Being Objective in Anthropology


As an anthropologist there may be times when you have to face situations that you are really unprepared for or uncomfortable with, which can be difficult for new and experienced anthropologists alike. As an example of this, a colleague of mine was looking into tourism in Spain, and inevitably had to deal with the culture of bull fighting and found it especially hard to remain objective due to her enthusiasm for animal rights. Likewise another situation that has come to my attention is the place of dietary requirements in anthropology; how can an anthropologist take part in specific cultural practices that are incompatible with their dietary requirements (e.g. vegetarian/vegan).

These are difficult situations that can have noticeable effects on an anthropologist’s ability to carry out their research, yet I have found there is a surprising lack of focus on the issue. The argument made by some is that anthropologists should simply discard theses ideals in order to completely experience a culture as an objective researcher, however this is a very unsatisfactory solution for most, and doesn’t take into account the needs that cannot simply be dropped such as religious practices or allergies/intolerances.

It doesn’t even really cross our minds when we read ethnography that deals with these kinds of issues either. Clifford Geertz examined the Balinese Cockfight, and the subsequent text formed part of the foundation of interpretive anthropology. Yet during the class I attended to learn about this text, many students commented on the violent and inhumane nature of the cockfight, which led me to wonder whether that text would have been written in the same way today. Geertz was able to look past the action to see the inner workings, but with today’s ideologies there may be far less chance that people would want to even engage these kinds of events.

One could argue that this question would have been more valid when anthropology was focused on “the exotic”, and today modern anthropologists can conduct their research within the familiarity of their own culture. However, even within a familiar setting there may be numerous difficulties remaining objective (some may even say that the personal familiarity with the culture may make an objective approach even more difficult).

The importance of fieldwork and participant observation in anthropology mean that we can’t simply shy away from the things that make us uncomfortable, the ability to remain objective is an extremely important skill for any anthropologist, or indeed any scientist. It’s of course not restricted to the field of social/cultural anthropology, as there may be similar obstacles within biological/physical anthropology. For example, I remember during one of her lectures, Prof. Anna Nekaris recounted the emotional difficulties she had investigating the illegal trade of Lorises in Jakarta. This was a necessary study to truly understand how Lorises are being impacted by humans, but dealing with such stressful material would be difficult for anyone.

So I’m genuinely interested in what you guys think, how can this problem be addressed? What are your thoughts on how anthropologists can work effectively through such barriers? Have you got any examples of how you have been affected in a similar way? Leave a comment below if you want to share your ideas.

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Featured Image:Cock Fight” by Amshudhagar is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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