The Future of Anthropological Research: Ethics, Questions, and Methods in the Age of COVID-19: Part 2

Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Welcome back to our series on the future of anthropology. For the second session, we spoke with biological anthropologists and archaeologists from different countries and traditions.  In the following posts, they reflect on the current moment and what it means for the future of the field. Be sure to check out the first installment in the series here.

Dispatches on “the field”

Anna Agbe-Davis. Image by Kjersti Severinsen

Anna Agbe Davies, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One of my first reactions, when asked about the nature of archaeological fieldwork during the Covid-19 pandemic and looking over our prompts, was that “fieldwork” means something quite different for archaeologists than for sociocultural anthropologists.  But does it, really?

I’m thinking about the ways that archaeologists have attempted (sometimes successfully) to engage with living people, the descendants of the people who occupied the sites we call our “field,” and the people who now live there.  Many archaeologists will now acknowledge that they strive for a practice that is critical, meaningful, and engaged.  This kind of scholarship is, as they say, “high touch.”  One must talk with people, form relationships, build trust, engage in back and forth negotiations. Does a pandemic in which face-to-face conversation is complicated, if not impossible, up the complexity of this process just enough to cause archaeologists to throw up their hands and give up?  Safety restrictions might give cover to those who would rather retreat into a scholarly bubble, and not concern themselves with the living.

Further considering Danilyn and Yael’s charge, I found myself wanting to trouble, or confront, its terms.  If we all want to know how to do fieldwork under radically new conditions, it seems wise to spend some time thinking about what we mean by “fieldwork.”  Where is “the field?”  What we as anthropologists and archaeologists signify by “the field” tells us a lot about our norms and values, the techniques we consider valid, the forms of knowledge that count for us.

“The field” matters so much to us in part because it is a site of enculturation.  It may be where stories of the ancestors get passed down.  It may be where we form communities in which people not only learn and pursue knowledge together (as we do in a classroom), but in which people also may live side by side, perhaps at some remove from the “real” world.

Some skills and modes of knowledge production that we consider essential are thought to be best learned in “the field.”  We share equipment. We pore over one another’s notes.  We pass artifacts back and forth, learning to identify and analyze them literally looking over one another’s shoulders.  This is not a 6-feet-apart scenario.

What it comes down to, from where I stand, is that some of the aspects of being who we as individual anthropologists, individual archaeologists, are (that is, our roles, our identities, our personae) often emerge from key moments and experiences in the field.  The coronavirus pandemic is hindering our ability to inhabit those identities and to teach and learn archaeology as an embodied practice, as a part of ourselves.

And yet, John Jackson has observed, and I concur, that “an anthropologist is always on the clock.”  A consequence of the above-mentioned embodiment of disciplinary identity is that we can, potentially, find “the field” anywhere and everywhere that we encounter humans and their material traces.  Instead of assuming a fixed relationship between “the field” and a certain kind of site, perhaps we can accept (either because of “these times” or because ”these times” are the crisis that compels our acceptance of) a relational rather than an essentialist definition of our sites, our data, and our processes of data collection—our “fields.”  Specifically, I claim that it is the presence of an anthropologist, an archaeologist, that engenders “the field.”

Maybe current conditions mean people can’t study the thing (the location, the collection) that they wanted to, but is it really the thing that we are curious about, or is this thing simply an instantiation of an object that is more abstract?  If we can accept the latter orientation, then the inaccessibility of the thing becomes less troubling.

Figure 1: Author

My year of visiting English classrooms in Norway was cut short, but I learned a lot about what English means to young Norwegians (and what it does for them) by observing the use of English on placards at a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the parliament building in Oslo (Figure 1). Eventually, I anticipate analyzing these placards as material things and considering how they compare with the stickers that are widely used to spread political and ideological messages in Norway (Figure 2).

I realize that it’s easier said than done, but a great deal might be accomplished (from reassuring our junior colleagues, to reinvigorating the discipline, to discovering new “fields”) by shifting our thinking from “How can we identify new methods—especially methods of data acquisition—to continue to do the same work under the conditions of a pandemic?”  to the question posed in the prompt: How will the conditions of a pandemic shape the kinds of questions anthropologists can ask?

Figure 2. Photo by Anna Agbe-Davis

As I walked around Oslo during the shutdown, I found myself curious about the new proxemics that was emerging.  I started to observe people navigating shared spaces as the fear of contagion or the wish to protect others has changed the rules of the game.  I found myself thinking about the material apparatus of social (some prefer the term “physical”) distancing: the plexiglass shields at counters; the tape on the floor telling you where to stand; and the extent to which people paid attention to these new cues for behavior—when, why, who?  Passing through the liminal spaces of four international airports, I had an opportunity to reflect on the modes and materials of protection taken up by different national and intra-national social groups.  Now, sitting at home in North Carolina under quarantine, I’m following with great interest the endless discussion of what a mask means.

I still wonder, though, given the structures within which we operate, even if emergent or precariously-employed scholars were willing and able to “pivot” their research, to study stickers, protest placards, and inspirational chalk art instead of ancient inscriptions, posthole patterns, and pots, would it be an act of solid mentorship to encourage them do so, knowing all of the extra value that is attributed to a business-as-usual field experience?

Figure 3: Harold Agbe-Davies

Because, of course, we are not perfectly autonomous actors.  We are constrained by the social structures within which we work and live. Consider those for whom the sign-vehicle “the field” evokes meaning (Figure 3).[1]  How is that entity (a funding agency, a university promotion committee, a dissertation chair) situated within the structure of anthropology, of the academy?  How is that entity situated in relation to the archaeologist attempting to assert that “the field” can, should, or does signify something new?

I don’t have a solution, or even answers to my many questions, but I do have a plan.  It involves using whatever leverage I have to challenge the structural forces that reinforce essentialist and narrow ideas about our fields of inquiry.  It involves humility and open-mindedness in the face of an anthropology that doesn’t look like mine but, because it was formed in the crucible of these troubling and troubled times, could take us all somewhere completely new.

[1] Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1994. Division of Signs. In The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Electronic edition.

Atkin, Albert. 2013. Peirce’s Theory of Signs In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>


Anthony Di Fiore

Field Work and Futures During the Coronavirus “Anthropause” [1]

Anthony Di Fiore, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing people around the world to rethink almost every aspect of our daily lives, social interactions, and livelihoods. Unsurprisingly, for many academic researchers – and maybe particularly for faculty and students in Anthropology – this moment is prompting introspection about the “point” of our projects. (Is research about anything other than the virus and how it intersects with human biology and culture really that important or even relevant?) It is also challenging us to confront certain ethical issues head on. (How might my presence impact the health of people and wildlife in the regions where I am working?). On a practical level, too, we are being forced to wrestle with how to continue to make “progress” on our scholarship in the face of uncertainty about the future.

For primatologists, paleontologists, archaeologists, and human biologists whose work involves field work and field training, there is little doubt that the present crisis is going to have an outsized impact on our research programs. With travel curtailed, social distancing measures and quarantines in place around the globe, and universities and funding agencies placing restrictions on how and when even already-allocated funding can be used, many of us are now precluded from visiting research stations and excavation sites, from running or attending field schools, and from participating in any but virtual conferences. Additionally, access to many libraries and museums, both in our home countries and abroad, is suspended as those institutions grapple with their own challenges for weathering the pandemic and for keeping staff and collections safe. Even more important than these tangible, bureaucratic restrictions, though, is the fact that ethical concerns about the health and safety of our interlocuters and collaborators and of local wildlife populations demand that we pause and reevaluate any sort of field work – particularly field work taking place in remote sites or in places where the public health infrastructure is limited – as researchers are potential vectors, who could spread the virus far beyond urban centers into vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

Some forms of research in biological anthropology and archaeology might be possible to sustain, even if, as looks to be the case, much field work remains curtailed into the foreseeable future. For many of us, our research involves analyzing physical materials – bones, fossils, artifacts, biological samples, soils – that were collected in prior field seasons. In some institutions, labs that were shut down at the start of the pandemic are now beginning to “open up”, so it may be possible for work with these materials to begin again. Still, restarting “bench” research is contingent upon the development of adequate plans for safeguarding and monitoring the health of personnel (and on approvals from institutional review boards) and also requires that PPE and other lab safety supplies and consumables can be procured consistently and predictably, which may pose logistical challenges. Other kinds of non-field-based research, such as bioinformatics work or modeling studies or comparative analyses involving existing datasets, may be easier to pivot to, but only if researchers can access relevant datasets, training, and information infrastructures.

In considering how the coronavirus pandemic is likely to impact anthropological research and the discipline itself over the coming months and year, we need to acknowledge and conscientiously address two important issues. First, the ability to “restart” a research project, or to pivot a research program towards addressing questions and using methods that are viable even when we cannot travel internationally, is a privilege that is likely to extend only to select members of our community, e.g., to established researchers with existing labs and funding or to those with access to robust university supply chains for procuring PPE, reagents, and consumables. Thus, even where lab or remote research can proceed, we are likely to see many international students, visiting scholars, and undergraduates being cut off from research opportunities. Unless we find ways to push back, the situation is likely to perpetuate and exaggerate structural inequalities associated with the colonial history of academic research and narrow the diversity of experiences and scholarly approaches represented in our institutions.

Second, it is clear that the costs imposed by the current pandemic are going to be differentially experienced by folks at different stages of their careers. Unquestionably, it will be more challenging and more professionally risky for graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty members to have their academic trajectories slowed or to have to pivot their research to embrace new topics and new methods than it will be for more senior researchers with existing labs and funding. Just as we saw with the shift to virtual instruction and remote work spurred by the pandemic, students and faculty with young children are likely to bear the brunt of disruptions to public school schedules and shrinking childcare options that limit the time that can be devoted to learning and deploying new research skills. It will be important for us to hold our departments and institutions accountable for supporting our students and junior colleagues and ensuring they are treated equitably in promotion and granting decisions.

Finally, like many others, at the height of the lockdown I was struck by reports of how much less impact humans, writ large, were having on the natural world in conspicuous ways. We saw pictures from around the globe of clearer skies over urban centers, heard about how much global CO2 admissions had fallen, and, here in the US, read accounts of wildlife running around the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin. As a wildlife biologist, it was incredibly uplifting to see these small examples of resilience during the “anthropause” (Rutz et al. 2020), though it is sad that it took humans sitting so thoroughly still and not touching the world around us to appreciate the extent to which our just being impacts the rest of the planet. As we eventually emerge from the coronavirus crisis, this effect, unfortunately, is going to fade. If there is any new direction towards which we should be turning our ethnographic research tools as a result of the pandemic, it is to the interconnectedness of humans with other organisms and actors in our ecosystem.


[1] I love this word… it just entered our vernacular on June 22nd in a commentary published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Rutz C, Loretto M-C, Bates AE, Davidson SC, Duarte CM, Jetz W, Johnson M, Kato A, Kays R, Mueller T, Primack RB, Ropert-Coudert Y, Tucker MA, Wikelski M, & Cagnacci F (2020). COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nature Ecology & Evolution.


Eduardo Neves

Doing Archaeology in the Age of Covid

Eduardo G. Neves, Professor of Archaeology, University of São Paulo

The practice of archaeology has been changing a lot in the last years, and it is likely that the current pandemic will have major consequences that will further accelerate these changes. Archaeology is a costly endeavor, and overall in the world one sees a drastic reduction in funding from public and private non-profit agencies. Such cuts parallel changes in legislation aiming at decreasing the demand for contract or commercial archaeology, which is the larger employer in the field overall. To top this, the constant flow of young PhDs coming out of universities delivers a population of young academics that is larger than the number of teaching or research positions being opened.

The colonialist history and the colonialist-embedded practices of archaeology have never been so visible as they are today. As a consequence, archaeologists’ monopoly on producing narratives about the past has been challenged by other interest groups that include Indigenous people, local communities, and local governments. This movement is forcing the discipline to move from within the limits of academia and to establish critical dialogues with these groups. As a consequence, albeit still a valid pursuit, the goal of knowing the past from its own sake is becoming harder to sustain, especially in contexts where archaeologists work among impoverished, politically silenced, and marginal communities.

The irony is that archaeology has never been so interesting as a discipline at it is today. The contribution of techniques from areas such as genomics, isotope chemistry, air-born digital imagery, and big data analyzes has been producing a small revolution in the understanding of the past through the material record. Together with the influence of innovative social theories, these advances confer to archaeology a powerful voice to propose alternative narratives about the past that challenge long-held but never-tested hypotheses. Such power derives also from the position that archaeology occupies between the social and the natural sciences. Long seen as a source of epistemological insecurity, this sometimes ambiguous place gives archaeology a privileged window on the deep history of the relationship among people, other beings, and the environment, making it well prepared to participate in the current debate on the socioenvironmental crises the world faces today.

