes engaged in participant observation but what action could she have taken to prevent the loss of thousands of children. To what extent should she intervene and would it have helped? I believe that having grown up with the morals and belief that every life deserves a chance, I would have done my best to change the mind sets of these mothers. Yes, there are certain rules we agree to follow as academics but as a person would I be able to adhere to this? Hughes was able to provide a breadth of new knowledge to the discipline as well as reject current research on mother-infant interaction and the belief, which Scheper-Hughes call a modern “bourgeois” notion, that mother love is a universal phenomenon. But was this greater than possibly saving the life of one or two children? One must also look at the conditions these women lived in where “economic exploitation has for centuries condemned peasants and rural workers to a marginal existence defined by hunger, disease, and ignorance” (Quinn, 2006) .

      Similarly Rosaldo writes about the practice of headhunting, which is killing and decapitating random victims.  The Ilongot describe the practice as being a rage born from grief.  Rosaldo explained how he couldn’t accept this explanation until years later, when his wife’s death caused him to confront his own rage, giving him a more an insider’s perspective of the Ilongot’s practice. He reports that the headhunter throws away his suffering by throwing away the decapitated head of his victim. Rosaldo seems to believe this is a more satisfying method of release than going through the motions of a funeral rite that we tend to engage in regularly.

      Though Rosaldo did not actually participate the headhunting he, much like Mead and her essay on cannibalism, was able to provide to academia and the world of anthropology a relative view of another cultures practices. But is there a point when we as anthropologists and academics become too relative? Again I find myself battling with both sides of the spectrum. As a human one should put value on the life of another individual and put an end to behaviors that are violent or endanger others. Simultaneously we must report what we find as an outsider and not disrupt that society or people. I would think that intervening when someone’s life is at risk is the extent or line where anthropologists, photojournalists, or documentary film makers should step in but many believe that due to the roles and position of academics we are not “obliged” to.

      Yes, these two examples were extreme one’s that dealt with loss of life and what Americans would consider punishable by law, there are other instances (less fatal) where this tension exists in study and research of groups.

A Conversation Between Young Academics

      Since I was having difficulties in finding that line or distinction between when and if it is the responsibility of academics to engage with their objects of study and to what extent, I took it to the internet and ask a friend (identity has been protected with the use of a pseudonym) who I knew for being a huge activist for social justice and human rights. In the frustration of trying to figure out what I was getting from these different texts we began a conversation where we explored our opinions and understanding of the issue:

OrganizedKhaos: ok so I am writing my paper about applied anthropology also known as engaged anthropology and it basically questions how engaged anthropologists or academics in general should be with their objects of study.

...for example if I am doing work on teen pregnancy and I am noticing that in this small town all these little girls are getting pregnant and not getting the proper info about contraception and reproduction, am I suppose to stick to my ethics and just observe? or as a human should I become engaged… and you know offer my input the whole activism side of things? you think as academics it’s up to us to write the story and hope other people act or should we do our best to engage as well?

Charlie: I think that as academics we have made the decision to abide… Well ok, this was a question I asked myself a lot freshman and sophomore year. I mean as sociologist/anthropologists we sit and we observe. We don’t interrupt the routine. We acknowledge the problems and possibly discuss it in a greater discourse but no action takes place. That is FRUSTRATING!

…with the knowledge we accumulate from observation, we should be obligated to act. nonetheless I do recognize the reasons we don’t. We are simply interviewers/observers--- we are only aware of the circumstances that our outside positions/roles (if that makes any sense) allow us to be.

...simply because we have the scholarly knowledge does not mean that we can contribute/talk to the population in a manner that may be effective, but still if I was a sociologist/anthropologist I’m not sure if I could or would abide to the guidelines that academics are expected to desire or expect from us. It simply isn’t me. And I think that was what really frustrated me when I had to make a decision regarding a major. Neither anthropology nor sociology included the action component...which is something I desire, want, and expect from myself and individuals with the ability to learn.

…really with words and no action--how far can you go?

