Fieldwork: Not an Inalienable Right, but an Expendable Rite

Over on the AAA blog, one might get the sense that those anthropologists who support being embedded with US military units in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the counterinsurgency campaigns, have developed some notion of “entitlement”–that is, that they are entitled to do this kind of work because it is the patriotic thing to do, the heroically altruistic thing to do, or the lack of jobs in anthropology means that their only option is to become part of these Human Terrain Teams. They react against what they perceive as the AAA Executive Board’s opposition to the war as if that opposition were somehow ludicrous, the view of a fringe minority. The pro-HTS camp seems to be in entirely out of step with the majority of American public opinion, let alone international opinion.

What I want to focus on is this sense of entitlement, of a notion that fieldwork comes as a sort of right, rather than a rite. The pro-HTS camp seems to have confused fieldwork as a rite of passage, with rights of passage. Do they have a right to enter Iraq or Afghanistan without even seeking the permission of Iraqis or Afghans, just the US military? Only if they can reconcile themselves with being imperialist anthropologists.

Some seem to have an abusive and instrusive attitude to doing fieldwork. I have known one other ethnographer, conducting fieldwork in Trinidad, who demanded the right to interview people, even if it meant going to the extreme of calling the US Embassy and having the Cultural Attache call the leader of a community to deliver a veiled threat concerning that person’s next application for a visa to enter the US. This is done with arrogance, with entitlement, and without a bit of shame.

My argument is that all “fieldworkers” should keep in mind certain basic principles before thinking of intruding into someone else’s life, someone else’s home, and occupying “fieldsites”:

  1. You do not have a right to do fieldwork.

  2. You do not have a right to information from any entity other than your home government, if the laws of your home country allow freedom of information.

  3. You do not have a right to enter other countries without the permission of local authorities. You do not have a right to be there if they wish you to leave.

  4. You do not have a right to publish information without permission of those who provided the information.

  5. You do not have a right to a PhD in Anthropology.

  6. You do not have a right to a career in Anthropology.

As for those anthropologists who wish to join Human Terrain Teams, let them do so, nobody can stop them. However, let them do so without the blessings of all other anthropologists. To expect support, recognition, and respect, as if it were a right, is quite delusional.