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The Problem of Anthropologists as Advocates

Lorenz at has picked up on a story from The Australian about the reluctance of the National Native Title Tribunal to accept the testimony of anthropologists it deems to have close relationships with aboriginal groups. Quoting the article:

Mr Neate [Tribunal President] said anthropologists and historians had a pivotal role in native title claims, but the pool of experts was small and of “variable quality”.

And because anthropologists frequently had long-term relationships with particular groups of Aborigines, he said, their ability to give objective evidence was sometimes open to attack.

The article continues:

A [recent] report [about anthropologists as expert witnesses] found there was “a certain form of entrenched amateurism” among anthropologists outside universities. It also found that “some expert witnesses have been held to be manifestly advocates for the claimants”.

According to the article, this debate has legs currently because of disagreements between academics over the history of an aboriginal group. From the point of view of the tribunal, the answer is simply to put less weight on academic testimony.

This is an issue, of course, in lots of places outside of Australia. British Columbia has had its share of debates over the expert testimony of anthropologists and historians in land title cases. As best I can tell, the situation here is not necessarily to put less weight on the academic testimony; rather, it is to pit academics (and their testimony) against each other and label some academics as government advocates and others as native advocates.

We discuss the problems and ethics of acting as advocates in our graduate school classes and the discussions become all the more real when faced with actual court time in a land claims case. It seems unreasonable to expect anthropologists not to feel empathy for the people they work with and, often, have lived with … but does that eliminate the possibility of objectivity? What about academics with long-term associations with the government? I suspect that the courts are not likely to reduce the value or credibility of their testimonies. Are we simply back to the problem of the power-relations inherent in land and title cases that rely on ‘settler’ courts?

What’s the answer here?

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  1. Jamie wrote:

    I think the answer, or at least a part of it, involves addressing the thinking that is making the “bias” of anthropologists a problem in the first place. At the heart of this debate is an “Us vs. Them” mentality that sees advocacy on the part of anthropologists as giving First Nations groups unfair or unwarranted support. It is almost like the anthropologost as advocate has become a turncoat, betraying his or her scientific objectivity in favour of advocating for aboriginal groups – as though advocacy and anthropological/scientific integrity are mutually exclusive. Perhaps it was anthropological or scientific research that led the anthropologist to feel that advocacy was necessary in the first place! The very nature of this debate centers on the idea that the interests of First Nations groups are in direct competition with those of the Government and anthropologists who take sides with First Nations groups are, in effect, positioning themselves “against” the government and the scientific community which is expected to serve its interests.

    Until the land use/treaty process is viewed as a collaborative effort (with the best interests of all parties in mind) rather than a legal “battle” that pits all of the groups against each other, this issue of the objectivity and appropriateness of anthropological testimony will be in question. In a process where the government and resource extraction firms see First Nations concerns and claims as valid and wish the best settlement possible for First Nations groups, anthropologists would not be seen as a threat, but would be recognized as a useful resource at the disposal of all parties interested in settling these claims.

    Monday, December 12, 2005 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Interesting thoughts, Jamie. Thanks for those. I think you are right to key in on the adversarial nature of land title and resource claims cases. To what extent, I wonder, do the debates between anthropologists add to the problems? These debates are not going away, surely, but perhaps the subjective nature of anthropology — and that this nature is ok — is unclear among the public.

    Monday, December 12, 2005 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Jamie wrote:

    I agree. Perhaps part of the confusion among the public (courts included) has something to do with confusion within the discipline. How can we expect the general public to understand what anthropology is and how it balances the scientific with the subjective when profs in undergrad theory classes can’t event get it into the minds of students. Are we a science or not? It’s an old debate, but maybe the jury is still out.

    It’s like we are having an identity crisis. The processual archaeologists and physical anthropologists (who get lots of press) really show the “scientific” part of the discipline to the public while at the same time there is a large group cultural anthropologists working from interpretivist and constructivist positions or from an advocacy perspective. This makes it pretty tough for people to figure out what anthropology is really all about.

    Maybe the courts have a certain picture in their minds of what the discipline “should be” based on a general bias that many people have these days toward quantitative and “objective” research.

    Monday, December 12, 2005 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

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    Advocacy in Anthropology

    Related to yesterday’s discussion on the shortcoming of anthropology, FieldNotes sheds some light on an post about the role of advocacy in anthropology.
    The issue was originally brought up by the legal affairs editor of The Australian…