The Anthropologist as Healer

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Harner’s article, Concluding Discussion: The Anthropologist as Healer, is a telling narrative of the anthropologist’s relationship with the people that s/he is studying. Harner observes that for many contemporary anthropologists in the West (or for that matter, those with Western-oriented training), there is a seeming confusion with regards to one’s attitudes towards critical issues affecting the community.

For Harner, this confusion is rooted in the anthropologist’s cultural conditioning where “expertise and domains of competence are seriously defined and regulated by law and cultural expectations.” Anthropologists are not willing to intervene because the community’s problems do not fall within their “field of expertise.” Harner further suggests that this confusion can also be attributed to the tendency of contemporary anthropology to merely see the native communities as reservoirs of interesting research questions. He posits that

(M)uch of anthropology today is directed toward seeing native peoples as a resource for producing hypotheses, theories, counter-arguments, and even as conveniences for rococo literary embroideries with which to play the mind games of our profession. In other words, too often the native peoples are seen as a means to an end, whether that is the end defined as the advancement of human knowledge, or the less glorious end of personal advancement in the profession. Thus, with such priorities, the demands of native communities for medical treatment can become for the anthropologist “nuisances” and “interruptions” of the main purpose of the fieldworker’s sojourn among the people.

In the context of the contemporary anthropologists’ dilemma vis-à-vis their relationship to the community, Harner poses a host of critical questions: what is their obligation to the community? Or conversely, where does the anthropologist’s loyalty lie (to one’s anthropological association? Funding agencies? Local community?)? Harner insists that anthropologists are, first and foremost, persons and, as such, should be “prepared to be unprepared on behalf of whatever portion of that human community the anthropologists find themselves among.” He however warns that our involvement in these communities is also a test of our humanity.

Harner’s position is very relevant in the practice of fieldwork. The fieldworker is always caught in an ethical dilemma whenever s/he conducts research in the community. Anthropologists are predisposed to have an instrumental relationship with the community s/he is studying right from the start of any project. The greatest benefit—monetary, prestige, etc—almost always redounds to the anthropologist conducting the research and/or action projects while the locals remain saddled with the same structural problems time and again. Worse, some anthropologists may have been involved in biopiracy in the guise of academic pursuit (other ethnobotanical researches have been used by pharmaceutical companies, with or without the consent of the researchers much less the community). In other cases, communities undergo rapid cultural change (read: cultural erosion) because of the actions of anthropologists.

Anthropologists strive to understand humanity in all its dimensions—from the biological to the cultural. They problematize the human condition and seek answers to the many puzzles that our species possess. Lost, however, in this infinite anthropological curiosity is the critical reassessment of anthropology’s relationship with local communities. Anthropologists, like any other member of humanity, are embedded in webs of relationships defined by power, property, and prestige.

Harner is right that we need to learn from the shamans. He said that “what we can do…in the field is like healing shamans. That is, (we) act with our hearts here and now to help those who ask for relief of their suffering. (Our) ethics have been the ethics of the heart, and I am not sure there are any ethics of a higher order.” Before going to the field, anthropologists should thus check if their hearts are still in place. If not, the consequences to the local communities are grave.

Harner, M. (1996). Concluding Discussion: The Anthropologist as Healer Anthropological Quarterly, 69 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3317988

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