Anthropology, Archaeology, the British Curriculum and Sunny San Francisco

AAA 2012 – Our Visual Ethics Roundtable

I’ve arrived in San Francisco for what is my favourite scholarly event of each year, the American Anthropological Association annual conference.  This conference is certainly the most major of any that I typically attend, as it hosts upwards of 6,000 people – 6,000 anthropologists no less! – all populating the corridors and meeting rooms of the local Hilton or other such hotel (usually two hotels given the number of attendees).  It is also the place where I’ve listened to some of the best papers I’ve ever heard delivered at a scholarly gathering.  Last year, I sat in on a talk by Kathryn Denning who interrogated Gunther von Hagens’s new Animals Inside Out exhibition (which I saw in London a few months ago at the Natural History Museum), and his entrepreneurial foray into selling human and non-human animal body parts on the internet.  The year before I heard Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh give a completely spell-binding and, at once, disturbing account of the questionable development and curation of the 9-11 Memorial Museum.  Before that I attended a keynote speech by Alison Wylie on the epistemic productivity of collaboration — her talk fundamentally impacted the trajectory of my PhD, and provided critical testimony to why archaeologists (and other specialists) should be prioritising collaborative research.

These papers are ones that I have incorporated directly into my teaching, and which have stimulated some of the greatest debates that I’ve had with students and colleagues.  They are a witness to the power of anthropology as a discipline, I think, because they suggest the potential of anthropological theory and method to question common behaviours, expose slippery practices, rethink our intellectual agendas, and reshape the world around us—both in the past and in the present.  With that in mind, one of the great shames of the British educational system would appear, from my perspective, to be the divorcing of anthropology from archaeology in most university curricula.  I’m fortunate enough to work on a programme at York whose focus – cultural heritage – demands a broad-based interdisciplinary scholarship attending to the very research that animates anthropology: human culture.  However, not everyone is so lucky.

It seems a disservice to British students and budding archaeological practitioners that their exposure to anthropology is typically collapsed into a couple of theoretical lectures and a few assorted citations on course reading lists.  Having said this, I’m simultaneously struck by the creative practice that underlies a lot of the work being produced by British academic archaeologists.  There is a culture of experimentation, critique and openness to redesign that seems quite distinctive to the UK system.  Whilst there is also a sense of hostility towards such culture (cue previous posts about the ‘real archaeologist’), British archaeology has an element of the anthropological spirit that is otherwise often missing from the syllabus.  Various factors obviously work to facilitate this culture—institutionalised events like the Theoretical Archaeology Group meetings; the terrain of Britain itself and its concentration of departments of archaeology (which allow many people to meet up and toss ideas about more quickly and easily than in larger countries)—factors which hark back to Wylie’s point about the epistemic promise of dialogue/exchange.  Arguably the siloed nature of academic archaeology has also frustrated people to the extent that they’ve purposefully pushed on the boundaries of the discipline.  There seems to be a lot of potential and infrastructure here, then, to elaborate the nature of our practice by more explicitly and purposively drawing anthropology into our university programmes.

At the AAAs this week, I’ll be taking over the reigns of the position of Treasurer for the Society of Visual Anthropology (hence I have to attend a lot of business meetings), and I’ll also be chairing our 6th Visual Ethics roundtable.  I’ve posted the details of the roundtable below, and it’s worth noting that archaeologists (British and North American!) are typically highly underrepresented at these events.  There’s no reason why this should be the case, and I’d like to change the demographic in the future, especially to help to break down cultural anthropologists’ own misguided assumptions that archaeologists don’t confront ethical issues that demand interrogation.

Given that this is also our 6th year, it would be worthwhile to start experimenting with the format of the roundtable in the future, and so I’m keen for suggestions on opening up and changing its nature.  I say this now because the minute that we finish the session on Friday afternoon, Jonathan and I will begin to plan next year’s event.  We’re already looking for contributors – the CFP will be circulated in the new year and the conference is, very excitingly, set in Chicago! – so please get in touch if you might be willing to participate.


Friday, November 16, 2012: 4:00PM-5.45PM

Hilton San Francisco – Continental 5

This roundtable discussion, organized on behalf of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s (SVA) Ethics Committee, seeks to continue the SVA’s now six-year-old tradition of nurturing debate and critical reflection on the ethics of anthropological imaging. Building on this year’s conference theme of “Borders and Crossings,” we probe anthropologists’ ethical negotiations with image creation, circulation, and consumption within and across disciplinary boundaries. Of particular interest is the iterative and unstable nature of image use—the navigation of visual value systems and moralities across time, space, cultural and institutional context, particularly when circumscribed by programmatic ethical review models. How have histories of anthropological, scientific, and related social-scientific practice impacted on our contemporary management of imagery? Where is representational authority situated in unstable, multiply-occupied/authored anthropological contexts? How are shifting visual technologies and intellectual paradigms disrupting or rearranging our ethical priorities? How do we anticipate and negotiate future relations with pictorial materials? What legacies are our current approaches to image ethics likely to leave behind?

Launching the roundtable, Esperanza attends to the implications of mass-produced ethnic artworks, using a case study of a Balinese community that has profited from the production and sale of African masks, Native American totem poles and Australian dijeridu, to name a few. She highlights changing ethical debates surrounding mass-produced ethnic art and the dilemmas involved in conducting fieldwork on this business, which often calls upon the ethnographer to translate, acquire sources and provide feedback for artisans/handicrafts producers who seek to learn “new” designs and aesthetics.

Johnson next problematizes her use of photographs and video in traditional knowledge research, primarily with Canadian First Nations. Her concerns are two-fold: (1) the difficulty of imagining and securing consent for photography and its potential future uses; & (2) power relationships: Who holds and can deploy the imagery? How can sharing this power be maintained over long periods? Where or how should images be archived? What about implicit contracts with the original subjects of the image, who may be deceased? Zane then contemplates the place of fiction filmmaking in anthropology via reference to his fieldwork on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Here, outsiders taking photographs of locals is placed in the same category as slavery; i.e., taking value without giving equivalent value in return.

Turning away from visual documentation of human subjects, Zane discusses his experiences in adopting fiction filmmaking to negotiate power imbalances between indigenous people and Western

Finally, referring to videographic work in Ruginoasa, Eastern Romania, Rus reflects on ethical conflicts related to the documentation of intangible heritage in rural community life, particularly the filming of violent ritual. Rus questions the role of the anthropologist who records events which result in severe injuries, hospitalization and even traumatic cranial fractures, probing his obligations both to the community itself and to the police.

Taken together, the intent of this roundtable is to give practitioners an opportunity to discuss the ethical implications of in-progress or recently-completed visual research, and to draw upon the collective input of roundtable attendees to plan for or rethink our visual responsibilities.


Sara E Perry (University of York) and Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas)


Sara E Perry (University of York)


Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas) and Sara E Perry (University of York)

Roundtable Presenters:

Jennifer S Esperanza (Beloit College), Leslie Main Johnson (Athabasca University), Wallace W Zane (California State University and Santa

Monica College) and Alin Rus (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Hopefully see you at the AAAs this week!