fieldwork/cultural theft

endangered-languages-l at endangered-languages-l at
Wed Feb 5 02:52:29 UTC 1997

Dear everybody,
   There are some meaty issue raised by Peter
   Keegan's posting today. I made the suggestion of an
   edited volume on fieldwork experience, and I didnt
   have Rob Pensalfini's good fortune in being invited
   to study either of the communities whose language
   I did research on, so I'll make a stab at talking
   about some of these issues a bit.
   By no means all linguistic fieldwork is done
   in settings where the cultural traditions of the fieldworker
   and of the speakers of the local language are in sharp
   opposition to one another. It happens with some frequency
   that researchers and their local sources are in agreement
   about the importance of the research and the reasons for
   undertaking, & even about the forms that the results can
   usefully take.  But in that sort of setting, too, the
   issue that Leanne Hinton raised in her posting of 3
   February still arises: What are the ongoing responsibilities
   of researchers to the communities that make the research
   work possible by sharing linguistic knowledge? That used
   to be an issue that the individual researcher either did
   or did not raise for him-/herself, but it's becoming an
   issue that the linguistic profession raises more generally,
   & that's gradually bringing some level of improvement in
   the responses. 
And improvement is needed. Peter Keegan speaks
from a setting in which the cultural traditions of
researchers from elsewhere & of local indigenous
people have been in opposition to one another.  Until
fairly recent times most linguists have come out of a
Western cultural tradition that from a variety of
motivations, prominent among them advancement of its
own interests (I think I can add here "of course", since
I dont know of any purely disinterested & altruistic
cultural traditions), has long valued & practiced the
collection & preservation of knowledge of all sorts,
whether the knowledge in question derives from its
own region & tradition or from those of others. Over
the centuries the methods of the knowledge-collectors
have often enough been reprehensible, and their attitudes
likewise, but that neednt prevent the knowledge from
being useful to members of other traditions, too. (A
parallel, perhaps: many non-Mormons make use of the
genealogical records amassed & maintained by the Mormon
church for reasons specific to Mormon belief.)
Preserved knowledge is in principle shareable,
and academic practice insists on a certain degree of
sharing in the form of research publications.  Some
publications are more widely accessible than others,
& some researchers make more effort than others to
write both for professional colleagues & for a more
general audience, including their own sourcepeople.
When I put the East Sutherland variety of Scottish
Gaelic into books, in the case that's most central for
me, that didnt take the language out of the mouths of
East Sutherlanders, & the books are there for the reading,
by East Sutherlanders & their descendants as well as
by others. It could & should be commoner, but it's not
altogether rare these days for linguists to do what
they can to make the body of material that they've
gathered available to local people or to train local
people to research their own languages & traditions.
Are there careerists among linguists? Yes, no doubt,
& no doubt more than we'd like to acknowledge.  The
pursuit of self-interest is a pretty common human
trait & it can be pursued over vigorously. Even
within the ranks of indigenous loyalists
representing traditions less prone to individualism
than Western tradition is, accusations of local
leadership pursuing excessively self-interested
courses have been known to surface. Postings in the
present discussion indicate, in any case, that among
linguists fieldwork isnt a guaranteed route to career
success, & that there are other motivations besides
pursuit of that career success that can lead to
undertaking it.
There's another matter here that shouldnt
be overlooked.  Indigenous peoples come out (in
the account Peter Keegan gives of Australia, for
example) looking completely helpless to prevent
rapacious linguists from making off with their
linguistic heritage, & I think that does a lot of
indigenous communities less than justice.  They arent
necessarily as defenseless as that.  Non-cooperation
has always existed as an option, in covert form if
not always in overt form.  Stonewalling and fabrication
on the part of local community members are as old as
the fieldwork enterprise itself. They can be carried to
a high art, as every researcher knows, & can defeat
every attempt at fieldwork. (Not acknowledging that
possibility fully is a flaw in Charles Brigg's book
"Learning How to Ask", I thot.)  The fieldworker has
no special leverage unless s/he's able to offer
payment, which may or may not be a strong inducement.
(It isnt always; in some cultural contexts it's insulting
even to bring up the possibility of payment.) S/he
asks people if they'd be willing to help with work on
their language, & they say yes or no.  It there's
payment available, that may make it worthwhile. If
there's a history of disparagement of the local
language, the chance to talk & think about that language
with somebody deeply interested in it may make it
worthwhile. If the people who still speak the local
language are elderly & feeling regret that they
didnt pass their language on to their children, go along nsylvania if
the researcher
offers or agrees to put tapes, papers, books, videos,
or teaching materials into any repository the local
people specify, that may make it worthwhile. If
there are legal issues (land claims, water rights,
questions of freedom to follow traditional religious
practices), thay may make it worthwhile. But people
dont always go along with the fieldworker's proposals,
& those who dont care to share linguistic & cultural
knowledge with outsiders can generally find ways to
avoid it.
One of the more daunting aspects of fieldwork,
in my experience, is that the researcher is always a
petitioner: always on the other fellow's ground, on
sufferance, & always asking for a favor. My teachers
did a lousy job of training me, if you can actually
steal a language, because I've spent a lot of years
asking people in Scotland & in Pennsylvania if
they'd be kind enough to share some of theirs with
me.  They were, as it happened, but they werent
required to & I couldnt have made them.
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