When the ‘Other’ Talks Back

Ethnographic fieldwork is a difficult task especially if the ethnographer has not anticipated certain obstacles that might occur during the field research. Rejection from the research subjects can be avoided by any experienced and trained ethnographer, but it is more difficult to handle when our research subject ‘talks back’ to us after the actual study has been done. Moreover, this feedback is not always good. It can be a cruel, critical, misinterpretation, or even an offensive statement from those who were our valuable informants. These conditions were discussed within the articles from Vine Deloria Jr. (1973), Cecil King (1997), Ofra Greenberg (1993), and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2000).

Deloria (1973) wrote the article as a critique of the ethnographers and called them outsider intruders or even vultures. According to his argument, ethnographers are seen as a curse for Native American communities where they have been treated as objects by these researchers. The ethnographers thought that they were the most knowledgeable about how the Indians should behave and practice their culture. Only interested in studying Indian communities on reservations, ethnographers tended to neglect the negative side effect of their presence within the Indian reservations and often made the situation worse. For example, when some researchers tried to study how Indian communities adapted to modern life, rather than support them to survive, ethnographers criticized the way they lived and said it was not how the Indian culture should be. After the research was completed, these ethnographers wrote books, published their articles, and achieved their academic careers, while the Indians were still struggling with poverty and also losing their identity as Indians.

Similar to Deloria, King (1997) also decried the presence of ethnographers in Indian communities and named them as peeping toms and rank opportunists. King mentioned that many Native Americans felt unhappy with ethnographers since Indians considered they have been cheated, by revealing their sacred things to the public through books and articles by many ethnographers. Additionally, ethnographers tended to describe Indian cultures through ethnographers’ own language where curtailed Indian vocabulary. Since researchers treated Native Americans as objects, King argued that now its time to let the natives have their own self-determination.

Greenberg (1993) wrote a reply when the local media in Israel published an article fully misinterpretations about her book A Development Town Visited. Consequently, the people of Kiryat Shmona, a community where Greenberg conducted the fieldwork, provoked by the newspaper article and turned to anger since it was written that her book depicts the community negatively. Greenberg tried to explain the situation and encouraged the community to read her book to have a better understanding of what she had written rather than rely solely on the sensationalism made by the newspaper. Some people who had read the book believed that Greenberg had no negative intention while most of the less educated community members did not read the book and remained prejudiced against her.

Meanwhile, Scheper-Hughes (2000) faced a long lasting hatred from the community of ‘Ballybran’ in Dingle Peninsula, Ireland. She considered that this hatred came from what she wrote about the community where she concluded that the pathology of mental illness was deeply rooted within the society. She claimed that she was trying to remain honest when she studied the community while the people felt what she did was uncover negative sides of the society and ignored the positive parts.

While ethnographers should reveal their true intentions while conducting their study, there is no guarantee that the research findings will be fully accepted by the society studied. Moreover, it is the public rights to talk back to the ethnographers. A good critique can be a valuable correction for the study, while an offensive one can also be seen as a valuable tool for learning for future research. However, one question remains, what kind of responsibility remains on the ethnographers once the study has been published? Do we have to fully be responsible to the feedback of our readers while its meaning can be interpreted in various ways by its audience? Or maybe we just have to embrace what Roland Barthes has said, the author died once the writing has been written.


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