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  1. Learning About Consent
  2. Why I
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Learning About Consent

The Spring semester starts today here in Taiwan, and this semester I will once again be teaching a course on production methods in visual ethnography. One of my requirements each semester, the one which most bothers my students, is that their final work be posted to the internet. This is a problem for them because it is much harder to get consent from your subjects for a student project used for class than it is for a project which will be posted to the internet for anyone to see. But for me, that is the first, and perhaps most important lesson my students will learn from the class.

We spend a lot of time talking about ethnography as a product, and even about the ethical issues involved in “shared anthropology,” but it is almost impossible to teach someone how to gain the trust of their research subjects. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because the obstacles to gaining such consent will vary from project to project. While I can’t offer pre-packaged solutions, I can advise students how to handle such obstacles without giving up. Patience and persistence are skills which many students have yet to learn. There are also techniques they can use in the filmmaking process to work around limitations placed on them by their subjects. There is a tremendous wealth of ethnographic knowledge to be gained from working through these obstacles.

One of my students this semester wants to work with a local hearing impaired community. We were both surprised to learn that the members of this community lack the necessary Chinese literacy to be able to read and understand a consent form. It turns out that this is not too uncommon. A 1997 study of 17-18 year old deaf students in the United States found that median reading comprehension was at a fourth grade level. For someone who communicates in Sign Language, learning to read English involves the added burden of learning English, so it comes as no surprise that gaining English literacy poses serious obstacles. What is surprising, at least to me, is that the education system so miserably fails these students by not providing the tools they need to overcome these obstacles. It is too early for me to say anything definitive, but it sounds like similar problems face the hearing impaired in Taiwan. (Here are links to two recent studies about the subject [both are PDFs]: “A Survey of Sign Language in Taiwan” and “Taiwan Sign Language Research: An Historical Overview“)

In this case, the solution is fairly simple: I will have my student record someone signing the consent form, and he will play it for his subjects. He will then video-tape their consent. In some cases, however, things have gotten much more complicated. One semester a student filmed a class of special-needs students and only had consent to show the backs of their heads. Since the young students moved around quite a bit, it made for some very interesting editing!

It is also something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, having just submitted a paper for review which discusses how we dealt with consent issues in our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! I will save a fuller discussion of the issues we faced for later, but the way we solved the problem was to take a page out of Jean Rouch and to film the discussions about consent and include them as an element in the film. It turned out to be a very revealing and powerful scene!


Why I

I love anthropology — cultural anthropology, my subfield of the discipline — because it is the most human of the human sciences: the one that is the most about people. The one which thinks you can learn about how people live their lives by watching how they live their lives — not by building models of them, or having them live small parts of it laboratories. In order to understand people we study people, and is willing to embrace all the challenges this entails.

I love anthropology because it is the discipline that takes seriously the idea that our common humanity with those we study is a boon and a strength, not an impediment that distort objective judgment. It works with and works through the fact that we can be powerfully changed by our research, and that this change is a strength. I love the fact that we stick with the project of ethnography despite the fact that it is aa project of telling the stories of others, an entitlement to be earned, not a right to representative authority that can be assumed.

The other day for a project I read the tables of contents for every issue of American Anthropologist from 1900 to 1960. One of the articles I came across was called “Columns of Infamy”. I love that.

I love anthropology’s willingness to compare anything to anything else and to study anything under the sun. If people have done it — or thought about doing it — it’s not off-limits. And I love that fact that we can compare people who think they were abducted by aliens in Arkansas in the 90s with ascent to heaven narratives from Sumer written thousands of years earlier.

I love our regional, middle-range expertise: where people call soda coke and where they call it pop, how far south the cultural syndrome of the vision quest extends, and how lycra got marketed to the women’s movement in the 1960s.

But I also love our willingness to completely throw the middle range to the wind, our ability to start with a local taboo against eating bandicoots and ascending to universal theories of human anxieties about embodiment. We drive the philologists mad, which is ok with me.

I love anthropology’s protean genres — our ability to articulate with public health, philosophy, english literature, and military intelligence. When we say we will study anything, we are talking just as much about adjacent disciplines — and they are all adjacent — as we are people out in the world. At the same time, when locked into a four-field configuration like an X-Wing with foils extended into attack position, we really do have some answers to some important questions about what it means to be human. And if the physical anthropologists want to go talk to physicists about strontium isotope analysis, who can blame us for having lunch with someone who studies French literature?

Anthropologists can find anything interesting, and I love that about the discipline. You meet someone and ask what they are studying and they say “rodeos as cultural performance” and heads start nodding. You drive past a garage sale and stop the car in the middle of the street and say “they’re… selling… old lampshades…” And yet at the same time we are incredibly jaded. More fears in the Andes that aid workers are using syringes to suck the fat out of people’s bodies as they sleep? Well that’s not very surprisng, is it?

I love anthropology’s ability to take people’s beliefs incredibly seriously one minute and then to totally ignore them in the next. That’s not witchraft, you fool, that’s your anxiety about your social organization. Except, no wait, what if there are witches? Biology? You think that stuff at the bottom of the microscope is ‘reality’? Have you read Rheinberger’s book on the history of the ‘discovery’ of protein synthesis?!?! Except, actually, this whole ‘cooperative breeding’ thing does knit together what we know about primate behavior, evolution, and the human capacity for culture. Hmmm….

I love that fact that anthropologists refuse to give up on the fact that a two hundred page book has more insight and value than ten twenty page articles. I love the fact that we are willing to grasp the nettle of style instead of pretending it isn’t an issue. I love that fact that we believe our subjectivities add value to our scholarly work, rather than contaminating it.

Above all I love how anthropology, a science of the human, articulates with our lives: we study kinship, and raise children. We read about enculturation, and we teach students. We analyze power and we try to create a democratic, just world. Our discipline is connected, intimately and irrevocably, to our whole persons — and that’s what I love about it most of all.


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