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Internet Source: Slate.com, December 13, 2000
Source URL: http://slate.msn.com/code/Culturebox/Culturebox.asp?Show=12/13/2000&idMessag


More on Napoleon Chagnon's Abhorrent Field Methods

Judith Shulevitz

Note to readers: This item responds to two letters objecting to Culturebox's recent review of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. To read Culturebox's review, click here. To read the letters, scroll to the bottom of that page.

In my review of Patrick Tierney's much refuted Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, I opine that although Tierney fails to drum up a scandal out of his unsupportable accusations of genocide, there is another, truer scandal buried in his story. That is the way that Napoleon Chagnon--the anthropologist under attack in the book--went about extracting genealogies from the Amazonians known as the Yanomami, despite their strong taboo against uttering the names of their dead. I call the practice "staggeringly callous" and "evidence of a chilling disregard for human dignity and individual belief." Two colleagues of Chagnon, anthropologists Raymond Hames and Ed Hagen, accuse me of mischaracterizing the procedure.

One of them, Professor Hagen, is right to say that I got one fact wrong, but he is incorrect when he implies that Chagnon's field methods are somehow less abhorrent for it. I write:

He would play people against one another. He would go to one man and ask for the names of his rival's dead relatives. Then he would go to the rival and reel off the names of his kin, gauging the accuracy of the first man's information by the amount of anger it elicited in the second. The rival, by now an enemy of the first, would spew the names of that man's dead relatives in retaliation.

In fact, as Hagen points out, Chagnon took care not to go directly to rivals with the forbidden names but rather to their friends and neighbors. He did this because when he did utter the name of an informant's late close relative to that informant's face, the man usually flew into a rage and stopped talking to Chagnon. The anthropologist also feared being physically attacked.

Mea culpa. Let's put my mistake in context, though. The question here is, was Chagnon's genealogy-gathering unusually divisive and disrespectful to the Yanomami? The answer is yes.

Consider how he first hit on the method. He was watching a club fight between two men that escalated to such fury that one man began calling the other by the name of his deceased father. Chagnon saw this and all but pounced on the angrier of the men:

I quickly seized on this incident as an opportunity to collect an accurate genealogy and confidentially asked Rerebawa about his adversary's ancestors. ... He gave me the information I requested of his adversary's deceased ancestors, almost with devilish glee. I asked about dead ancestors of other people in the village and got prompt, unequivocal answers: He was angry with everyone in the village.

Inspired by his success with the embittered Rerebawa, Chagnon soon realizes that local enmity and strife hold