In light of these ideas, these are the reflections I have to offer on the topics raised by Danilyn and Yael:

Methods and Questions

Restrictions on travel and lack of funding will likely render the practice of archaeology even more virtual and removed from fieldwork, particularly in graduate programs that place strict time limits on the completion of dissertations (probably more common in places such as UK than in the US). Remote analyses will become more frequent and so will approaches such as modelling or big-data analyzes. These are welcome developments but they run the risk of widening ever more the gap between the centers of production of knowledge in the global north and south, in contexts in which the north provides the syntheses (“the goods”) and the south the data (“the raw materials”). Funding for these approaches should somehow encourage stronger and more organic forms of collaboration among scholars and students, financing, for instance the travelling of students from the south to the north to enhance part of their training while remote research is done.

Methods and Ethics

The high costs involved in funding archaeology have always meant that the capacity to ask research questions and define research agendas rests with those in positions of power and reflects asymmetries in archaeology. The context of the pandemic forces one even more to question those who establish research questions and to what extent these questions contribute to making the practice of archaeology more socially relevant. In many places, such as in the Amazon where I work, local populations are the ones being hit hardest by Covid-19, and one should question the relevance of doing traditional fieldwork in places that have been devastated by the pandemic. That means opening the discipline even more to honest and practical dialogues about who benefits from archaeology and allowing for greater flexibility to modify proposed research goals once one is in the field.

Ethics and Questions

The most important question an archaeologist should always ask is, why am I doing this?  This question should perhaps be the first one addressed by people applying for grants, and the answer should not be only scientific or academic. Once more, the practice of archaeology involves high costs, long distance trips, and, in many cases, literally messing around in people’s backyards. The transportation of samples to laboratories or museums, sometimes far away from the places where they were uncovered, is another complicated and costly ordeal. Archaeology must find a way to somehow be relevant in addressing the political and social problems the world faces today. Doing this will force the discipline more self-critical and interesting.

A final suggestion.  The practice of archaeology is a collective endeavor and historically highly dependent on fieldwork. Although the frequency and opportunities may get more restricted due to limitations on travelling and funding, fieldwork will remain a basic pillar of the discipline. Over twenty years, my experience teaching free-of-charge field schools in the Brazilian Amazon has shown me that these are wonderful opportunities to form networks of students, build a sense of comradery, and empower local archaeologists and other people interested in the past. I think that opportunities for funding multi-year field schools or field workshops could have an important impact on the further development of the discipline in these critical times.


Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu

COVID-19 and the “New World” Order

Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Pretoria

It is “normal” to live in a world facing challenges of various kinds as a result of social injustice, colonialism, climate change, conflict, or medical inadequacies. Such challenges are often geographically defined and do not necessarily affect the whole globe at once. I always consider these occurrences to be short-term disturbances of the equilibrium to which we have become accustomed as humans living in specific geographical locations around the world.  As human beings, we all have experienced challenges that somehow disturb our “normality.” But a significant majority of the world population has not experienced a phenomenon in our living memory that has caused as much disruption as COVID-19. We, therefore, do not have any experience to guide us in adapting to the world in which we find ourselves. As we reflect on how COVID-19 is affecting our lives, personally and professionally, a number of issues come to the fore. I focus on three factors to review how the pandemic is challenging us to rethink our approach in terms of how we conduct our research activities. These are (i) research questions and methods, (ii) research methods and ethics, and (iii) ethics and research questions.

Research Questions and Methods

My view is that COVID-19 has significantly affected research activities, and this shall continue to be the case for some time.  I am not convinced that any anthropological or archaeological research can take place under the prevailing circumstances.  This is the case even though the COVID-19’s impact differs across the world, with some countries significantly less affected than others.

While there might be research questions that explore how people, especially indigenous communities, are responding to life under the pandemic, I am not convinced the situation allows for anthropological and archaeological research activities.  It is very insensitive to be “throwing” research questions at people who are faced with the most difficult circumstances in their living memory. It is my considered view that those who insist on undertaking any research activity under the pandemic are simply interested in their “academic” output, in churning out “quick” publications. I do not attach much regard to anthropological COVID-19-related research because of the circumstances under which it is gathered and the methods applied. Those who continue insisting on research activities do so without being considerate of the societies within which they collect research data.

In discussion with colleagues, it emerged that the presence of outsiders can be viewed as a threat through which people from the “cities” are bringing the pandemic closer to their study areas, which are largely in rural localities. As we know, the major economic hubs around the world are ravaged by COVID-19. Our thinking was that our “foreignness” would affect how people interact with us, resulting in a discomfort that would directly affect research outcomes. To stand in solidarity with the most affected communities, it is my view that we should not conduct any anthropological and archaeological research activities, whatever our research methods may be. This is my view even where our methods dictate that the data is to be collected by various local members of the societies we are researching. This is not an ideal time for research. Instead, we must be compassionate with the most affected people from the various areas where we conduct our research projects.

Research Methods and Ethics

Our research context, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, was already defined by a number of concerns expressed especially by scholars based in so-called developing nations. Some researchers have “silently” argued against the increasing presence of foreign teams in their countries. Their charge is that such teams do not apply the same ethical standards they always promise to abide by. In addition, foreign research teams are accused of not investing in developing local collaborators so that they can themselves become active researchers who can stand on their own. These local collaborators exist only in the shadows of their “barons.” It could be argued, therefore, that local collaborators are simply involved to fulfill a “political” mandate and satisfy government administrative requirements for research permits. What this illustrates, therefore, is that the major intention behind these collaborations is not to significantly develop research capacity in so-called developing countries. The unspoken goal, instead, is to keep the status quo in place so that the area involved can remain “continuously fertile” for research by foreigners. This says a lot about who is actually producing knowledge, with others left to consume knowledge produced within their areas by outsiders.

The outbreak of the pandemic gives us a moment of  “pause” in which to reflect upon and revise such relationships, which are abusive of local collaborators who are used only to get research funding and research permits within specific localities. I even have had foreign-based colleagues use my name as a collaborator without ever contacting me. Even to this day, these colleagues have not had the decency to say anything to me about these research projects (in which I was supposedly involved). It gets even worse than this, and yet the greater majority of my African colleagues would not have the courage to speak out and challenge these kinds of relationships.

More importantly, I believe COVID-19 has clearly illustrated how we have failed to transform our disciplines. It is evident that while we have researched and over-researched some communities around the world for many years, we have not done enough for these communities for them to have any of their own become trained specialists who can stand by themselves and run big research projects. I am not necessarily arguing there are no such instances within the African continent, but my view is that they are too few considering how much anthropological research has been conducted on the continent. How many indigenous professionals are actively producing knowledge in our research fields such that we can say that a meaningful transformation, and not just a smokescreen, is taking place? I have seen other colleagues beginning to add their informants as co-authors in research publications, but for me, this is not enough of a transformation nor can I even begin to consider it as such. COVID-19 is thus highlighting the growing gap of inequality not only in our broader societies but within our very own academic disciplines. It is ethically clear to me, therefore, that we need to transform the production of knowledge. The equality that researchers are supposedly aiming for is still only a pipe dream. Researchers make politically correct statements, but it simply ends there. Foreign researchers have always led the game and played it with their research subjects by their rules.

Ethics and Research Questions

The greatest challenge is that our training of students has not really changed over the years. As a result, researchers and their students are not as compassionate as they ought to be. Indeed, we have adapted our language to a certain extent.  It is now common to talk of community archeology, public archaeology, postcolonial archaeology, and so on. I would argue that, to a large extent, this is enforced upon us by the need to be politically correct as well as what I call the “feel good factor.”  This is a good approach for pleasing potential funders, but the reality is that our practice is very different. We need to step back and reflect on the manner in which we have been dealing with our research subjects and the nature of the knowledge we have produced over the years.

In addition, anthropological and archaeological researchers have, in my view, become “victims” of the expectation that their research must be both objective and considerate of their informants. The two goals are contradictory in my opinion. Being considerate means being biased, and that is not objectivity. It has never been my view that objectivity is achievable under any research circumstances. As researchers, our identity plays an active role in our research projects, and we should accept that. My thinking is that we should stop trying to achieve the impossible, since we cannot distance ourselves from who we are, which is shaped by our various social, economic, religious, and political experiences. Researchers must begin seeing themselves in their projects, and this begins with them taking ownership of the voice in which they write their publications. It has been academic tendency for researchers to hide their subjectivity behind the use of the third person when they write up their research findings.

Reflecting back on these three factors (research questions and methods, research methods and ethics, and ethics and research questions), it is evident that anthropological and archaeological disciplines must still continue with their transformative efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to stop and reflect on the road traveled thus far before some “normality” returns. It is my expectation that it will take another year or so for this to happen. What is most important is that our research projects must be meaningful to the communities within which we work.  Our research questions, therefore, should always not just be informed by our project’s intentions, but also by the difference our findings are likely to make in the lives of our respondents. We need to throw away the unachievable goal of objectivity and actively embrace subjectivity. That will not necessarily mean that we are unethical, but it will go a long way towards enabling us to be successful in making our research projects relevant.


Sheela Athreya

What does an Ethical Physical Anthropology Look Like in a Global Pandemic?

Sheela Athreya, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Texas A&M University

Recently my senior graduate student Brittany reminded me that I once told her: “one of the most powerful contributions anthropologists can make is to dictate the narrative of human history.”  This was said as a cautionary statement—an acknowledgement that we exercise a privilege, power, and voice with whatever we publish and thus we have to do so mindfully.  Brittany’s reminder came at an especially poignant time.  Just days after Danilyn invited me to consider anthropological ethics in a post-pandemic world, George Floyd was murdered. The African-American community was burdened to call on us yet again, for the nth time, to acknowledge and at least start to repair the centuries of pain and damage inflicted by slavery, colonialism, and imperialism.  So when our roundtable group finally met, we inevitably could not disentangle our discussion from the bigger-picture ethics of anthropology in a world where institutional structures that have already shifted once because of COVID-19 need to shift again.

So here I share my thoughts on what an ethical Physical Anthropology would look like that accounts for the changes we all face due to the pandemic, but that goes beyond focusing on the immediate issues of travel restrictions, precautions when visiting museums or research collections, and lost training opportunities for students.  Our work takes place within a historically mediated global power structure.  Physical anthropology (in the strict sense) was built on the violent acquisition of human bodies, on their objectification and dehumanization, and on using them to rationalize colonialist and genocidal policies.  I, my students and my closest colleagues work primarily with skeletal collections housed in museums around the world and derived from this violent history.  There have always been ethical issues surrounding the study of these materials, so the need for new ways to conduct research in a world transformed by the pandemic dovetails well with the opportunity to implement more ethical practices using these data.

Before the roundtable discussion I asked my junior colleague Cody Prang, and my three graduate students Brittany Moody, Harshita Jain, and Missy Gandarilla to share their perspectives, fears for the future, and ideas for moving forward.  Many of us recognize that we are not faced with the massive and possibly permanent losses in data collection methods that other anthropologists face.  Our work can proceed despite the many restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to remote technology.  While there is no substitute for physically handling bones for a comparative anatomist or morphologist, we can still address many of our questions using some form of online data such as 3D surface scans, CT scans, and/or existing datasets (à la Howells and Hanihara).  Students are still stressed out about how to revise their projects, but they are not completely abandoning them in large numbers the way that many of our colleagues in other sub-fields—and even within Biological Anthropology broadly— are.

I paint the cup for Physical Anthropologists as half full out of respect to our colleagues whose work simply cannot be done remotely.  But the reality is that we are in no way ready to pivot to this “simple” solution of online data.  Our community knows this, and it will be a long road for us to get there.  But failing to do that will be a massive failure of our generation to future generations of scholars.

The biggest obstacle we face is that physical anthropologists (and I am not innocent in this) are notorious for our resistance to providing access to our data, and our tendency to monopolize it indefinitely in the name of “ongoing study.”  This unintentionally but unforgivably reproduces a premise at the origins of our subfield: the idea that we “own” the bodies we study. Indeed, John Hawks points out that the term “sharing” invokes an act of charity as opposed to a healthy and even essential scientific practice that allows for replication and repeatability.

The resistance to providing public access to data in my subspecialty of paleoanthropology has also created clubs of “haves” and “have nots.”  Eager new graduate students with creative projects often struggle with implementing their ideas and getting funding because they are at the wrong institution or work with the wrong advisor to get access to data that they should rightfully have.  This usually correlates directly with access to economic resources.  It is impossible to diversify our field when data access exists along these axes of privilege which are reinforced in such deep structural ways.

