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Politics as the new ethics?

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The theme of this week’s informal theory gathering was ethics, and one question posed was whether the debate regarding best practice in anthropology would be better served by considering the question of ‘politics’ over the issue of ‘ethics.’ This suggestion clarified a few things for me, and in general I did find it to be a productive line of thinking.

The essay we spent most of the time discussing was Jorgensen’s 1971 ‘On Ethics and Anthropology,’ an article published in the wake of the Project Camelot scandal that discusses issues that seem depressingly similar to the ones still under debate. One of the main points of the article is that anthropologists cannot conduct themselves as scientists in terms of their approach to ethics, given the personal opinions held by members of groups studied in anthropology (of current people) and the manner in which anthropological/archaeological issues are not esoteric academic questions but are deeply situated within political and social debates (ie the mosque/temple debate at Ayodhya, the implication of archaeological evidence in NAGPRA claims, and the present repatriation debates regarding the antiquities of Egypt, Greece, and other nations). Jorgensen’s article strongly advocates that anthropologists have a responsibility to consider the impact of their work, and to follow a mantra of ‘do no harm.’

This sounds great in theory – who wants to do harm, after all? – but I don’t think it offers a way out of some types of debate, for which a political lens is perhaps more productive. Take the issue of African-American archaeology, particularly the archaeology of enslaved Africans and their slaveowners. Plantation and domestic sites that contained enslaved populations have at least two true descendant communities – those of enslaved Africans and those of (mostly) European owners, and in some cases these groups have wildly different desires regarding whether archaeological work should be done at all. These debates can’t always be solved by a close working relationship with both groups in which community input is solicited, as in some cases their desires are mutually contradictory. Choosing not to do the work is not necessarily a blameless course, as it leaves unchallenged the methodical eradication of the slavery past and fails to satisfy possible desires for information among the African-American community. Likewise, performing an archaeological investigation and publishing an analysis of slave experience, punishment, and resistance might be strongly opposed by the descendants of slaveholders and have real implications for their relationship with local communities. There are a variety of ethical issues here, but there is also a politcal choice that an archaeologist in this position might have no option but to make.

Within cultural anthropology, this ‘do no harm’ rule seems to me likely to disproportionately impact applied anthropologists, who do their work with a more concrete goal in terms of producing research that will result in positive change. I can see the potential for other types of situations (repressive political regimes, certain types of controlling work cultures) to have similar implications as the archaeological example above. Perhaps some of these situations are better handled by journalists or another type of social scientist, but I also think our concept of ethics should be able to have a more nuanced concept of harm that can provide guidance in these common and tricky ethical situations.

As a side note, the focus on the looting of Egyptian antiquities among the archaeological community, specifically blogs, has been called out by Dr Christina Riggs,who lectures in Art History at the University of East Anglia. She points out that the concern among archaeologists and heritage professionals over Egyptian antiquities in the wake of pro-democracy protests has immediately focused on requests for the repatriation of Egyptian patrimony by Zahi Hawass, and that the current unrest is being used to paternalistically justify the retention of stolen antiquities (as it is here on the WSJ). While I think most people would agree that it seems prudent not to actively return artifacsts while the political situation is under such flux (particularly as Hawass himself may be under investigation for improper treatment of antiquities), the idea that certain nations like Greece and Egypt are incapable of safeguarding their antiquities is problemmatic. It ignores the fact that artifacts are damaged while under the care of nations such as the US and those in Western Europe, through improper storage or traumatic events such as the World Trade Center bombings, where artifacts from the Five Points NYC neighbourhood and New York African Burial Ground were destroyed. It also ignores the fact that violent riots and looting also periodically break out in many Western countries, and it perpetuates the concept that the Western nations who stole antiquities in the first place should somehow now be the arbiters of the conditions under which they should be returned.

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Written by diggingellen

February 28, 2011 at 2:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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