Thursday, March 09, 2006

Ethics

Whew... I have been trying to maintain some kind of dignified integrity about all this- but here it overflows...
A few weeks ago I started writing an application for ethics approval from the uni. As I had been thinking about it a lot, I was at least a bit prepared when over a friendly dinner with a group of colleagues an (older) man I respect well, who works with indigenous people reacted strongly when I said I was recording conversations (of indigenous people) even while I was present and to some extent I thought the data collected was still valid and useful. He told me that 'linguists have a a lot to answer for' and that (university) research of indigenous peoples (languages) was 'exploitation', that I was naive and idealistic and had no concept of the brutality of colonisation and how did I expect people to talk (act) normally if I (being a whitefella) was there....

It was intense I tell you. He was a bit drunk ( I think) and very impassioned and with an impressive weight of experience behind him, as well as real concern for the state of indigenous health. As I said I respected him, so I took his concerns seriously - I was glad though to be able to draw on my own experience of living and working in Ngukurr- and I agreed with him that the state of indigenous health was appalling and didn't show signs of improving . I tried to explain to him that I worked hard at conceptualising my relationship in terms of humanness ( I feel naive now writing it!) - rather than in terms of race. What I meant was the relationships I have with family in Ngukurr is as real, emotionally to me, as relationships with anyone else I interact with.. and I didn't want my colour to be my defining factor.

Anyway that just pissed him off more and we continued back and forth and I tried hard to explain to him that even though I am idealistic I do still have a very real concept of suffering and brutality, that I am not innocent to the real concerns of the community (or which language and cultural maintenance is one!). He told me that if I wanted to be useful i should be working in Aboriginal health/political activism... anway it went on intensely for a while and though I thanked him at the end of the evening he was ungracious and obviously upset and angry, I could hear him thinking ' some silly young girl thinks she can just go into a community, do some research and change the world.... etc'.

Anyway, as you can imagine I thought about it a lot more after that, the last thing I want is to end up some well-meaning fool, but when I thought of my femli-mob there I thought how they would laugh it off, laugh at me for being so concerned and I felt confident in my own sense of what was going on, what is true, right etc... - the short of it is I finally submitted the application yesterday after Wamut had shown it to language centre representatives in the community and sent me a letter signed by them endorsing the application.

But then Wamut told me that one of the Old People said something to the effect of ' researchers coming up here and collect language and then they get all the credit and what do we get...?' Again, this Old Man I especially respect and he has looked out for me many times, and is well versed in the way of whitefellas- and again I start to think, really how is it ethical that I research these languages in this way unless the community expressly seeks me out and asks me to?? How can I justify gathering data and documenting language unless the community decides there is a need to? I cant tell you how scary these questions are to me ... I can sit here and break my own heart thinking that I am further disempowering an oppressed people - the irony of it.

I suppose I believe(d) that working (not researching) for the community in a manner directed by members of that community; and in doing so identifying the aspects of language communication that affected both myself and everyone dealing with the inevitable interface of the whitefella world and focusing my research on this, that I had justified to myself this area of research would be of benefit of the community too (and is something I feel passionate about and interested in)- but was I really consulting the community in this decision or my own sense of righteousness (and, God forbid, patronisation)???... as Greg pointed out the only way to really know what is going on and have some peace of mind is to continually negotiate with community members and be as transparent as possible. Maybe that I need to acknowledge that really I am doing it for myself... (am I?).

I had to give my supervisor some work today and I was feeling a somewhat demoralised - I told him what I upset about ( biting back tears..) and I said it would be so much easier and clearer if I was studying plants or rocks or something rather than languages. And he looked at me and said, ' but that wouldn't be nearly so interesting would it?'

Ah- all the sweat and tears- it must be a spiritual journey after all.

3 Comments:

Blogger Wamut said...

bobala sophie. i know what it's like to get to the stage where you're talking to a superior and the tears start to swell. not a fun place to be.

These are really tough issues with no obvious solution... try not to take it personally and trust that your heart is always in the right place and you've done all the right things within the systems that are on offer to you. Which I guess means that you're concerns are with the systems and that's a big rock for you to try n budge...

5:43 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Thanks wamutwamut, I realise more so now than before that the only way for me personally to resolve this is to talk with ola community mob- and I hope formalise some agreement (where the community is not just a passive participant in 'my' research). Maybe we are in a position to knock out a few little rocks here and there.. never know , might be a landslide..

11:03 pm  
Anonymous bulanjdjan said...

Yeah, this is really difficult stuff Soph, and I think you're right: if you're confident that the people you're working with understand what you're on about/after and are happy about it, then you can justify it on those grounds to the outside world without feeling the need to conform to their paradigm entirely. After all, it's because field-based social scientists (linguists, anthros) have criticised university ethics requirements because they didn't feel they did justics to the expectations of their informants that those requirements have changed.

Looking forward to talking about it more at Blackwood.

12:27 pm  

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