Requiring the deposition of data into a public database, as is done by the National Institutes of Health, would be an important step forward for our subfield, and  many senior scholars have been calling for this for a while (e.g., Turner 2005; Turner and Mulligan 2020).  Our field has been discussing the ethics, practicalities, and considerations of such practices (e.g. Weber 2001, 2015) for over a decade, but without significant change.   Funding agencies such as Wenner-Gren and NSF could play a major role in forcing a cultural shift by implementing strict accountability mechanisms such as requiring a detailed timeline for data deposition into a public repository, constructing and overseeing data repositories, denying additional funding, or even revoking funding, as is done by other organizations.  These requirements would serve to signal the massive importance of data sharing, particularly in a post-pandemic research landscape, and begin to dismantle the tradition of Western scientific ownership over biological data derived from human bodies.

But on the flip side, as powerfully noted by Rick Smith and Jess Kolopenuk (forthcoming), requiring data sharing has its own colonial overtones.  All people, but especially historically marginalized populations, are entitled to sovereignty over their biological data and their ancestor’s bodies.  In that respect, our Black, Indigenous, and international partners require consultation on this matter; it is not as simple as a field-wide mandate.

Relying heavily on virtual data would also impact our museum and university partners because it would shift how we fund infrastructure and capacity building, particularly within international institutions.  Many museums and universities charge bench fees, which are critical to the financial health of their staff’s own research and ability to curate the materials safely.  If we emphasize data collection using online databases, funding agencies and scholars could incorporate budgetary line items that provide support for the personnel and technology needed to scan collections and construct/oversee online databases, perhaps replacing bench fees with the payment of comparable fees to access these virtual collections

It may be inevitable for us to default to focusing on lab-based research (such as genomics) when we are restricted for ethical reasons from doing fieldwork.  But as one of our roundtable participants, Eduardo Neves, pointed out beautifully, if we shift our focus too much in this direction we are in a sense re-colonizing our field.  If poor countries are not provided the capacity building support that is required to participate in these remote discussions, then we are inevitably shifting the power of narrating our past to a few predominantly White researchers.  This ties back into what I told Brittany.  If we do indeed have the power to narrate human history, I hope we can use this transformational period to shift resources, and authorship, to historically marginalized voices.

Turner, Trudy R., ed. Biological anthropology and ethics: From repatriation to genetic identity. SUNY Press, 2005.

Turner, Trudy R., and Connie J. Mulligan. “Data sharing in biological anthropology: Guiding principles and best practices.” American journal of physical anthropology 170, no. 1 (2019): 3-4.

Weber, Gerhard W. “Virtual anthropology (VA): a call for glasnost in paleoanthropology.” The Anatomical Record: An Official Publication of the American Association of Anatomists 265, no. 4 (2001): 193-201.

Weber, Gerhard W. “Virtual anthropology.” American journal of physical anthropology 156 (2015): 22-42.



The Future of Anthropological Research: Ethics, Questions, and Methods in the Age of COVID-19: Part I

Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Anthropology, as a discipline, is not going to escape the pandemic unscathed.  Never has the discipline seen such a sudden transformation in the conditions that make our research possible.   The kinds of field methods for which we’re famous have become largely impossible.   The relevance of the kinds of questions we were in the midst of asking has been cast into doubt.   Running like a thread through these quandaries are questions of ethics: given the scale of the crisis, and its impact on those who participate in our research, what’s the point of anthropological work?

Now more than ever, the world needs anthropology; now more than ever, anthropologists, especially those new to the field, need support.   But to meet the challenge of the current moment, anthropologists are going to have to think hard about issues that are no less ethical and intellectual than they are practical.   It would be better if we found ways to do this thinking together.   Towards this end, Wenner-Gren has opened a conversation about the future of anthropological research in the years and months to come.

We have asked participants to focus on these three areas:

1. Methods and Questions.   There are resources circulating on how to do research in a pandemic.  Interesting, many of the proposed approaches come from disciplines outside of anthropology.   Is there a specifically anthropological approach and suite of methods we might want to explore?

On the one hand, the challenge is logistical.   How might anthropologists borrow from, adapt, or completely reconfigure virtual approaches born in different disciplines?   What can we learn from our own traditions of virtual research?   What will we need to invent anew?

On the other hand, the challenge is conceptual. How will the conditions under which anthropologists are now working change the kinds of questions they are able to ask?

2.  Methods and Ethics.   The methods being proposed for fieldwork in a pandemic often involve a heavier commitment of time and energy on the part of research partners and participants than might otherwise have been the case.   Are there ethical ways to do research under these conditions?   How will we need to rethink not simply how researchers compensate those who participate in their projects, but how they formulate their projects from the start?

3.  Ethics and Questions.    The question is not simply how anthropologists should do their research in the age of COVID-19, but whether they should do their research.  How is the current moment going to force anthropologists to think more intentionally about the purpose of their work?

In the following weeks, we’ll be publishing brief blog pieces from the scholars who are taking part in this discussion. For the first session, we spoke with sociocultural anthropologists from different countries and traditions of anthropology with deep experience training students. Here’s what they had to say.


Pamela Block

Bearing Witness in a Pandemic

Pamela Block

Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Western Ontario University

Crises have always generated opportunities, born of necessity, for growth in anthropological methodologies (for example Malinowski’s development of ethnographic field word during WWI). They have also provided spaces for emergent moral ambiguities (or flat-out unethical actions) for the discipline and its practitioners. Consider  anthropologists Bruno Beger and Hans Fleischhacker’s work for the Nazis, featured in Christopher Hale’s (2003) book: Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race.

Billions of people are, in a very short period of time, engaging in or resisting radical behavioral change. There are massive changes in social structures of education, employment, and health. Our ways of thinking about our lives and our futures have been altered, perhaps permanently. We are in a liminal state with no idea of when or how it will end, nor of what life will look like on the other side. It is an opportunity of a lifetime for anthropologists to observe what is unfolding – to observe the practice and ideologies developed to sustain (or resist) social distancing.

In his introduction to a special issue, Mark W. Hauser (2018) writes:

At its most general level, bearing witness is a valuable way to scrutinize violent encounters, traumatic events, dislocations, and structural inequalities. It can help obtain support from those who might feel distant from those events, diffuse pressure from communities most directly affected, and bring about change. Bearing witness can take the form of communicating traumatic personal experiences or documenting for others the dislocations, institutionalized violence, and kinds of difference-making that often escape social examination. Contributors build on these forms by arguing that bearing witness is part of an archaeological episteme. . . .To what do we bear witness? How do we bear witness? And why do we bear witness?

In my own recent blog (Block 2020), I wrote: “In times when I am helpless and have no other choices, I remind myself that the very least I can do is bear witness. So I do.”

I believe that not only should we be doing this, but we have a responsibility to do this.  We have a responsibility to bear witness to how people work to “flatten the curve” or perform the risky tasks required of essential workers, to how people resist social isolation.   As I write this there have been more cases on Long Island, where I recently lived, than in the whole of Canada.   As someone who just recently stopped working for a health science center linked to a hospital in what is now the epicenter of the pandemic, I bear witness to the risks that my friends and former students are choosing to take or are pressured to take.  Health professionals are suddenly finding themselves on the front lines, and then falling ill themselves. I bear witness to all the people falling ill, and their families.  I bear witness to the people in congregate living settings, including prisons, nursing homes, and other long-term care settings.  I bear witness to my sister Hope in her community-based residence with its shifting staff, and to my cousin Michael, who lived 63 of his 70 years in institutions. To the staff, (many people of color), showing up for work. To the prisoners (largely Black people and people of color) making protective equipment, which they may not have personal access to unless they are digging graves, and coffins, which they might. To the youth whose rites of passage have been disrupted, who have been slammed unwillingly back into the nest, and to the loneliness of those facing this while living alone. I bear witness.

Of course there is a time for witnessing and a time for action, and we definitely in one of those periods now as this is published during protests against police brutality against Black people. I’ve often told students and colleagues that, as a disability studies scholar who has worked, until recently, in clinical education settings, my role is to be like the grass in Malvina Reynold’s song “God Bless the Grass” – find the cracks in the cement and make them bigger. This is a such a moment, where we can be finding those cracks for sustainability, climate justice, disability justice, racial justice, justice for exploited (and now essential) workers – farm workers, front-line health staff, people in food service and delivery. It is a time to push back against those who think Black, disabled or elderly people don’t have lives worth saving. How easily we fall back into the same moral ambiguities: Useless eaters. Lives not worthy of life. Work makes you free. Anthropologists contested such discourses before, so should we now.


Tom Boellstorff

Notes from the Great Quarantine: Reflections on Ethnography after COVID-19

Tom Boellstorff, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine 

These reflections on ethnography after COVID-19 are deeply shaped by their time: May 2020, in the midst of what I will term the “Great Quarantine.” (There will be other COVID-19 quarantines, but none so unanticipated and extensive.) For you, dear reader, coming to these words months or years later, understand that I write from a time when the disease was new, its modes of transmission, symptoms, and treatments poorly understood. Arriving at anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the early 1990s, I recall that bewildering social destruction, so well captured by Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (Monette 1988). At that point the disease had still recently been termed GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency: as with COVID-19 now, a disease of the “general population” began to follow the fault lines of inequality in terms of who was infected or stigmatized, who lived or died.

Writing from the Great Quarantine, I offer three reflections on ethnography after COVID-19, centering on design, theory, and the digital. By “after COVID-19” I do not mean the virus will no longer exist, but that as with HIV/AIDS, it will become part of the social fabric. See these reflections, then, as messages in a bottle to a near future of my colleagues planning ethnographic work in pandemic times.


In this time that I write, most ethnographic research projects have been suddenly suspended: those preparing for research have postponed or greatly modified their projects. Funders made swift decisions without the benefit of established protocols from peer organizations, universities, or institutional review boards. All this has been distressingly disruptive, particularly for graduate students whose timelines have been thrown into disarray.

However, the challenges of this time do not offer a strong model. The research projects disrupted by the Great Quarantine were designed without knowledge of COVID-19; nor did funding and pedagogical structures account for the pandemic. What will emerge after COVID-19 are methodological, conceptual, ethical, and political tools to respond to pandemic realities. For instance, proposals may include multiple timelines, so that disruption of physical-world participant observation does not mean postponing ethnographic research altogether, but shifting, say, to archival work for the first phase.

It may prove helpful to recall that while the challenge of COVID-19 is unprecedented, ethnographers have contended with disruption before. This has included global events like World War II, which resulted in the “culture at a distance” framework best known from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It has also included more individualized events like the loss of one’s fieldnotes due to arson, as in the case of M. N. Srinivas’s The Remembered Village (1976). These disruptions presented opportunities for innovation—for instance, the “culture at a distance” framework is recognized for helping establish the anthropology of mass media. Ethnography after COVID-19 will differ from what came before, but that difference will not solely take the form of loss.


As mentioned earlier I came to anthropology through HIV/AIDS activism in the 1990s, and I wish to return to this time of pandemic for further inspiration. It was a time of mobilization, activism, and witnessing—but also a time of literature, art, and theory. Paula Treichler explored “how to have theory in an epidemic” (1999), while in Saint Foucault David Halperin asked “What did gay activists see in Foucault… that his straight-liberal critics missed, and why?” (1995: 27).

This insistence on activism and theory as complementary has value for ethnography after COVID-19. We must not define “relevance” to denigrate analysis, and this extends to the early phases of research design and grant writing. So often the most powerful ethnographic insights are not present in a proposal, or even known while conducting research—they emerge through the work of analysis itself. Something that appears to be research for research’s sake might produce interventions of more lasting relevance than a hundred proposals crafted around a response to the immediacy of the pandemic. If we stick with the horizon of the known, many powerful insights will remain hidden. Ethnography’s contribution will remain both empirical and conceptual, witnessing and theory—indeed, it emerges most powerfully in their imbrication.

The Digital

Data and theory are also imbricated in the crucial horizon of the digital. We must challenge any tendency to frame the digital as a universal solution to the pandemic. Some communities have little or no internet access; digital technologies can involve state or corporate surveillance. Yet there is a vital need to advance digital anthropology after COVID-19. In March and April 2020, the sociologist Deborah Lupton edited “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic,” which contains a wealth of helpful ideas, mostly involving online research (2020). It is striking that this extensive document (and others like it) contain few contributions from anthropologists, relying instead on sociology, communications, and media studies. The relative absence of anthropology speaks to the discipline’s relative weakness in advancing digital theories and methods. It is, frankly, shocking to see how many anthropologists still refer to the physical world as the “real world,” denying the reality of the online (and by implication, conflating the real and the physical: see Boellstorff 2016). Anthropologists must move beyond treating the digital as a necessary evil or inauthentic substitute, not least because such prejudice flies in the face of how billions of persons engage with digital socialities. Such dismissals threaten the relevance of anthropology after COVID-19 and deny ethnographers outside anthropology the contributions we have to offer.

