The Hypocritical Anthropologist

In college, I used to sit in the back of the class with the other students of color and listen as my white peers theorized the hell out of the oppression we were born from. – Terisa Siagatonu: “Ethnic Studies” (2014)


My classmates shared an incredible three hour presentation on the Pacific Islands and how they are portrayed in popular culture. Their opening point started with showing the video above. The words of Terisa Siagatonu collided with my memories at once. I remember it quite clearly. Sitting in on my first anthropology class, awe-struck. I admired the bravery of researchers who leave their home for a long time and live in a completely new environment. Their cause: noble. Justice for all the people in the world. Fighting against oppression. Exploring a new culture from an insider’s perspective. I was fascinated by the thought the people live different than the life I live.

Culture, to me, was always the coolest thing to study. I can’t recall the last time one of my friends took an anthropology class and hated what they learned. Who doesn’t wonder, at least a little bit, about different cultures, values, beliefs, and traditions? I mean, who doesn’t put traveling on a pedestal? Everyone secretly wants to. That’s the dream ingrained in our society. Work your ass off until you can afford to take 2 weeks to a “paradise” anywhere in the world. Come home and become famous among your family, coworkers, and friends.

Over the past year I’ve learned a lot about anthropology, cultural studies, and “ethnic studies” – much more than I did in community college. The first program I took gave me the opportunity to practice anthropology stuff. I created my own ethnographic project (albeit small in scale). I traveled to Nepal, my first experience outside the United States. I wrote a research paper connecting my experiences with academic frameworks. I gave a speech on it and people applauded. And last spring, I started studying ethnographic texts about the Vietnamese experience, because Vietnamese culture has become intertwined with my life.

After my first year at Evergreen, I traveled to Vietnam in the summer. There, my view of ethnography changed. See, my wife is Vietnamese. She came to America as an international student. That’s how we met. You could say that I saw a different side of Viet Nam that many researchers wouldn’t be privileged to see for several months or years. I lived with my wife’s family, and was accepted and became a member. Not so different than being placed in a home stay. Except my family and her family are now forever intertwined.

*some* of my relatives in Vietnam

Before the trip, I planned to use the opportunity to do some sort of ethnographic research. That’s why I read all those books. Yet, when I met my new family, I found that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write about them or try and theorize about their lives. It just didn’t feel morally right. I was a novice at the language; not good enough to understand 80% of the conversations anyways. Most importantly, I realized that what I knew about Viet Nam from reading books didn’t come close to the reality of being there, in the present day. Despite participating in many Vietnamese traditions, both in Viet Nam and in America, I could never truly be an insider.

There’s a certain arrogance that comes with the title of being an anthropologist. Despite the fact that hero complexes exist within all fields, the idea of saving others dominates in anthropology and cultural studies. More so than many realize. The beginning of this post started with a quote from Terisa Siagatonu’s spoken word poetry titled “Ethnic Studies.” The way ethnic studies and anthropology are portrayed to students – including my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year college self – is with a certain exotic lens. In fact, it is this curiosity and fantasizing that many anthropology teachers play on which draws students in.

Much of the anthropological discourse I read in my third year focuses on embeddedness and invisible structures. Some, address individual agency as well. But to me, the reasons why people choose to migrate across nation-state borders illegally or choose to be “trafficked” are always related to conditions caused by policies made by people in power.

There is one question I cannot get my head around. Does anthropology help the people studied or does it only hurt them in the long-run?

Ethnography, the primary qualitative research methodology in anthropology, has an insidious past when you remove the mask of justice. Specifically, when you look at when and how it was used, and why someone chose to use it. In Oscar Salemink’s The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, the introspective frameworks that come from anthropology are turned towards the field itself. He provides a historical contextualization of how ethnography was used in Viet Nam’s central highlands. When I first read this book, as with any book, a lot of the core content went over my head. But here I am, revisiting it and making huge connections with the knowledge I’ve gained in the past two months.

The practice of ethnography was predominantly developed from colonialist ideals, and used for control. It was a method to study people in order to know how to best handle them. To know them in order to keep them under control. This dark past haunts anthropology and I believe this is why the field struggles to remain relevant. Perhaps I will write a future post about this book since it is so important for the future of anthropology and relevancy. But for now, I just want to make my point. That ethnography is a strategic act in gaining knowledge of a group of people. There’s a reason we want to know more about people with different cultures. That’s why ethnography was born from colonial discourses, and used by missionaries, governments, and militaries.

For anyone aspiring to be an anthropologist, or currently called one, please realize the drastic mistake you are making when you don’t consider how power influences your choice to study a particular group of people. Your analysis will be utterly flawed. If you think the information you gather will only be used for good, think again. Information is information. The choice of whether this knowledge is used for the benefit or detriment of those you study will never be up to you. It is up to the people who have power.

Consider the implications and problems with the solutions you come up with carefully. Because a short-term solution might seem lucrative (to powerful people) if it creates a

long-term consequence that aligns with their interest. In anthropology, we need to seriously question whether our data only reproduces the “invisible structures of embeddedness,” which we love to point the finger at in contemporary anthropological discourses.

Who are we really helping? The people? Or the system which creates the need for people to be helped?

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