The tale of the good migrant

Habib is a hard-working father of three who left Syria with his family in 2013 in order to apply for asylum in Germany, where some of his family members have lived for decades. Habib speaks English and immediately signed up for German courses at the local community centre in Karlsruhe. He is a trained electrician, which happens to be a highly in-demand skill in Germany, so it was not difficult for him to find work. Habib is Muslim, but not overly religious. He does not think that Sharia law should apply in Europe, nor does he expect his wife or his daughter to cover their hair when leaving the house. He fasts during Ramadan, but that’s about it. Habib’s children are going to primary school. One of their older cousin’s who was born in Germany helps them with language and homework. Their mother, Fatma hopes to learn German quickly, so that she can start working as a nurse again, which was her profession in Syria.

Habib is a good refugee. He should be given asylum. Right?

The narrative of the good migrant or good refugee has emerged as a genre in its own right – NGOs working with refugees and migrants have “success stories” plastered all over their websites, while the UNHCR tells us “refugee stories” combining text, photos and videos into accounts of suffering, resilience, survival and, quite simply, a deeply shared sense of our common humanity. These stories fulfill an important purpose: they aim to make readers feel empathy. In an age of growing desensitization to human suffering, where we increasingly think of refugees and migrants “in bulk” rather than as individuals, these stories are important and necessary.

However, they also have potentially nefarious consequences.

A rather disturbing example of the “good migrant” genre is Deutsche Welle’s Documentary “Black Skin, German Passport”

It goes to painstaking lengths to portray the life stories of German nationals who at some point in their lives immigrated to Germany from different African countries. The protagonists seem to have been selected exclusively based on their “black” skin colour, since they do not have anything in common beyond that. The underlying message being conveyed is that these “black Germans” are exceedingly good at being German, to the point where their stories sometimes seem like satire: a young man who came to Germany from Cameroon when he was a baby is training to become a police man, a woman who migrated to Germany from Ghana after she married a German has specialized in the art of cake baking, while a man in his 50s who left Angola in his early 20s to go to university in the GDR and was unable to return after war broke out in his country of origin is now the proud new owner of a “Schrebergarten” somewhere around Dresden. The documentary depicts him listening patiently as representatives of the owners’ association recite dozens of rules about what he is allowed to plant exactly where on his tiny plot of land. I personally would have struggled not to hit those small-scale bureaucrats on the heads with their folders, but then again, I do not have to prove that I am a good German because I am already white…

This precisely is the problem. While different in tone and quality, all these narratives have one thing in common. They produce a one-dimensional representation of migrants or refugees as inherently good or flawless individuals, who are willing and able to seamlessly integrate into Western society by adopting European values. This, precisely, is where these stories can be detrimental. Although they aim to produce positive stereotypes, they are still producing stereotypes. These stereotypical representations are inherently simpler and less nuanced than the underlying reality. They pander to those on the European right who think of “integration” as a process of completely abandoning one’s original culture in order to fit in with a new one. They are based on an understanding of culture as static, set in stone. They aim to reassure those who believe that the arrival of large numbers of individuals from outside Europe will change European culture by implying that this is not the case. That is a wrong and dangerous idea that, in the long run, will create more problems that it solves.

These stories anchor a false narrative in people’s minds, namely that migrants or refugees should be welcomed because they are good, and that what counts as good is defined according to European values.

People leave their countries for different reasons. War, natural disaster or famine are extreme situations pushing millions to leave everything behind. They are deeply traumatic experiences for any human being, that might leave a lasting impact on their psyche and affect their personal relationships for years to come. However, these experiences do not in and of themselves drastically reduce the complexity of human interactions or societies. Before the war, Syria had doctors, nurses, laborers, unemployed youth, secular individuals, religious fanatics, Christians, criminals, old people, children, mentally ill people, rapists, gays, lesbians, progressives, conservatives… whatever groups you like to think of as making up a complex society, Syria had them. Syrian refugees are representative of Syrian society in all its complexity. They differ from anyone else only in that they are victims of a conflict that has killed thousands and left formerly beautiful cities in rubble. They qualify for asylum in third countries, including European countries, because they have been displaced by armed conflict.

Being a good person is not a requirement for asylum, nor is adherence to certain values that we think of as appropriate.

