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Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Peters1.htm

Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's
Darkness in El Dorado

Ethics in Anthropology: a Response to Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado

John F. Peters
Wilfrid Laurier University

A. Introduction

The discussion of ethics in social science research is certainly not new. And this discussion will not be resolved, nor exhaust all possibilities after we have nit-picked our way through Tierney's, Darkness in El Dorado. The pursuit of knowledge, particularly of humans, is an extremely humbling experience. Cultures are continually changing, and subcultures modify both themselves and the dominant culture. We may therefore ask the author(s) of any written document of whom do they speak, and for what period of time?

Ethics in research of human subjects is especially sensitive in the anthropologists' field of investigation. In much, but not necessarily all our research, we deal with subjects who are vulnerable because of their status within large nation states, people who have restricted freedom, rights, privilege and power. Many carry a history of such treatment. This is particularly the case when one compares their position to that of the anthropologist. And frequently the researcher appears on the scene with goods the people discretely desperately crave.

The anthropologist arrives with "knowledge" he/she deems superior to that of the group being researched. Furthermore, the goals of the anthropologist, in terms of the host group, are generally not understood, nor of any long-term value. (The gap between the two cultures is seen in the following: The research funding agency stipulates that all "subjects" have freedom not to answer any question, and freedom to terminate the survey at any point. How does one practise this among a people who do not understand research, nor the concept of human rights?)

In my view, the discussion of ethics emerging out of the Tierney book addresses three significant areas. The first relates to the anthropologist as researcher. The second looks at the anthropologist in his field of research, and the third addresses " professionalism". Where appropriate, I will use illustrations specific to my experience with the Yanomami.

B. This Writer's Story

I begin by giving some of my own story, particularly as it relates to the Yanomami and academia. My late teenage and early adult years were spent in forested areas in northern British Columbia. After a year at the University of British Columbia, in addition to courses in linguistics and cultural studies, I thought my life's purpose would be fulfilled by serving with an evangelical mission society in the state of Roraima, Brazil. After some study of Portuguese in 1958, I made contact with the Yanomami on the Mucajai river, who referred to themselves as Xilixana. I was stimulated by the anthropological questions our mission leader provoked amongst us. I loved the outdoors, and accompanied my rainforest companions in hunting, and ventured to a half dozen "uncontacted" Yanomami communities, including, in 1961, the Marashi-teri, where miners and medical personnel have become prominent at the Paapiu airstrip. I was married in Brazil, and fed my appetite for anthropology by taking several courses by correspondence from UBC and the U. of Oregon. After nine years we moved to the U.S.A., where I completed a bachelor's degree in anthropology, then a M.A. and PhD in Sociology. In 1969 and 1972 I returned to the Yanomami for research purposes. My earlier years with the Yanomami provided me with an immediate rapport with my hosts, general language and cultural understanding, and specific demographic data. In my Canadian university teaching career my research interests were family, ethnicity and social change.

Though I frequently referred to the Yanomami in lectures, both on and off campus, I did not do any further research until anthropologist John Early (Florida Atlantic U) contacted me, and encouraged me to do collaborative demographic work, a worthwhile collegial endeavor. (Early and Peters,1990, 2000). I renewed my field research with trips to Brazil in the late eighties and early nineties. As the Yanomami became more of a centrepiece in anthropology, I felt there was a story that was not being told, and consequently I wrote Life Among the Yanomami, published in 1998. The heated debate stimulated by Tierney's book has again stirred me to enter the foray.

C. Ethical Considerations.

a. The anthropologist as researcher

Every anthropologist enters the field of research with a very western accumulation of values, attitudes, perspectives, goals and hopes. While one, or even three graduate courses, in methodology may assist us about sensitive areas in the research of human "subjects", we never attain a value free stance. In the past two decades feminist research has indelibly reminded us of this fundamental principle, but still we lumber on without adequate regard of the limits of our investigating methods, all the while engaging in the polemics of doing "good social science". We err in not knowing who we really are, especially in relation to our host environment, our impact upon the people in the research, and the total and complete picture of the real people in our research.

We believe our scientific model of investigation provides us with tools to know fully the social structure and organization, as well as numerous layers of the social system under investigation. Our commitment to science has possibly placed us within boundaries that restrict investigation. Is this system of investigation one which limits the broad scope of knowledge? Are some areas of research beyond the parameters of science? Postmodernists raise a question worthy of consideration. (I am struck that no researcher comprehends the Yanomami spiritual world, which is the very core of their everyday life: relationships, conflict, food and health. This may not be such a strange anomaly, given the absence of the spiritual in the western world.)

