Controversy is Part of the Job, Leiden - 'The future is so bright I gotta wear shades'
23 October 2008 | 't Keizertje, Leiden | 34 attending


The WDO evenings organized in four different cities under the title "Controversy is part of the job" were meant to spark interest in the (theme of) the grand Lustrumsymposium. These events turned out to be gems in their own right. The one in Leiden certainly came up to the high expectations with as speakers our inspiring lecturers Sabine Luning, Marianne Maeckelbergh and Erik Bähre. Their view on the theme, personal stories and critical reflexivity gave an insight into the deeply complicated and awkward situations one can find oneself in while doing long-term research. Their openness and self-criticism inspired the students cramped in the small but cosy café attic to (re)consider their viewpoints on the ethics of research and being researcher.


Below you'll find a further report of the evening, previously published in the ICA, the CA/OS magazine published by student association Itiwana. We are very glad the ICA approved to republish it here.



‘The future is so bright I gotta wear shades.’


Impressions of a discussion evening about ethics and controversy in anthropology.


By Laurie IJzerman

‘Controversy is part of the job’ the discussion evening was called. ‘Teachers will tell you about their most sensitive and controversial experiences in the field!’ the announcement read. “This I have to hear more about”, I thought, so I went to ‘t Keizertje in Leiden where the discussion evening would take place. It would be a preparation for the symposium on which another piece has been written for this ICA.

The discussion dealt with the struggles anthropologists face regarding ethical dilemmas, decision making and moral standards in the field. Three teachers of the anthropology department of the Leiden University took part in the discussion; Mr. Erik Bähre, Mrs. Marianne Maeackelbergh and Mrs. Sabine Luning.


Each teacher, who at the same time is a researcher, has had certain experiences with ethical dilemmas and moral standards and told about these to the audience. Each one had a position, a hypothesis.

  • Erik’s hypothesis was: ‘Applied social sciences contribute to poverty and inequality’.
  • Marianne’s was: ‘Anthropological research should have as its primary aim to create knowledge that is useful for the research subjects’.
  • And Sabine’s was: ‘The more implicated the anthropologist becomes in intimate (kin) relations in the field, the more he or she may be identified as stranger’.


Erik Bähre did his fieldwork in the squatter camps of Cape Town, South Africa, in a development housing project. About his hypothesis he says: “We become too embedded in our research subjects, we work for example for an army, an NGO or a bank and become entangled in their ideological visions and wishes. Thereby we thus become consciously as well as unconsciously censored. Your work hardly ever gets published or critically read, the data is not checked and there is secretiveness on certain information.”

“Research”, he says, “makes power relations stronger. It confirms the idea that there is an utopia that we can reach. It says that at this moment the situation is bad but in the future it will be better.” But Erik doesn’t believe the odds on a better future are that high. It makes him think of an old song by Timbuk3 which is called ‘The future is so bright I gotta wear shades’. Erik shows his courage and bravery when we ask him in a ‘we-want-more’ fashion to sing the song; by doing so!


To return to his story: Within the housing project he quickly found out that a power group, a gang, controlled the project with the use of violence and even murder to respond to resistance. When he tried to do something with this problem, by trying to publish in a magazine that handled development projects and housing issues, he encountered a lot of resistance. The publisher stated he didn’t want to publish Erik’s story because it was “horrible to read about murder”. At conferences where he spoke about the issue, very few people were willing to listen, let alone take action. His conclusion was: “No one wants to take responsibility and wants to do anything about it, there is no interest in improvement or the changing of policy”.


During the discussion, Erik’s hypothesis got the critique that it was too negative and not real. “What’s wrong with utopia?” someone asked, “Don’t we need utopias to change things?!”.


Marianne Maeckelbergh began her story by stating that she is much more positive about the future. She doesn’t think she’ll be needing sunglasses, but she sees the future brighter than Erik. Her hypothesis is ‘Anthropological research should have as its primary aim to create knowledge that is useful for the research subjects’. She tells about the beginning of her career when she researched subjects who, as turned out later, had raped women. How do you handle that? How do you deal with the people after knowing such a thing? “You are dealing with people, this you can only do in a pragmatic way, not in an academic way.”


