Problematic Ventures in Interdisciplinary Field Projects

Joseph Brooks

University of California, Santa Barbara


I am a PhD student in Linguistics. Early on in my program, I volunteered to assist at a workshop held at a university in Papua New Guinea that was supposed to teach the local participants how to document their own languages. There I witnessed what I considered to be at best misguided and at worst unethical behavior on the part of the foreign organizers of the workshop vis-à-vis the Papua New Guinean attendees, most of whom were poor villagers. There were many problems with the way in which the workshop was managed. It was conducted in English rather than the language all the participants spoke, Tok Pisin. Instead of making audio recordings, the standard practice in language documentation, participants were directed to produce written texts. This is because the organizers sought to amass a corpus of texts in the participants’ languages that would be useful for machine translation research, and it was claimed this would help document the participants’ languages by automatizing parts of the documentation process. Those who did not speak English were at a disadvantage, and those who were illiterate could hardly participate at all. The participants spent two weeks unwittingly producing data for the organizers’ research in computational linguistics, with no real benefit to themselves. In my conversations with participants as well as faculty at the university, there was a great deal of discontent with the workshop for these and other reasons.

When an article extolling the success of the workshop appeared in the Journal of Language Documentation and Conservation a year later, I was appalled. There was a great chasm between what I had witnessed and how the article represented the workshop. The article described it as an outstanding success that contributed to language preservation and was a real hit with the participants. To my mind, this was dishonest and unethical.

I struggled to decide whether and how to respond. The prospect of a conflict with a senior researcher worried me; nor did I want to earn a reputation for being a troublemaker. I also felt uncomfortable speaking for others. However, I did have a strong sense of how negatively the participants I had interacted with experienced the workshop, and some had even expressed their discontent to me directly. It was my correspondence with a faculty member at the Papua New Guinean university that finally convinced me that I should speak up. When I expressed my moral concerns about speaking on behalf of the villagers I was told that not only was I in the perfect position to do so, but I was in fact the only one who possibly could. The local Papua New Guinean faculty had given up and ceased attending after the first few days of the workshop, whereas I had been there the whole time and was informed enough to comment. The power difference between universities in PNG and those in the United States and Australia surely also played a role. Local faculty were not well positioned to criticize outside researchers who were bringing prestige and funding to their university.

It seemed there were two main avenues I could pursue. One would be to lodge a complaint of ethical misconduct with the sponsors of the research, the funders and/or the PI’s own university. The other would be to submit a response piece to the journal where the article had been published. I sought advice from my friends and family. I consulted with representatives of multiple IRBs. I even met with someone in my town who has a degree in ethics to get another perspective. I discussed the issue with my adviser and with another professor in my department. There was no unanimous support for any course of action. Some strongly supported my intention to respond in some way, while others urged extreme caution lest I irreparably damage my nascent career.

I finally decided to submit a response to the journal. The response genre is one that is established and respected in academia. Whereas an ethics misconduct claim would be behind the scenes and might in the end have no effect, a published response would bring the story to the awareness of the readership of the journal. Submitting a manuscript to review would mean that, if published, my perspective had been vetted by a panel of respected scholars in my field. And submitting a response would require me to forge my concerns into something that was at once scholarly and productive. My response could help positively shape future research, and might even raise the ethical bar for linguists working with marginalized communities. However, I would have to focus my argument and leave out some details I felt were critical. I would have to remove anything that came too close to conjecture, anything I did not directly perceive, or anything that came too close to ad hominem criticism. I would not be able to tell the full story.