The situation is of course different for migrants. Indeed, some argue that migrants have no inherent or inalienable right to remain in their host country and that their permission to stay could be withdrawn at any point, namely because they are seen as “not integrated enough”. I do not agree with this idea to start with, however, it becomes truly insidious when one considers that second generation immigrants who are born in the host country, as well as naturalized citizens (see Deutsche Welle) are still seen as having to constantly prove their level of integration. The title of Deutsche Welle provides a strong clue in this regard: “Black skin” is seen as the defining feature of these individuals, a feature that no amount of social integration will ever erase, a feature that makes them have to prove their German-ness over and over again.

Migrants and refugees are not all good or all bad. They are full-fledged human beings, who have exactly the same level of complexity as everyone else. Everywhere in the world, some people are great, some people are assholes. But all of them are people and they have rights just by virtue of being people.

Time has always changed societies and cultures. My worldview has been shaped by that of my parents but it is not identical to it. Every new generation radically changes a country. It is therefore only logical to expect that individuals who arrive in a country not through birth but through migration have exactly the same effect. The sooner we accept this reality, the better.

Both asylum and a life in dignity are rights. They are not privileges one earns for good behaviour.

 

Men on a Plane – Development Sector Edition

I recently watched Paula Stone William’s Ted talk, which I can warmly recommend:

In it, Paula describes how her life has changed since she transitioned from male to female. She starts with an anecdote about a man refusing to let her sit in her assigned seat on a plane.

This anecdote struck a nerve with me, and probably with any other woman who frequently travels for work. Day after day we experience countless small humiliations. We intuitively know that a man would not have these experiences, but we don’t fully understand why.

I recently returned from a short work trip to a country where frankly not many people would go for tourism. Most international travelers go there on mission for their national government, a UN agency, development NGOs or humanitarian organizations. I was travelling as a consultant for one of these organizations.

The flight back, one of the rare connections with the possibility of an onwards flight to Geneva, turned out to be a genuine ‘Who is Who’ of the Swiss development sector: SECO, the SDC, and many major Swiss development NGOs were represented on the medium sized plane. You might wonder how I know this…

There is a reason I choose the aisle seat when I travel for work. I like to get up regularly without bothering anyone. This was a very early morning flight so my hope was that I would spend most of it asleep. Apparently my fellow travellers had other plans. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Swiss national in his 40s (let’s call him ‘Jacques’), had a friend or colleague on the same flight, whose seat was a few rows behind. Given that he was “stuck” in the middle seat, his friend, also a Swiss national but probably in his late 30s (let’s call him ‘Bernard’), eventually decided to stand in the aisle, just next to my seat, for a lengthy chat.

Bernard also seized this opportunity to introduce Jacques to another guy (let’s call him ‘Thomas’), who was sitting directly in front of me and promptly stood up as well, turning around. Thomas was German, in his late 40s. The three men formed a rather close triangle around me and started talking about work. It turns out Jacques was from SECO, Bernard from the SDC and Thomas was country director for a major Swiss NGO.

Bernard, Jacques and Thomas had me surrounded. They talked loudly, directly over my head. It was blatantly obvious that I was trying to sleep – while I was initially listening to their conversation with my eyes closed, I eventually opened my eyes, making it o-b-v-i-o-u-s that they had just woken me up. They never even flinched. They exchanged contacts, tips about where best to go hiking in some of the countries they had been, discussed people they might know in common. They even tried to draw another guy into the conversation “So, do you also work in the development sector?”

As Bernard was travelling back home with his family, his kid eventually joined the conversation, contributing to it mainly by repeatedly pushing my chair and bumping into my leg.

At no point in their conversation did it occur to these gentlemen that I was trying to sleep, that they were invading my space and being extremely inconsiderate to another human being. What was even more obvious: at no point did it occur to them that they could have tried their networking catchphrase (“So, do you also work in the development sector?”) on me and that, unlike the guy sitting next to them, I would actually have been able to answer it.

