Anthropologists: Ethnographic Heroes? Marie-Pierre’s response

My colleague Rayna presents us with interesting observations on the representations of anthropologists in science-fiction: in her opinion, they are generally depicted as either generous saviors of dominated, marginalized and ostracised peoples, or as selfish, exploitative and disrespectful robbers of artefacts and knowledge. Indeed, some of the characters she provides as examples for this discussion seem to fit either extremes.

Daniel Jackson on Abydos

Daniel Jackson on Abydos (MGM)

Daniel Jackson, from the Stargate movie and the Stargate SG-1 TV series, is trained in linguistics, anthropology, archeology and it seems that there’s nothing he doesn’t know about (as I have commented on previously). He is the eternal defender of the people, forever rising against domination and exploitation by the Goa’uld of several populations across the galaxy. When visiting Abydos for the first time in the movie, he meets with the Abydonians. He learns their language, laws and traditions. He implores Jack O’Neil not to destroy the planet with a nuclear bomb, and save the Abydonians instead. In exchange, he promises to barricade the gate and render it useless after O’Neil’s team leaves.

And yet he is not without faults. He accepts being given a woman as a wife. Poor him, he has to respect Abydonian customs. In the first Stargate SG-1 episode, the Goa’uld come back to Abydos because he decided against burying gate. Several locals are killed and his wife Sha’re is taken hostage.

Two other characters provide similarly nuanced representations of anthropologists. Dr. Grace Augustine from the movie Avatar, despite being a xenobotanist, is a portrait of the cliché anthropologist. She is attempting to establish good relations with the Na’vi in order to make the human mining operations on the moon easier. In order to do so, she learns about their culture, studies their language, and she and her team use avatars, Na’vi bodies to which their consciousness can be connected, to make contact with the locals. But she eventually turns against the humans who become increasingly aggressive to guarantee the success of their mining operation and attempts to help the Na’vi fight back. When she dies, she merges with the tree of souls, the connection of all life on the planet, and apparently informs the creatures of the world of the absolute necessity of fighting back the human invasion. The battle, interestingly, is won largely thanks to the leadership of a white savior, something on which Emma has commented.

Dr. Grace Augustine and Dr. Norm Spellman as Avatars

Dr. Grace Augustine and Dr. Norm Spellman as Avatars. Image from Wikia.

Another character from Avatar, Dr. Norm Spellman, himself an actual anthropologist, follows much the same path Dr. Augustine does: although working with the humans at the beginning of the story, he turns against them once the military’s actions become too aggressive to be acceptable to him. Having studied Na’vi language and culture for 5 years before travelling to Pandora, he is fascinated by them and respects them. Interestingly, then, both Augustine and Spellman did originally participate, even if reluctantly or indirectly, in the human mining operations which created the conflict and involved encroaching on Na’vi lands.

In other words, while Daniel Jackson, Dr. Augustine and Spellman and are ‟good guys” for the most part, there are some shades of grey to consider in their characterization. They aren’t only saviors.

Star Trek provides several interesting examples of representations of anthropologists and anthropology. Dr. Barron, an anthropologist in the TNG episode Rayna mentions, ”Who Watches the Watchers?” (S3E4), is a character I find particularly unrealistic in light of recent developments in our discipline. As Emma explains in her response, anthropology has undergone deep changes with the post-modern turn, starting in the 1960s. The scenario of the said episode, then, seems unrealistic in light of the contemporary ethical, theoretical and methodological norms in anthropology. Indeed, unless anthropology reverted in the next few decades to its past standards, the anthropologists in the episode would not think it appropriate to study them without their consent, ”from a camouflaged observation pos” without engaging in dialogue with them about their findings and interpretations. They would most importantly not think it possible to learn more about one people, or alien race, by studying the ”evolution” of another.

Who Watches the Watchers? TNG

Picard and the Mintakans. (Paramount)

Indeed, in the episode, Deana Troi states: ”According to Dr. Barron’s preliminary reports, the Mintakans are proto-Vulcan humanoids of a bronze age level”. Later, Picard states ”We were once as you are now. To study you is to understand ourselves.” Comparative studies may still be relevant and useful in anthropology, but it is no longer considered possible to know about the past state of a culture by studying the current state of another. Additionally, the way the anthropological study is described in this episode reminds me of a hunting expedition.

Jordi: Oh a duckblind! Right they’re anthropologists

Picard: Who are studying an extended family of Mintakans at close range from a camouflaged observation post.

The notion that evolution is a unidirectional movement on a line of predetermined stages is a colonial one, and it has been contested and abandoned by anthropologists for decades, as Emma aptly explained. Yet old ideas about human evolution are still common in popular thought, and certainly in science-fiction. In several Star Trek and Stargate movies and TV series episodes, characters talk about bronze age or pre-industrial societies: this suggests, again, that all societies, even alien ones, can somehow be evaluated according to a human, and specifically Western idea of cultural evolution. Is it really realistic to assume that a society located on a planet millions of light years away from Earth would one day go through an industrial era if not all societies or Earth could be said to have lived through one?

Yet Stargate provides the most shocking example, in my opinion, or how colonial ideas continue to permeate popular thought and thus popular culture: characters in the show constantly describe peoples they encounter through the galaxy as ”primitive”. They use this word so often, in fact, that I find it surprising that no one has thought to create a video montage showing this yet. I know that video would be quite long. This term ”primitive” is highly pejorative, and according to my knowledge most anthropologists no longer use it.

So, are science-fiction writers completely out the loop about the post-modern (post-colonial) turn? Are the representations they provide of anthropology and anthropologists entirely inaccurate? Not entirely.

Still today, the logic of preserving peoples from cultural contamination is deeply embedded in Western thought. One needs only to think of the ”uncontacted tribes” to see a clear example of this: some indigenous peoples living in the Amazonia, particularly, are considered as having never having had contact with the ”modern” world: read contemporary here instead of modern as the two words actually have very different meanings despite being used interchangeably in familiar language. Efforts are being made by different NGOs, governements and individuals to preserve these groups in their current state and to keep intruders from making contact with them, in the fear that this would ruin their natural development. Some anthropologists adhere to such ideas: this reminds me of the scenario of  ”Who Watches the Watchers?”, in which the anthropologists wish to remain hidden from the Mintakans because they do not wish to alter their cultural evolution.

Of course, history provides valuable arguments for this position: after all, meeting the European explorers who reached the Americas in the 15th century was disastrous for indigenous peoples. The bacteriological shock itself ravaged populations, and centuries of oppression, war and domination have left scars which, when they did not lead to the complete annihilation of peoples and cultures, run deep to this day. Indigenous healing and cultural renaissance movements are bringing about wonderful and impressive changes to counteract these scars. However, and I have written about this previously when discussing the Prime Directive, a set of rules Starfleet officers follow in Star Trek, there is something highly problematic with treating peoples as petri dishes one must protect from contamination (see articles 1 and 2). What appears to be good intentions can be based on deeply colonial and paternalistic ideas and intentions.

To learn more, feel free to have a look at the American Anthropological Association’s statement on race, which is relevant in regards to the notion of evolution, or consult Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: research and indigenous peoples.

Have some thoughts or questions about this series? Please share them in the comments below!

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations!

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