fieldwork/cultural theft

Alan Dench alanden at
Thu Feb 6 09:06:21 UTC 1997

Dear everybody, (this is long posting -- my apologies)

Nancy Dorian's and Peter Keegan's postings have raised some
obviously both complex and emotional issues. At the risk of
pouring gasoline on the flames, I will add my bit. The progress
of the discussion is quite familiar to me. As a graduate
student I was a member of a cohort who all did field-based
theses. We decided to write a manual for those who followed
after us on "How to do fieldwork" in an effort to help others
learn by our mistakes. The manual never got written. Instead,
our discussions quickly centered on the ethics of fieldwork
and culminated in draft of ethical guidelines for field linguists
which was ultimately endorsed by the Australian Linguistics
Society -- not without heated debate and misgivings by many.

In the end, the circumstances of each case are so different
that it is impossible to make generalisations like "fieldwork
is cultural theft" or "linguists are kind and caring people who
always try to do the right thing" or "linguistics exploits
those with little power".

Ultimately I agree entirely with Nancy Dorian - if people do
not want to talk to you, they can simply close their mouths.
It has always seemed to me that this gives the linguist's
consultants an advantage over the anthropologist's consultants.
Anthropologists have to be physically removed to avoid them
observing things. Maybe the question then centres on whether
or not people really can "simply close their mouths"? Allan
Wechsler's Philippine thought-experiment suggests the the right
inducements in the right context can overcome good reasons to
keep your mouth shut. Frances Karttunen (and I haven't read the
book .. yet) notes that consultants can become isolated from
their communities by going against the general community wish
to remain silent. I'm afraid I believe in free will. If we tell
people what we want and why we want it, then they have
their own decisions to make about clamming up or joining in.

I've worked and not worked with a wide range of language consultants.
Some have come looking for me because they wanted a record made of
their language (to in some way relieve the burden of responsibility
that goes with being the last speaker -- to teach someone, anyone!),
some shared my fascination with language and collected languages themselves
(as multilingual members of their wider communities -- and occasionally,
through this vocation, were the last speakers of some of these),
some who have been insulted at the thought of payment, some who have
been very happy with that arrangement, some have believed they were
exploiting me, some have believed, at different times, that I had
exploited them. Some have been shocked and angered by attempts by
members of their own family/community to stop them talking to whoever
they damn well pleased, thank you very much! And these sets of people
are not mutually exclusive. We all change our minds from time to time.

Who owns a language? Who gets to decide its worth? Who has the right
to teach it? Who gets to decide who can and cannot speak it? How do
we stop the ears of our children, how do we open them up? What
community of human beings has ever maintained a completely consistent
view on such things, and for how long? We Australians have a long history
of grouping a wide range of distinct societies, cultures, communities
under the label "Aboriginal people". There is no one Aboriginal voice,
anymore than I imagine there is a Maori voice or a Linguist's voice --
a voice that represents the views of every single individual in the
group. Every single individual knows a language, is this knowledge theirs
to do with as they will? I'm happy to let each of us decide this for
ourselves. The questions/answers are not just culture bound, they are
decisions each of us makes as individuals. If you don't like where I'm
coming from, don't bother to talk to me. And yes, I believe one can
maintain  cultural codes of politeness to strangers and still say nothing,
ask any decent politician :)

It turns out that I have worked mainly on endangered languages. This
was not my motivation then and it hasn't much been ever. I'm primarily
interested in languages -- let's be honest about it. I've never
pretended to those people I've worked with that I could do very much
to save their languages. I can write something down, but that is a
record not a program for survival. They've known I'll put it in a book.
Some things I have been told are not to be put in the book, they haven't
been. Some things I haven't been told because they didn't want to
tell me. They've known I was working towards higher degrees and aimed
at a job and career as an academic. Some, I believe, knew better than
me that I might make it, and they cultivated my involvment in their
community as an investment in their future. Who better than a
sympathetic academic to put an academic spin on something for other
academics (lawyers and doctors, journalists and judges)? Train the
young linguist as a good cultural ambassador!

I don't promise to save languages, and I haven't done much directly to
help either. I know that my talents (along with my interests) lie in
describing languages and not in designing programs in language
instruction. But I have, as a successful academic, taught a good few
people who are better at it, and more committed to it, than I am.
At least three of my former students currently work in community
language centres, a fair few have done this in the past. Aboriginal
people who saw me working with their grandparents when they were
children are studying linguistics and training community language
workers, some are reading my academic descriptions and turning them
into things that other people can understand.

Yes, I've been successful, have a steady job, do the international
conference circuit. Who knows, if I'd stuck to the real macho
lambda calculus I worked on for my undergraduate thesis I might have
been doing it anyway. At least some of my work is my own work.
And I sleep at night.


Endangered-Languages-L Forum: endangered-languages-l at
Web pages
Subscribe/unsubscribe and other commands: majordomo at

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list