For twenty minutes, these three men were talking over my head, completely oblivious to my existence. They had created a circle of equals that was literally and figuratively placed above the head of a young woman. Men networking with men. Guys exchanging notes on guy stuff to do in remote regions of the planet (outdoors activities and extreme sports, obviously, it is always about sports). Since they never bothered to question their assumption that I was probably just a student or some kind of volunteer travelling back home, they remained unaware of the fact that I am currently studying the communication practices of the Swiss development sector and that I was furiously taking mental notes. Anthropologists call it direct observation – it is what you do when you are not a participant-observer. That is usually difficult because most human beings acknowledge the existence of another person that is situated in their immediate physical environment… I realized I had inadvertently made a methodological breakthrough: Being a young woman  provides you with an invisibility cloak – who would have known?

Initially, I was angry at myself for remaining silent. Yet, in the face of such an obvious lack of consideration from people whose path I might cross in a professional context one day, I simply did not know what to say. “I am trying to sleep” seemed such a stupidly obvious thing to say to people who supposedly earn their income by being attentive to the needs of others.

After having to ask for permission to cross the aisle four or five times, the flight attendant finally lost it and asked the two gentlemen blocking her path to kindly sit down. They were visibly unhappy, promptly made faces at each other and joked about her being bossy. This was a young woman whose job actually involves telling passengers what to do on a plane.

Had she been a male flight attendant, these men would have complied without so much as a frown. Had I been a male passenger, they would have never dared talk directly over my head and invade my personal space as much as they did.

How do I know this? It is one of the things you learn when you grow up as a woman. By the time you are an adult you have internalized it, by the time you are a few years into your professional life, you have normalized it.

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.

When road rage meets street art

Every time I am stuck in traffic in Nairobi I make a mental note to finally write this blog post. Some might consider traffic jams a waste of time, but in Kenya it is always an interesting opportunity to observe a bit of multimodality and intersemiotic translation in action. The road speaks to those able to listen….

In 2010 my car was nearly forced off the road on the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru. In order to avoid pot holes, a huge heavy duty truck heading towards us from the opposite direction was using the middle of the highway rather than sticking to its lane. On the wind deflector, just above the windshield, the truck’s name was written in bold, colorful capital letters:

MORENO OCAMPO

Moreno Ocampo was at the time the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, where quite a number of Kenyan politicians were being tried for their involvement in the 2007/2008 post-electoral violence. Ethnic clashes following a controversial electoral result killed over 1000 people and left up to 600’000 internally displaced. Politicians on all sides were seen as actively inciting hatred and violence. While Moreno Ocampo, the man, was thus doing his best to instill fear among the Kenyan political elite, Moreno Ocampo, the truck, was busy scaring the hell out of the common folk on the highway. The mental image  Kenyans associated with a person was thereby successfully conveyed through a different medium altogether. I would argue that this qualifies as an example of intersemiotic translation. The massive size of the truck is an integral part of the message. Multimodality, ladies and gentlemen!

From late 2008 one would also see more and more Matatus (mini buses) and buses proudly carrying the name or even the picture of newly elected president Barack Obama. I am happy to note that he is still a go-to source for vehicle embellishment, the Donald does not seem to have quite the same appeal for Nairobians.

Obviously, Barack Obama’s ancestry makes him a favourite (pronounce: ‘favo-right’) choice for Kenya’s drivers. Yet, ironically, Obama’s father was a Luo, while the transport industry in Nairobi is firmly in the hands of Kikuyus, their arch-rivals in the national political arena. In order to become a national symbol, it seems that one must thus succeed abroad. The image of Obama’s success, or so Matatu drivers seem to hope, will translate (aha!) into prosperity for them and their business.

Popular topics for vehicle decoration include sports teams (mostly English Premier Leage and NBA), as well as fashion labels (who doesn’t want to ride in a Versace, Gucci, Armani bus?), superheroes and famous musicians or actors. Even the inside of a bus might be decorated with at least some attempt at communicating something resembling an original idea:

Matatu3
Image source: https://code.kaytouch.biz/wifi-kwa-mathree/

Unless Jesus is involved, the message conveyed is never that serious (“Real men love Jesus”, remember!). It is meant to inspire both respect and laughter. On the surface it seems like nothing is taboo, at least not sex or drugs. A particularly congenial instance of visual communication can be seen currently on quite a number of Buses and Matatus in Nairobi. Their elaborate decoration includes images of Bob Marley with a blunt, and portions of his lyrics that explicitly reference weed consumption. These references are duly interspersed with the following logo:

noweed

Translated simply: “Sisi? Weed? Hapana. LOOOOL”

Speaking of mixed messages and lack of seriousness, Nairobi’s streets also offer plenty of opportunities to get “offended” to anyone attempting to take these things at face value. Let’s be clear, things that would be truly offensive to Nairobians, such as references to atheism or comments about acting Kenyan politicians are off-limits. Now, whether the Mainas, Mwangis and Kamaus driving the Matatus would show the same restraint if, say, a Luo president was elected remains to be seen… I am not even going to go into that because I love life.

