On Chagnon and My Field Experience

First off, power scares and sickens me.  I don't associate myself with people who relish and strive for it. Power-trippers make my blood boil and turn me into a confrontational savage.

I was a victim of departmental politics years ago, and it was an experience I would not wish on the worst of my enemies.  It was the first time I got disillusioned with anthropology as my chosen career.  Anthropology, from studying to publishing, is a matter of numbers like politics, where the powerful majority reigns.  If most of the peer-reviewers of a journal don't like what one writes because of his theoretical leaning, ideological tendency, different method that goes against the prevailing grains, and intellectual honesty that critiques the revered and all-mighty, his effort is a waste. 

I first read about Chagnon from a British paper a week ago.  It was posted by a friend on Facebook.  I wondered  why his works were never introduced to us in college.  I guess Rosaldo's was enough a material on  the culture of warfare, fierceness, and status symbol in our Political Anthropology class.  Maybe our ex-nun professor found the anthropology of killing and headhunting too much for our fresh minds and for her Christian belief.  For sure, I learned a lot about political advocacy in that class.

What I experienced in the field was just a microcosm of what is happening in the field of anthropology-- objectivity is selective and honesty is relative. Because the South American governments use Chagnon's works to support their exploitative development projects and policies, does it mean he is a bad anthropologist?  Should anthropologists become advocates of the people they study?  

The advocacy of his critics is commendable, but I don't agree with the idea that advocating includes denying the truth and questioning scientific methods. I still think objectivity is possible in advocacy.  For that reason alone, I cannot consider the criticism on Chagnon a total nuisance.   

If you go to the village of Ilonggots, you will find many who will question the veracity of Rosaldo's works.  They are those who don't romanticize headhunting and the savagery of their culture.  They are those who are paranoid of what outsiders will say about them.  Some will find the idea of "noble savages" an intellectual tokenism.  Others will express in a crisp English their Anglican belief in the Commandments.  

I think intellectual honesty that has no tinge of paranoia and self-interest  plus objective advocacy that does not take sides but offers an avenue for a compromise, if linked together, will produce a sound, relevant anthropology.        



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Comment by Freddie Weyman on June 21, 2013 at 4:19pm

I think framing the debate in terms of advocacy vs. science, is not helpful when it comes to Chagnon.

His work should concern not just people who care about the welfare of the Yanomami, but also people who care about science and truth.

To give one example surrounding his infamous Science 1988 article: he is thought to have discovered that Yanomami men who had killed other men in battle had three times as many children as those who had not killed. He sometimes equivocates on the details but has never gone back on his original argument.

Brian Ferguson has pointed out that Chagnon's comparison of the reproductive success of killers and non-killers did not include killers who had died. A mortality bias would clearly affect a reproductive bias.

Douglas P. Fry has pointed out that, on the basis of the data Chagnon made available, the killers were, on average, over 10 years older than the non-killers. Again, this would impact the number of children they had.

Chagnon claims that the original data disproves both of these observations, but he has refused to make it public.

Whether or not we should make public research when there is a real chance it will cause human suffering is an important, though different debate. Surely over the question that we need real data to prove hypotheses there can be no debate.

Comment by John McCreery on March 13, 2013 at 1:33am
M, I am glad that you see Geertz in that light. A lot of silliness has been perpetrated by people on both sides of the science versus humanity debate who never read him carefully enough to realize that his call for thick description is grounded in a view of culture as a public phenomenon, as real as the Great Wall of China, a kungfu boxer's kick, or the sea slug that appears in some Chinese dishes. The point of the exercise is to examine each detail from as many angles as possible and not take any one perspective (the Berbers, the Jew, or the French Foreign Legion in the case of the stolen sheep) as God's Truth about the matter. My guru Victor Turner went even further, noting that what we see people doing and what they tell us about it are often contradictory. Our task is not to erase the contradiction but, instead, to see how it fits into our understanding of the situation in which it occurs. You might finding interesting to read his essays in The Forest of Symbols and see how he goes over and over his material, adding new evidence and new ideas to what he has said before, in a search for deeper understanding and never letting any one theory dictate what he sees.
Comment by M Izabel on March 13, 2013 at 12:28am

Thanks for your responses.

@ Francine

Advocacy can make anthropology relevant but it can also easily ruin objectivity if not done right.  Somewhere there should be a compromise between the two.  Like in my experience, I brought up resourcefulness (digested grass in the goat stomach as bitter herb for goat stew) and resilience (anything that moves becomes a source of protein in times of seasonal food scarcity) in relation to the group's bizarre foods. It seems to me there's always something good or beautiful in anything we deem bad or ugly without giving a second look.

@ John

"I find both the innocent native with nothing to hide and the omniscient-observer anthropologist absurd stereotypes found nowhere in real life."-- that's what I learned. It's clear to me why informants are susceptible to withholding or exaggerating  information and anthropologists are prone to theory bias.  There are still informants who value cultural pride.  Since culture is so vast and complex, anthropologists rely on theories for ethnographic focus and selective observation.  My experience is pushing me to rediscover Geertz and how anthropology can still be scientific by grounding analysis and interpretation on the objective, empirical, scientific ways of viewing or seeing.   

Comment by Francine Barone on March 12, 2013 at 7:54pm

I also found this post to be a valuable one. Especially this:

I think intellectual honesty that has no tinge of paranoia and self-interest  plus objective advocacy that does not take sides but offers an avenue for a compromise, if linked together, will produce a sound, relevant anthropology. 

You bring up some important points about advocacy that I think deserve more attention in anthropology. Anthropological analyses would likely become much more relevant to the world today if we could trust ourselves to be critical without the paranoia that accompanies "taking sides" and presenting data only in the best light. Shying away from making critical statements leaves us flailing on complex, contestable issues and risks handing down this same weak ambivalence to those around us (e.g. students and/or locals as you illustrate). Then we wonder how it is that Chagnon captivates the press with his caricature of anthropology while little else is reported about what we do. 

Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2013 at 4:47pm

M., I have been holding back in hopes that others would join the conversation. For what it is worth, I see your observations as very valuable. Personally I find both the innocent native with nothing to hide and the omniscient-observer anthropologist absurd stereotypes found nowhere in real life. That is why, in the bad old days, ethnographers focused on the taken for granted aspects of life in the places they studied, regarding these as social facts, instead of trying to dig more deeply into how different natives might see them,  and students going into the field were taught to cross-check native interpretations with multiple informants. The art of sifting what we are told with the same critically suspended judgment that historians are taught to bring to their sources seems to  have fallen into abeyance, at least at the level of the bar chat with which the Internet overflows.


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