Role of ethics and subjectivity in field work Essay Example
Role of ethics and subjectivity in field work Essay Example

Role of ethics and subjectivity in field work Essay Example

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  • Pages: 15 (4058 words)
  • Published: July 18, 2017
  • Type: Research Paper
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This paper examines the role of subjectiveness in conducting field work in native cultural scenes. It critically discusses the relationship between subjectiveness and ethical duty for an anthropology researcher in a native field context. The main focus of analysis is the collection and analysis of data in such scenes, and the writer raises questions about the influence of subjectiveness on findings and whether it is easier for a native researcher to maintain an unbiased approach in qualitative ethnographic studies. It also explores the dilemma faced by a researcher who is both a member of the local community (as a subjective being) and bound by research duty to fairness and ethical responsibility. Drawing from personal experiences, the writer highlights the challenges faced by a native anthropologist when the object of study involves issues of cultural sensitivities, the researcher's own cultural identity, potentially dangerous situations, and the eth


ical obligation to maintain emotional distance and prevent subjective biases from impacting the research data.The primary focus of the main statement in this paper is exemplified through the illustration of how the aggregation of information impacts a specific subject. This subject pertains to mental well-being, but is extensively debated in the analytical field regarding the medicalization of social distress.


Medical anthropology focuses on health issues globally and over time, rather than concentrating on a specific society or healthcare system (Singer and Baer, 2007). Research in this field examines the similarities and differences in healthcare systems across cultures. Mind-body interactions are a fundamental aspect of medical anthropology research (Sargent and Johnson, 1996), which considers the social, cultural, political, and historical aspects of body, illness, disease, injury, healing, health behavior, and well-being

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Ethnographic methodology is central to medical anthropological research but is increasingly supplemented by multidisciplinary techniques. Anthropology faces complexity in understanding subjectivity and ethics because subjectivity versus objectivity is a common challenge in all social sciences (Upadhaya, 1999). Anthropologists have an important role in representing their subject matter by producing ethnographic knowledge based on their subjective understanding of fellow human beings from an insider's perspective.

The text poses several questions regarding the production of knowledge: Does a researcher's subjective feelings impact objective observation? Can a researcher with cultural sensitivities accurately represent a culture's essence from an insider's perspective? Is it feasible to obtain an insider's perspective through short-term field work? Can anthropologists easily detach themselves from their own cultural existence to perceive the world from another culture's viewpoint? The duality of subjectivity and objectivity plays a crucial role in scientific research, with objectivity being influenced by ethical considerations regardless of the research methodology. The author shares personal experiences that raise doubts about whether any knowledge is unaffected by subjective influences. Furthermore, the text emphasizes the urgency for applied anthropologists to promptly address societal problems in contemporary societies, swiftly evaluating these issues and proposing solutions to policymakers to ensure effective implementation measures that enhance human welfare.

On the other hand, there are situations where individual scholars may want to create a body of knowledge driven by nationalist ideologies, political activism, and the ideologies of a specific religious order that may not necessarily align with the viewpoint of larger population groups. This is being practiced more frequently nowadays through selective reading of facts and figures to promote a specific agenda or justify certain social practices. This becomes evident especially when

individual scholars with vested interests collaborate with established institutions to help their governments or organizations advance and safeguard certain agendas, often for personal gain or hidden motives. - Malferd E.

In his work, Spiro (1996: 773) argued that scientists are motivated by both their pursuit of knowledge and various human desires, such as ambition, envy, fame, power, wealth, and prestige. These motivations that are not related to cognition can adversely affect scientific research and the production of knowledge. They have the potential to lead to unintended distortions, misinterpretations, intentional manipulation of data, and fabrication of reports. On the other hand, ethics deals with notions of good and evil, right and wrong. It provides a framework for guiding human behavior and encompasses values like gender equality, respect for human rights, and adherence to laws. Importantly, ethics also includes considerations regarding health safety and environmental concerns.

Anthropologists encounter difficulties in research ethics due to the unique nature of their research and their partnerships with individuals (Marshall, 1992). To truly comprehend the thoughts, values, beliefs, and cultural expressions of individuals, groups, and societies, it is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of them. According to Spiro (1996), anthropological fieldwork involves a reciprocal process where both the anthropologist and the locals observe one another. Consequently, data is generated through the interaction between these two parties (Ibid: 760).

There is a need to consider the subjectiveness of both the object and the topic in anthropological fieldwork research. This is important because anthropologists are interested in uncovering the cultural beliefs and patterns.

Emerging Ethical Concerns:

The involvement of anthropologists in supporting their governments in counterterrorism efforts, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, has sparked a debate

within the American Anthropological Association. This debate questions the ethics of such actions and whether the connection between knowledge and power can lead to hegemony and benefit only those in power. This debate also highlights concerns about the potential for spreading inequality and creating feelings of alienation among certain populations. Anthropologists have a primary responsibility to aid in understanding humanity for the improvement of life, rather than sowing seeds of animosity between societies and countries. Antonius C.G.M.