Charlie: actually it is stupid of me to say that because...words can be action...and maybe that is how scholars/academics see their roles in society and in identifying social issues----their words are their ways of action

I’ve contradicted myself in many ways while writing...

so to make this clear…academics as of now do engage---but not to the extent I would hope...

in the context that you is the duty of the academic to present the research--- (that is their current action) ---it should be their duty as well to push the community in the right direction---from there, their job is done. At least in my view…I don’t know if this makes any sense

OrganizedKhaos: I agree with you and I think that's why I had to combine my major with pre-health or somehow add onto my discipline to incorporate that action part. I almost kind of feel useless with just words. I am not sure if it’s because of the lack of power I feel my voice has in our current society but I don’t know. I really feel like anthropology alone would not be enough for me. I am interested in other cultures but I have an innate need to help others. My family came from a place where the culture is rich beautiful and documented by many but had someone said something about their practices maybe Haiti would still have trees or violence wouldn’t be so major… I don’t know.

By just writing how am I suppose to ensure that someone else is going to care about an issue I write about or think should be acted upon you know? Or even stumble upon the article?

Charlie: true...I’m not sure...

OrganizedKhaos: have you seen this picture before?

"dying African child"

Pulitzer-prize winning photo shows a heart-breaking scene of a starving child collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center during a famine in the Sudan in 1993. In the background, a vulture stalks the emaciated child. Haunted by the horrific images from Sudan and the outrage of the American public, Carter committed suicide in 1994 soon after receiving the award.

I am not sure what I would do. I can easily say now that I would do my best to save that child’s life, but I can’t be 100% sure.

Charlie: in a situation like that...I’m not sure of I would stand still and watch that happen...but I’m not sure if I would necessarily react too. I think as much as we want to believe we are one of those people that take action when see injustice or pain...I think we also find ourselves so caught up in the moment...we do what we’re used to...I’m not sure if I am articulating a point but I think the issue with the photographer takes on a much more intense and drastic image than I had in mind.

...if I am sociologist studying a community where teen pregnancy is prevalent I think I would find myself creating ways to help that community, without second guessing.

…but when it comes to something so much out of my reach/my reality, my do I react?

it scares me to say that I would not know...that I may not take action…that my role as a photographer, writer, sociologist, and anthropologists may be my way of coping

I’m so much removed, on the outside looking in, behind a lens. And possibly that could be another reason we find ourselves so comfortable with the role of the outsider--action is not required.

OrganizedKhaos: the picture definitely does take this conversation to another level. I started the conversation on a lighter note where the action needed was a simple conversation or a few workshops. Some would say nothing life threatening. I provide the image to show another aspect of the question. Something much much deeper. It almost makes me sit back and wonder, is the message greater than the action in the specific case of this child. I do also feel like it can be broadened though. When we go to places and almost "glorify" poverty I feel.

…you're so right about the outsider view! I do feel much more comfortable and less affected when it's not "home".

…when I am taking pictures of objects of study (or scrolling through them online) or writing a paper about a certain issue I feel distanced on a number of levels both physically and emotionally.

that concept of being the outsider on the other side of the lens, book, computer screen or be it television screen really makes it easier for me at least to not act but also act. I feel like no action is expected therefore some action easier.

does that make sense?

Charlie: so maybe taking the picture was the photographer's action---but misconstrued?!?

yes!! I agree.... should we be okay with that...I’m not entirely sure

OrganizedKhaos: that's what some people suggest that his act of taking that picture was a message to the public to act. But I get so hung up on the fact that he could have picked up the child and potentially save him, you know?

Charlie: I agree... which action brings the message further

OrganizedKhaos: like one example I have less issue with is the Vietnam War picture of the young girl running in the street naked after being burned with napalm…


Charlie: I do remember that

vietnam war

OrganizedKhaos: so this photographer took the picture  but then proceeded to cover up the girl and take a number of her family members to the nearest hospital to get treated.

(read story here)

Charlie: I thought that was a boy


OrganizedKhaos: it’s a girl. she's still alive today and survived because the man who took the picture decided to save her life so not only did he do his duty as an academic in getting the story but also felt morally obligated to intervene.

can we do both?

Charlie: that proves it possible...that we can.

but I’m not sure how likely that we will.

OrganizedKhaos: ok we can, but should we? Is it our duty? Who do we answer to first humanity or academia?

I guess I just don’t know to what extent we should engage and I don’t feel like anyone has put out a suggestion or framework. I almost feel like I’m altering history or the "natural wonder" that is that certain society, as corny as it sounds.

Charlie: I feel like with that question people should automatically respond humanity....but considering story after story, incident after incident...I fear that we choose not to--

for fear, possibly physical pain, moral values, personal biases, social biases, retaliation.

we have our reasons for not engaging... but despite the physical action we discuss as "real action" I think we do engage....possibly more now than before through words--at our computers, in the libraries, on twitter/facebook

maybe we need to redefine engagement to go with our generation.

because a rally is no longer the popular way to engage..Twitter is.

