Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Exploiting Tibet?

My friend Ben and I just spent about an hour discussing our research in India this summer, and a surprisingly serious and frightening concern surfaced. We were talking about the interviews we would be doing in Dharamsala, the kinds of questions we might be asking and of whom we might be asking them. And it dawned on us just how personal these questions might get, and that we would actually be divulging the answers to such questions to our various audiences (which would likely be small and few, but still very real - that was undeniable.)

This work very quickly took on a feeling of severe exploitation. We would actually be trying to pry into people's very senses of identity and home, and to what end? To present? To publish? To make a film? To build a résumé? For fame? For gain? For position?

And I realized that yes, I was still thinking of this field study as my big opportunity to build a future. It was a thought that disturbed me. I had to face the fact that I've been pretty schizophrenic about the whole thing, professing purely disinterested, academic or even holy causes (though - and this is important - not missionary causes), but still talking to everyone I knew about how big an opportunity this is and how much it'll affect my future, that it will let me have the career I want, the life I want for me.

How do you avoid that? Ben asked if all anthropology isn't necessarily that way, by its very nature. I couldn't reply any way but affirmatively. Still, there had to be some way out of it, some saving grace for something that has come to mean so much in my personal and academic life. I told Ben I thought as much, and we tried to find an honest way out of our problem.

It occurred to me that if there was a way out, it must revolve around gospel truths. For example - how convenient! - the one that came to mind was charity. I've long held that charity is a byproduct of understanding and that Jesus can only have charity because he's suffered what we've suffered, therefore being able to understand things as we do and feeling perfect compassion. It strikes me as even necessary that we too, if we're to follow Christ's examples, learn understanding by sharing in experience and thereby grow in charity. If we can rightly justify all this seemingly exploitative behavior and all this spreading of peoples' innermost feelings, there are certain assumptions we'll have to get right.

Number one is that all of it must be done primarily in the name of understanding and not in the name of gain. Gain in this case could be professional or material, or maybe some other kind. And I include 'primarily' because I don't think documentary films that make a profit are categorically evil because of the money they make. They are only wrong if they're made without primary interest in understanding - it's the purpose of the thing that its ethics hinge on. And then gain, I think, must be shared with those who have sacrificed their own identities for the study, the presentation, or the film. If money is involved, then the individual dignity of those studied must be respected in every way possible. Understanding, then - not money or position - becomes paramount, even if some gain is had. The giving of a share of profit from what is made reduces its importance in the researcher or filmmaker's life and frees the research subject from being objectified.

There are, I'm sure, other ways to approach social research that help the researcher in avoiding exploitation. I don't know what they are. Maybe I'll figure some out. If you have an idea, please let me know.

Ben and I also talked a lot about whether this first-time research as undergrads can be good, let alone significant. I'll be commenting on that soon.


spack said...

Have you thought that "exploitative" doesn't consider the possibility that the Tibetans may want people to know how they feel? That they may want to get it out there and people to know what's been done to them and how that has affected their lives? That may be very significant. On the other hand, it may be exploitation, but that depends on their motives and their desires too. You can't disregard that it could be a win-win and that they may want you to get this stuff published and get it out there. Still, i recognize the need for righteous motives.

Nephi said...

I see where you're going with that. However, my concern then becomes, how much truth can you really get to if there are suddenly issues of self-representation? Suddenly instead of doing what I can do on my end to do honest reseach (as biased as that already is by my own cultural background), it's also an opportunity for well-meaning Tibetans to tell the world either (A) what they themselves think should be said or (B) what they think the world wants to hear.

Nephi said...

...One more thing. I do realize that there are self-representation issues anyway - plenty of them - but why invite more into the research (and the film) by thinking of it all as a chance for Tibetans to get their message out? I'm just going for research, not as an activist.

spack said...

true but either way, they're going to say what they think YOU need to know as a researcher.

Nephi said...

That's a tremendous question in anthropology, and definitely one that hasn't been ignored. In fact, it gets quite a bit of attention. The goal is to do whatever one can to eliminate that, including finding the right key informants and avoiding leading questions, as well as questions that don't give the interviewee too much of an inkling about what your research topic is. More difficult in Tibetan-exile culture? Maybe, because of the exposure to the western ideal of Tibet. But not worth giving up on, I think. It just takes some seriously careful preparation, and critical thinking on site.

Nephi said...

...At least, those are MY best ideas. More experienced researchers would be able to better guide me in eliminating bias in my studies.