In the end, I submitted my response, and it was published. So far, I have received only positive feedback from colleagues. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have done exactly what I did, but there were many points along the way where I considered different paths or where I nearly chose inaction over action. I hope that in writing my response as well as this blog post that I have provided the beginnings of a roadmap for other young or unestablished scholars who find themselves in similar difficult positions and are afraid to speak up.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the broader context in which the workshop occurred, and what I think it means for research ethics in interdisciplinary fieldwork. Within linguistics, the last few decades have seen an increased emphasis on the need to document and describe endangered languages because they have a great deal to teach us about things like the range of possible linguistic structures and what happens when languages come into contact. But one effect of this has been to bring endangered languages to the attention of linguists and others who work outside the area of traditional field-based language description, and who see a way to connect themselves to this “hot topic”. The workshop I assisted with in Papua New Guinea was born out of this trend: computational linguists wanted to see if their methods might be used to help speed up the task of documenting endangered languages. This is a reasonable question to want to ask, but in my assessment, the workshop it resulted in was ethically questionable because the organizers were taking an experiment-based approach to research and had little awareness of research as a social process. Those who have been trained in another discipline’s ethics run the risk of engaging in extractive if not exploitative practices when they bring those ethics to local, often marginal, communities. Funders and collaborators have a responsibility to help educate such researchers, so more response articles like mine will not need to be written.

Encountering Racism while ‘Doing No Harm’

Raymond Scupin

In my 1994 ethnographic research on Muslim communities in Thailand I confronted an ethical dilemma that has never been resolved to my satisfaction. In 1976-77, I conducted dissertation research with Thai-speaking descendants of Malay, Iranian, Indonesian, Pathan, Indian, Cham, and Chinese (Yunnanese) Muslims who had migrated to Bangkok and other areas of Central Thailand. Most were Sunni, but some of the Iranian and Indian descendants were Shia. The mid-1970s was the height of the Islamic Awakening throughout the Muslim world, with the embryonic Iranian revolution developing alongside other forms of religious assertiveness. In my dissertation I discussed the different types of Islamic movements that were taking place — reformist, fundamentalist, and secular — along with the ongoing changes in ritual practices and beliefs within these various Muslim communities. Despite the assimilation or accommodation of many Muslims to the majority Thai Buddhist cultural environment, I witnessed an increase in ethnic and religious assertiveness that is still prevalent today.

I was not able to do follow-up research during the 1980s despite being awarded a Fulbright grant, because the Thai government would not approve clearances for Westerners wanting to work among Muslims. But finally, in 1994, through my Muslim academic contacts in Thailand, I was able to return. While conducting interviews with various informants, including Muslim university professors, I discovered that some of them were involved in translating Henry Ford’s “The International Jew” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in order to promote anti-Semitic views within the Thai-speaking Muslim communities. When I questioned them about their rationales, they answered that they wanted to demonstrate the true nature of the Zionist and World Jewry for the Muslim populace. Of course, I knew that these portrayals were widespread throughout the Middle East, but I was shocked that they had become an aspect of these Muslim activities in Thailand. I argued vociferously with the individuals who were involved in these translations and tried to reason with them about the negative portrayals of Jews that they intended to promote. Some did have second thoughts when I pointed out how the translation project violated the norms regarding the Islamic acceptance of Jews as “People of the Book.” Nevertheless, the project was completed.

I found the matter very troubling. While the majority of Muslims in Thailand played no role in translating the anti-Semitic documents, some of the Muslims involved were my close informants and friends. I viewed their activity as immoral, harmful, and a violation of basic human rights. However, while I considered reporting their activities to the Thai Buddhist authorities, I worried about the potential consequences. The Thai authorities tend to have negative essentialist stereotypes about Muslims, so the possibility of political repression or other repercussions for Muslims as a result of such a disclosure was very real. At the time I decided not to report. Since then, however, I have been haunted by the thought that I might have been able to prevent the distribution of these anti-Semitic documents had I tried. Recently, I wrote a chapter for a volume dealing with Buddhist-Muslim relations in Thailand that mentions the translation of the anti-Semitic texts. I reasoned that the Thai authorities were unlikely to ever read this academic research and so the publication would not have negative consequences for the Muslims in Thailand. Would reporting to Thai authorities when I saw what was happening in the 1990s have violated the principle that anthropologists should “Do No Harm”? Am I violating the “Do No Harm” principle by describing the Muslims’ activities in my chapter? Am I violating it by writing this blog post now? While I know no ethical principle can be absolute, this one seems to be a pervasive aspect of anthropological ethics. I just don’t know how to it apply it in this case.

