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May 03 2013

Through the Fighting Toward Understanding

A couple of months ago, I did a post covering much of the uproar around the work of Napoleon Chagnon. The controversies and the behavior of various scientists was fascinating in that it was almost precisely unsuited to uncovering scientific knowledge.

Now, however, along comes Greg Laden with an article in Slate that helps those of us bewildered by the conflicts and controversies do just that.

Chagnon spent decades with the Yanomamö of Venezuela and wrote a monograph called Yanomamö: The Fierce People. The first through third editions kept the subtitle, but it was dropped for the fourth edition. The Venezuelan government had used Chagnon’s work to label the Yanomamö as dangerous and unsociable, as part of its effort to displace indigenous tribes occupying land otherwise exploitable for lumber or for other purposes.

Some sociocultural anthropologists and human rights activists have held Chagnon responsible for the use of his ethnography against an indigenous group. This seems rather unfair. If the Yanomamö are fierce, that is not Chagnon’s fault; the use of an honest ethnography for nefarious political or economic goals is not the ethnographer’s responsibility. However, a litany of other charges has been made against Chagnon. More than 10 years ago, Marshall Sahlins accused Chagnon of unethical practices, including disregarding Yanomamö cultural proscriptions against using names and discussing kinship relations in order to assemble census and genealogical data for the villages he worked in. Sahlins claimed Chagnon tricked the Yanomamö into giving up information that they held as secret, and that this led to conflicts which led to violence. Others have suggested that Chagnon’s payment of informants and helpers with western goods such as machetes caused or escalated violence. Most recently, Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Acaedemy of Sciences in protest of Chagnon’s election to that body.

These may be valid criticisms, but we should also take into account context and timing.

Greg’s article doesn’t ignore the criticisms, the controversies, or the politics of what happened to the Yanomamö. What it does instead is put them all into context, both the context of the field of anthropology and the context of a world in which anthropology isn’t just a study of “other” people.

Go read the article. You’ll come away with both a better understanding of where all this dust came from and a better understanding of what is left when it all settles.

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