Before the Great Quarantine we were already in a world were a few ethnographic projects were primarily online (for argument’s sake, let us say 5%), but where the vast majority of projects (let us say 95%) had some digital component. Most of our interlocutors were already messaging their families, posting on Facebook, using digital technologies for banking, and so on. After COVID-19 we will not see a world where that 5% becomes 99% or even 50%: at the risk of stating the obvious, the offline is here to stay. Yet it is true that a greater share of human sociality will move online, that this will reshape offline socialities, and that anthropology must take this into account. Digital anthropology is a methodological resource but it is also a domain of inquiry like medical anthropology, legal anthropology, or economic anthropology, and this should be recognized in our disciplinary frameworks. We should steer a ground between either valorizing the digital as a magical solution to ethnography in a time of pandemic, or dismissing the digital as an intimidating, unpleasant thing we address as minimally as possible so that we can “get back to the real.”

Ethnography after COVID-19 will thus involve the digital in new ways; anthropology should be at the forefront of these conversations. To take just one example, “social distancing” is actually physical distancing. Going online creates new social intimacies. It is not necessarily a last resort: it is often a familiar space, even a new frontier. It is not always a second-best substitute for the physical, and digital socialities have their own meanings and implications. Anthropologists excel in the study of particularity, and there is a real need for digital ethnographic work that explores the similarities and differences between online games, virtual worlds, social network sites, texting and message, memes and image-based socialities, and so on. Additionally, in many cases digital socialities allow for greater anonymity than in the physical world, and less surveillance as well. Questions of ethics, responsibility to interlocutors, and advocacy shift rather than simply increase or decrease.

Concluding thoughts

Concluding these reflections from the midst of the Great Quarantine seems an impossible task. What I know is that even in the uncertainty, economic collapse, and social trauma that surrounds me, in the pain of illness, the loss of death, and the violence of bigotries old and new, I like many see the value in thinking better futures. Life with COVID-19 will still involve cultural worlds, selfhoods and social relations in the context of environments simultaneously human and natural. Ethnography can play a valuable role in charting these worlds and paths toward their improvement: paths toward health, justice, and care of the earth we share.


Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Boellstorff, Tom. J27. 2016. For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real. Current Anthropology 57 (4): 387–407. doi:10.1086/687362.

Halperin, David M. 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lupton, Deborah, editor. 2020. “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic” (crowd-sourced document). Available at:

Monette, Paul. 1988. Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Srinivas, M. N. 1976. The Remembered Village. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Treichler, Paula A. 1999. How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press.


Nolwazi Mkhwanazi

Doing Anthropology in the Time of COVID: Questions, Methods, and Ethics

Nolwazi Mkhwanazi, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand

For students and academics in anthropology departments in South Africa, as we watch the pandemic unfold before our eyes, there is a sense of urgency in how to document this whilst acknowledging the entrenched injustices that COVID-19 lays bare and the new inequalities the situation reveals.  The strict measures that have been enforced during lockdown in South Africa have disproportionately  affected the poor and marginalised and are increasing the numbers of people who are vulnerable. Initiatives such as the Corona Times hosted by the University of Cape Town[1] and the student project co-ordinated by Lenore Manderson[2] are some examples of the first attempts at documenting and making sense of the impact of COVID 19 by anthropologists.  In South Africa, anthropology has a history of activism and has, in the past, spoken out about injustices especially racial, health, gender inequalities. The current generation of scholars is being faced with an unprecedented moment as well as overwhelming uncertainty and with the enormous task of adapting – adapting to teaching, conducting research, thinking and communicating digitally. For some this has been easier than for others.

A number of South African based scholars[3] have reflected on the era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa to compare and understand responses at the individual, community and national level. In terms of research, what I find striking is that despite the growing popularity of medical anthropology as a university course and the increasing number of African students selecting this course, very few student dissertations have, over the last two decades, focused on HIV. Indeed, while the majority of students conduct research in communities or with interlocutors they are familiar with, there was and continues to be a reluctance to work on HIV/AIDS. This is in part due to the stigma that continues to surround the disease and the care (and respect) that local anthropologists and students want to display in not exposing anyone to any harm or to making death, disease and hardship the only worthy topic of anthropological research in Africa.

I think the care and caution that we have observed around HIV/AIDS will be important with regard to the questions we ask and methods we use to do research in the time of the coronavirus. This will depend on responses to COVID-19 and the stories that emerge about its spread – who gets infected and how they become infected. At the moment, vulnerability to infection is not, at least in the popular imaginary, about socio-economic status, race, and gender but rather about compromised immune systems, which highlight issues of age and of health (nutrition, comorbidities, sanitation, housing- all of which are major issues for the majority of South Africa’s population and are differently experienced in relation to race and class).

With regard to how to do research, the idea of knowledge co-production is not new in anthropology and many scholars have tried to make it central to the research they do, but it remains an idea that many just pay lip service to. Until there is a vaccine developed, we have to rely on working with people who are already in the field as interlocutors as well as co-researchers and/or as research assistants.

It is impossible to do ethnographic research without the help of others. We often hear interlocutors complain that researchers (not only anthropologists) take from them in order to build their careers but never give anything back in return.  This is something we need to address more seriously and this is a good time, more than any other, to begin to do this. Starting with funding proposals, we can ask direct and concrete questions about the unfolding of the project and the afterlife of the research.

What are researchers’ thoughts on a variety of issues relating to power dynamics in the field, inequality, and knowledge production? How do researchers imagine their presence in the field and their relationship to others? Will they practice an ethics of care?  How and why? What do they want to communicate about anthropology to the people around them in the field? Such questions are especially important for research in contexts where there are stark inequalities, especially between researchers and their interlocutors. And as I was reminded recently, our attempts to engage digitally can exasperate those inequalities.

Perhaps we need to begin by asking the basic questions.  Why do we do research? Should we be doing research at all? Where do we conduct research (and why)?  These are important questions that we need to consider in relation to our environmental and planetary situation, and with regard to how anthropology is represented in the general public.

For some, anthropology is an attractive discipline because it allows one to travel, learn a new language, and document the diversity of lives lived.  For many, this exotic lure has largely disappeared.  Unfortunately, this has not coincided with a change in how anthropologists are perceived.  In many African countries, anthropology and anthropologists are treated with suspicion, jokingly tolerated, or regarded with disdain. In an era of calls for the decolonisation of scholarship, anthropologists are seen as the last bastion of a colonial legacy. It is hard to argue against this image when the majority of anthropologists that are visible often come from outside the country, often from a different continent, and are there to observe.

The question that is often asked of anthropologists (especially foreign anthropologists) is: How can you help us?   The answer often is: I can’t. While this is true and is what students are taught – to not make false promises – it takes us back to an observation I encounter a lot, even among colleagues in South Africa from other disciplines, which is that anthropology is about writing stories that only matter to other anthropologists. This is obviously a much bigger issue than I can address here, which we can approach from different perspectives.  The point I want to make is that, from where I sit on the African continent, there is a need to advocate for the value of anthropology and to practice our craft with care.



[3] Please note that anthropology in South Africa is very differently perceived, practiced and positioned as compared to other countries on the continent.  Unlike in other African countries, anthropology is a course that still exists independently although many of the departments are no longer free standing and have been merged with other disciplines as, for example, anthropology and sociology departments, or anthropology and development studies departments. Most colleagues on the continent are not in such a privileged position . To survive they increasingly have to turn to teaching qualitative research methods and taking on development consultancy work in order to raise money to retain promising students.


Yael Navaro

Methods and Social Reflexivity in the Time of Covid-19 

Yael Navaro, Reader in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who is well-known for his work on the internet, Facebook, and digital ethnography, recently posted a YouTube video on fieldwork under social isolation ( This video is mainly intended to offer advice to PhD students who were preparing for fieldwork when the coronavirus crisis unfolded. Miller has a “can do” approach to fieldwork during the pandemic, having developed a pragmatic toolbox for ethnography with and through online resources. His goal is to assist whoever is watching this video, and particularly PhD students, in deploying technology in an imaginative way and in refiguring how they will do their research. He suggests, for example, that some interactions with one’s interlocutors might potentially reach greater depth because they will be undertaken online, rather than being interrupted by everyday chores and other activities on site. These suggestions, while helpful and important, also have certain limitations in that they don’t quite tackle the issues that a lot of PhD students and post-docs, as well as any other anthropological researcher, really will be facing. So I would like us to think about another, what could perhaps be called a “can’t do” framework for research methods under a pandemic, as well (also see Navaro 2020). This framework could potentially make us methodologically consider and conceptually address the issues that the pandemic has thrown up more realistically.

Most of our interlocutors will be in a “can’t do” mode or situation. Some will be ill. Some will have firsthand caring responsibilities and will be unable or unwilling to go online. Many will not have access to technology, or the means, including financial, to operate it.  There will be many people so preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis that they will be unable to discuss,  show interest, or concentrate on any other aspect of life that the anthropologist might want to draw attention to.  A lot of our interlocutors will be facing serious financial hardship.  They will have lost their jobs and become unemployed.  They will be trying to pay rent, incurring debt, and paying or trying to pay bills and in need of actual, practical help from the anthropologist, including, where possible, financial assistance. Many will be displaced as migrant laborers or refugees, and as people who are experiencing domestic violence.  Having a disability may make it impossible for many to use online resources. I know Tom Boelstorff’s work on disabilities and virtual worlds, of course (Boelstorff 2020). But for some, this technology might not be accessible. Those living under politically repressive regimes will have reasonable and rational reasons to worry about suffering repercussions for views they share online.  Given widespread government and police surveillance, the safety and security of online connections is scarcely assured.

There will also be questions in situations in which a researcher is intending to embark upon a new research project in which they don’t know the people they are intending to interview. Consider the point of view of interlocutors assessing the reliability or trustworthiness of the anthropologist.  They may not be sure they want to have a conversation with somebody they haven’t met in person or known for a considerable length of time. Some interlocutors will worry about being recorded during their interviews even if they haven’t given consent, because they’re not able to observe what is happening in the Zoom room the anthropologist is working from.  And some might feel intruded upon by the technology and may have ethical misgivings about being researched in this way.

This is just to somehow draw attention to some of the real and realistic issues that we need to attend to before jumping towards what I thought Daniel Miller was doing in his YouTube video – that is, telling researchers that they can do it, that actually interviews online work better, and that they can do what they do in participant observation, but that it just takes a bit of a different form. I think it won’t be that easy and certainly not straightforward. It will require deep consideration and thought on the part of the anthropologist.

Beyond turning online resources into an instrument for research, an engagement with online methods will also need to take on board the forms of conceptualization that have emerged from work in digital ethnography. Some of this work has contributed to a re-imagining of intimacy and a re-theorizing of social relations. Rather than just trying to boost our technological adeptness and get to grips with technology as if it were simply a tool for research under extraordinary circumstances, we will also need to think about the changes that the use of Zoom, Skype, and Whatsapp is bringing to social relations across the board. This situation poses challenges to the ways in which anthropologists have conceptualized the social, pushing us to further consider how relations are being reconfigured by and among our interlocutors (eg. Strathern 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a layer of social reflexivity that was perhaps unprecedented at this scale. A whole lot of questions about how we constitute our sociality, gender relations, intimacy, and sexuality have been revived and are being revisited. Going on lockdown, being furloughed from work or working from home, taking care of one’s children 24/7 without relying on supporting institutions such as schools, or being unable to attend the funerals of family members in person has brought ‘the social’ under a magnifying glass. The pandemic has introduced such a contrast to the ways we used to previously relate that it has turned everyone into theorists of their social relations. It is not just anthropologists, therefore, who are reflecting analytically on how people are relating with one another at a time like this. Such social theorising has now become a component of everyday reflection all across the board.

There is a proliferation of discourse, in Foucault’s sense, then, on the way we now have to relate with one another and about how that differs from how we used to engage prior to the pandemic. Such second-order thoughts include reflections on the intrusion of screens between people, the impossibility of eye contact on Zoom, the difficulty of deciphering the meaning of what has been said because of its mediation by online technology, and the inaccessibility of affective and tactile clues that make conversations robust and understandable at a deeper, embodied, perhaps non- discursive level. People are considering how they are to take care of their loved ones when barriers have been placed between them with the impossibility of physical contact between grandparents and grandchildren, the limitations on house visits, and the travel bans between families relying on international flights. Likewise, reflections on intimacy have exploded: what is friendship at a time of Covid-19? what is love? how will one live one’s sexuality? As fundamentally differentiated as the answers to these questions would be, reflections on them have come hand in hand, as well, with gender, class, and race theory. The deeply uneven way in which the pandemic has hit people by reference to their social differences has elevated critical reflections on inequality to a level unforeseen. People have become anthropologists of themselves and their own societies.

