Fieldwork today or cultural theft ?

Rob Pensalfini rjpensal at MIT.EDU
Tue Feb 4 13:00:09 UTC 1997

Hi all,

I found many of Peter's concerns not only valid, but also echoing a lot of
questions/concerns of my own. I guess I am in the lucky situation that the
linguistic fieldwork I have been involved in in Australia was
initiated/requested by the community with whom I have been working. In a
desire to maintain or at least record one of their local languages (which
has a small number of surviving speakers of varying degrees of fluency but
is no longer spoken at all except in linguistic elicitation sessions, all
the speakers being married to speakers of other languages), the community
asked for work to be done on a dictionary of the language.

I will admit that I am  fortunate enough to be " travelling the world
conference circuit and gaining
international kudos" as a result of my research on this language (Jingulu),
but I, and many many other young linguists in similar situations that I
know or know of, feel a strong responsibility to the communities that
educated us and made this possible. The ways in which linguists can give
something in return are varied, and range from  providing the materials the
community asked us for in the first place (in my case dictionaries) to
producing additional materials, to training community members to do
linguistic research and maintenance work. As an example, while I was in the
field last, my (then) fiancee and I prepared a picture dictionary of
animals for the language I was researching. This meant additional time and
resources that were not part of the 'official' project, and certainly
generated no academic kudos, but for me was one of the most satisfying and
useful aspects of the work.

In Australia, the College of Aboriginal Languages and Linguistics
systematically trains indigenous people to carry out research and teaching
on their own languages. I know of several other young linguists who,
completing their PhDs in the ivory towers of the world, are planning to
carry out community based and oriented work including training of local

While I feel that Peter's criticisms are valid in many cases, I would
disagree that they hold of the majority of linguistic fieldworkers, in
Australia at least, and would venture that most of us are aware of the
problems he brought up and are committed to changing the situation. At the
risk of duplicating a question I raised on another list
(australian-studies-l), I would also venture that the concerns regarding
cultural theft are better directed toward 'New Age' practices that
capitalise on or distort traditional beliefs/rituals, including sweat
lodges or corroborees for profit, books such as Marlo Morgan's 'Mutant
Message Downunder', and past lives therapists telling people they were
shamans or Maori chieftains in previous lives. The 'last remaining cultural
capital' now being exploited inculdes spiritual beliefs and rituals.

While I'm here, I wanted to say something on the thread of the perceived
theoretical versus descriptive split in linguistics. In my own experience,
as a student in a department which has the reputation of being one of the
most hard-core theoretically inclined around, a student who is interested
in fieldwork or descriptive linguistics often has to work harder, being
expected to be up-to-date in a range of theoretical areas as well as doing
her or his fieldwork and description, and often has to work against an
attitude (from the part of fellow students, generally not from faculty
members) that description is what you do if you are not
good/smart/competitive enough to do theory, but that she or he will find
great rewards and a great deal of support from faculty members for her or
his work. The department I am in currently has two students working on
grammars as theses, and many of the 'highest' ranking' theoretical
departments are very willing, contrary to popular opinion, to have
descriptive work form the core of a dissertation. I don't know whether this
is a change for the better or whether it's always been this way, but for
the moment at least I feel that the split between theory and description is
artificial and non-existent (and if anyone could tell me what a
theory-independent description is, I'd love to know).

Cheers and regards to all,


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