Raymond Scupin, Director, Center for International and Global Studies, Lindenwood University. [email protected]

The Ethics of Collaborating with Artifact Collectors

Bonnie L. Pitblado

In October 2013, more than 1,100 people attended the well-publicized “Paleoamerican Odyssey” (PO) conference in Santa Fe.  Professional archaeologists constituted 46% of the attendees; non-professionals the other 54%.  The conference featured the usual array of scholarly presentations and posters, but it also offered secure space for 39 museums and universities and 11 organizer-vetted private individuals to showcase collections of Paleoamerican artifacts.

The collections room was packed much of the time with interested professionals and non-professionals alike.  However, some archaeologists—not a majority, but more than a few—vocalized their view that inviting private artifact collectors to share their finds at PO had violated archaeological ethics.  For most who expressed this perspective, the perceived ethical breach lay in the domain of commercialization, with the concern being that showcasing privately held material culture increased its monetary value and thereby facilitated, even promoted, its sale on the private market.

As well-meaning as they may have been, such views bothered me at the conference, and as time passed, my discomfort with what I had heard increased.  It took a bit of introspection to understand my strong feelings on the subject, but ultimately I realized that they were themselves rooted in the ethical precepts professional archaeologists have pledged to uphold.  By expressing blanket rejection for conference participants who shared Paleoamerican artifacts they legally owned, archaeologists themselves teetered perilously close to violating nearly all of our discipline’s ethical mandates.

In 1996, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) established eight “Principles of Archaeological Ethics.”  Conference attendees concerned with the potential commercialization of the privately owned material were responding to the third of these.  However, their wholesale rejection of interaction with all private artifact collectors at PO held the very real potential to violate no fewer than six of the remaining seven principles:  stewardship, accountability, public education and outreach, intellectual property, and records and preservation.

Notably, even the “commercialization” principle that anchored the view of those who rejected the presence of private collectors is in reality quite nuanced, stating that “archaeologists should…carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects.”  Rejecting the presence of all private individuals who own artifacts clearly fails to “weigh the benefits to scholarship” that accrued both to conference attendees who could view the collections and to the owners with an unparalleled opportunity to interact one-on-one with professionals.

American Anthropological Association “principles of professional responsibility” likewise cannot be construed to support rejecting an entire class of stakeholders in any anthropological realm, including the PO conference. AAA Principles 1, “Do No Harm” and 4, “Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations” were particularly imperiled by PO professionals who in failing to comply with Principle 4 also violated Principle 1.  Putting myself in the shoes of a private person who had accepted conference organizers’ invitation to share artifacts in my possession, I would have felt betrayed indeed to learn of my condemnation by a few professional archaeologists imposing a black-and-white sensibility on a gray world.

A short blog post does not permit me the space to elaborate on the ethical judgments I have expressed here.  However, my recent article in “American Antiquity” explores in much more depth the ethics of archaeologist – collector collaboration.  Readers can also access a follow-up piece published in “Advances in Archaeological Practice” that offers concrete suggestions for how professionals can collaborate with artifact collectors in ways that benefit both parties—and the archaeological record we all treasure.

I also invite interested readers going to the 80th SAA meeting in San Francisco later this month to attend an Ethics and Public Education Committee-sponsored forum organized by Michael Shott and me, called “Cons or Pros? Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?”   The 12-participant forum will run 1:00 – 3:00 on Friday, April 17, and we hope to facilitate extensive audience interaction.  We will cover subjects including ethical arguments for and against collaboration, how professionals might persuade indifferent collectors of the value of documenting and sharing their collections, the many motivations that cause people to start (and stop) collecting, and case studies documenting the effects of collecting.