Hand-in-hand with such widespread reflections on the reconstitution of sociality and entrenchment of inequality, have been commentaries on the nature of politics. The pandemic has been addressed at the level of nation-states who follow (or don’t) the directives of international organisations such as the WHO. And, as the case and death statistics are compared between countries, commentaries have also abounded on their relative systems of governance. What kind of political body favours the health of its public over that of its economy? Can public health and the economy be treated in distinction from one another, or are they co-dependent? What kind of prime minister or president has better mobilised his country’s resources to assist those afflicted by the disease? What is the gender of better governance? Are democracies prone to failure vis-a-vis the spread of the pandemic? Are authoritarian regimes more likely to succeed? What sorts of restrictions will be introduced to mobility and travel with the introduction of new forms of surveillance that employ tracing techniques? How will such intensified forms of governmentality impact people differentially? In tandem, then, with reflections on ‘the social,’ the last few months have also witnessed a proliferation of talk on the nature of ‘the political.’ Is control over the pandemic going to bring about regime change? Are political orders going to implode? For better, or for worse?

As anthropologists engaging with our interlocutors now, we will come across such reflections on ‘the social’ and ‘the political,’ reflexively considered (and perhaps analytically objectified as such) due to an artificial distance the pandemic has brought between everyone’s previous practices, modes of relating, and everyday habits, and their current ones. Much further than taking a technological toolkit on board, then, anthropological research in the time of Covid-19 will need to address these fundamental transformations in the societies we study through the interpretation and reflections of our interlocutors.

Works Cited

Boellstorff, Tom, 2020. ”The Ability of Place: Digital Topographies of the Virtual Human on Ethnographia Island.” Current Anthropology 61:21, pp.109-122.

Miller, Daniel, 2020.

Navaro, Yael, 2020. “The Aftermath of Mass Violence: A Negative Methodology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49.

Strathern, Marilyn, 2020. Relations: An Anthropological Account. Durham: Duke University Press.


Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas

Preliminary Thoughts on Ethics, Purpose, and Anthropology Beyond Covid-19

Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas, Professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, American Studies, and Anthropology, Yale University

One of the things I’ve noticed with my graduate students, that is the ones who are going to “the field” or are supposed to start their ethnographic work right now, is that eventually they will be able to go back to do research in the way they were taught.  But for now, what they are doing is not necessarily going to the technology.  They’re going to the archives. I was expecting them to start thinking, “I’m going to interview people on Zoom or analyze social media.”  But instead they are focusing on gaining historical insight into spaces or the communities where they will be conducting fieldwork eventually.   They are identifying primary sources that may have been digitized or that they may have access to.   Among graduate students about to start fieldwork, there is still that sense of “it’s only a matter of time before we’re able to do that, so we just need to switch things around and figure things out in a different order.”

I’m actually very optimistic and reassured by this reengagement with grounded research. There is something to be learned from anthropologists who are ethnohistorians, anthropologists who have taught us how we can engage with archives.  I appreciate this turn on the students’ part.  Because sometimes graduate students tend to be drawn by unencumbered theory.  They associate this with being a “true scholar” or a sophisticated thinker, as if this were incompatible with having a historical and political economic grounding.  One thing that may come out of this critical engagement with the archives is that ethically, not only methodologically, but also ethically, these young ethnographers can reconnect with the ground.

Among Latinx and African American anthropologists, and certainly among ethnographers in Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a strong tradition of community-academy collaborations that require such connections to the ground.   Although many of the same issues that Covid-19 has exacerbated existed before the pandemic, it may be interesting to think about how the current era highlights the difference between things that were interesting versus things that are relevant in the context of anthropological work. This is a tough conversation to have.  Oftentimes we just want to do things we’re interested in.  And those may or may not be relevant.  I think this is an ethical issue that will become increasingly central for anthropology at all levels, from the work that gets funded to the work that gets published.  And of course, the ability to choose research based on individual interest, rather than collective relevance, is an element of privilege  — of geopolitical, institutional, racial, gendered, and certainly socioeconomic privilege.  Despite the occasional exception, as anthropologists we are frequently situated in positions of privilege. That privilege emerges very forcefully when we insist that we should be able to choose whatever we want to do because we want to do it and it’s of personal interest to us.  I’ve seen this throughout my twenty years in academic institutions.  The current era may be a good moment to rethink how we orient ourselves and our research, to discover what is really needed, rather than being self-indulgent, and to focus on what is relevant.  I am not necessarily suggesting that relevance is exclusively determined by the choice of research topic.  But relevance cannot only be determined by random individual interest.  Its assessment requires a greater social orientation and outlook.


Aparecida Vilaça

Ethics, Methods, and Questions in the Age of Covid-19

Aparecida Vilaça, Professor of Social Anthropology, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

I would like to talk about these issues from the standpoint of a Brazilian teacher and researcher of Indigenous Amazonian peoples, who also supervises students working in the same ethnographic area.

Methods and Questions

I think it will be impossible to adapt virtual inquiries and research to the work with Indigenous peoples. First, because most of them do not have internet resources at their villages.  When they do, elders won’t feel comfortable with these methods, and elders are usually our main collaborators. We could ask younger people to record myths and histories with them and send them to us via internet, in case they have it. But then we might lose the whole context of production.

What we are planning to do at the moment is to wait until researchers might be able to enter the Indigenous lands with all health precautions taken. If it would not be possible within a year, then we will have to choose the possibilities cited above: recordings and even translations by the internet. But what about the “observant participation” that characterizes our work and that we all know changes our understanding of oral narratives?

On conceptual questions, I think the pandemic will be the center of ours and Indigenous interests should they get contaminated and survive. But I also feel that if they do, they will try to get back to normal life as soon as possible and then we will have to face traditional issues, like social organization, cosmology, etc.   My experience with the Wari’ takes me to this direction.

Methods and Ethics

The main ethical problem we face in Brazil involving Indigenous peoples is much wider than the pandemic. The Brazilian government supports the invasion of indigenous territory, illegal mining, lumbering, and land expropriation.   At the moment, all of us anthropologists are concentrating on publicizing what is happening and trying to work against it, via legal ways through the Federal Public Ministery (MPF). We are all in contact with the people we work with through phone calls, Whatsapp, and Facebook (their favorite platforms) to talk about the virus and the epidemics. We are asking them to stay in the villages, but as their subsistence now involves manufactured goods, they do not have enough food from their gardens and forests to sustain themselves. They need to buy it. For this reason, we are sending messages to scholars from all over the world asking for financial support.

In fact, we are all so concerned about the survival of the people we work with that we did not have time to think about research. Today, on the 20th of May, people from forty-four different Indigenous groups are infected with the virus, with 103 deaths.  They all have very poor access to medical care, and many are dying at home. In Manaus, the Brazilian city with the largest Indigenous population, the hospitals and cemeteries are overloaded, as in many other Brazilian cities, and people are digging communal burial digs to dispose of the corpses.  We are expecting a wave of extermination only comparable to what happened centuries ago with the epidemics of smallpox, measles, and flu brought by the European invaders.

Indigenous people’s reaction to the pandemic is linked to their way of life and their conception of what kinship means. Relatives, by definition, have to care to each other and can not leave sick loved ones alone. They should be close to them and take care of them, which always involves feeding and touching the body.  From that point of view the idea of “social distancing” can not be applied to individuals, although families and small groups can spend time apart to escape from the illness. They have done this historically with more or less success.

We are now totally focused on the crisis and do not have any clear ideas about future research.

Ethics and Questions

I believe I already touched these issues above. One thing that occurs to me now is that, just as I myself can count on my research materials collected through the last thirty years, many anthropologists can also do the same.  Students can also try to gain access to these materials, which are sometimes available in museums and other institutions. They can also do historical and archival research. If so, we will be back to studying subjects that are mainly “traditional” and, of course, to an emphasis on historical issues, on cultural change, on contact etc. But all that will come with a drastic loss of first hand experience.

As anthropologists, now more than ever, we have an obligation to make our work available to a larger audience, so that people can turn their eyes to Indigenous life ways, philosophies, and also survival problems. In 2018, I published a literary essay on the life of my Indigenous father, Paletó (Paletó e eu, editora Todavia, São Paulo).  I have come to realize that talking to a wider public is one of the most important political acts we can do. We must make people admire Indigenous life, or we won’t be able to keep them safe. I am also writing for newspapers and literary magazines about Indigenous peoples, not just denouncing what is happening in the political arena, but also talking about the beauty of their thinking and of their lives. I’ve been getting a wonderful feedback for this work.

Update: For more on this topic we encourage you to check out Gokce Gunel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe’s recently published, “A Manifesto for Patchwork Anthropology“.


Guest Blog: Benjamin Collins

Figure 1. Grassridge Rockshelter, as viewed from the northern entrance to the site, with Dr. Collins on the right.

In 2015 Dr. Benjamin Collins was awarded a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “Late MIS 3 Behavioral Diversity: The View from Grassridge Rockshelter, Eastern Cape, South Africa”. Recently Dr. Collins reached out to Wenner-Gren to share an update from the field.

2018 Fieldwork Update from Grassridge Rockshelter, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Dr. Benjamin Collins and Dr. Christopher Ames are leading Wenner-Gren Foundation-funded research at Grassridge Rockshelter that explores the dynamic between hunter-gather behavioral diversity, social network formation, and regional-scale climatic variability during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene in southern Africa. This research forms the core component of the Grassridge Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Project (GAPP), which focuses on the understudied interior grasslands region of South Africa. Collins and Ames are currently focusing research on Grassridge Rockshelter, a multicomponent site with human occupations dating to the Late Pleistocene (~40,000 years ago and earlier), the early Holocene (~11,600 years ago), and the mid-Holocene (~7,000 years ago). Their ongoing research is collaborative and multidisciplinary – bringing together a variety of perspectives to reconstruct past human technologies and behaviors, and to develop high-resolution paleoenvironmental and geochronological records.

Figure 2. Dr. Ames collecting sediment samples at Grassridge Rockshelter.

Past technologies and behaviors are explored through stone tool analysis, analysis of symbolic artifacts, such as beads and pendants, and the analysis of the animal remains. Dr. Jayne Wilkins and Ms Ayanda Mdludlu are leading the stone tool analysis, with preliminary results suggesting a diverse range of stone tool manufacturing strategies during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene occupations at Grassridge. These strategies exhibit more differences than similarities in comparison with other contemporaneous sites in southern Africa, and are indicative of greater diversity in technological behaviors during these periods than previously thought.

Shell beads are ubiquitous within the Holocene occupations at Grassridge. Ongoing analysis of these symbolic artifacts, conducted by Dr. Collins and Dr. April Nowell, demonstrates an abundance of ostrich eggshell beads in all stages of manufacture, as well as marine shell beads that indicate a relationship to the coast, which was at least 200 km away from the site. These results reinforce the presence of extensive social networks during the Holocene in southern Africa, and suggest that Grassridge was an important social nexus between coastal, interior, and montane landscapes.

Figure 3. Dr. Jayne Wilkins (left) and Ms Ayanda Mdludlu (right) analysing stone tools recovered from Grassridge Rockshelter at the Stone Age Laboratory in the University of Cape Town.

Initial results from the study of the animal remains, led by Dr. Jerome Reynard, Thomas Beard, and Amy Smith, demonstrate a greater diversity of bovids than expected during the Holocene, and suggest changes in hunting strategies and local environments between the early and mid-Holocene occupations. This research also contributes to the development of a high-resolution paleoenvironmental record, with the data from the animal remains being combined with information from stable isotope analyses of recovered animal teeth, pollen and phytoliths extracted from the sediments, and an examination of the site formation processes. Stable isotope research by Dr. Judith Sealy tracks the proportions of C3 and C4 grasses through the early and mid-Holocene and will provide key information on past environmental conditions at Grassridge. Pollen and phytoliths are being studied by Dr. Carlos Cordova and the data indicate substantial differences in the local environments during the different occupations, as well as providing insight on human use of plants within the shelter, especially as firewood. The microbotanical research also contributes to the study of site formation processes, which Dr. Ames combines with stratigraphic and sedimentological analyses to reconstruct the sequence of site formation processes. The data indicate a variable presence of water and flooding in the shelter at the end of the Late Pleistocene, as well as intensive human activity and hearth construction during the mid-Holocene.

Figure 4. Ms Amy Smith (left), Mr. Thomas Beard (centre), and Dr. Jerome Reynard (right) studying animal bones recovered from Grassridge Rockshelter at the University of Witwatersrand.