According to Robben (2009), there is a lack of independent treatment on Iraq and the war during AAA meetings due to security demands. Robben supports this statement by mentioning that out of the 1800 panels (11,000 documents presented) in various American Anthropological Association meetings, only one directly deals with the Iraq war. In our specific context, there is also a limited research focus on the challenges faced in insurgency/struggle affected areas like northeast provinces, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir. Few studies have examined the concepts of societal agony, safety, injury, resiliency, and justice in relation to the conscious and distressed bodies of individuals living through traumatic daily life experiences. The American defense institution's strategy of Human Terrain Teams (HTT) has faced severe criticism from individual scholars and academic associations, especially the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

There is debate about the ethical sustainability of a strategy that involves anthropologists being embedded in combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether anthropologists should contribute their expertise to such strategies. Some argue that these strategies aim to address longstanding insurgency issues, while others argue that anthropologists who oppose such strategies are labeled as anti-military and disloyal. Human terrain, as defined by Kipp et

al. and quoted by Gonzalez, encompasses various social, cultural, economic, and political aspects of the population a military force is operating among. Gonzalez also highlights how the US military's interest in culture led to the creation of Human Terrain Teams (HTT), with regional studies experts and social scientists assigned to combat brigade headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question remains whether it is ethical for anthropologists to involve themselves in producing anthropological knowledge in warzones, knowing that this knowledge will be used for combat actions, including the killing of fellow human beings.The programme generates ethnographic understanding, which is utilized to challenge the strong ideological, mental, and emotional resistance of locals. Locals are believed to share a common cultural identity and are united. This is done to combat the cultural aggression and domination imposed by those in power over their local way of life.

Furthermore, we can observe similar instances in our own context, not only limited to the mindset of the western world. While it may not always involve scholars, there are occasions when a specific segment of society refuses to consider other perspectives due to patriotism, nationalism, or other ideological reasons. However, the main point of contention always revolves around determining whose definition and understanding of concepts like violence, injustice, inequality, and oppression should be deemed valid and unquestionable. The question of which ethical considerations and subjective judgments should hold priority in presenting facts during a particular time and place within the creation of knowledge through cultural and historical processes remains a highly debated subject.

One apprehension that causes fear is the feeling of going against the authority of the government or the fear of backlash

for defying those who are against the government. The determining factor in this situation is which of these two authorities - the provincial actors or non-state actors – hold more power in the conflict zone. Sometimes, it is the fear of both (i.e., provincial actors and non-state actors) that prevents scholars from independently reporting without any influence. Richters and Dongen (2005) argue convincingly that medical anthropology can contribute significantly to our understanding of violence, human rights, and human suffering. However, this can only happen if medical anthropologists conduct their studies objectively and fearlessly.


The objective of this paper is to examine the difficulties encountered by researchers while conducting research in their own culture.

Locating the study data:

The author collected the data for this paper during their doctoral research from 2001 to 2004. The data collection process spanned two years and aimed to study the correlation between PTSD development, demographics, social factors, and culture within the context of societal distress. Additionally, it investigated the effects of traumatic experiences on adolescents' lives.

The study aimed to gain insights into the thoughts and actions of young people in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir who had experienced trauma. To achieve this, a variety of approaches were employed, such as case studies, interviews, and tools for evaluating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A total of 68 teenagers who had undergone traumatic events were chosen for the research. The selection process mainly relied on personal contacts to recruit most of the participants. Both male and female adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 from both urban and rural areas were included in the study. Only individuals still residing in the conflict-affected region were eligible

for participation. Semi-structured interviews were conducted using a prepared interview guide.

In addition to creating topics and classes for research, we made sure to remain open to pursuing subjects brought up by participants. Interviews typically occurred in person, either at the homes or schools of the teenagers, with one of their family members present. In some cases, it was just the researcher and the teenager alone, away from the presence of anyone else. On average, an interview session lasted 2-3 hours.

The participants were given the opportunity to consent before participating in the interview session, and the purpose of the research and potential risks were explained in detail. Confidentiality and anonymity were maintained throughout the research. One specific case is discussed in this paper, using examples from case vignettes to clarify the main theme. In the vignettes, the participant's real name is replaced with an anonymous identity to protect their privacy. The three-step data analysis approach focused on identifying common themes in the respondents' descriptions.

Field Experiences of Researcher:

Despite being a local resident and actively involved in the research, I faced difficulties in explaining the study's purpose and convincing respondents and their healthcare professionals to participate. These challenges stemmed from a prevailing sense of insecurity and fear caused by both state and non-state actors involved in gun violence. These individuals not only committed horrific acts but were also believed to be responsible for numerous disappearances and unknown killings happening at an alarming rate. This presented personal challenges as I had to employ persuasion skills each time I clarified the research objectives while also facing questions about the funding source or suspicions about working

undercover for security agencies.