One of the crasser images I spotted on a vehicle this week was a juxtaposition of a photo of a starving black child (you know exactly what kind of image I mean…) and a photo of a chubby African guy eating from a plate filled with a huge portion of meat. The title of the composition was “Africa”. Speak of a successful translation of words into images…

You cannot help but agree that the message being transferred using just two images is an accurate description of the reality we live in. Many academics would complain if they were given less than 6000 words for a paper aiming to convey exactly the same.

Oh yeah, let’s also not forget that in the Man Eat Man Society we live in, Ben Laden and Bill Gates are friends…

Matatu1
Image source: http://www.afroautos.com/customized-improvised/can-the-kenyan-matatu-industry-be-a-tourist-attraction/

 

*For those of you who wish to read more about this and see some photos that I never quite find an opportunity to take myself:

An ode to bad English

If you do not understand the urgency of a common language and the damaging effects that unmediated  language barriers can have on social cohesion, equality, and well-being, I suggest you spend some time in South Africa. 

I did not choose my mother tongue.

At best, I could argue that my parents chose it for me, based on the instruments they had at their disposal. They chose it for me over and over again, not only by speaking to me in a certain language, but by sending me to a specific school, in a specific country, at a specific time. How much of this was really a choice is up for debate – realistically, not much, although my parents probably had more agency than most people on this planet.

At worst, I can see my language as something transmitted through my family from one generation to another, like our genes. Something we did not choose and that we are doomed to perpetuate. The difference is that, while we cannot choose to transmit only certain genes to our children (unless we decide not to have children or adopt children that do not carry out genes), we can choose not to transmit our language to our children. People who decide to do exactly that are often condemned by a left-leaning, polyglot intelligentsia, who feels that multilingualism is the prerequisite for cultural autonomy and should therefore be preserved at all cost. In reaction to earlier ideas about superior and inferior cultures, about civilized and uncivilized peoples and advanced vs. primitive languages, post-modernist thinking popularized the idea that multilingualism is an inherent advantage and something to be celebrated.

And yet, humanity has long felt that the fact that not all human beings speak the same language is a rather unfortunate state of affairs that requires explanation. Myths about the origin of multilingualism abound in different cultures. The Tower of Babel is the culprit most familiar to Europeans, while the Aztecs held that multilingualism resulted from a Great Flood:

“[Only] a man, Coxcox, and a woman, Xochiquetzal, survive, having floated on a piece of bark. They found themselves on land and begot many children who were at first born unable to speak, but subsequently, upon the arrival of a dove were endowed with language, although each one was given a different speech such that they could not understand one another.”
(Source: Wikipedia: Mythical Origins of Language)

All these myths view multilingualism at best as something inconvenient and at worst as a punishment. I would argue that, while academia is out celebrating our diversity and inability to understand each other as a source of great wealth, the reality for many people is much more closely aligned with the myths of old. There is a disturbing discrepancy between theory and practice as far as multilingualism is concerned, and it intersects with considerations about power, access and equality.

Don’t get me wrong: I am happy that I speak several languages. I am glad that I have learned different ways of describing things that allow me to talk to many people. I understand that knowing more languages allows me to speak to more people, therefore, learning languages is something that I believe should be encouraged at least unless we find a better solution to achieve the same outcome, i.e. communication and mutual comprehension.

Whenever I have been faced with a situation where I was unable to communicate with another person because we lacked a common language, this has been a source of frustration. It gave rise to this nagging feeling that I was missing out on something, unable to explore my common humanity with the person in front of me. Never once have I been unable to communicate with a person and thought that this was reason for celebration, that it was a wonderful thing that we were separated by language. Never once have I heard anyone say, whether directly, in a language that I understand, or through a language mediator, “Wow, I am so glad I don’t speak your language”. The fact is, we enjoy communicating. We like understanding one another. Speaking the same language helps us do that. There is a reason why refer to the opposite scenario as there being a language ‘barrier’.

