When reading through the results of ethnographic field work, it is not uncommon for one to find an account of an ethnographer who’s understanding of cultural relativism is challenged by the structural violence they experience in their field sites. For example, in Claire Sterk’s, “Tricking & Tripping: Field Work on Prostitution in the Era of AIDS,” Sterk describes how she felt immense guilt whenever she left her field sites because of the conditions her subjects faced in their day to day life. In addition to this feeling of guilt, Sterk often fought the urge to outwardly assist some of her most troubled research subjects.
As a young man of color pursuing a major in Anthropology, I often find myself questioning the righteousness of ethnographic field work. Despite the code of objectivity that Anthropologists hold themselves to, I often reflect upon how the presence of an Anthropologist has the potential to exacerbate our societal problems. This is especially relevant when western white Anthropologists go to some of the most disadvantaged places on earth to conduct research. To be in the face of a privileged stranger must be overwhelming for some people and one cannot ignore the fact that ethnographic field work has potential to benefit the ethnographer more than anyone else. I often question whether I would be able to battle my understanding of cultural relativism if I am ever in a similar position to Sterk, especially if I share similar identity components with my subjects.
Jaime Alves’, “A Call From Colombia” speaks about the conflict black anthropologists face when conducting field work on black research subjects. Alves voices the collective frustration by asking: “How does the African Diaspora look like beyond our theorizing on black suffering?” and “Where is the place of fieldnotes, recorded interviews, hanging out and so on, in the face of such brutalities?” Alves’ writings were eye opening for me because I began to understand that the colonizing process is very much alive in anthropology in regards to the extraction of cultural information that is ultimately used to benefit the anthropologist’s culture. Although the duty of the anthropologist is to be a participant observer in all studies, I think it is appropriate to focus on the “participant” part of the duty in some situations. This means that in some situations, it is appropriate to intervene.
Acknowledging the effect environment has on experience and culture, Alves suggests that some field sites cannot simply be regarded as “sites of fieldwork.” Instead, it should be acknowledged that people persevere through struggle at many of these sites. “In such contexts, the best black anthropologists can do is to turn off the recorder, save the notebook and theoretical speculations for later, and join the struggles of black people for true liberation.” “A Call From Colombia” helped me realize that anthropology is dictated by a malleable culture itself that changes and readjusts as time progresses.