Accepted paper:

"The trouble with life isn't that there is no answer, it's that there are so many answers": creating ethical parameters for opening historic ethnographic research in the digital age


Jenna Makowski (ProQuest)

Paper short abstract:

Anthropologist and informant today make joint decisions about wider access to their work, but historic research is less clear. Using projects that digitize historic fieldwork as case studies, I examine methods for interrogating lines between late anthropologist, informant and contemporary scholar.

Paper long abstract:

The relationship between anthropologist and informant lives on long after both parties have passed. Elements effaced from written ethnographies are never entirely forgotten - captured in field journals, stored in archives and, in most cases, open to study and restudy through a historic lens in a post-colonial world. Just as today's informant-anthropologist relationship is evolving alongside ethical developments in the discipline, the relationship between historic fieldnotes and contemporary readers--including the anthropologist's intellectual great-grandchild and the informant's descendants--is entwined in questions of power, perception and interpretation. With the digital age come opportunities to open up access to historical fieldwork, research residing in a conundrum. Archive walls which protect and preserve simultaneously impede access. Without resources to travel, papers which hold rich value for providing historic context to current research or which preserve a community's cultural or linguistic heritage are difficult to access. Digitization addresses this conundrum, but it raises ethical questions unimaginable a century ago. Where is the balance between what technology potentially enables for the legitimate goal of advancing knowledge and what technology potentially destroys in its disregard of the nuance embedded in informant-researcher relationships? Historic fieldwork is being digitized at an increasing rate, including Boas, Malinowski, and Spencer and Gillen. Through these case studies, one of which I am involved with directly, I will examine three methodologies for addressing the ethical implications of digitizing fieldwork, including crowd-sourcing culturally sensitive documents, creating scholar feedback loops, and developing pathways for community input. [Title quote attributed to Ruth Benedict]

panel Ethn03
Intimacy & information: dilemmas of power, trust and property in the informant encounter