Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 9


I’ll try start with some positive comments.  

 There seems to be an underlying question in the readings this week about how to balance concerns like social justice for indigenous populations (Hollowell/Nicholas on intellectual property, land use) with an ideal of maintaining professional distance to keep credibility as a researcher (discussed in Hermes).  I enjoyed the Hermes piece because she voiced concerns that I could see myself having were I to ever study populations I share a background with (ex. Japanese people), and she engaged, rather than shut out, subjective feelings of empathy and connection (and sometimes, awkwardness) she would feel towards her research subjects.  I think it was that engagement that contrasted starkly (for me) with the relative detachment in Shaw’s “Achieving Virginity” article.  

   I don’t think of myself as an easily offendable person, but I do think that there are some situations where there are severe enough violations of basic human rights/dignity/bodily integrity that it is troubling when these angles are not even acknowledged.  It is important for researchers to look at situations where what would be considered rights violations occur, lest they become invisible or worse, caricatured.  In bioethics, there is extra attention paid to “vulnerable populations”; in a similar fashion, I think that cases that involve abuse, extreme violence, violations of bodily integrity, and enslavement should have extra attention paid to the layers of what is going on.  And in those cases, a researcher/writer who maintains too much clinical distance can be seen as being so unfeeling as to be off-putting.  Should someone be able to stand by and observe and merely record cases of child abuse, for example?  

   The acceptance of female virginity as a standard for anything suggests an acceptance of the problematic “because we can” ethos - because we CAN verify Factor X in this group, we will, even though we cannot do so in other groups.  In this case, the euphemism of “virginity” in females usually refers to checking for an intact hymen, for which there is no equivalent in males.  Even though this is an inaccurate way of ascertaining virginity in females, it is used in many cultures around the world (I believe this feature is unique to humans, BTW).  Essentially, it becomes like the tamper-evident seal on Tylenol(tm) bottles, and I take severe moral issue with this.  While Shaw seemed to try to discuss some of the “why” virginity was valued, the analysis seemed to stop before the deeper reasons - in pre-IVF societies, genetic paternity of a baby is not as certain as maternal connection, therefore, a female who is a virgin is “more valuable” because she is presumed to offer a money-back guarantee that the child she bears belongs to the man who first breaks the seal. Why else would virginity be “valued”, other than as a recursive way of enforcing social norms about the differences between women and men in sex (ex. men as aggressors, women as the ones who have to deny sex to prove virtue).

  The discussion of clitoridectomy felt weak as well.  I am going to get a bit graphic here, and it is because this practice is discussed in such a clinical way that it keeps it overly abstract.  By this, I mean that a clitoridectomy is not the analogue of a male circumcision; it is the equivalent of a partial penectomy.  I know of no cultures that practice this second activity (I know of one that splits the penis in half).  I say this to give it context - yes, it is certainly possible for women to enjoy sex with their clitoris cut off via penetration, just as it is possible for a man to enjoy sex with much of his penis cut off (losing the glans, which has the most nerve endings) via anal penetration and stimulation of the base.  But I believe that this claim minimizes a fundamental violation of human bodily integrity that is overwhelmingly one-sided - it is inflicted solely on women, and never/rarely on men.  And discussion of this practice in parallel to the male analogue inspires revulsion and extreme discomfort (sorry, guys) that usually shuts down such comparisons.  Would perspectives and discourse be different if this practice were done to men in the analogous way?  I’m pretty sure it would be, and part of that would be a rejection of a claim that Westerners have “too much somaticized and localized sexual response” to the glans (clitoral or penile) (Shaw, p. 9).  I think that Shaw kept so much distance that a lot of deeper discussion, such as the connections of the value and power system around virginity to more fundamental interests, was neglected.  