Languages are furthermore unequal in terms of power. While the effort that goes into learning a language is enormous for any language, the returns on this investment vary greatly. Indeed, some languages allow us to access mountains of information and communicate with hundreds of millions of people, while others might only give us access to a very small community. Some languages help us find jobs, others do not. Some languages allow us to go through higher education, others do not. I am not arguing that this is a good thing. I am simply arguing that this is a thing. Denying it will not get us anywhere.

I am convinced that there is nothing inherently wrong with Sesotho, Kikamba, and Tamil – the argument that some languages are inherently superior to others and therefore more suitable to be global languages or languages of scientific discovery is simplistic, outdated and lacking in empirical evidence. It is also an argument often made from an overtly or covertly racist perspective.

English is not better than Sipedi but it is bigger. The reality is that certain languages have emerged as dominant in the world today, while others have remained marginal, through absolutely no fault of their own. The reality is that I am glad that a lot of academic production happens in languages that I have access to, that I am glad that I was lucky to be born speaking languages that made it fairly easy for me to learn English later in life. The reality is that an insufficient mastery of English is detrimental to the advancement of otherwise highly competent academics, and prevents millions of people from accessing higher education and taking part in scientific debates, and that this is deeply unfair. So how could I condemn a mother for wanting their children to have the same advantages? How could I argue that people should preserve their language at all cost, even if it is detrimental to their own economic and social status?

We have to acknowledge that, for any individual, it is easier to gain access to education, information, markets and international travel by learning one of the dominant languages, rather than by engaging in a fight to raise the status of their own language until it becomes equal to those dominant languages. That fight, besides being unlikely to succeed, could last several generations, would require a sustained and concerted effort, and might not benefit any individual participant in their lifetime. Language learning is comparatively shorter, easier and more likely to result in immediate gains for a given individual. Once an individual has gone through this process of mastering a dominant language, the incentives for them are high to allow their children to take a shortcut: although the next generation might still speak the parents’ mother tongue at home, they might go to school in English or another more dominant language, so as to ensure that they pick it up while they are still small. When political incentives point in the other direction, for instance by encouraging public education to be organized exclusively in the national/local language, this cements exclusion even further, in particular in developing countries: the rich send their children to English-only private schools, while the poor must accept that their offspring learns biology from outdated textbooks in their mother tongue, sometimes donated by generous missionaries who, incidentally, inserted a few of their own ideas about the origins of humanity into the chapters on evolution.

“She is saying we should all speak English, right? She is saying we should all be Americanized, part of the global empire, right?”

No, I am not.

I am saying that humanity would benefit from having a shared medium of communication, and that English is currently the language that is most likely to become this globally shared medium. From where we currently stand, we might end up embracing different scenarios. Below, I briefly explore three possible scenarios: rejection, assimilation and appropriation. Saying these exist is, however, not the same as saying that they are good. Indeed, this whole article is merely a thought experiment.

Option 1: Rejection

I write in English because I want to reach as many people as I can and because most of my friends are able to at least partly understand what I am writing here. The others might be able to figure most of it out by relying on – rudimentary yet constantly improving – tools like Google Translate. So I am clearly not an Option 1 practitioner.

But what would option 1 look like? Option 1 is the resistance. Everyone promoting their own language over English, through political pressure and personal activism. If you are an academic and want to be part of Option 1 it will involve publishing your papers in non-English journals and accepting the loss this entails in terms of impact factor and related measurements. It will involve systematically reading the available literature on your topics of interest in all available languages, not only English and not only the languages you have access to. Sitting down with a translator to help you figure out what a fellow scientist of the Option 1 persuasion working in Goa and publishing in his mother tongue has to say about transcultural communication, milk production or climate change.

Option 1 might become feasible if we manage to hack automatic translation to the point where it is seamless accross all languages. If we develop a technology that resembles the Babel Fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Option 1 is a multlingual utopia – sign me up, I’m all for it. It would allow me to immediately communicate with people who are radically different from me and understand them better. I love it.