After this first experience, she made the decision she wanted to research subjects that she could stand behind and believe in, subjects with whom she could deal as people. She started doing research on an alterglobalization movement. Before starting with her research she was already involved in this movement. To be credible and able to gather information within the movement, she had to take on an active role. After some time she gathered enough knowledge to be able to take on a trainer function, of which there were various. Within this function she trained people in the movement certain skills and by doing so got much more ethnographic data than she would have gathered without having this function. Than she realized she had become the creator of her own research subject: “Controversy!” Because of her commitment to the subject, remaining objective became harder for her.


For Marianne it is important that she follows her own ethics in stead of those of the academy and that she’s able to give something back to her research subjects. After her story a lot of comments were given on the fact that she let the organization decide whether she used certain data or not. A lot of people in the audience wondered whether doing research in a scientific way was possible when being censored like this. Erik mentioned another type of censorship, namely self censorship, which is the idea that you like your subjects so much, that you’re so empathetic it clouds your vision. You start to identify with your research subjects so strongly that this makes you want to ignore certain things and more frequently see others. To put it simply: You view your research subjects as good and you view actors that are against them as bad. If the situation shows you otherwise, you will try not to see and observe it. Self censorship is a neglected type of censorship within anthropology. It would be a good thing to give more attention to this subject within this profession.


After a short break Sabine Luning starts telling her story which she introduces as: “Taking you a lóng way back to a village setting in Burkina Faso where I was adopted by a family.” She assures us this is nothing to be jealous about. Sabine’s giftedness for story telling made me completely forget that it was late and cold ánd that I was there to write this story for the ICA. Her story was too detailed and complex to be written down completely, so I will try to keep it short but clear. After having worked in a big development project where the lines of jeeps which transported her were too big to get her in the village, getting close to the people was hard and embarrassing, Sabine got back some years later to Burkina Faso hoping to get closer to – and more real with – the people.


After some time she was adopted into a family by a woman within this patrilineair society. The adoption made the situation intimate but distancing at the same time. “Was she now really a part of the family?” people were asking now much more frequently than before the adoption. “As anthropologists we want to be part of the society, we want to get close even though this can get us in difficult situations.” Within this patrilineair family the brother is a very important person. The women of the house (the brother’s wives) saw Sabine as the brother or ‘the man of the house’. In general, the man of the house gets, at one time, a girl who is called ‘the girl of house’. This girl does housework and later on marries into the family. As sister, Sabine was also supposed to get a girl of house. Although once in a while they spoke of it in a jokingly manner, she never seriously thought the family would give her a ‘girl of house’. But one day they did propose to give her one and Sabine didn’t say no, not knowing it would spin completely out of control. Sabine found herself part of a family, having to make mayor decisions about someone’s future; her ‘girl of house’. This girl was supposed to be married into her family and Sabine had to choose a suitable man for her. Sabine decided to choose a man for the girl and still feels responsible for her wellbeing. As said, this story is too long to properly explain, but summarized it goes as follows: The situation didn’t turn out well at all, the man treats Sabine’s ‘girl of house’ very badly, and Sabine still wonders whether she could and would have done differently.


After her story she advices the audience: “As an anthropologist you will be involved in your research family for such a long time that you need to keep in mind that your actions have consequences and will stay with you for a long time. When you are in the field, you don’t know the context well enough to make decisions about ethics. It will take a very very long time before you do see the context, if ever.” Marianne adds that by getting yourself into these messy situations you learn the most and get the best ethnographic data from within. "These situations are the best reflexive ones."


The main questions an anthropologist asks him or herself are about ethics: “How objective am I?”, “How much should I participate?”, “How deep can the connection I make with the researched people be?”, “How can I keep my research scientific?” This evening once more shows the different perspectives there are on these questions. Important to keep in mind is, that in situations like discussed, you have to act in a way that doesn’t harm your research subjects or yourself and that is thought through by your own ethical standards or those of the academy. Than I think the future not only can look bright, but can also teach us so much!