, few of the inquiries were asked by every respondent/ health professional. Collecting information from respondents of different walks of life and backgrounds required strenuous and difficult efforts for the researcher amidst narrow flights of life as well. Convincing the respondents about the purpose of the survey and assuring them that the researcher is merely a student working for Ph.D. research and not affiliated with any organization or having any vested interest was a challenging task. Ensuring that their responses would be kept strictly confidential and their identity would not be disclosed in any way, despite the researcher being from the same country, was also not easy. However, it was not difficult for the researcher to gain cooperation and avoid opposition from the respondents, except for their reluctance to disclose any information that could bring trouble for them from security forces as well as insurgents.

The research worker needed to visit the locations of the respondents to gather information. This involved requesting assistance from the police, army, and other sources who closely monitored the researcher's activities. The respondents felt fear and apprehension. Based on previous experiences, investigating such a sensitive topic can potentially harm both the participants and the researcher. The individuals do not trust anyone when it comes to issues related to conflict.

Although there were some individuals who were willing to provide any information they deemed necessary, there were also limitations in the data collection process. The researcher was unable to use a camera or voice recording equipment due to concerns about security forces and insurgents. It was both heartbreaking and encouraging to hear the emotional and touching stories of the respondents

who had lost loved ones in these traumatic events. Equally touching were the stories of human rights violations, instances of physical torture, and various other forms of physical and psychological suffering inflicted on these innocent people. Often, the researcher was emotionally disturbed, and the interview sessions would leave them completely drained emotionally. It was also common to witness the girls being interviewed and their female caregivers breaking down in tears while recalling the loss of their loved ones (usually male family members). At times, the researcher would feel guilty for emotionally upsetting them and convincing them to share their deeply distressing, severe, and painful experiences.

It was challenging for the researcher to objectively observe the distresses from a researcher's perspective during those inspiring sessions. Sometimes, the researcher had to collect data over multiple sessions due to these emotional episodes. This reminded the writer of what Kareem and Little Wood (1992) have reported as the emotional difficulty of addressing culturally shared sensitivities, which proved to be challenging for me. Despite the numerous challenges faced during the data collection process and the emotionally impactful sessions, the researcher believes that by sympathizing with the respondents and engaging with them, they have gained an authentic understanding of their suffering and examined this issue anthropologically. The adolescents in the experimental group generally reported loss of concentration while studying due to flooding of memories, disruption of daily routine or lack of routine, especially in the unpredictability of their distress.

Case sketch


Rabia, who is 16 years old, has three older sisters and three brothers. Additionally, she has one younger sister and one younger brother. Out of her older siblings, two brothers and

one sister are married.

They have a joint household where all her married brothers and other household members live together in a multi-room house, in a rural small town located far away. Her grandma is still alive while her grandfather passed away a few years ago. Her father, a police officer working in intelligence, has been warned by extremists/insurgents many times in the past to not pass on information about seditious movement to security establishments. The insurrectionists claim that he was responsible for eliminating three high-ranking insurrectionists. A silent understanding between influential individuals in the local village and the insurrectionists ensured that her father remained unharmed for two years.

However, this fear did not persist for long and eventually, rebels devised a plan to assassinate Rabia's father. One evening at approximately 7.30pm, a gang of rebels forcefully entered their residence. For Rabia and her family, it was just an ordinary day and they had just finished eating dinner. All the older family members were engaged in their usual routine of discussing the events of the day before going to bed. The children, including Rabia, were occupied with their school-assigned homework tasks.

Before forcibly entering Rabia's house, the insurrectionists first checked at a neighbor's house to see if her father was hiding there. This alerted Rabia and her family, including her father, who were warned by the vigilant neighbors about the presence of the insurrectionists. Fearing for his safety, Rabia's father quickly hid in the cowshed so that he could avoid encountering the insurrectionists, just as he had done in the past and escaped unharmed. However, this time fate had something different in store for him - something much

worse was about to happen.

After forcing their way into the house, the insurgents searched for him everywhere. They found him in the cowbarn and pulled him out in front of everyone present, including household members and neighboring relations who had gathered by that time. Despite the pleas of the assembled crowd, the insurgents ignored their requests for his life and safety, stating that they wanted to talk to him and then take him with them. The emotional atmosphere intensified as the insurgents grew dissatisfied with the growing number of local villagers.

