Monday, June 28, 2010

Anthropologists: The contentious people

I am married to an anthropologist (Janet Chernela). Last Tuesday, I went with her to AFI in Silver Spring to see a screening of "Secrets of the Tribe," a new documentary by Jose Padilha (whose past work includes "Bus 174" and "Elite Squad"). "Secrets of the Tribe" is a documentary about anthropologists focusing on the controversy surrounding Yanomami researchers. There are some very nice things about this film. It was good to see so much attention paid to the field and so many familiar faces. Real anthropological issues are touched on, which is unusual, although the narrative thread is petty personal disagreements. Padilha is indeed highly skilled at telling a story, and he has made this one engaging, but I think that he did so at the expense of being true to his subject.

Balance is sought by showing all sides slinging mud, which only gives the impression that Anthropologists are all mudslingers. Moderating voices are largely ignored. For example, the American Anthropological Association inquiry (the "Darkness in El Dorado" task force) is not discussed at all. Statements from interviews are juxtaposed as if the speaker is responding to what has just been said, and the effect is sometimes misleading.

One of the most significant parts of this film is a set of interviews with Yanomami on the subject of Jacques Lizot's sexual activities. These very disturbing interviews are followed immediately by statements from Anthropologists and Salesians who "should have done something." Their tolerant statements make them appear complicit, but we don't know what they are responding to. We also don't know how much they knew. I wonder if their statements don't reflect an attitude towards activities that they presumed to be more mutual and discreet than we have just learned. Throughout the film, we see anthropologists speaking in their own words, but we never know the context in which they spoke.

Anthropology is an observational science. Many important questions are not amenable to direct experimentation, and this film emphasizes the difficulty of comparing data from different individual researchers, leaving one with a sense that nothing has been learned and a despair that anything can be learned. We see anthropologists who are not only trapped in petty debates, but also making very little progress as scientists.

However, as is true in other observational sciences (Paleontology, Astronomy and, increasingly, Genomics), hypotheses can be tested by collecting data that challenge them. I have attended Anthropology meetings with Janet and I know that these methods can be quite rigorous (involving, for example, records of how people use time and space). Furthermore, Anthropology spans a vast range of inquiry, from human genetics to mythology and psychology, and not all of it is truly scientific in methodology. The study of people allows involvement by the researcher, permitting powerful non-experimental approaches. As an outsider I have seen broad agreement reached about things that have not always been known.

Overall, then, I think the film is engaging and highly polished but suffers from the desire to show something of interest where many would not be interested. As it is, blogger Christopher Campbell on states that the film "has a limited appeal in that it's concentrated on the world of anthropologic academia and the clashes therein." How much less appeal would it have had if it focused on areas of agreement.

By focusing on the most contentious aspects of Anthropology, "Secrets of the Tribe" is a disturbing reflection of the same current trend towards polarization in intellectual discourse that has brought us the Tea party, a dysfunctional government and "home-grown" terrorists.


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