 On to the ethics training.  The ethics training annoyed me for both content and delivery.  There is a lack of care conveyed in the poor quality of the material - from poor grammar to outdated media formats; this contributes to the prevailing attitude that ethics training is a bother and is something to be endured, rather than something to be integrated fully into one’s professional development.  I was just at a meeting at NSF about ethics training, and this concern was reflected upon.  I am trouble that RPI and other institutions are probably paying for this service and material when some of it looks like it was written by a high school student who loves the term “sine qua non”.   The representation of 3 of 4 East Asian researchers as having thick accents also bothered me; I was strangely relieved when I finally saw one who spoke decent English.  I understand the interest in bringing in more women and minorities as actors (which they did well... almost too well), but the portrayal of Chinese and Japanese people as being the only ones with trouble speaking English rubbed me the wrong way.  They also defined “ethics” poorly.

  As a plus though, if I end up doing research on anything related to this, I’ll be welcomed if I offer to make such training go more smoothly or more interestingly.

P.S. I am a “bad seed” who seeks to just do unethical and immoral research, and I am offended that the ethics training just wrote me off.  Bad Seeds of the World, Unite!  ;)

P.P.S. I should mention that I am against all non-medically indicated physical mutilation of children, definitely including male circumcision.  There *is* a lot of hypocrisy surrounding acceptance of M.C. while opposing F.G.M., including in the bioethics community, and it always sticks in my craw.  I gravitate to the idea of agency paired with legal adulthood for this - if YOU want to chop off your dangly bits as an adult, feel free, but you don’t get to make that decision for a child.  (Yes, agency is probably the worst ethical principle... except all the others that can be applied)

In light of appropriate/challenging power structures:

http://www.newsweek.com/2009/04/22/raising-katie.html (Black family adopts a white girl, social confusion ensues)

David M.

Welcome to the camp of “this bothers/offends me”. I’ve been here for a while. And since I’m leaving, you’re getting the keys, it’s nice and cozy, nobody bothers you since everybody thinks there’s something wrong with you.

I understand and support the issues raised in our readings (I will not get into the Shaw article) however, I seem to see this blindness in most of the readings (I am excluding the Shaw article) where the ethnographer is the one seen as the “evil” the one doing “violence” upon those they come in contact with, but seem to be oblivious to the ideas that everybody involved is human. That is that a relationship between two humans on a level playing field(even if from my opinion, an ethnographer working FOR the people they’re interviewing is anything but a level playing field) will bound to get into a situation where one profits more than the other, especially when cultural differences, a sort of post-imperialist guilt, and even a genuine desire for doing good come into play. What I’m trying to say is that the indigenous groups go from supposed “wrong-doings” by the narrow-minded westerner, to being the cultural dominant, because everything is transferred to them, they have the power, especially in these kinds of works. And while most people will disagree with me (and I can see that I have a sort of ally in Taylor) I think that simply changing the roles of the power structure but keeping it in place is as harmful, if not more harmful than leaving it the way it was. Empowering the indigenous by saying “here, take advantage of my skills for your own gain” could be satisfying and could yield something interesting, but it does nothing to eliminate power imbalances, it just flips them around.

(as a side-note, I think that recursion is more palatable for me, now that I’ve seen in it real life http://9gag.com/gag/99196/ )

(just as a quick aside and response to Kirk, I wasn’t saying that reclamation of indigenous futures is wrong, I’m just saying that people around here are throwing around the same exact ideas of we need to better look at our work and understand it from all points of view, then why not look at it from the other point of view as well, not just from the Western guilt perspective. And please don’t tell me that doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that indigenous groups are going to rule the world (don’t assume) nor am I saying that African-Americans will now be the dominant group in the USA (thanks for the comparison), what I’m saying is exactly what Taylor was saying, but putting it in a different issue. Just because the western researcher is not the one with the power doesn’t mean that now power relations are OK. Fine, I have a narrow world-view because I’m trying to ask people to look closer at their own research and not take for granted their own worldviews. Also, how can we check our biases at the door? Or is it OK to have one kind of bias, but any other kind should be left at the door? Is uniformed criticism bad when it’s not against experts that we don’t like? Looking forward to being told I am a narrow-minded juvenile in class)


Well, I did have a carefully crafted response but my computer crashed and I hadn’t saved the notepad file that I was working in. So, you guys are going to get the short rehashed version. I apologize ahead of time if I seem dismissive or overly short.

