I had a writing assignment for my Anthropology class. Find an article published in The American Anthropologist magazine, write a summary followed by commentary. The subject was up to the student.
So I went to the college library and started to go through the volumes of back issues. What I found appalled and frightened me.
There were numerous articles written after 9/11 that dealt with violence. Not surprising for work by academics for academics, the focus was on trying to discover Why They Hate Us. The main unifying theme found through all of these works was that violence was an aberration. The ground state of humanity (the authors insisted) was peace, cooperation, good fellowship and concern for others.
This is where I became appalled. History teaches us in no uncertain terms that violence is the natural state of human beings. We’re the killer apes, the master predators, the most successful land-dwelling beings on the planet considering the environments we inhabit. There’s no place on Earth that’s free from conflict, no society that doesn’t spawn its own crop of violent criminals.
The reason why I was frightened was the way that the academic community prepared for violent encounters. They ignore it!
Consider that for a moment. Many Anthropologists are obligated to go out and gather data. There are perhaps more of these learned men and women out in the world in order to further their careers than any other discipline found at the Ivory Tower. Archeologists dig up ancient battlefields in Iraq, study the great apes found in African countries torn by terrible ethnic violence, and actually walk into the poorest neighborhoods found anywhere to talk to those who still “live by the old ways.” By doing so, they are removing themselves from a protected environment and deliberately placing their all-too-frail flesh in harm’s way.
Heck, I’d think twice about walking into some of these situations. And most of the researchers do it without thinking at all.
I did manage to find one article that took an accurate and realistic look at the violence that researchers encounter. It was written by J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, and it was entitled “Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork amid Violence and Terror” (Vol 104-1).
The author had studied the street children found in Port-au-Prince who, in order to survive, are forced to be as violent and as vicious as any street gang found anywhere in the world. One thing’s for sure, Kovats-Bernat has balls as big as churchbells.
The danger to researchers in the field is considerable. According to the article, at least 42 percent have encountered violent assault (rape, robbery, assault, murder). 22 percent report living through times of political turmoil (riots, warfare), 12 percent report “factional conflicts” (feuds within the groups they’re studying), and 2 percent report hostage taking incidents or kidnapping. Something tells me that the last percentage has no where to go but up.
To survive himself, K-B and his assistant would conduct interviews in the street while facing each other so they could watch each other’s backs. They wore their shirts untucked so the kids wouldn’t know if they were armed. At times they wouldn’t work to correct mistaken assumptions as to their purpose or jobs, since the gangs would quickly realize that mere Anthropologists didn’t enjoy the protection of the police.
To those of you who’ve had to deal with security matters, this just sounds like good sense. The problem is that these methods violates some of the ethical guidelines set down by the American Anthropological Association. Researchers who use similar methods may very well find that they can’t use the data collected because they didn’t follow the ethical guidelines.
I’ve got 3 quarters to go before I earn my Bachelors. People wonder why I haven’t expressed an interest in earning a Masters degree, maybe even a Doctorate. After reading this post I don’t think they’ll wonder why I just wouldn’t fit in.