Theme Symposium 2008

Anthropology and controversy: rethinking the position of the anthropologist through contested research



In the past decades anthropologists have opened new fields of enquiry such as the impact of flows of capital, corporate business, international politics, environmental degradation, and local counter movements. At the same time anthropologists seem to have lost the position of spokesperson for the marginalised and research focuses increasingly on multiple parties. Considering the increasing global interconnectedness, anthropologists explore the relations among different actors; relations that are often characterised by power inequalities, dependency or even conflict. In doing so, anthropologists seem to engage more and more in controversial matters. By taking "controversy" and "contestation" as central themes during this symposium, we try to deal with both the anthropology of conflicted and violent topics and with the issue of work contested by one or several of the parties involved.


Whilst dealing with controversial topics anthropologists should be aware of the possibility that they might affect, or even harm, various parties involved in the research (for example local communities, (inter-)national political or business institutions, the academic community, NGO's, etc.). Recent hot debates were, for example, the uncovering of how the different groups involved relate to environmental destruction (Tsing, 2005), criticising international aid practices from within (Mosse, 2005) and doing anthropological research embedded in a national army. While studying controversial topics, anthropologists find themselves in a difficult position in which they constantly need to rethink their position as a researcher, and the methods and ethics they utilise. How to take position when there are multiple parties involved that one does, or does not, want to advocate? How to take a moral stand when the boundaries between seemingly conflicting groups or their practices overlap? And how does one deal with groups that question or openly criticise one's views and work, or aim to hinder it? In short, what kind of issues or guidelines might we employ in approaching and representing controversial issues?


During this two-day symposium, the WDO will draw attention to the researches of several internationally well-known scholars. Their empirical studies will serve as a point of departure through which to explore the questions connected to the theme. What are the challenges these anthropologists faced due to the controversial nature of their research? What are their coping strategies and how do they reflect on the methodological, ethical and personal dimensions of doing research? These are central issues for all researchers in social sciences, being anthropologists or not, who often encounter some degree of contestation or controversy while doing research.


The keynote speakers we have invited will discuss their views with both a referent and the audience. In a plenary discussion at the end of the symposium, we hope to bring about a reconsideration of the way anthropologists situate themselves in society and how they use an ethical framework for positioning themselves in their research.


Symposium booklet (PDF)