Ethics and Responsibility: Themes in the Life and Work of Kathleen Gough

By Berreman, Gerald D. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Responsibility: Themes in the Life and Work of Kathleen Gough


Berreman, Gerald D., Anthropologica


Kathleen Gough epitomized the best anthropology has to offer: important and impeccable scholarship combined with courageous commitment to social justice. Her India research accompanied her admiration for India's freedom fighters; her Vietnam work grew from empathy for the Vietnamese people in their struggle for independence and her informed outrage at the United States' war upon them. Always Gough's actions spoke as loudly as her words. Her scholarship was unquestioned but for her conscience she paid the price of recurrent harassment and lost employment while earning the respect of colleagues, of students, of those about whom she wrote and among whom she struggled.

Before we had met, I knew about and admired Kathleen as a result of our shared research interest in India. I became acquainted with her personally through our shared commitment to social responsibility in anthropology, and especially through our participation in the anti - Vietnam War movement. We each organized (she with husband David Aberle) anti - war teach - ins on our respective campuses in Berkeley and Eugene -- as did colleagues nationwide -- on March 23, 1965, simultaneously with the prototype teach - in organized by Marshall Sahlins in Ann Arbor.(f.1)

Two years later, on March 24, 1967, we both delivered papers on the issue of social responsibility at the joint meetings in San Francisco of the Southwestern Anthropological Association and the American Ethnological Society.(f.2) We met frequently during the years that she, David Aberle and their son Stephen Aberle lived in Eugene directly across the street from my parents' home. There is no scholar whose intellect, courage and social conscience I have admired more, whose friendship I valued more.

In identifying ethics and responsibility as themes in her life and work I want to focus on the positive, assertive responsibility she shouldered to act on the understandings and insights she obtained as a research anthropologist and on the values she embraced as an empathetic, humane being. The Principles of Professional Responsibility, to which our professional association was committed during the last 20 years of her lifetime (i.e., from their adoption in May 1971 until their revision and dilution in 1991 [Newsletter 1970; 1989; cf. Berreman 1991]), included this paragraph under itssecond principle, "Responsibility to the Public":

As people who devote their professional lives to understanding people, anthropologists bear a positive responsibility to speak out publicly, both individually and collectively, on what they know and what they believe as a result of their professional expertise gained in the study of human beings. That is, they bear a professional responsibility to contribute to an "adequate definition of reality" upon which public opinion and public policy may be based. (Newsletter 1970; American Anthropological Association 1983: 1 - 2)

This principle, and the responsibility to act upon it, are what I mean by the "positive responsibility" which Kathleen Gough advocated and lived by. She was political in the truest sense, even as she was scholarly in the truest sense. Her values remind me most closely of those of my other hero, the great sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose commitment to the "politics of truth" she shared. As he put it:

The very enterprise of social science, as it determines fact, takes on political meaning. In a world of widely communicated nonsense, any statement of fact is of political and moral significance. All social scientists by the fact of their existence, are involved in the struggle between enlightenment and obscurantism. In such a world as ours, to practice social science is, first of all, to practice the politics of truth. (Mills 1959: 178)

And again:

The intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any [person] of knowledge ... does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his [sic] polities, in the first instance, are the polities of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. …

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