I had similar response to the Shaw piece as Sabrina. I think it went the direction of ignoring biology/anatomy and was ethically suspect. I don’t think the revealing of the plasticity of biology (accomplished culturally) should detract from material/biological/anatomical agency in the situation. I think it is a pretty good example of how some anthropological approaches are great for breaking down some common and well-held assumptions but leaving one with no ground or basis (but an unproblematized cultural relativism with implicit bashing of western norms) with which to building anything up in its place.

In response to her comments on one-sidedness, I think male circumcision, though not equal in degree, is more pervasive and equally questionable. Though Sabrina makes a lot of great points about the piece (which I completely agree with), I worry that many controversial gender issues get framed in an antagonistic us vs. them or the world for group A is peachy and wonderful but it is unbearably oppressive for group B. I think gender issues should be approached more symmetrically (such as by noting male circumcision), of course noting power differentials and so on. For instance, I think the pushing for more women in the workplace, though admirable from a equality standpoint, often ignores the fact that men are not encouraged and were historically stigmatized for staying home. The assertion that women are not cut out for the work place is equally problematic as the assertion that men can’t be as nurturing, though they cannot lactate or give birth (sympathetic hormonal responses aside, where would the baby gestate...in a box?). A more symmetric approach I think is biased more towards an equality of respect and choice rather than race towards an, unproblematized, male norm (as in, plenty of work about “purity model” of female virginity but not much on the stigmatization of male virginity, etc.).

Getting back onto topic about ethics, fragile populations, et cetera, I get the point of these papers: being careful about such populations and the discussion of whether and how much agency should the population have in the conduct of research and what is done with the results (pointing one towards a more participatory model). I admired Hermes’ openness about her personal feelings with the population she worked with, though “going back” has the inherent risk of romanticism. I think one should recognize the attachment (rather than detachment) approach towards the population under study is innocuous or beneficial when it implies an advocation of social justice but could be problematic in some circumstances, especially when it causes one to see the situation through a narrowed rather than widened perspective of which is inclusive of the population’s but not constrained by it, just another one of those ethical precipices awaiting the social scientist upon entering the field.  


I think doing research on vulnerable groups is so difficult esp when they have been socially or politically abandoned and have less importance to be studied! for example , doing ethnography of prisoners who have raped young girls! or even in my case climate change skeptics! there is not so much money to study a group like skeptics, why should a funding source fund studying this group of deniers? don you think funding to study these groups may highlight the ideas of these skeptics and therefore, studying them may have harmful impact on the scientific consensus of climate change ? is it better to make these groups unstudied to show they have less importance to be studied? This is one of my main concerns of studying climate change skepticism. but what if i don limit my study to scientists who r climate change skeptics and indeed i extend the case to indigenous people who also don believe climate change, are they still vulnerable groups? who defines which group is vulnerable.

David B.

First off, Sabrina- if you’re offended by the CITI ethics training, just WAIT until you get the pleasure of sitting through the RPI grad student orientation. Just remember- even if everyone thinks its funny, it can still be considered harassment. Also, women are repeatedly portrayed as sexual predators or jerks. (Hah, I did sit through it.  It’s a wonder that I’m still here - SW)

Anyway- the readings. I suppose I do want to salvage some of the good points that Shaw brings up. I do agree with what Sabrina and Taylor have said, in regards to the dangerous levels of cultural relativity that distort a somewhat straightforward biological fact: the clitoris is a sensitive part of a woman’s body and its removal can result in chronic pain and can be generally physically harmful due to post-op infections and the like.