GAPP is refining the chronological resolution of the occupational sequence at Grassridge through radiocarbon analysis, Uranium-Thorium analysis, and Optically Stimulated Luminescence. In collaboration with Dr. Emma Loftus, a suite of radiocarbon age estimates have been analysed from Grassridge, which have been fundamental in identifying the early and mid-Holocene occupations. Dr. Robyn Pickering is further contributing to the developing the chronological resolution of the sequence by applying Uranium-Thorium dating techniques to estimate the age of a flowstone that separates the Pleistocene and Holocene deposits, information that will also provide unique insights into the local environment and site formation processes during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Dr. Luke Gliganic is leading the Optically Stimulated Luminescence analysis, which will clarify the Late Pleistocene occupational sequence at Grassridge, as these occupations are beyond the limit of radiocarbon dating.

Initial results and ongoing analyses provide valuable insight into the archaeology and paleoenvironments preserved in the rich archive from Grassridge Rockshelter, and are furnishing a detailed, multi-faceted understanding of life in the interior grasslands of southern Africa over the past 40,000 years. These data point to a record of changing local environments and human lifeways over time that, as more analyses are completed, will inform our understanding of human-environment dynamics during periods of rapid and profound climate change. As this new information is compared to, and contextualized within, the broader southern African record, it will shed light on social network formation and human adaptation to climate variability at local, regional, and subcontinental scales from the end of the Late Pleistocene through the mid-Holocene.

Fieldwork Update: Grassridge Rockshelter, Eastern Cape, South Africa

We welcome a guest post from Wenner-Gren grantees Dr. Benjamin Collins and Dr. Christopher Ames.

Geologist and Uranium-Thorium dating specialist Dr. Robyn Pickering (left) and Dr. Christopher Ames (right) examining the geological sample containing a flowstone which separates Grassridge's Holocene and Pleistocene occupations. Photograph taken by Dr. Benjamin Collins.

Dr. Benjamin Collins and Dr. Christopher Ames are currently conducting Wenner-Gren Foundation-funded excavations of the Late Pleistocene and Holocene occupations at Grassridge rockshelter. The site is located at the base of the Stormberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and is approximately 200 km inland from the Indian Ocean. These excavations are part of the Grassridge Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Project (GAPP), which explores the dynamic between hunter-gather behavioral diversity, social network formation, and regional-scale climatic variability during the Late Pleistocene.

The Late Pleistocene in southern Africa was subject to periods of severe aridity and rapid climatic change. Some researchers have used this evidence to suggest the interior regions of southern Africa were sparsely populated at these times, with hunter-gatherer groups forming very small, localized social networks. However, the paucity of well-described archaeological sites from the interior during this time frame has made it difficult to explicitly test this hypothesis.

Dr. Christopher Ames (left) and Dr. Benjamin Collins (right) examining the northern profile wall from Dr. Hermanus Opperman's 1979 excavations at Grassridge. Photograph taken by Cherene De Bruyn.

Grassridge’s ~90 – 100 cm thick Late Pleistocene archive is capped by a radiocarbon date of ~35,000 years ago, placing the sequence during an enigmatic period of technological and behavioral diversity in southern Africa. The bottom of the sequence is currently of unknown age. GAPP’s Wenner-Gren Foundation-funded excavations at Grassridge will provide crucial information from the understudied interior region of southern Africa, and make an important contribution towards understanding a period relative uncertainty in the southern African record.

This field season focuses on growing our sample of Late Pleistocene artifacts, and refining the chronology of Grassridge’s Late Pleistocene sequence. Preliminary results demonstrate a rich sample of stone tools, including blades (large and small) and points, faunal remains, several hearths and burning features, and large pieces of ochre. These data provide detailed information about hunter-gatherers lifeways in this area 35,000 years ago, and allow us to compare their strategies with those from across southern Africa.

2016 field crew on site at Grassridge (l-r): Dr. Benjamin Collins, Cherene De Bruyn, Dr. Christopher Ames, and Lisa Rogers.

Our excavations have also recovered substantial charcoal fragments, which are large enough to identify the types of plants being used for fuel, and critical for refining Grassridge’s Late Pleistocene occupational chronology. Moreover, we have identified a thin flowstone at the contact between Grassridge’s Pleistocene and Holocene occupations, which is to be dated by Uranium-Thorium dating specialist, Dr. Robyn Pickering (University of Cape Town). Dr. Pickering’s meticulous analysis will not only provide an important chronological marker, it will also produce detailed information of the paleoenvironmental conditions before, during, and after the formation of the flowstone, and help us better understand the gap in Grassridge’s occupational sequence between the Pleistocene and Holocene.

As our field season comes to a close, we are looking forward to getting back to the lab and analyzing the artifacts and faunal remains recovered from the Late Pleistocene occupation layers, as well as the geological and geochronological samples. These analyses will provide a comprehensive understanding of what life was like for the Grassridge’s hunter-gatherer residents, and more broadly contribute to understanding the relationships between behavioral diversity, social networks, and climatic variability at a regional scale.

Guest Blog: Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise

"The Shannon Portrait of the Hon Robert Boyle" by Johann Kerseboom - Chemical Heritage Foundation, Photograph by Will Brown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We here at Wenner-Gren love to support and bring attention to the latest in anthropology. While that usually entails work down in the scholarly settings of the field or the lab, we also enjoy learning about the more unexpected, ephemeral targets of our colleagues’ analytical eyes. The following post is syndicated with permission from the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). Michael Scroggins is a Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University and CASTAC Outreach Manager. He lives with a Patriots fan.

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short,  who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?
Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.

Belichick’s experiment caused an immediate reaction. Science celebrities Bill Nye, the Science Guy (a well-known Seahawks fan and mechanical engineer) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (a theoretical physicist and perhaps a Giants, or Jets, fan) both weighed in on Belichick’s experiment, the former taking to morning television to rebut Belichick and the latter to twitter to voice his doubts.  The next day support for Belichick’s experiment appeared in the form of three Boston area professors (at least one of whom is a Bills fan).  Not one to miss a bandwagon, the NFL is currently consulting with the physics department at Columbia University (could they be Giants or Jets fans?) about the role of atmospheric conditions on football deflation.

While many mined theory for an explanation, others tried to replicate Belichick’s experiment.  The experimenters at HeadSmart Labs claimed to replicate Belichick’s claims about atmospheric conditions causing deflation. Meanwhile, a series of posts by Chad Orzel on his football deflation experiments are summed up here. The HeadSmart Labs experiment included inflating the football in a 75 degree room, soaking the footballs in water, which they claimed made them expand, then moving the footballs to a 50 degree room prior to measuring psi. Doing this, they claim psi was lowered by .9 to 1.8 psi per football, which is in line with the deflation claimed at the AFC Championship game. Orzel, for his part, notes that the series of experiments he conducted, which did not show significant deflation, were performed using a pressure sensor that measures absolute pressure, not gauge pressure. This is a critical difference when atmospheric conditions form part of the argument. No word on the HeadSmart Labs gauge, but a safe guess is that their gauge did not use absolute pressure.

Throughout this crisis of knowledge, Belichick has proved to be a savvy experimenter with a feel for the difficulties of the experimental method and the role of contingency in knowledge production (theoreticians beware!). Take note of this quote from his press conference on the localization of experimental technique and material, and the difficulty of replication:
When you measure a football, there are a number of different issues that come up. Number one, gauges. There are multiple types of gauges. The accuracy of one gauge relative to another, there’s variance there. We’re talking about air pressure. There’s some variance there. Clearly all footballs are different. So, footballs that come out of a similar pack, a similar box, a similar preparation, each football has its own unique, individual characteristics because it’s not a man-made piece of equipment. It’s an animal skin, it’s a bladder, it’s stitching, it’s laces. Each one has its own unique characteristics. Whatever you do with that football, if you do the same thing with another one, it might be close, but there’s a variance between each individual football.
If this is the state of the atmospheric conditions argument, the argument for human intervention has been moving forward as well. As of this writing the NFL has reviewed video footage showing the movement of the footballs in question prior to kickoff. The investigation has now centered on the 90 seconds a Patriots employee spent in a locked bathroom with the footballs later found to be deflated. Here, it has been argued, in a space free of video cameras the employee had time, opportunity, and motive to alter the footballs. Where the physicist has been the default expert for the atmospheric argument, the detective has emerged as the default expert on human motivation.

Not wanting to be left out, over the last few days, data scientists have weighed in on a statistical analysis claiming the Patriots fumble rate over the last few seasons (very low by NFL standards) cannot be explained by random fluctuation. Hence, as the dim logic of data science tells us, there must be foul play!

American football, as the saying goes, is a game of inches. Increasingly, it is also a game of expert witness.

A Case Study of Dissertation Research Collaboration in Rural Haiti – Part 4 of 4

In the previous posts of this four-Part series on research collaboration in rural Haiti, Florida doctoral student and WGF grantee Andrew Tarter discussed the benefits to social scientists of collaborating with research counterparts at Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology) at L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti). He provided a list of steps that constitute a blueprint toward successful collaboration. Here Tarter concludes by addressing some challenges faced, and suggesting additional routes to collaboration.

Challenges to collaboration

The process of research collaboration I have discussed in previous posts of this 4-part series sounds rosy. Make no mistake about it; there were real challenges as well.  Being responsible for many aspects of the physical well-being of three individuals is a task that was new to me, and one that consumed a great deal of my time. There were daily tasks, weekly tasks, and monthly tasks. Daily, I had to offload data (audio interviews, GPS paths and points, photos and surveys) when our research team was done for the day, and reverse the process (program GPS paths and points, clear audio interviews, consult satellite photos, identify plots of land to visit, arrange motorcycle transport, and prepare blank surveys) each morning. I also had to keep on top of charging and returning student laptops and rechargeable batteries so the students could work on their memoirs in the evenings. On a weekly basis, I had to attend two weekly markets to purchase food (no refrigerator), allocate the budget for food and water (drinking and bathing), arrange to have water carried to the houses, purchase and transport charcoal, and manage the overall weekly research schedule, making occasional schedule adjustments for student trips to the capital and holidays. I also taught two weekly English classes at the community center. Then there was the task of recharging Internet USB sticks (at a crippling 2G internet speed) and purchasing and transporting gasoline for the generator.  I found myself frequently taking the 45-minute, one-way trip to the bank, spending multiple hours standing in line to circumvent bank-imposed limits on cash withdrawals, in order to pay the three collaborators, cooks, motorcycle chauffeurs, and the owner of the house where the students stayed.  And let’s not forget laundry. Naively I had not expected these tasks would consume a large portion of my free time. To top it all off, I still had multiple interviews to conduct and ethnographic film footage to shoot in my free time. While difficult, these tasks didn’t in any way negate the experience and benefits of working with research collaborators—it was still well worth it. Nevertheless, PIs working with multiple collaborators should be prepared to spend a good deal of their time on logistics related to keeping the research on schedule.

Other routes to collaboration

Collaborating can take different forms, and I would be remiss to not note at least a few other recent examples and opportunities that interested researchers should consult:

  • Due to the combined efforts of anthropologists abroad and in Haiti, Faculté d’Ethnologie has recently received an institutional building grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation.  This grant—which had not yet been approved when I started my research—now serves as one particular route to collaboration with Faculté d’Ethnologie at UEH.  To read a recent interview with Dr. Jhon Picard Byron (Chef Département Anthropologie-Sociologie) about the grant and the history of anthropology at UEH, click here.
  • Senior researchers can and should benefit from consulting Dr. Mark Schuller’s special issue in Practicing Anthropology, Vol. 35, No. 3 on the benefits and challenges to working collaboratively with Haitian-American undergraduates and their Haitian counterparts at UEH.
  • New scholars en route to Haiti might also consider a preliminary visit to the nearby University of Florida, which has the longest-standing research relationship with Haiti, boasting:


About the author

Andrew Tarter is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, and PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Florida. Tarter’s research in Haiti has been supported by NSF, The Wenner Gren Foundation, the Fulbright Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A Case Study of Dissertation Research Collaboration in Rural Haiti – Part 3 of 4

A rakbwa’ (managed woodlot) in rural Haiti.

Andrew Tarter is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow, and PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Florida. Tarter’s research in Haiti has been supported by NSF, The Wenner Gren Foundation, the Fulbright Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We continue with his four-part guest blogging series (previous installments) outlining his experience collaborating with students from the Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology) at L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti).

6. Research collaboratively

Regrettably, the crystallization of the research plan—often formalized during multiple rewrites for granting agencies—may lead a researcher to believe they must dogmatically adhere, word-by-word, to what they originally proposed.  This is a mistake.  Viewing potential research collaborators simply as “research assistants” along to strictly adhere to the dirty work of data collection often compounds this mistake, and prevents the researcher from benefiting from valuable emic insights. Instead, collaborators should be involved in as many steps of the research process as possible.

