The ethics of scholarly production: A practical approach for the field?

In a post over at Savage Minds, Rex raises the issue of the ethics of publishing works that are not accessible (i.e. intelligible) to the community with which the anthropologist (in Rex’s scenario) works. In a thoughtful discussion of the issues, he seems to conclude that it is probably ethical in principle to publish such works, but not in practice. I infer that Rex’s conclusion is that ethical anthropologists make *all* their work accessible to the communities with which they work. Reflecting on his ruminations in the context of documentary and descriptive linguistics, I’m inclined to think that the relationships field linguists enter into with the communities with which they work, and the statements that they make about communities’ (linguistic) practices, are similar enough to those of anthropologists that to the degree that Rex’s argument is valid for anthropologists, it is also valid for field linguists. But given that, I find it hard to agree with where Rex seems to be heading. (My apologies in advance, Rex, if I am misconstruing your position.)

Briefly, I think that field-oriented scholars perforce participate in two quite different economies of knowledge: that of their academic speciality, and that of the communities in which they work — and these two economies in most cases value different things. For example, a community might value a combination of language lessons for language revitalization purposes and documentation and printed circulation of important works of verbal art, while in the scholarly economy, grammatical analysis of a typologically unusual construction in the language may be valued. I find it difficult to imagine in most cases how a *single* work could circulate in both economies. If in practice it is unethical to produce technical scholarly works, and yet those works are necessary for participation in the scholarly economy, field-oriented scholars are in a position where they must choose between being scholars and being ethical. (A possible response is that one could provide linguistic training to community members so that they can read the technical works in question — and there are good models for this, such as Oxlajuuj Keej Maya’ Ajtz’iib’ (OKMA) in Guatemala. But only a minority of community members are likely to be interested (as in our own society), so the basic problem remains.)

I think that the root of this apparent difficulty is the somewhat arbitrary conclusion that *all* works scholars produce be accessible to the communities with which they work. I find a more reasonable position to be that ethical behavior on the part of scholars entails that the community be pleased with the scholar’s participation in their lives (which may, for example, include collaborative research) and with what the scholar and local collaborators produce. At least in my experience, this means (among other things) meeting communities’ expectations regarding the production of materials for their use (and not for use by other scholars). On this view, and in practical terms (keeping in mind the scholars participation in two economies), ethical behavior means maintaining some kind of parity between scholarly and community-oriented production. Easier said than done, of course.

I’ve been wrestling with the practical issue of how to maintain a reasonable parity between scholarly and community-oriented work for some time. In the Iquito Language Documentation Project, for example, we produced a number of works, including a pretty hefty dictionary, that were well-received by the community. Of these, only the dictionary is eligible as a scholarly publication, but I’ve been leaving it to languish as an academic publication because dictionaries don’t have very much scholarly currency. On the other hand, I’m writing articles about the very interesting ways in which speakers of Nanti in a different community employ evidentials for a number of subtle social and interactional ends. I’ll be frank: these articles are almost totally inaccessible to the community.

I think one problem faced by well-intentioned scholars (alluded to by Rex in his post), is that the way field-oriented scholars tend to work: they gather data, materials, or experiences, they work it up for scholarly publication, and then, in all their spare time, they produce something for the community. What this means, of course, is that much of the time, the community gets nothing. Deferment leads to neglect. Or scholars just skip the production of scholarly works, which carries serious penalties if one is participating in a scholarly economy of knowledge.

These issues were heavy on my mind when planning fieldwork this past summer on Muniche, a linguistic isolate spoken in Peruvian Amazonia. But thinking about these issues with my long-term fieldwork partner Chris Beier, I think we hit upon a research methodology that addresses some of these issues, especially the issue of deferment. Briefly, In planning our fieldwork we prioritized the specific aim of creating resources for interested community members, with the explicit goal of delivering these resources to the community before we departed from the community. We reasoned that if we did a good job on these community resource, we could use them as the basis for subsequent scholarly work. Arriving in Munichis, we talked with interested community members about the resources they wanted — a dictionary, pedagogical grammar, and spelling primer were foremost — and then spent the rest of the summer working hard to meet our end-of-field-season deadline, in order to avoid deferring the production of community resources.

We met most of our goals (see this post for links to the materials we created), and the speakers we worked with, and the other interested community members, were very pleased with the materials. And apart from being very pleased to have produced resources the community valued, we have been very happy with the resources as the basis for further scholarly work. Since late August, we have been working up a description of the very interesting Muniche phonological system, and will subsequently move on to morphology and syntax.

I won’t claim that the resources we created were perfect — technical grammatical concepts were necessary for the pedagogical grammar, for example, and I’m not sure that we always did a good job in explaining them — but I think it was a strong start. Now that we’ve organized a project this way once, I think we can improve on this methodology in the future.

The details of this approach are presumably not going to be applicable to all field situations, but I think that there are underlying two principles here that are of broad applicability: 1) organize your project so that scholarly works are spin-offs of community-oriented works, rather than the reverse; 2) aim to deliver concrete products that community members want at the end of each field season *before* you leave for the shady groves of academia.

This seems to me to be one practical way to be an ethical field-oriented scholar, but I’d be very interested to get feedback on what others think of this approach.


One thought on “The ethics of scholarly production: A practical approach for the field?

  1. I think this is the kind of post that is appreciated by many readers, but that is at the same time difficult to respond to. Thanks for sharing; thought provoking.

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