On the other hand, I feel that it is important to note that Shaw is attempting to construct a rhetorical space where one can talk about the self’s relationship to the body and access to various forms of sexual pleasure and states of purity. The way one conceives of arousal and bodily stimulation are radically different here. When it comes to bioethical gender issues, I have a friend that I usually defer to. (She is now about to pursue a nursing degree so that she can open a free clinic in the 9th ward of New Orleans.) I liked her interpretation, which I’ll directly quote, since we spoke over IM:

I dunno, as a radical feminist, I have a problem with a lot of FGM related discussions. we're like yeah, circumcision, TOTALLY FINE, but FGM is disgusting and wrong. dying of getting your clit cut off with a piece of broken glass is wrong. forcing someone to be genitally mutilated is, arguably, wrong. but.. as a practice, in and of itself [one must ask themselves] what is sexual pleasure? How do we know it and deal with it? If someone feels disgusting and perverted with a clit, who are we to say they have to have one?  That it's "not optional"? were you disgustingly mutilated as a child in accordance with a backward quasi religious practice? I am bothered by circumcision as a "genital surgery" for men and clitoredectomy as "genital mutilation" that women must be rescued from


Standing on her shoulders then, I draw one major conclusion. That is, we augment our bodies to suit the definitions society has for sexual pleasure. It is important to separate the physical danger of the procedure and the coercive social milieu in which it is practiced, from the concept that sexual pleasure is constructed radically differently in some cultures. Essentially, from where I stand, male circumcision is a “surgery” but female circumcision is a “mutilation.” This does not ignore or discount the very real medical problems that make this practice dangerous nor does it give a pass to the coercive social relationships that make that practice possible. Rather, I think it is one analytical layer that we must use in order to calibrate our own actions.

I’d like to complicate the issue further, by raising the subject of cosmetic labialplasty (even pediatric labialplasty). It has increased in popularity amount the well-to-do in America, and while it certainly doesn’t contain the same heath risks or occur under similar explicit coercion, it does speak to cultural norms of sex. Assuring that one has a vagina that will adhere to some platonic ideal type, certainly occurs in a much different physio-biological context, but what is happening socially (I would argue) is similar to circumcision. These procedures are carried out with an explicit conceptualization of what the ideal sexual union looks like and what is required to achieve it. I will end this by saying that I’m opposed to this practice just as much as I’m opposed to my own circumcision, which is to say, very much.


OK, since not much has been said about the other articles in this cluster – I’ll lay out some meaningful comments. With the work I have been doing in the last month or two getting reading for the summer trip out to the Navajo, I have also had to contend with this issue of indigenous self-determination. I think it’s important to make the distinctions between enabling systems of cultural preservation while at the same time not disenfranchising pathways to ‘indigenous futures’ as Ginsberg and Meyers state. One of the more interesting points I found was the following:

“There is an irony in that these protests drew on long-standing indigenous performative idioms for asserting claims to traditional ownership (or sovereignty), and while these were effective in gaining the sympathy of white Australians, the reliance on ‘traditional culture’ as a basis for legitimate claims had (excuse the pun) a boomerang effect. Many indigenous people cannot satisfactorily demonstrate what was called ‘traditional attachment to the land’ and thus were doubly dispossessed by their apparent ‘lack of Aboriginal culture’.”

Just a quick statistic – of the 300,000 or so Navajo in the 2000 census, only half still live on the reservation, while the rest live in nearby towns and cities (Flagstaff, Albuquerque, etc). I would not be surprised to discover this other half live in a less traditionally-identifying way similar to those described by Ginsberg and Meyers – not associated with a native past by land claims but by their cultural heritage which is far more difficult to ascertain and evidence.