We assume that from our "democratic", capitalistic, technological, non-mystical and affluent culture we can thoroughly and fully comprehend all or much of the organization of foreign (and strange) cultures. This as an arrogant stance, and one that goes beyond what a member of the host population might attempt to do. We may learn some of this foreign culture, as it is described to us by native informants, or as seen through our western lenses. However we will never fully sense the multiple layers of the institution of family, governance, religion, dominance and subordination experienced by the members born into this population. Our understanding will always be partial.

In many cases researchers experience a superior status in the host population, which is undeserving. Our abundance of material goods, our clothing, resources in food and health, availability to easy and comfortable transportation, possibly colour of skin and passport identification, gives us status which we have not earned. The duration of our stay in the field is often no more than a few years, and this limits and possibly stilts reality. When questioned in the field by authorities we tend to legitimize our findings with careful phrases of "development" or improvement in social conditions, while we honestly know it is primarily the dissertation, or another journal article we want (a point Tierney makes). Let us not fool ourselves!

Most of us in the social sciences are trained so see the "faults", injustices, contradictions and discrepancies in any given society. We rarely see the wholesome and constructive elements pervasive in the culture of our hosts. Or possibly we do not feel at liberty to analyse and then print this data. Qualities that are disapproved within our larger society such as patriarchy, socialism, the collective, generosity, or inter-generational interaction do not find an easy place for publication. Anthropologists carry their own tainted glasses. (The next appropriate step, in the current interest to go applied, would be to work toward applying these constructive attributes of the host people into our own culture!)

As anthropologists we are quick to identify the negative effects of change brought on by other outsiders: entrepreneurs, governments, missionaries, medical staff and mega projects like dams and mines. Yet we ignore the impact of anthropologists on the short and long term upon an indigenous group. Why not an anthropology of anthropologists in the field? Why this oversight? Our record does us harm. (Knowing the sensitivity I experienced in taking still photographs among the Yanomami between1958 and 1962, I have often wondered how Chagnon and Asch used movie cameras in the mid 60s, so soon after Chagnon's entry into the field, and in very sensitive settings! Why did the AAA not raise questions much earlier, and why did AAA members make such extensive use of this footage?)

We often consider culture X among preliterate peoples to be sacrosanct. We condemn any aspect of the indigenous culture which is in change, usually attributing such modification to outside national or technological pressures. We go to great efforts to keep the status quo in this indigenous culture, even when leaders within the culture desire and work for change. I encountered this distortion on my 1996 visit in Yanomamiland. One headman asked me why such an effort was being made by an NGO agency to go "native", the way of life before the Yanomami in this village initiated contact with the wider world in 1956. He said his people will not go back to a life without salt and without clothing! (He could have added axes, knives, matches and aluminum pots). This NGO agency was also advocating the full indigenous return to the practise of shamanism, some of which, if the truth be told, is destructive to life.

Frequently we are selective in our portrayal of a culture foreign to the western public. Chagnon was selective. I was as well. We do this because of our perception of the audience, as well as the specific emphasis or points we wish to make. Academia reinforces this perspective. Our own socialization within our political and university culture has established norms of what is appropriately said of a culture. In some cases we fail to disclose or fully critique the culture. My experience with the Yanomami includes contact with female infanticide, infanticide of deformed infants, violence against and rape of, women. I also learned of the centrality of the supernatural in all life, the power of shamanic pronouncements of death upon an enemy, unrelenting determination to seek revenge and brutality in judging and punishing deviance. I saw frequent drunkenness, and its results: slash wounds, fractured skulls requiring hospitalization and bruises. I also saw gardens depleted when food were needed, the produce used earlier in drinking festivities. This drinking practise was adopted in the late 60s, from a neighbouring Yanomami village. In this, Yanomami carry social responsibility.

While anthropologists and NGOs advocate a sensible response from the state and the public, there is little advocacy for what the indigenous peoples themselves might do in terms of the problematic aspects of their society. No anthropologist has disclosed the more inhumane aspects of the culture. (I was publicly criticized at the AAA meeting in 1998 after mentioning that shamanic activity does not always contribute to the health of the Yanomami!)

From my perspective, one of the "black holes" of anthropology research is missionary activity. Most of us lose all objectivity. We show bias at the very mention of "missionary". (One Yanomami researcher refuses to read anything I write, because of my earlier vocation.) Our naivete shows, in that our images of missionary work are based on our readings and hearsay from the early twentieth century: pith helmets, colonizers under a foreign power, cultural insensitivity, and ignorance. A few mission agencies still operate with some of these characteristics, but most do not. Most address poverty, subordination, restricted and limited resources, education and health. Most avoid issues that are directly political in nature. Most missionaries are in for the long haul in less comfortable conditions than they would experience in their country of origin. Most of us academic "do-gooders" do not have such a commitment. Christian missions in the past two decades have changed, some radically. Missions now function under very direct observation of governments, and in many cases direct proselytising is not tolerated. While mission agencies have faults, they likely do not exceed those of academia. Most anthropologists do not recognize that they themselves operate as colonizers under a super power, that of their home government. (Tierney does us a service, in identifying this reality.) Chagnon's Venezuelan experience strongly suggests this. Just as medical researchers are seduced by pharmaceutical companies, we are not immune from monetary and status seduction.

b. The anthropologist in the field

The target population of the research is often a vulnerable group, layered with subcultures, gate keepers, the oppressed, manipulators, official and non-legitimate rulers- the lot, as found in our own society. While being ready to report how other "outsiders" contaminate the indigenous culture, we do well to acknowledge that we are agents of change, even though we prefer this not to be the case.

