The Arrogance of Ethnography: Managing Anthropological Research Knowledge

Article excerpt

Abstract: The ethnographic method is a core feature of anthropological practice. This locally intensive research enables insight into local praxis and culturally relative practices that would otherwise not be possible. Indeed, empathetic engagement is only possible in this close and intimate encounter. However, this paper argues that this method can also provide the practitioner with a false sense of his or her own knowing and expertise and, indeed, with arrogance. And the boundaries between the anthropologist as knowledge sink--cultural translator and interpreter--and the knowledge of the local knowledge owners can become opaque. Globalisation and the knowledge 'commons', exemplified by Google, also highlight the increasing complexities in this area of the governance and ownership of knowledge. Our stronghold of working in remote areas and/or with marginalised groups places us at the forefront of negotiating the multiple new technological knowledge spaces that are opening up in the form of Indigenous websites and knowledge centres in these areas. Anthropology is not immune from the increasing awareness of the limitations and risks of the intellectual property regime for protecting or managing Indigenous knowledge. The relevance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in opening up a 'rights-based' discourse, especially in the area of knowledge ownership, brings these issues to the fore. For anthropology to remain relevant, we have to engage locally with these global discourses. This paper begins to traverse some of this ground.


Social anthropology is operating in a broader range of research contexts than ever before, while the attraction to, and interest in, Indigenous knowledge (or 'Traditional Knowledge' (1) (TK) as it is often known outside of anthropology) is growing substantially. This is especially so in the applied fields of natural resource and environmental management, where there is a growing awareness that cultural diversity is intimately linked with biological diversity. Large organisations like the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are now employing dozens of social scientists--including social anthropologists--when only ten years ago this was a rarity. There is also an increasing awareness of the commercial value of Indigenous knowledge to research institutions and the risks to reputation, research grants and publishing when benefit sharing is not negotiated (see Wynberg et al. 2009). The coupling of this increased interest in Indigenous knowledge with the fact that knowledge generated from all research is part of the 'knowledge market' has, I believe, created a significant shift in our responsibilities as researchers to Indigenous research participants.

In this paper I explore this issue from my own experience in developing a range of ethical research tools for research organisations and how this has changed my own research practice and perceptions of what 'best practice' can be. I start with the assumption that the ethnographic method is able to offer unique insight into local realities and the rich praxis of daily life, and that anthropologists are acutely aware of the need to make research partners of their Indigenous collaborators while in the field. A key reason for this, as Michael Jackson (1995:119) has observed, is that 'the social not only defines the field of anthropology; it is the ground of its very possibility ... its project unfolds within the universal constraints of hospitality...' So, at the least, on a pragmatic level various forms of collaboration are standard practice while in the field. This paper argues that this collaboration needs to continue when we return to our offices and institutions, and discusses a range of ways we can do this by engaging with, and critiquing, the intellectual property system. And a far deeper and more authentic collaboration is likely to develop if we take such an approach. …