Early in our research schedule our team visited a series of different rakbwa (managed woodlots)—the unit-of-analysis of the research design. Visits were followed by long conversations about what constitutes a rakbwa. These exercises ultimately led to the operationalization of the rakbwa concept for our research purposes. I also introduced the students to the concept of the ‘domestication of energy’ (Murray 1987, 1991)—an important theoretical construct of the research. They immediately grasped it at its analogs from theories related to the domestication of plants and animals, and provided valuable feedback about the usefulness of the construct from within the Haitian context.

The students also were intimately involved in the creation of open-ended interview questions, as well as the questions on the survey, which formed the backbone of the research design. Since the research seeks to identify patterns in land-use and land-changes based on sociocultural, ecological, economic and spatial variables, the research team had to generate a wide range of questions that would accurately and reliably measure these multiple variables. Questions that would never have occurred to me were raised by students multiple times and found their way into the final survey.  For example, one of the students suggested that rather than simply asking if an individual has a motorcycle (one indicator in our ‘wealth’ index), we should follow up by asking if the individual makes money using the motorcycle as a taxi to transport goods or people. Rather than simply asking if an individual owns animals, we should ask which kinds of animals, and whether they own them outright or if they are involved in gadinaj (a Haitian system of outsourcing the caretaking of an animal—animal fosterage). Thanks to input from the students, several such questions were further plumbed for additional data by follow-up questions I had never thought to ask. Collaborating in such a manner is an effective way of making sure you don’t miss out in the collection of important data that may inform your research question(s).


View of another 'rakbwa’ (managed woodlot)

7. Check in with collaborators

Humans can be politely mum, for any number of reasons.  This fact can result in the build up of resentment over unsettled or unaddressed issues, making it important to frequently check-in with collaborators to assess their well-being and the progress of the research and issues related to its execution.  An easy way to address this is through weekly meetings, but these can become trite if there is nothing new to address. The right balance will depend on the nature of the research. The three student research collaborators from UEH used meetings on more than one occasion to address difficulties in the work plan we had devised.  One difficulty involved the walking distance to plots of land we needed to visit. ‘As the crow flies’ all of the plots were no farther than 3 kilometers one-way.  However, the up-and-down mountainous terrain of Haiti and the fact that many land plots lay far from established paths meant that often times the students were walking much, much farther than the originally estimated maximum of six round-trip kilometers a day.  After a check-in meeting where they expressed this concern, we made an adjustment to the number of plots we expected to visit each day, and readjusted the weekly work schedule to account for the ‘exhaustion factor’ of so much walking in the sun. During another instance we failed to communicate and I was confused about how long of a break students intended to take for the week of Easter, putting the research behind by a couple of days. These quick examples—a successful communication and adjustment, and a communication failure—highlight the importance of establishing a check-in schedule that addresses the needs of the PI and the research collaborators.


8. Make yourself available

Being flexible and making yourself available outside of the context of the research schedule is an important part of collaboration and building lasting relationships with collaborators. My students were interested in learning English, and offering a time to practice with them was important.  I ended up teaching a short-course in English at the local community center, which the students attended, as well as speaking in English with the students during shared mealtimes. I also implored the students to immediately correct my Kreyòl whenever I made a mistake, in order to help me improve not only my pronunciation, but also grammar and the contextual appropriateness of certain common Haitian expressions.

Two of the three students requested my assistance with the memoirs they were writing for their degrees.  Due to my Fulbright placement the year prior—specifically my position on the taskforce convened to overhaul NGO registration, monitoring and regulation—I was able to provide one student who studies NGOs in Haiti with important documents that he otherwise didn’t have access to. In the case of another student who studies the contradictions between rural and urban life in Haiti, I was asked to participate in an interview of my impressions, having just spent one year in the city followed by a second year in the countryside.  I was also able to connect this same student with a senior anthropologist for an additional interview, and provide him with a newly published summative anthropological research document of which he wasn’t yet aware.

Toward the end of our time, I became aware of a higher education fellowship program to study in France, and encouraged the students to apply. I was able to help two of the students craft their applications to the program, and provide solid letters of recommendation that detailed our collaborative efforts and presumably strengthened their applications. Another student asked me to produce a certificate—an important component of the Haitian CV—that specified the research he helped collaborate on. These examples are but a few of the ways in which we were able to mutually cooperate outside the immediate parameters of the research.


9. De-brief and meet afterword

Debriefing is important from both a personal and research standpoint.  I conducted exit interviews with each student, to try to glean any final insights they had gained from nine months in the field.  Debriefing also gave students a chance to offer constructive criticism of the overall experience and to suggest ways I might improve the process of collaboration in the future.

Meeting in a new context after the research is completed is important as well.  Doing so demonstrates that the PI is interested in the students beyond what they helped the PI achieve.  I’ve met several times with students once they returned to the capital, both at their homes and at local restaurants.  It’s a nice way to bring closure to the entire process in a less formal way.


Works Cited


Murray, Gerald F. 1987. The domestication of wood in Haiti: A case study in applied evolution. In Anthropological Praxis. R. Wulff and S. Fiske, eds. Pp. 223-240. Boulder: Westview Press.
Murray, Gerald F. 1991. The Tree Gardens of Haiti: From Extraction to Domestication. In Social forestry: Communal and private management strategies compared. D. Challinor and M. Hardt Frondorf, eds. Pp. 35-44. Washington, D.C.: School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.

Schooling, Urgency, and Hope For Movement Ahead of The Ebola Crisis in Liberia: Perspectives from Recent Fieldwork

[Eva Harman is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University and received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2011 to aid research “Desire for Education and ‘Ties that Lift’: Schooling, Movement, and Social Regeneration in Post-War Liberia,” supervised by Dr. Carol Greenhouse. This post originally appeared in “Ebola In Perspective”, a Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots series.]

In this essay, I discuss the importance of schooling, in light of the Ebola outbreak. The Liberian President’s order to suspend schooling in August had significant impact even though regular classes were not yet in session. “Vacation schooling,” or summer school, is attended by many young people in Liberia. Parents send children to vacation school for various and often-interconnected reasons: They are invested in their children’s education and an extended break from school could be an interruption to their children’s progress. Violence is a concern that many parents address through the act of sending their children to school, both in the summer and during the regular school year. Parents are concerned that their children could become victims of violence or that they could be drawn into violent practices. They hope to bring up a person who will enable them to die feeling proud of the accomplishments they achieved as a person and a member of society.

Summer classes and sessions make education more flexible. Many students I worked with dropped schooling, or came and went from schooling, in order to make money through entrepreneurial activities, to help family, to have and nurse children, to care for ill or aging relatives, or to respond to other sharp needs. A difference between a colloquial American and a colloquial Liberian expression is suggestive: In the United States, “dropping out of school” carries with it an assumption that the person will not return. When narrating their education histories, young Liberians mentioned “dropping” school while also often expressing their intention to continue.

Summer or vacation schooling can make it possible to advance more quickly. In part due to the war, and in part due to accumulations of periods when schooling is interrupted, ages range fairly widely in Liberian classrooms, from kindergarten to university. It is not uncommon for young adults to attend primary school with children. Some young people who had fought in the war or had travelled along with those fighting emphasized their desire for continuing educational and professional advancement within civilian life.

A journalist spoke with a grandmother who pulled her grandson out of vacation school shortly before the state of emergency was declared in Liberia. The grandmother said, “He cried, but no child will control me. It will be better for him to live and attend many more vacation schools than get sick from Ebola.” In the news report, the grandmother is communicating her response to images on a highly graphic Ebola campaign poster that inspires fear. Agency is also expressed; she will not allow a grandson to control her. She conveys the grandson’s distress at having to interrupt his schooling and her hope that he can return to school later. Schooling allows people to say something beyond “I am complying with global public health orders.” They can also express the interruptions that Ebola and global public health orders are causing in their lives and insist upon a better future. They can also directly, or more subtly, signal disagreement or their will to continue living.

A friend of mine, who gives informal instruction in reading and writing, wrote that she is continuing to meet with a few women students. They still want to learn! They are also discussing “Ebola in town,” she added. Official educational institutions remained closed in Liberia, though some people are continuing schooling in private settings. The children of a Liberian, who works at an NGO, set up a classroom on the family’s front porch. The administrators of the play school asked pupils to pay a tuition fee—a reminder of the tight connection between schooling and money in Liberia. Money is required for attending both public and private school. Public primary schooling is tuition-free, but resources to repair, expand, or improve educational infrastructure are often demanded from students, parents, and teachers. Through schooling, people may be able to put something in between themselves and a crisis.

Schooling is also a location for conversation and engagement on different levels. The National Teachers’ Association in Liberia is calling for schools to be re-opened. An editorial in the Liberian press examines issues impeding the re-opening of schools that extend beyond logistics and health. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is preparing radio broadcasts that will include not only Ebola awareness but also limited academic subject content. The Liberian Minister of Education has objected to the use of schools as Ebola holding centers or facilities on the grounds that this may “create fear among students when classes shall officially resume in the not too long distance future.”

It matters tremendously that medicine and treatment should be made available to those who are sick right now with this deadly disease. An emergency medical-humanitarian intervention is necessary; yet, it is important to keep in mind that perspectives on health care can become vehicles for people to express their discontent with economic or political matters, including global inequality. Although the formal educational infrastructure in Liberia is weak, Liberians I worked with had confidence in the power of schooling to materialize their engagement in building a better life for themselves and the next generation. The United States government and global corporations with direct or indirect ties to Liberia have made commitments to the fight against Ebola, but they should also increase their investment in the existing national educational infrastructure. Scholarships for Liberian students to pursue advanced degrees and specialized training, particularly in the under-resourced fields of medicine and education, are greatly needed. My recent fieldwork convinces me that moving ahead of the Ebola crisis in Liberia will happen with less violence, terror, and mistrust when people feel supported in their aspirations for the future.

A Case Study of Dissertation Research Collaboration in Rural Haiti – Part 2 of 4

In the previous installment of this 4-Part series on research collaboration in rural Haiti, Florida’s Andrew Tarter discussed the benefits to social scientists of collaborating with research counterparts at Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology) at L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti). Here he continues with a list of steps that provide a blueprint toward successful collaboration.

3. Connect with a wide range of potential collaborators.

Connecting with students and having discussions with faculty members from Faculté d’Ethnologie provides several advantages, even if you don’t have expendable funding to employ students (see ‘Why Collaborate?’ in the previous post). Just be certain to be explicit that you’re conducting interviews to acquire data or for purposes of collaboration, and not for a paid position. Connecting with multiple people follows classical sampling logic: you increase variability, and by extension increase potential fields of collaboration.

I conducted my interviews entirely in Kreyòl (Haitian Creole), though many of the students demonstrated strong command of both French and English during the interview process. While some students had clearly read the research synopsis I had circulated, many had not; a substantial portion of the interviewing period was spent explaining the research. Be prepared to give multiple explanations of your proposed research.

The simple fact that the paid research collaborator positions I was recruiting for were to last 9 months was a major deterrent for some students. To top it off, the research was in a remote part of the southern peninsula, far from capital city.  The extreme physical challenges of the research—walking many miles into remote woodlots under an unrelenting Haitian sun—was another deterrent for other students. One student declined during the interview, stating that these woodlots were home to any number of wild animals, including dangerous snakes. More than one student mentioned that the daily stipend was well below what they might expect to receive as a per diem from USAID, or any number of NGOs conducting research in the country. I agreed. But I also explained that researchers would have their room-and-board covered, and with very little to spend money on in the countryside they would have an opportunity to reliably save the lion’s share of their stipend.  Furthermore, each research collaborator would receive a field laptop, chosen for its 12-hour battery capacity—a major advantage in a country with sporadic and unreliable electricity.  The laptop would be theirs to keep at the end of the research period.

By and by the 20 CVs were narrowed down to approximately five candidates, three of which accepted positions. All three students were memoran—the equivalent to undergraduates who have completed their coursework, had their memoir (thesis) topic approved, but have not yet written nor defended their memoir.


A research collaborator takes notes in a 'rakbwa' (managed woodlot).

4. Establish a research contract

After the three students successfully relocated to the research site, we got to work. One of the first items of order we tackled as a team was the creation of research contracts. I submitted a blueprint contract that reflected my concerns, objectives, priorities and stipulations as the principal investigator; the students in turn added stipulations of their own and some wording corrections to make the contract clearer.  In the end we co-created a concise 1-page contract that outlined the perimeters and parameters of the research to be conducted and the expectations of all parties involved. I highly recommend that researchers entering into collaborative endeavors with other scholars conduct this exercise. It ensures a clear understanding of the research to all parties involved, provides a template of expectations, and can serve as a roadmap in the event of future miscommunication or conflict. In hindsight, the exercise of establishing a contract should have been completed prior to the students relocating from Pòtoprens.  Luckily it went off with a hitch, but future researchers should consider collaboratively drafting contracts before arriving to their respective field sites.