So allowing for reflexive anthropological study of indigenous culture requires the non-static view also mentioned by Hollowell and Nicholas. In an interesting twist of contemporary/traditional hybridity, Intellectual Property rights (a western conception) are used to reify native claims to sites, practices, and knowledge such that they become encoded and useful in multi-cultural transference. Community based participatory research is an interesting component of their project as well – incorporating varieties of expertise to construct new notions of indigenous future, but locally driven by the ‘needs based’ approach appropriate to cultural sensitivities – thus taking cultural heritage preservation away form ‘resource protection’.


As for Morar’s idea that community based participatory research and reclamation of indigenous futures by retaining native control of these identities, I think it’s important to reiterate,

“The importance of this cannot be underestimated: as Ros Langford (1983: 4) famously stated, ‘if we Aborigines can’t control our own heritage, what the hell can we control?’ Such feelings carry over to concerns about the appropriation and commodification of many facets of cultural identity, past and present.”

David, what you’re saying is not unlike what some misguided American citizens felt post Obama election – that the result would be “blacks would take over” the country… http://crooksandliars. com/david-neiwert/mccainpalin-supporters-let-their-rac

I think it is important, as researchers, that we do our best to check out biases and uninformed skeptical criticisms at the door and think about how our work can not only benefit what we intend to do in life - i.e. intellectual exploration? save the world? get a job? etc? - but also how we can take that point of privilege we have been afforded by the very nature of being paid by a high-end university to do so, and make it useful to someone else besides ourselves by recognizing that there are other points of ‘privilege’ to be acknowledged besides our own


        So, I think we’re all trying to talk a little bit about how we go about doing research in indigenous populations, that is, populations where we have to take a particular care because they might be easier to exploit than other populations. However, the big elephant in the room is that we’re all privileged researchers with all this weight we’re moving around and we have to take particular care in the way that we interact with these groups so that we can be more than useful to our own research interested and trajectories. We’ve done it so badly in the past that we have to take particular care in the future in order to avoid making the same mistakes or enabling the exploitation of vulnerable populations.

        That being said, I think I really resonate with Ginsberg as far as looking at the effect of our research as merely a descriptor of an existing culture that functions to constrain cultures into fitting a traditionalist category about what they need to look like. I feel its akin to everyone’s obsession with finding that one, perfect, unspoiled tribe so that we can look at them and see them as just observable subjects rather than talk about how their culture changes over time or interacts with modern cultures (Coke Bottles falling from the sky a la “The Gods Must Be Crazy”).

        More over, the goal of good research as alluded to in Hermes is the idea that research needs to serve the people that it is being done with (not on) and that this go between process is one that must be very carefully watched if we’re going to produce more than the same old tired descriptions seen in Ginsburg. We’re not of the worlds we study and even when we ‘are’ that is modified by our participation in the science community and outside communities. We have to coordinate our methods and goals with an awareness of the community and what our research could provide from them. For RPI, let’s do it big and say that if we’re going to produce research in Troy, we have to do something that helps Troy out and fits within that local frame rather than building the wall so that we can claim we’re separate from them.

        Eglash takes that idea and really runs with it pointing out that it is not enough to look for more subjects that we can explain through existing models, but to show how those cultural practices of science shed light on our own understanding of math and the theoretical practice that underscores them.

        Which of course, like an eleven on waterworks, we bring the little thimble home to Boardwalk- With a Hotel. What is Shaw trying to accomplish within the frame of the other articles and the context of working with indigenous people. While she does seem somewhat detached from the very visceral concerns around FGM and our discussion about MC, I think what Shaw does well, is try to open up the idea that we can produce knowledge that is important to the people we are working with while addressing some of those concerns that we have (also while locating some of those assumptions about the function of society within a borrowed european/western worldview). What is most interesting is that Shaw presents a place where the function of the idea is different than how we would construct it and may provide some insight on how we can work with a population to give it understanding of itself while opening a door to talk about how the culture will produce itself going forward and not from a traditionalist stance. It is hard, I think, to give Shaw all of that because she doesn’t do as well of a job of locating herself and her concerns within the frame of the paper and we’re left with the clinical, unpresent researcher as a strawman to tear into.