We are guests. In terms of our academic project, we have more to gain than they. In most aspects within the host culture, our mechanized, rational and impersonal culture has little to offer. On the individual level, a few persons will gain from payments we make, and a few will be pleased that they have social exchanges with an outsider. Our comments about our own families and home country may be partially understood, and prove to be interesting and entertaining. Others will not appreciate our close association with our new "friends".

It may be that our established aspirations, well argued and scrutinized in academic offices just months earlier are only partially going to be realized in the field. There may be ethical issues which have been discovered, that we prefer not to trespass. We decide not to violate these codes, at risk even to our own immediate academic goals. It may require creative thinking to form some viable alternative, and even greater energy to operationalize the new direction. We need a new mentality in academia to recognize such possibilities.

There have been and will be numerous occasions where we err. Most will be simple blunders, but there will be some serious ones. (Anthropologists only tell these stories among themselves.) Generally our hosts are extremely forgiving. Most cultural stupidities prove to be points of startling new comprehension. Out of the months we spend with our hosts, there may well be long term expectations on their part, years after we have received the degree: requests for financial and medical assistance, advice, or simply personal communication. In these matters there may be an expectation to act as a privileged person within their culture would. It is not enough to claim exclusion because we are western. This is a dilemma.

Increasingly marginal people are becoming savvy to monetary gains made by outsiders, whether they be entrepreneurs, government agents or researchers. In 1995 the Yanomami asked me about profits I would make from publishing. At least we now have a few examples of anthropologists who return all book royalties for development in the population studied. We might move this sentiment a bit further. The income of some anthropologists with faculty positions is more than the income of the entire group originally studied. The researched people made the position and status possible for the anthropologist! The royalty "gift" may be mere tokenism.

c. The anthropologist as "professional"*

AAA members are not professionals as is the case with doctors, lawyers, dentists and engineers. Similarly there are also no professional sociologists or historians. We call ourselves professionals because we make our living in this particular branch of scholarship. We are university faculty members, or perhaps employees of research agencies. We call ourselves professionals because we earn our livings in this particular branch of scholarship.

This fact is important in a number of ways. There is no set of criterion by which a person's capability to perform in the field is adjudicated. We become a member of AAA by virtue of paying fees and subscribing to a journal. Therefore we are uncertified individuals in our research endeavors. The AAA has no power to adjudicate the "professional" conduct of a person. This means that a person can go and do research wherever they wish, as long as they have permission from the government in the jurisdiction in which the research is taking place. Some anthropologists, as Chagnon, have been stopped in their endeavours. Therefore as long as anthropology is not a professional body it will have little significance in regulating the activities of its members.

Mission organizations are different from both academic bodies and professional groups such as doctors and engineers. They act in a corporate way in dealing with state governments. As a body, they are accountable. Mission organizations negotiate their clearance to carry on their work. No missionaries are "franc-tireurs (a sniper who doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of an army), but all anthropologists are. Anthropologists are on their own. Once legitimately in a country, they pretty much ask the questions they wish, in whatever manner they wish, wherever it be, of whomever they choose. No professional body gives any, "You shall nots" in terms of dress, participation, recorders, photographs or movie cameras. There were and are no professional bodies that placed this control upon any of the anthropologists, medical researchers or cameramen mentioned in the Tierney book.

We have moved into a new era of social science research, where the norms and rules of the game, public sentiment of human sensitivity and rights, international communication and understanding, have all been altered from the seventies and eighties. As students of human groups and of change, we need to sensitively investigate this new direction, with the perspective of making a global contribution. I am convinced this will emerge as we include the marginalised both within and outside our "professional" group.


*I am indebted to anthropologist and colleague Laird Christie, Wilfrid Laurier University, for this insightful contribution.


Early, John D. and John F. Peters,

1990, The Population Dynamics of the Mucajai Yanomama, Academic Press, San Diego, CA

Early, John D. and John F. Peters,

2000, The Xilixana Yanomami of the Amazon: History, Social Structure, and Population Dynamics, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL

Peters, John F. Peters,

1998, Life Among the Yanomami, Broadview Press, Orchard Park, NY