5. Start slow

Pòtoprens’ notorious traffic isn’t the only thing that moves sluggishly in Haiti; things seem to move even slower andeyo (the Haitian countryside). Intense afternoon heat with no fans to sit in front of and no air-conditioned rooms to escape to in ensures that many tasks come to a grinding halt during the middle hours of the day. No electricity also means that things get pretty quiet after the sun goes down. Meetings must often be rescheduled if rain falls as farmers must tend to gardens. A cautionary si Dye vle (God willing) is frequently added at the end of verbal commitments, indicative of the tentative nature of many temporal arrangements in Haiti. Researchers should recognize and adapt to this reality.

Student research collaborators from the Faculté d'Ethnologie at the L'Université d'État d'Haïti consult satellite photos before conducting training exercises with GPS units.

Many people seem to be romantically enamored of andeyo—at least for the first couple of weeks.  It’s everything their first experience of Haiti’s capital city isn’t: clean, quiet(er), green, and less densely populated. While perhaps a cliché rural-urban dichotomy, the people of the countryside seem gentler and more engaging than urbanites.  The countryside offers a sense of security absent in the capital; everyone knows or recognizes most everyone else they encounter, adding a degree of accountability to everyone’s actions. As one village leader told me: Nou pa gen vòlè isit, nou pa gen dezòd isit (We don’t have thieves here, we don’t have unrest here). For me, this reassurance was a breath of fresh air; the year prior in Pòtoprens I had an attempted break-in at my apartment, I was robbed at gunpoint in front of my house while nearby armed guards silently watched, and in another instance I outran a group of four men on motorcycles that tried to mug me in the street. While Pòtoprens is less dangerous than many major US cities, what anthropologist Mark Schuller has titled “[T]he incredible whiteness of being (an anthropologist)” sometimes results in a degree of unwelcomed negative attention (Schuller 2010). The countryside seems to nullify some aspects of this reality: In five years of visiting my research site I have never once been threatened, stolen from, or felt any risk for my life.

Andeyo can also seem a bit boring, especially if you’re more accustomed to the fast pace of a city.  For the most part, the students adapted marvelously well to their new surroundings.  While two of the students had been raised in the countryside, one had never been out of Pòtoprens for more than 10 days in his entire life—a reflection of the increasing urbanization of Haiti, a country with a traditional 2/3rds rural majority. The other students gently teased him about his lack of experience andeyo, though he later confided that he now prefers the country to the city.

Some members of the community were particularly open to the students, who were initially strangers in their presence. Other members took time to warm up to the students.  Again, patience was the key, and allowing time for students to integrate into the community was important. We allotted ample time to meet and explain our research to community members, attending church, soccer games, the two weekly markets, and going for long walks in the area. I also met and explained the research to the local minister of environment from the nearest city. At the urging of the students, we also made a point of meeting with the area kazèk—the local magistrate. After visiting this community for over five years, I had no idea this position even existed. My students mildly rebuked me for not meeting with the kazèk a long time ago. Unbeknownst to me this is the standard operation of order in rural research in Haiti, and provides a fitting anecdote to advocate for the benefits of research collaboration with in-country scholars.

In addition to allowing time for adequate community integration, starting slowly allowed the necessary time to properly train the students in use of GPS technologies.  A major component of the research rested on my insistence on a random sampling strategy that would increase external validity and allow me to extrapolate research findings beyond our sample. This insistence required the research team to physically locate hundreds of randomly selected plots of land using GPS units.  This was a difficult task, as many of the plots fell far from established roads and paths.  It took us all a while to get the hang of things and become confident in orienting ourselves with the GPS units. Starting slow in the short-term ended up saving time in the long-term by reducing serious errors we might have otherwise made.

Starting slowly also allowed us to develop, test, refine, and finalize the survey instrument and open-ended questions in an iterative fashion, rather than rushing out with a predetermined question list.  Starting slowly will present a different set of challenges for researchers working in urban or peri-urban areas—working in partnership with the right collaborators will ensure these challenges can be properly addressed.

A Case Study of Dissertation Research Collaboration in Rural Haiti – Part 1 of 4

Andrew Tarter is a Ph.D. candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Florida. He received a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2012 to aid research on ‘The Tree Farmers of Haiti: Understanding Factors that Influence Farmers’ Retention of Forest Land in Southern Haiti,’ supervised by Dr. Gerald F. Murray. Tarter is also a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow and his research has additionally been supported by the Fulbright Program and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Over the course of his fieldwork in Haiti, Tarter has worked extensively with students from L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti) a recipient of the Wenner-Gren Institutional Development Grant. Andrew joins us today to guest-blog the first of a four-part series reflecting on his collaboration with Haitian students and the myriad benefits and challenges of collaboration within the field setting.

Student research collaborators from the Faculté d'Ethnologie at the L'Université d'État d'Haïti conducting interviews in rural Haiti.

Haiti is a hotbed of social science research. As a subscriber to Google Scholar Alerts on anything related to Haiti, I am continually astounded at the sheer volume of Haiti-based research that continues to be produced.  Anecdotally I know of no less than six anthropology doctoral students currently in Haiti, collecting data for their dissertations. I have received numerous emails over the past few years from new or incoming anthropology graduate students who intend to work in Haiti.  Several recent PhDs and senior anthropologists continue visit Haiti every year, usually during the summer months. At least two well-known anthropology PhDs have made Pòtoprens (Port-au-Prince) their permanent home—one for the last 40 years. Several universities lead undergraduate study-abroad trips to Haiti every year. I recently hosted a tenured associate professor of anthropology who is interested in shifting his research to Haiti. Suffice to say, Haiti has no shortage of visiting anthropology undergraduates, graduate students, doctoral students, senior researchers, and resident anthropologists. In all cases numerous opportunities exist for collaboration with counterparts at the Faculté d’Ethnologie (Department of Ethnology; FE) at the L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haiti; UEH).

Sorting through CVs at Faculté d'Ethnologie at the L'Université d'État d'Haïti, in preparation for interviewing potential student research collaborators.

My own recent experience working alongside three anthropology and sociology undergraduates from UEH was both a dream-come-true and a challenge. I had previous experience leading an interdisciplinary team of students from the University of Florida to Haiti on a 10-day expedition to conduct research on plant diversity and local plant uses. But this was different: I was embarking on new terrain in an effort to recruit three Haitian scholars to leave the capital and go work in a remote part of the country—under physically demanding circumstances—for nine months. When reviewing my initial research proposal, more than one of my academic advisors cautioned against working with educated urbanites. Rather, they suggested, I should hire assistants from the rural research site, as they are locally integrated and know the land better.  I wrestled with these two options, but ultimately chose to recruit and collaborate with students from UEH for two primary reasons: (1) they have training in social theory and methods absent in members of the village; and (2) the experience, while just a temporary job to villagers, could serve as a springboard to future academic opportunities for the UEH students.

In this first post of a four-part blog series, I begin a sequential reflection of the entire course of events, from connecting with faculty and students from FE, to some of the challenges faced in the rural countryside by our research team. While I advocate for continued research partnerships—contextualized through the exemplar of my interactions with faculty and students at FE—I also provide a blueprint of collaboration through a series of suggestions that could be applicable to future social science researchers from other disciplines who wish to collaborate with corresponding researchers and departments at UEH.

The Costs of Collaboration

I am painfully aware of the challenges many anthropology doctoral students face in securing funding. My own initial dissertation grant applications were all turned down, but with persistence and guidance during the Summer Institute in Research Design, I was able to craft a compelling research proposal. In the end, I was very fortunate: my dissertation research was supported by both the Wenner Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation. This public-private funding collaboration allowed for long-term research and partnership with three students—a unique situation that may not be available to all researchers visiting Haiti under a variety of different circumstances.  Nevertheless, there are multiple opportunities and advantages to collaborating with members of the Faculté d’Ethnologie, irrespective of funding status, which I touch upon in the paragraphs that follow.

The Benefits of Collaboration

Collaborating with faculty and students from Faculté d’Ethnologie is not a requirement.  I know several anthropology doctoral students who have conducted research in Haiti, successfully collecting data and returning to write their dissertations without ever visiting the Faculté d’Ethnologie campus.  Likewise, many senior researchers do not collaborate with FE. Not all research designs or research objectives require collaboration; however, collaborating provides numerous advantages for researchers, including:

  • New friendships and meaningful relationships;
  • Income from research positions that provide a stipend, per diem, or salary;
  • Collaborating on short- and long-term research projects or initiatives;
  • Collaborating on funding projects;
  • Receiving letters of recommendation from researchers that students can use to pad CVs and leverage further opportunities;
  • Assistance in translating important documents;
  • Assistance applying to foreign universities;
  • Assistance applying to foreign funding sources;
  • Accessing important or hard-to-find documents;
  • Feedback from non-Haitian anthropologists on their research; and
  • The opportunity to practice and improve their language skills, depending on the language(s) of the PI.

This is hardly an exhaustive list; benefits to research collaboration don’t end here. Each case of collaboration is unique and will present its own challenges and benefits. Furthermore, none of these benefits are guaranteed: they rely to a large extent on good-faith efforts by all parties involved. Below I highlight some steps to ensure fruitful collaboration, contextualized through anecdotes from my own personal experience. This is not a recipe that needs to be followed step-by-step, nor a guaranteed roadmap to attainment, but rather a tentative schedule for collaborative success.

1. Reach out to faculty

It is entirely probable and quite likely that another researcher has come before you, and has experience and relationships with faculty members in an affiliated UEH department. My initial introduction to anthropology faculty at UEH was facilitated by another anthropologist—Dr. Mark Schuller.  Reaching out to UEH faculty through another researcher is a good strategy depending on that researcher’s relationship with said faculty.  Luckily, Mark has great rapport with Faculté d’Ethnologie—he’s been an affiliate since 2003, and has taught multiple courses there.

Mark introduced me via email to Drs. Jhon Picard Byron (Chef Département Anthropologie-Sociologie), Ilionor Louis, (Chef Département des Sciences de Développement), and Jean-Yves Blot (Vice-Recteur à la Recherche).  After initial introductions and a series of phone conversations, I passed on a synopsis of my proposed research, which was circulated among students who are finisan (finished with their coursework) or memoran (students who have had their thesis proposal approved). A date and time was arranged to visit campus to meet faculty and conduct interviews with interested students.

2.  Visit the campus

My experiences during a Fulbright placement within the Haitian government the prior year wrongly led me to imagine the Faculté d’Ethnologie campus as a perilous place.  I distinctly remember the expression of horror on the face of my point-of-contact in the US Embassy at my suggestion of collaborating with Faculté d’Ethnologie for the academic component of my Fulbright placement. She claimed the campus was the starting point of many violent protests, and that a volley of rocks greeted a recent visit by the Haitian President. I was forbidden to collaborate with Faculté d’Ethnologie.

Main building of the Faculty of Ethnology. At the front stands a bust of Dr. Price-Mars, founder of the institute, who became faculty in 1958.

A year later, and a few moments after arriving on the campus, I was reminded how out-of-touch the US Embassy can be. I was not greeted by any rocks, but instead by a courtyard of relaxed students gathering here and there under the shade of a leafy green canopy, engaging in impassioned debates about politics and history, or shuffling off to attend class.  No one even seemed noticed me.  Eventually Jean-Yves Blot spotted me and we made our introductions.  He handed me a large stack of manila envelopes containing CVs of approximately 20 students interested in the three research positions. Blot led me to an empty classroom, and told me that the students would soon meet me there for interviews.  As he left he asked me to give an impromptu presentation of my research to his class when the interviews were over.

After the interviews I sought out Blot to honor my agreement to present my research to his class of anthropology students. As an academic, the opportunity to discuss one’s research comes up often enough to have polished sound bites on hand. What I hadn’t expected was the loss of my voice; after about 3 hours of interviewing, during which I often had to give a presentation of the research, my voice had nearly left me.  Luckily it held together long enough to give a 30 minute presentation. Researchers interested in presenting or attending presentations at UEH can connect through the department’s Facebook page listing colloquia and other events: Faculté d’Ethnologie Colloque Et autres activités.

I highly recommend taking the time to spread interviews out over a few days.  Both you and the students will feel less rushed, and you’ll have more time to thoroughly review CVs and ask important questions.  In spite of my rushed experience, I left Faculté d’Ethnologie happy and wondering why I hadn’t connected with faculty and students long ago.