Excertps – 6: On Objectification, Decolonising Research, and Disturbing Relations of Power in Ethnographic Writing


Classic ethnography, Rosaldo notes, removes the observer from the observed, setting a large distance between them. The epistemological foundations of creating this distance are strongly tied to notions of objectivity, and more chillingly, exploitation: the idea that more valid data can be obtained through such defamiliarisation, or objectification, of a research-participant. Such a precept has engaged in what Victor Turner calls “Cartesian dualism” which has

insisted on separating subject from object, us from them. It has, indeed, made voyeurs of Western man, exaggerating sight by maro- and micro-instrumentation, the better to learn the structures of the world with an ‘eye’ to its exploitation.

In this manner, the ‘eye’ of ethnography is connected to the “I” of imperialism. There is a presentation of those who are researched as passive objects and researchers as active subjects – and this relationship matches extremely closely to notions of colonization, or as Linda Tuhiwai Smith might argue, the accepted practices of modern-day terrorism inflicted on communities of colour. Smith has pointed out that the “desires by the native to be self-defining and self-naming” involve wanting to be regarded as complex and fully human, to defy definitions or ritualized, patterned notions of who they are. Similar to Euro-American processes of circumscribing culturally distinct Others, Haraway speaks to feminist concerns revolving around masculinist processes of circumscribing gendered Others. Haraway discusses the “politics of closure” and how “feminist embodiment resists fixation”; there is then, a desire, for women to be self-naming, complex, and fully human as well. Haraway incisively points out that “boundaries are drawn by mapping practices; “objects” do not preexist as such. Objects are boundary projects.” This understanding of the processes of objectification helps me to see the processes by which Others are constructed, and understood to be different.

However, Rosaldo describes how this dualistic perspective has crumbled with time as borders between nations, people, and roles have become more porous. The demarcated lines between researcher and researched have grown blurry, not just on philosophical grounds, but on very practical terms through globalization. There lies in these cultural collisions, the potential for dialogue between the researched and those researching. There lies the potential for conversation at the borderlands. There lies the potential for multiple subject-positions for researchers of colour and researchers with feminist approaches to critique the prevailing ‘classic ethngoraphical’ accounts produced by researchers embedded in white, patriarchal institutions. There exists potential to disturb the borders, created through techxtnologies that circumscribe, restrict, and fix our positions. And there exists, in such dialogue, new and dynamic methodologies that can inform research practices.

Rosaldo points out how his Ilongot friends, who engaged in headhunting, found the notion of conscription abhorrent and grotesque. Rosaldo had been struggling with his inability to comprehend the morality behind headhunting. However, this “moral chasm” was considerably narrowed for Rosaldo, when he was confronted with another culture’s moral repugnance at his cultural understandings of autonomy and war. Other cultures’ understandings of processes in our own can help, with searing clarity, deconstruct what we take for granted. In doing so, they can simultaneously familiarize us with other cultures, while letting us see our own cultures from a different angle.

Similarly, Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls for an approach to Aboriginal ethnography that is mindful of Aboriginal practices, behaviours, and ways of knowing – particularly in the realm of redefining ethical standards in terms that do not reflect colonial underpinnings of relationships between white and Aboriginal communities, or between researchers and the researched. Indigenous approaches can benefit research methodologies in multiple ways: First, they disturb power relations between researcher and researched, and in so doing, disturb the power relations between settler and native. From a social justice standpoint, such disturbances are essential to contest ‘truth claims’ generated through dominant research paradigms which often circumscribe the native, or the constructed Other, to easily explainable patterns. These disturbances then, are counter-hegemonic struggles that not only seek to redefine research, but to redefine the practical realities of how natives are viewed and treated; they therefore are founded on principles of resistance, political integrity, and privileging Indigenous voices. Smith has pointed out that such principles are a way of “researching back to power”, similar to speaking “truth to power”, and that social sciences, in order to develop valid narratives of the oppressed and silenced must seek to include their voices and understandings of themselves.

