Case 22: Forbidden Knowledge

The following case was sent by a reader of the Anthropology Newsletter:

"In my research on the language of the _______, a small group of Indians dwelling in the Southwest, I obtained a good deal of ethnographic information as windfall from my intensive linguistic study. There has been only one ethnography written about the _______, a master's thesis written in the 1930s. Not only is this work difficult of access, it is also incomplete. Because no major ethnographic work has been done on the group, it is generally assumed in the literature that their culture is identical to a larger group with whom they were associated in the 18th century. I have found out that this is not so, and that they have (or had, as their culture is rapidly westernizing) a distinctive culture, especially in the areas of religion, ritual, and the supernatural. My dilemma is this: Although the group does not object to descriptions of their former material culture, they are strongly opposed to any discussion of their nonmaterial culture. I was told outright that these beliefs and practices were not the property of non-Indians, and that I had been told about them only because I had found out about certain aspects of these ideas, and they did not want me to be in error about them. In conclusion, I was told that these things should not be published.

"Because of the opposition of my consultants, I have done little with my ethnographic notes. At one point I had begun to write an article on their culture, but abandoned it because I felt moral qualms about going against the expressed desires of my consultants. My question is this: Do the wishes of my consultants override the need of science for an ethnographic description of a little-known culture that is becoming westernized? Would it be ethical to produce a work that would appear only after all of my consultants are dead, which could be 20 or 30 years? Or does the right to privacy, which my consultants insisted on, have to be observed as long as the _______ people maintain their independent existence?"


Nancy Lurie, Milwaukee Public Museum:

The dilemma as posed is a choice between responsibility to one's discipline and responsibility to the people one works with. This narrow interpretation allows only one choice. Confidentiality is confidentiality.

Concern for the interests of the _______ people in general rather than concentrating solely on one issue of special interest to the researcher opens up new potentialities for finding common ground. Has the researcher pointed out to these people that they are misrepresented in the literature about them and, if so, does it bother them that outsiders have an incorrect view of them? Assuming the researcher has followed this course or can return to determine their reaction, and it does bother them, it would seem that mutual agreement could be reached as to how much could be included in a general ethnography of their traditional culture to demonstrate their distinctiveness. The account indicates the people are concerned about accuracy and states that they have no objection to publication on their former material culture (it would be helpful to know if they are actively interested in preserving this information as many groups are). They just are opposed to any discussion of their nonmaterial culture which, in the statement of the case, is equated exclusively with "religion, ritual, and the supernatural."

Their distinctiveness, however, is described as relating "especially" but, one must assume, not entirely to sacred matters. Nonmaterial culture includes a lot more than sacred matters. Would it not be possible to straighten out the ethnographic record (which is an important, but not the only, consideration) by reference to distinctiveness in less sensitive areas such as economic activities, social organization, kinship, and perhaps even material culture? It might even be possible to refer to the clincher evidence of sacred data in mutually agreeable terms as suggested without revealing what people do not want revealed. The researcher certainly could make clear that the presentation is less than complete in deference to the _______ people. There is not enough information provided to know what kind of rapport exists between the researcher and the _______ people, and whether the situation is one where they could or would want to be involved in the scholarly enterprise of describing their own traditional culture for publication. The possibility certainly should be pursued.

We all have a responsibility to make explicit provision for archiving our field notes. Field notes always contain information which for various reasons never gets included in researchers' publications but might be useful to other scholars, or might indicate new or additional interpretation than the published form in light of new data unavailable to the researcher. Notes placed in an appropriate depository either during one's lifetime or as a bequest can include restrictions. Since the _______ people are becoming rapidly "westernized," it should be easier than in some cases to arrive at appropriate safeguards of confidentiality with them which would preserve information for their descendents, if they find this desirable on careful thought about the matter.

Given the necessarily brief background information, the only possible recommendation is an ethical course of action: striving to discern the overall interests of the people one works with, leveling with them, and involving them as much as possible in presenting their own story. We must be prepared to accept that sometimes their interests will not mesh with ours and their interests must be respected, but probably more often than not a researcher's sincerity and candidness works to the benefit of all concerned.


Keith Basso, Yale University:

The wishes of the people with whom this ethnographer has worked must be honored at all costs. Native Americans are already wary of the motives of anthropologists (as well they have reason to be), and failure to abide by this simple request not to publish religious materials would only make the situation worse. But that is probably a selfish concern. Ethnographers are guests among the people whose cultures they study, and grateful guests (as this ethnographer gives every indication of being) should be certain to behave accordingly. Grateful guests should display sensitivity and respect--and sensitivity and respect are the fundamental issues here. Science must take a back seat. The controversial materials should not be published.

Despite their strong feelings against publication, the people involved in this case would appear to have accorded the ethnographer a measure of confidence and trust. In doing so, they may also have accorded the ethnographer a handsome opportunity to participate more actively in their affairs and to work with them on projects aimed at improving the immediate conditions of native life. I refer, of course, to projects in areas such as nutrition and health care, education and legal assistance, economic development and the management of human and natural resources, and others.

The extent to which anthropologists can be of service in areas such as these cannot be determined a priori. Every situation will in some ways be different from every other. But whatever the nature of the specific situation may be, confidence and trust are essential if true cooperation is to flourish and develop. And whenever it does--whenever the anthropologist can work with local people to bring about desired forms of change--the personal rewards are apt to be substantial. In the long run, I expect, these rewards are more deeply satisfying and permanently enriching than any which may result from professional publication. But that, of course, is a matter of opinion.

And who knows? Much later on, after the people have come to know the ethnographer well, after their confidence in him (or her) has been increased, a responsible member of the local community may step forth with an unanticipated proposal. "You remember those things we didn't want you to put in a book? Remember them? Well, we've been talking about it, and maybe, if you still want to . . . "

This sort of thing has happened before. People change their minds. But until they do--and until the ethnographer can be reasonably certain that they will not change them back again--publication must be postponed. Science must wait. God knows--and so do Native Americans--that there are dozens of other worthwhile things to do.