Anthropologists: Ethnographic Heroes? Emma’s Response

This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar. 

We have to attend to the language of “underdogs” in relation to anthropology, considering anthropology’s fraught history and involvement with colonialism. Though anthropology as a discipline ostensibly began as the study of human culture, anthropologists were often implicated in imperial projects throughout the world. During the 1800s and early 1900s, many anthropologists believed in the principle of cultural evolution, which supposed that societies and cultures evolved from “primitive” to “modern.” When studying indigenous communities, therefore, anthropologists believed that they were examining “unevolved,” primitive,” and “savage” humans that had not yet progressed into a more modern, or “civilized” stage of cultural evolution. Due to these flawed notions about culture, many anthropological endeavors focused on studying the biology and morphology of indigenous cultures to either prove their inferiority or serve as their benign saviors. It was, as Rudyard Kipling referred to it, the “White Man’s Burden” to “save” indigenous communities from their savagery, inculcate them into “civilized” society, or use them in scientific experiments to justify the conquest of foreign countries. Anthropology has been historically implicated in cultural exploitation and appropriation, a legacy that many contemporary practicing anthropologists have to contend with and atone for. Referring to anthropologists as defenders of society’s underdogs therefore has problematic connotations, especially in relation to ongoing white savior complex issues and the charitable-industrial complex.

Contemporary anthropologists have spent decades altering their methodological practices and approaches to fieldwork and ethnographic study to atone for this problematic history and ensure that their research is as respectful and culturally sensitive as possible. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is not only cultural self-reflexivity, but also disciplinary reflection. Anthropologists constantly critique and adjust their work and their discipline to ensure academic integrity and ethics. Polyvocality, or the use of multiple narrators throughout an ethnography, has been used to deemphasize the voice of the anthropologist and give precedence to the interlocutors so that they may tell their own stories. During the post-modern turn in the 1980s, anthropologists began to focus more on subaltern, dispossessed communities suffering from structural violence, globalization and ongoing cultural imperialism. Engaged and activist anthropologists today use their positions to advocate for the rights of communities who may not otherwise have a voice. They use ethnography as a tool to raise awareness about injustice and bring about change. Questions of representation and who may and should speak for whom remain central to contemporary anthropological practice.

Rayna also includes science fictional examples of anthropologists and archaeologists. Though the two are often conflated in popular culture, their practice and methodologies differ. Dr. Indiana Jones is an archaeologist who perpetrates the worst crimes of 20th century anthropology—plundering sacred indigenous sites to steal artifacts. As Winifred Creamer, an archaeology professor at Northern Illinois University states, “You could say Indiana Jones is the worst thing to happen to archeology, because Indiana Jones has no respect for anybody and anything. Indiana Jones walks a fine line between what’s an archaeologist and what’s a professional looter” (Royce 2008). In a piece of McSweeney’s satire called “Back From Yet Another Globetrotting Adventure, Indiana Jones Checks His Mail and Discovers That His Bid For Tenure Has Been Denied,” the ethics committee indicates everything that is problematic about his character: “Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from ‘possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency’ to ‘practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics’ to unabashed grave-robbing.’”

Unfortunately, however, the practice of archaeology in the early 1900s was largely a practice in grave robbing. Archaeologists, like colonists, were on a quest to discover lost and buried civilizations, as well as collect as many artifacts and objects of material culture as possible. Museums were only just being built and many wealthy intellectuals and academics desired artifacts for their own personal collections. The reason many archaeologists (such as Mr. Scarman) ignored warnings about sacred ground was because of the desire for “exotic” artifacts, the social prestige of “discovery” and the rush to fill museums with as many artifacts as possible, often to the detriment of local tribes and communities. This meant that many sacred objects that were being used in rituals and religious ceremonies were unceremoniously stolen from sites around the country. Museums were also in such a rush to collect artifacts that many institutions like the University of Pennsylvania Museum for Archaeology and Anthropology have shelf upon shelf of artifacts excavated in the 1930s and 40s that haven’t been looked at in decades. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed to address indigenous communities’ desire to reclaim their pillaged artifacts. Museums are now going through a process of review and evaluation to return these plundered pieces of material culture to their rightful communities, many of whom still practice the rituals and ceremonies the artifacts were originally used for.

Science fiction, like anthropology, makes us more aware of cultural relativity and diversity, and invites its readers to think critically about their own positionality and cultural predispositions. While representations of anthropologists in science fiction may not always be accurate or fair, they initiate the same kind of criticism and self-reflection anthropology encourages.

 Works Cited

 Bryan, Andy. “Back From Yet Another Globetrotting Adventure, Indiana Jones Checks His Mail and Discovers That His Bid For Tenure Has Been Denied.” McSweeney’s

Buffett, Peter (2013). “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” The New York Times: The Opinion Pages.

Cole, Teju (2012). “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic.

Joyce, Christopher (2008). “Indiana Jones: Saving History or Stealing It?” NPR.

Kipling, Rudyard (1899). “White Man’s Burden.” Modern History Sourcebook.

 “National NAGPRA.” National Park Service: US Department of the Interior.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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