The problem with option 1 is feasibility.

Option 2: Assimilation

English is the future, English is the world language, let’s all embrace English by reading Mark Twain, watching Baseball and celebrating Thanksgiving with stuffed Turkey. When was Boxing Day again? Are we getting discounts, too?

Option 2 is total assimilation into the currently dominant culture associated with the English language. Option 2 entails polishing your accent until you sound like a Texan, consuming American pop culture until you only laugh about their jokes, abandoning your own cultural practices until we are all the same.

Assimilation has two main disadvantages. The first one is obviously that we might not consider the American way to be the best way for humanity. The second is that history teaches us that human beings have an innate tendency to distinguish between an ingroup and an outgroup. When people speak different languages, these become a “natural” barrier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. When people speak the same language, they will still find a way to create groups, often along even more sinister lines: skin colour, religion, gender, wealth, sexual orientation. Speaking one language is not a solution for identity politics, it will not abolish differences, it will simply change the criteria we apply. Also, the expectation of native-level competency creates a hierarchy between individuals and excludes those who cannot make it. The idea that all people on the planet will reach native-level competency in American English is entirely unrealistic – let’s remember that many Americans, some of them in positions of power, have to date not mastered this feat.

The problem with option 2 is desirability and feasibility. Option 2 is not very lucky I guess.

Option 3: Appropriation

This option combines elements of the first two, but does not present the same problems with regards to feasibility. It boils down to owning the English language, relating to it in a more utilitarian way. Making it a tool for communication that no single culture, country, or group of individuals can own. You can call it ‘Globish’, ‘Global English’, ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ (ELF), or Simple English. It does not really matter. I call it ‘L2-English’ but you will see below why this term has serious limitations.

As more and more people with different native languages and experiences enter the global communication space, this transactional form of L2-English can evolve into a pidgin, incorporating elements of other languages, ideas from a variety of cultures, concepts relating to opposing worldviews, accents that reveal multiple layers of personal identity and linguistic biography. Option 3 activism involves owning English and changing it. It involves reading multiple Englishes, never laughing at someone because of their accent, assessing academic papers based on content rather than style. It involves, to a certain extent, developing the ability to dissociate what people say from how they say it. Abandoning ideas about linguistic purity, norms, rights and wrongs. Using language as a purely pragmatic, utilitarian instrument for communication.

You might argue that this will invariably be followed by another Tower of Babel event, the emergence of several varieties of L2-English that gradually become mutually incomprehensible. Not really. We now have technology that allows us to communicate globally, in real-time. Information flows faster than ever before. Intercomprehension is lost when contact is lost. We are no longer condemned to lose contact from those who are geographically far from us.

However, the real problem with L2-English is that it will quickly become a mother tongue, i.e. only language, for a new generation. This might mean that our relationship to language might change, that certain ways of expressing ideas are lost even though the ideas themselves are not (whether one can really separate the two is a debate for another day, for the sake of argument let’s say that yes, we can express the same idea in different ways and therefore ideas and style are to some extent separable from one another…). It might entail a phase of linguistic impoverishment that would, however, invariably be followed by a new phase of enrichment: We are still the same people, capable of the same genius, so why should L2-English not produce its own poets and language virtuosos? Every language has evolved from a simpler ancestor.

The problem with option 3 is that we do not really know where it will take us.

Where next?

The might be many other options that I have not explored in this post. However, from where I currently stand, the world looks like it will move towards Option 3. This does not mean that this is necessarily the best option, merely that it seems to be the most likely.

Option 2, on the other hand, looks increasingly unlikely, especially since America is not exactly gaining ground in terms of social and cultural leadership. We might want to remain vigilant, but we might not have to become paranoid.

Option 1 might all of a sudden pop into existence if we make a scientific and technological breakthrough. A little universal language decoder that we can install in the brain. Chomsky would be delighted, the creators of Star Trek vindicated.