OrganizedKhaos: that's true, we talked about that at the POSSE Plus retreat how "the millenials" as our generation has been termed, tend to use technology as their way of engaging with and debating the issues that go on in the world.

Charlie: so many thoughts…not sure where I’m headed

OrganizedKhaos: that's fine, that's vacilando lol (laughing out loud) this term we learned in class that suggests wandering aimlessly but being aware of it. That’s my brief interpretation and definition at least.

but remember someone mentioned how in other countries like Europe or Africa, where freedom had a price, the youth would protest and make a statement physically while Americans tweeted and post facebook statuses... are we lazy?

Charlie: YES. lol-----but maybe even more so reactionary

OrganizedKhaos: I felt like I was making a difference by texting this number or liking that status on facebook, etc. I feel like older generations try to down play our actions. I guess I do see how images and words can be a form of action now. I clearly engaged in it. I felt so involved all from behind my screen while lying in my comfy bed eating cookies probably...I’m more American than I thought!

Charlie: and I think while having this conversation my thoughts have been tweaked and changed a little...I am all for activism, protesting, rallying, I truly believe I should have been born in a different era…while I can’t help but think that when a sociologists makes a troubling observation---his/her next step should be action---I do recognize that his first steps in observing and writing was. while I see that a photographer should physically act if s/he sees the one being photographed is in pain---I do see the importance of his/her image on the front cover of TIMES. And while I can’t help but think that in many ways our generation has gotten lazier----the fact that Twitter and our actions via internet---made the struggles of Tunisia and Egypt more real than ever to young people in the west....there are two sides to engagement--who is to say which one has more weight and which one deserves more recognition

really...I don’t know if that made any sense

An Unanswered Question?

            From this conversation I came to understand and come to terms with what it is that those in academia in the fields of anthropology, sociology, etc. and those who have turned to engaged anthropology and incorporated activism in their work are doing. Though there may be no definite line where one should intervene or not, by doing something whether it is blogging, taking pictures, writing texts, or observing we are giving a voice to people and portraying the issues faced all over the world. Snapping a picture is an action. Saving a child from a burning building is an action. Writing a book is an action. Educating young teens about sex is an action. Posting a status or tweeting a link is all action. Whether you do it from behind a camera, a podium, a computer screen, or in fly to a developing country and lend a hand by engaging in that world of discourse or reality we are acting. They are all pieces that will ultimately be placed in the library of Babel and one day be picked up by another or many and become major issues.

            I do believe that value cannot be placed over one form more so than the other and though there are rules and ethics that we must abide by as academics in our fields, each person will interpret their situation differently and their level of engagement will also differ. Some will feel the need to change a behavior and push the activist agenda and some will do the same simply by putting it out there for the world to learn about. Not engaging physically does not make one less of an activist. In fact I find that they are engaging intellectually.

            I began this paper with a view that anthropology may at some times be too relative and from that lay dormant to the atrocities occurring in the world. I now end this exploration with the idea that “practical anthropologists” as named by some are not lying dormant they are educating us about other cultures and leaving us with the agency to do what we feel is right or wrong through the way we interpret our world. They do not place a moral value on the cultures of others and by not doing that eliminate hierarchies (such as the West being the best) that existed in colonial times.

            The discourse in engaged anthropology acknowledges that activism should be a part of academia whenever there is a means for it. But it does devalue its counterpart, that of the story teller. I feel that is something I also learned through the course this semester. I always thought that literature tells stories while science does things to make a difference but in fact. Both disciplines incorporate action in their everyday routine.



Speed, Shannon. 2006. At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research. American Anthropologist, Vol. 108, Issue 1, pp. 66–76

Foster, George M. 1969. Applied Anthropology. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Chambers, Erve. 1985. Applied Anthropology: A Practical Guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sara Hiat. Reviewed work(s): Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Journal of Anthropological Research. Vol. 49, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 73-77


Edna Quinn. 2006. "Death Without Weeping." Magill Book Reviews. Salem Press, 1992. 

 Charlie. Bryn Mawr College Undergraduate, 2011. Sociology Major. Skype Conversation. May 3, 2011 11:00pm- May 4, 2011 1:30am.