Monday, February 15, 2010

Anthropology in the Public Imagination?

A few days ago a friend called me up and asked for help. It wasn't anything that important or serious, but it would have involved me lying to a third party, so I politely told my friend that I was uncomfortable with the situation.

At the time I got this phone call I happened to be in a public space and so naturally the people I was with asked me about the phone call. The favor my friend had asked me for wasn't anything private so I told the people I was with. The people I happened to be with weren't in anyway connected to any research I am doing, they were just some friends at the hostel, but they of course all know that I am an anthropologist and that I am in Taiwan to do research.

After telling them the story of the phone call they asked me why I had refused to lie. I thought the answer to that was obvious, but apparently not, so I explained to them why I felt uncomfortable with the situation which included ethical concerns about my behavior while in the field. To my horror someone then replied, "Yeah, but isn't that what you anthropologists do? You lie to get into a group and then study the people?"

I immediately went into defense mode and corrected this person's misconception, but what they said stuck in my brain. What gave them this idea? As far as I know I am the only anthropologist this person has met (I don't know if they have read any anthropological texts) and I all but wear a sandwich board explaining who I am and what I am doing here. I am so transparent about my intentions that I even explain it to people whom I have no intentions of involving in my research just in case.

A couple of days after this conversation I went back and asked this person where they had gotten this idea again. They said they didn't know.

Now I wonder, when I tell people I am working on an anthropology PhD, what does that mean to them?


  1. At a guess, I'd say the misconception comes from two things: 1. some people's mistrust in academia in general and 2. some people's mistrust in outsiders trying to impose policies or whatever onto local settings without an understanding of those settings or people.

    For the mistrust in academia, some people feel like we all theorize too much without relating theory to practice. This is why the term intellectual is also sometimes frowned upon.

    For outsider mistrust, historically there have been some anthropologists or social scientists who have done exactly the act that makes people mistrustful. It probably doesn't help that you're white, as colonialism and missionary work, while not the same thing, probably adds to the mistrust.

    Dispelling the misconception is good work. I'm glad you're modeling ethical behavior and being transparent. :)

  2. Good points Mark, although you made me realize I left out an important piece of information in my post. The people I was with at the time the comment was made were all white college educated anglophones (American, Canadian, British). So while the mistrust in academia is still a plausible explanation, I wasn't exactly an outsider within this group of expats.

    Your post did make me reconsider some of the difficulties I have had with making friends with locals, however. In previous posts I have talked about gamer shame as a possible stumbling block with my research here in Taiwan, but I should also be looking at my position as an outsider here as another issue to contend with. Not that I didn't realize this before, but at this point it is hard for me to tell how much of my problem is gamer shame and how much of it is my status as a foreigner here. Taiwan, like so many other places, has a history of immigrations and invasions, but I think that issue is big enough that perhaps I need a separate blog post just for that.