These perspectives can be seen as a decolonization of research, and can supplement Rosaldo’s exercise in parodic accounts, or his suggestions in listening closely to criticisms of ethnographic accounts by the researched. Doing so can unmask the processes by which colonial writing leaks into research, and can disturb processes of authority in authorship and inscription. However, Haraway argues that these epistemologies, grounded in the experiences of people who have been subjugated, are not necessarily “innocent” or “more truthful” – they are instead, in a better position to critique dominant methodologies through the history of oppression they have experienced. While Rosaldo sees relativism as fundamentally an egalitarian approach to studying cultures, Haraway cautions against relativism – not all positions are necessarily “equal” because such thinking can result in denying critical inquiry into practices, behaviours, and customs. Instead, Haraway argues for new ways of seeing, and for critical visions that result from critical subject-positions that are “power-sensitive, not pluralist”.  The argument she makes is for a critical knowledge process developed around subject-position, not self-identity.

Secondly, the methodologies themselves may come to inform dominant research practices. In one particularly startling example, Haraway articulates of how thinking of objects as actors disturb the objectification processes of Euro-American research with Indigenous populations. Not only can humans respond back and ‘startle’ researchers with “other” truths, so can the natural world. If certain Indigenous understandings, such as the Earth as a live actor that can respond back, or metaphysical concepts such as the Coyote who can play tricks on researchers’ results, are taken as philosophical additions to informing dominant Euro-American epistemologies, the result forces an understanding of the earth as actor, and not just as resource.

At first, I was skeptical of such understandings – there is a strong resistance in me to look at natural science in this way, as though what I look at under the microscope can respond to the process of research. And yet, there are so many examples, particularly in physics and biology, where researchers are frustrated with results that seem contradictory. We know that we cannot observe an electron’s position while also measuring its speed since our measuring instruments will, in measuring position, influence speed. Theories about forces are incomplete. String theory appears to be not one, but multiple dead ends, while still leaving us with tantalizing hope for predictive power. We see bacterial evolution in certain conditions where other life could not possibly survive. The very notion of viruses as particles of replicating nucleic acids such as DNA or RNA throws a wrench into philosophical understandings of what life entails. Particularly troubling is the existence of non-coding DNA segments, commonly referred to as “junk code” in human cells which mimic viral replication. (Often, this involves the disconcerting notion that pieces of our DNA literally “jump out” of sequence, and re-insert into other parts…seemingly without troubling our “normal” DNA sequence.) Recently, parts of so-called “junk code” are proving useful in surprising ways, adding to genetic diversity and potentially useful mutations. Even the notion of cells, considered the smallest living unit, is technically made up of subcellular structures that are not alive. I have only to look at my notes from my undergraduate degree to look at the myriad ways in which biology plays tricks. This is not to say that theories in natural sciences are not predictive – they are. But they are often only predictive to a degree. There is some value, perhaps, in thinking of the world as a responsive actor. How might the world respond to deforestation and pollution? In thinking of global warming and the reduction of the ozone layer, is there value in thinking of the earth as fighting back against humans? What might be the value in thinking of earth as “playing tricks”?

In perhaps a more tangible example, Smith provides examples of how Indigenous understandings of research ethics can help shape better relations between researchers and Indigenous communities. Smith argues that ‘respect’ is construed differently amongst research communities and Indigenous communities, and that this difference must be acknowledged and worked on to be able to effectively converse with Indigenous communities. Here again, Geertz’ concern with the “what was ‘said’” is crucial – explicating the meaning behind “respect” is critical to establishing communication between groups. Challenging and critiquing a Western notion of ‘respect’ disturbs again the power relations between the researched and the researcher, while enriching research methods. Smith further defines a community-up approach to defining researcher conduct. In this way, Smith shows how Indigenous understandings of research ethics can shift dominant paradigms in academia, with vaguely defined principles (such as respect), to one of relationships, and the processes by which those principles can be constructed. Similar to Geertz’ emphasis on conversing – with meaning and nuance, so too Smith’s conception of relations between researchers and the researched hinge on a well-defined understanding of a mutually respectful relationship that mitigates, to some extent, centuries of colonial objectification.

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