Social Anthropology and Politics

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Ethnography is a form of anthropology in which an ethnographer studies the customs and behaviors to describe a group or culture. Ethnographers can study anything ranging from a small exotic land to a classroom anywhere in the world. (Fetterman 1998, 1).

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What it means, precisely, to behave ethically and in a matter that is politically correct, is a line of inquiry that challenges this discipline. This is so because the questions raised are broad and difficult to answer. However, there are certain actions and behaviors that are universally understood to be unethical and politically incorrect as these relate to ethnography. Since the researcher’s job is to extract the relevant, unknown and critical areas of the subject’s life, culture, and daily routine, conflicting data, and subjective personalities can easily interfere with the collection and analysis of credible and usable information. Certainly, the approach and methodology employed by the researcher, as well as his or her temperament, in relation to the subject matter, all affect the integrity of the data and the conclusions drawn from it. Thus, the ethnographer’s awareness of these factors is a crucial component in the ethnographic process and should be learned, appreciated and applied by its practitioners. The accuracy of the ethnographer’s data collection efforts are routinely and continually challenged by both ethical and political factors that conflict or impair the researcher’s results. Often, these conflicts occur because the researcher is not in tune with the implicit meaning of the spoken and unspoken communication of the subject (or group of subjects).

Many communications, although apparently straightforward on the surface, are misinterpreted or misconstrued because the ethnographer is not familiar with the subtleties of the subject community. Thus, it seems, that the ethnographer’s research can be affected and even tarnished if he or she is not aware of and sensitive to the ethical and political perspectives of the subject community. This awareness will impact how the ethnographer approaches his or her methodology of acquiring valid information from different groups or cultures. Thus, the different methods that ethnographers use in their research studies, must be synchronized with the political and ethical issues that will likely affect the information elicited. Anthropological self-questioning concerning the conditions and outcomes of knowledge production are especially acute where ethnography is concerned. The basics of most anthropological guidelines stress the principles of seeking informed consent, not causing harm to individuals, leaving the field situation in the way one found it, and safeguarding confidentiality. Clearly, the more skilled ethnographers employ a great deal of thoughtfulness and organization when preparing for their research projects. Successful research can and will lead to significant findings, but poor research will not. One of the crucial steps that an ethnographer-interviewer takes in preparation of an interview, is the formulation of a grand tour question that is designed to elicit a “broad picture of the participant’s life or culture” (Fetterman 1998, 40).

Verbal interaction is the primary conduit of an interview, but can also be a source of conflict and concern unless the ethnographer is attuned to potential differences with respect to the meaning of key words and concepts. Words and expressions have different meanings in different cultures and therefore can be communicated, processed and understood in various ways and, in some cases, the completely wrong way (Fetterman 1998, 38). Often, these misinterpretations can lead to ethical conflicts when a subject takes offense at an ethnographer’s accidental poor choice of wording or the ethnographer makes an erroneous assumption or judgment about the subject or their native land. A significant aspect of an ethnographer’s research methodology is travel. Many ethnographer-researchers travel to remote parts of the world in order to witness and engage with other cultures (“immersion”). It is important that the ethnographer strive to adapt to the subject culture and, at the same time, guard against his or her own cultural biases to be perceived by the subjects. What is clear is that this form of cultural immersion enables the ethnographer to learn a great deal about the communication and cultural aspects of the subject as well as their collective sense of self. A particular concern noted by Madison occurs when the ethnographer assumes a posture of superiority. This often leads to and results in a tacit, or overt, power struggle between the researcher and the subject, and positionality arises as a result. This dynamic is considered an ethical concern because it is neither conducive for the ethnographer or the native subject to have power over the other. In the case where the ethnographer becomes too self-obsessed due to his or her superior education, they may lose track of the reason as to why they are really there, and start to overpower the natives. (Madison 2005, 105).

Certainly, this power struggle will result in inferior data. Ethnographies are designed to be holistic accounts that strive to present comprehensive accounts of another society and its culture, showing the interrelation of elements such as political organization, religion, law, kinship, mythology, and subsistence practices. Intimate, face-to-face research can be politically sensitive and can heighten the self-consciousness of all parties involved. The experiential and subjective nature of this mode of research opens anthropological reflections to the humanities and to ways of becoming involved in social issues (Brown 2004). Despite all of the incredible research undertaken by ethnographers, they must be continually on the alert for ethical, as well as political, issues that arise in the course of their research. In fact, political concerns may be ever more problematic because of their subtlety. Community politics has always been closely involved with issues of research and ethics. More attention has been dedicated to this political concern, as it affects ethnography, since the 1970s. Issues involving gender, class, ethnicity, social strata and the like can easily affect the quality of data obtained by ethnographic research. Even when the intent is to the contrary, an ethnographer can at times make his or her subject feel uncomfortable or self-conscious by the way that questions are phrased or by over-sharing their political opinion. Generally, people are politically sensitive. Each culture has different perspectives and tolerances that are acceptable to them. An outsider trying to immerse one’s self into an entirely different culture, can unintentionally but easily cause political conflict and sensitivity to surface. In groups or cultures where a specific political view is widely shared and, on the surface accepted as the norm, many subjects will hide their opposing thoughts because of the prevailing political thought in their communities.

The political climate will often inhibit or dilute the communication of the truth in people’s hearts. John Provinse, was mainly concerned with problems of a political nature regarding ethnography. When Australian and Melanesian ethnography was developed in the early 1900s, it influenced studies of kinship, religion and social structure. However, there was no emphasis on the study of political issues. Since these nations were small, they did not have widely differing political opinions. While studying in Melanesia, anthropologist Malinowski decided to create a functional school of anthropology where the primary focus would be on the study of systems and behavior in various societies. This opened up one of the earlier definitive ethnographic study of political movements and studies. This movement toward political anthropology began when trained students from small lands encountered large-scale lands in Africa. In fact, they were compelled to study government and politics (Provinse 1953.18). Since, initially, they were not familiar with these types of society and political problems, they had to compare their data to other anthropologists working in very different places. Radcliffe-Brown came up with a definition to define the politics which were involved in isolating essentials of political organization: In studying political organization, we have to deal with the maintenance or establishment of social order, within a territorial framework, by the organized exercise of coercive authority through the use, or the possibility of use, of physical force (Hammer 2002, 22). This shift in ethnographers studies, produced a change in the type of data they now collect through observation. It also caused the rapid growth of political parties and the emergence of new political regimes which altered anthropologists’ conception of ethnography.

Anthropological studies dealing with national political parties and their impact upon local political events began to appear in the late 1950s. In a period of contending interests, most studies deal with competition, with conflict, and with rapid change (Gluckman 1965). Given the unique nature of ethnographic research, which distinguishes it from impersonal archival work, mass-administered questionnaires and number crunching, public surveillance, and more remote ways of interpreting people’s behaviors and their meanings, many fields and diverse interests have become attracted to ethnography (Gluckman 1965). Ethnography, when carefully undertaken and performed, can yield incredibly enlightening information about a culture. Clearly, the most important discoveries are those that are not obvious but require digging deeper and penetrating barriers. When the ethnographer is able to overcome or account for ethical or political concerns that might affect the quality of data obtained, and then controls for these factors, this will likely yield more accurate information and provide a basis for more realistic conclusions relating to a subject culture.

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