Fearing strong opposition from a large crowd of local villagers and the relatives of the insurrectionist, one of them, upon receiving orders from his superior commanding officer, shot and killed a police officer in front of everyone present. After carrying out their plan, the group of insurrectionists fled from the scene, taking advantage of the darkness and their weapons. This deeply traumatic and shocking event was witnessed by a few relatives of the deceased, family members, and neighbors. Rabia's father passed away just moments after being shot by the insurrectionists. When asked to recall the memories of the incident, Rabia was overcome with emotion, tears filling her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.

She stated that her father was being shot and she keeps remembering him fighting for his life. She also expressed fear and trauma at night, and hearing voices that make her feel scared and afraid that someone may harm her.

At night, I feel scared, especially when I hear any noise, thinking that insurgents might have come to kill someone in our family. Before, I used to be able to stay in a room

alone, but now I can't sit still for even a minute. As she described this, her innocent face looked sad. She said, "Even during the daytime, I feel the same way, as if someone will come and kill me. I can't get rid of this fear no matter what. My father is such a good person. My dad is not a thief or a corrupt person."

Jina maary sunay dad qi amarayiaoo Tay mujhaid nahi sahtan an.hainnaien un gold itnay khaarb maary pablum unau qi kuch bhi nien kita par una phir bhi marra dad maraay ' During daylight besides, I feel as if the insurrectionists would come to kill person. I cannot stop memories of the incident flooding my mind every now and then. Because after all, my dad was so good. He was not a cruel or corrupt police officer. Those who killed my dad are not insurrectionists but Satans.

Are they not so awful? They killed my dad despite him doing nothing to them. While Rabia was sharing her story about how insurgents mercilessly took her father's life, the researcher was reminded of a similar event. During the data collection period, the researcher also went through a similar situation. It happened during a night spent at a relative's house when a group of insurgents came to the door and forcibly entered.

Everyone in the house, including the research worker, became numb due to fear and weakness. No one had the courage to refuse them entry. However, they were acting fearlessly and laughing at our fearful and helpless reaction. One of them, who seemed to be their commanding officer, jokingly ordered arrangements to be made for

their accommodation and food during the night. We had little choice but to comply with their food demands, as the consequences could be described as chilling and even worse.

My hosts began preparing food for themselves, speaking aloud and making amusing noises in another room, as if they were members of the family. However, both my hosts and I were constantly worried about two things. First, what would happen if security forces discovered that these rebels were staying with us? What if the security forces were trailing them? What if there was a gun battle between the rebels and the security forces? These questions were always on our minds and filled us with horror as we discussed them. It felt as if our bodies had no strength and only our minds were asking these questions - the fear of death was clearly present in our thoughts.

I had never experienced this state of mind before. Additionally, there was another factor that was equally terrifying and troubling: what if these insurgents were to leave our location right now and the security forces were to find out about this incident? The concern of facing questioning by the security forces is a real threat for male members who could be accused of being overland/underground workers or sympathizers of the insurgents, a common practice in those days. While we were in shock, they were acting as if there was nothing to worry about. In the meantime, food was prepared and the researcher and two male members of the host family gathered the courage to serve it to them. As we entered their room, I noticed their commanding officer busy communicating with

others through a radio communication device that he was carrying with him, while their guns were lying on the bed.

Despite our presence in the room, he continued speaking to his companion without being disturbed. It is possible that upon seeing the food trays and plates in our hands, he could deduce that we were there to serve food to them. Like statues, we also stood still. After sending a message through wireless communication, the officer mentioned asked me some questions, as if he already knew that I was not a member of the host family. He inquired about my identity, and I honestly explained my background and connection with the host family. Once again, he burst into laughter upon learning that I was a doctoral research student and sarcastically questioned the usefulness of my doctoral research. I nodded in agreement and remained silent.

This brief interaction improved my experience slightly, possibly because they did not demand anything further, nor did they ask any questions that would give such an implication - but the state of shock and horror still persisted. After eating, the commanding officer instructed three individuals, including a researcher, to be escorted through a safe passage - to a destination that he would guide us towards. With little choice, overwhelmed by the fear of the worst happening in sight, the researcher and two others accompanied those gunslingers to a location. The moonlit night resembled dim daylight, allowing one to observe the movements of objects from afar.

The inherent aptitude for endurance compelled us to hold on to them, as the fear of being shot by them made us travel with them. But at the same

time, the prospect of getting caught in a skirmish between these actors and security forces constantly instilled a fear of death in me. Death seemed imminent rather than a mere feeling or possible apprehension. My heart raced at a very high rate, I had no control over my forward steps while maintaining distance from each other, and there was not even the slightest rustle, which gave me chilling sensations—a feeling of ultimate vulnerability. However, all of this was done in the hope of surviving. At one point, when the leader of those gunmen instructed us to stop, it seemed as if the worst was about to happen. My heart palpitated intensely, my mouth turned dry, my feet froze, and my legs felt lifeless—it was a state of numbness that had taken over. But it turned out that he only wanted us to stop there for half an hour and then return back.

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