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.

Necessary Permissions…From Whom?

Scott Hutson

A critical point in the beginning of archaeological field projects and a necessary one according to the AAA statement on ethics (see statement 3) is getting permission from landowners. Yet sometimes this step is not as clear as it may seem. In an instance from my own fieldwork where a community rift threw doubt into the question of who could rightfully give permission, backing off from doing part of the research seemed like the solution. Before getting to the details, I provide some background.

In Mexico, where I work, the ownership of ruins is already tricky because of a distinction between the archaeological remains themselves (artifacts, crumbled buildings, etc.) and the land in which they are embedded. The buildings and artifacts are cultural patrimony of the nation as a whole, administered by the federal government, but the ground on which these remains sit can pertain to communal land-holding groups (ejidos) or private individuals and companies. The ancient palace of Zaachila, located in the center of the town of Zaachila in the state of Oaxaca, presents an example of conflicts that the distinction between federal ruin and local land can create.  Two of the most decorated figures in Mexican archaeology, Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal, each initiated research at Zaachila under the authority of the federal government but could not reach an agreement with a vocal group of Zaachila residents. In 1947, these residents ran Caso off the ruin, throwing stones in his wake. In 1953, Ignacio Bernal needed the protection of the federal army to re-start work at the site.

Getting local approval in addition to federal permission is therefore indispensable, but identifying the critical local stakeholders can be problematic. In cases where land is communally held by an ejido, the most common strategy is to begin by consulting with the ejido’s elected president and the officials he or she appoints. Yet the elected official often does not reflect the voice of all the ejido members, and conflicts within ejidos are common.  For an outsider to such local politics, the best way to proceed may not be clear. The case I present from my own fieldwork in Yucatan (the Uci-Cansahcab Regional Integration Project) illustrates some of the contingencies that can come into play.

In the pseudonymous ejido of Chakche, most ejido members claim exclusive right of use to a small parcel of the ejido’s land. My goal as an archaeologist was to make a map of the ruins scattered across a rectangular block comprising more than a dozen of these parcels. My plans were presented and approved at an ejido meeting, but, as I found out the next week, one of the ejido members not present at the meeting—Jose—objected to the mapping. Soon afterward, Jose gave me a tour of the boundaries of his parcel so I would know where NOT to map. While walking with Jose I showed him some of the ruins we had mapped on adjacent parcels and talked to him about our goals, hoping he would change his mind about letting me on his land once he had a better sense of what we were up to. Jose finally suggested I could go on his land for a fee. As a counteroffer, I suggested I could hire him or a friend as part of the field crew. We could not reach an agreement.  The next day, both the current ejido president as well as a former ejido president wanted to know whether Jose had given me permission. When I told them he did not, they suggested that I could in fact enter Jose’s land without his permission because the real title-holder to that parcel of ejido land was Jose’s recently deceased father. Since the title had not been formally transferred to Jose, the ejido president could act as the final authority.

Amidst this lack of clarity over who was authorized to give permission, I chose to stay off the land claimed by Jose. Though this decision puzzled the past ejido president, it does not appear to have had a downside. Sure, it meant that my map would have a hole in the middle of it (see figure), but such a hole does not necessarily compromise the research. Richard Blanton and Stephen Kowalewski’s Valley of Oaxaca survey was a success even though it has a 40km2 hole in it, resulting from the ejido of Ocotlan’s refusal to let the archaeologists walk their land. To try to make up for Jose’s hole (as well as a divit in the north edge of the map boundary), my team surveyed some extra hectares in the northwest corner of the block, beyond the bounds of our original rectangle.  This proved successful since what we found significantly expanded our understanding of the survey area as a whole.

Principle 3 of the AAA Statement on Ethics holds that anthropologists working with cultural resources, such as ruins, “have an obligation to ensure that they have secured appropriate permissions or permits.” The situation described above shows that it is not always clear who has the authority to grant such permission (see also Daehnke 2007). I end with two questions. When people in a community have conflicting ideas over whether cultural resources should be documented, what should anthropologists do? When we choose not to document the resources in question, are there ways to continue the investigation without “inappropriately changing the purpose, focus or intended outcomes” (see principle 4)?

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.


Daehnke, J. D.

2007       A ‘strange multiplicity’ of voices: Heritage stewardship, contested sites and colonial legacies on the Columbia River Journal of Social Archaeology 8:250-275.

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