I guess that, even though multilingualism is my source of income, I quite like the idea of humanity speaking a common language. And maybe ‘torturing’ the English language until it adapts to the multi-faceted identities of otherwise very different people is the easiest way to get there…

The “interpreter factor” in ethnographic fieldwork

La première mission by Benoît Cliquet.
Drawing by Benoît Cliquet.**

“Anthropologists are normally expected to ‘learn the language’, and while most try to do so, many of us feel we fail. Since this means failure to measure up to a publicly required occupational definition, anthropologists have often taken refuge in silence.”
(Tonkin, 1984, 178)

Learning the language spoken by their research participants and in the location where they carry out their field research is a point of pride for many anthropologists. However, there are many reasons why it is often not possible for anthropologists and ethnographers from other disciplines to enter their research field having full mastery of their languages:

  • the time allocated for fieldwork in research grants is often very limited,
  • the location of a study might have to change at the last moment because political turmoil or natural disasters render the original destination inaccessible
  • finally, learning a language takes far longer than the time allocated to this endeavor even in the most generous research projects!

It is simply not very realistic for anthropologists to achieve sufficient mastery of their participants’ language in six months to one year – not to the point where they can discuss complex and often intimate issues with their participants.

Indeed, according to Mudimbé “most anthropologists only speak pidgin” (1988, 66), and numerous publications acknowledge the presence of a “research assistant” during fieldwork, although one sometimes has to read between the lines to understand that this assistant is also an interpreter (Mandel, 2003; Molony and Hammett, 2007).

When interpreters are explicitly mentioned in papers (Ficklin and Jones, 2009; Turner, 2010; Temple and Edwards, 2002), we get an idea of the complexity of the “interpreter factor” and the challenges researchers face when collaborating with bilinguals who simultaneous take on the role of research assistants, fixers and interpreters.

What is rarely questioned, however, is the capacity of these ad hoc interpreters to adequately perform their task. To my knowledge, only two papers dwell on this “detail” in some length, namely Borchgrevink (2003) and Gibb and Danero Iglesias (2017). Their authors highlight the complexity of language mastery, and emphasize on an aspect that, in my experience, is very relevant during fieldwork interactions: language mastery comes in degrees. The two articles are really worth reading for practicing or aspiring field researchers!

The fact that language mastery is not something that, like a bit, comes only as either “1” or “0” might seem completely obvious but it is nevertheless often neglected. Knowing a language is not just useful to “do” research: even a very basic mastery can allow a researcher to establish a trust relationship with her participants or understand the basic ideas of a conversation overheard in public transport. More importantly, basic language mastery paired with a few tricks can also allow a researcher to check on the work of her research-assistant-cum-interpreter.

The “interpreters” found in ethnographic fieldwork are rarely trained in this task and perform it to the best of their judgement and ability. Although their presence undeniably has an impact on the research process, the data collected and the results obtained, their influence is rarely acknowledge in anthropological publications.

Based on my research into interpreter positionality and non-professional interpreting in a variety of settings, I have developed a list of questions that each anthropologist should ask himself or herself when working with an interpreter. These questions will allow the researcher to make the interpreter visible in her research, think about the influence of this person during fieldwork, and account for this factor in publications:

1. Positionality and role of the interpreter:

Who chooses the interpreter and according to what criteria?

What role does the interpreter have during different stages of the research project?

What non-interpreting tasks does the interpreter take on during the research project?

2. Language skills:

What level of mastery does the interpreter/the researcher have in each of the languages used in the study?

How did the interpreter/the researcher acquire her language skills?

3. Relationships and ethical aspects:

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants?

Is the study likely to change the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants? If yes, how is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What participants might not be accessible to the interpreter/the researcher?

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the researcher? How is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What information does an academic readership require in order to understand the role of the interpreter during different stages of the research project (research design, data collection, data analysis, write-up)?

Can you answer all these questions for your interpreters? Have you thought of all these elements before writing up your interpreter-mediated research project? If not, this list of questions might be worth keeping in mind during fieldwork.

*The ideas in this post follow from a research paper on the use of interpreters in anthropological fieldwork that I recently submitted in collaboration with Dr. Yvan Droz. His contribution is gratefully acknowledged here and the paper will be referenced here one it is published. 

** The illustration above was drawn by a very talented conference interpreter: Benoît Cliquet. Thank you, Benoît, for allowing us to use these illustrations in our work!

References

Borchgrevink, A. (2003). Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters. Ethnography 4(1), 95–121.

Ficklin, L. and B. Jones (2009). Deciphering ’voice’ from ’words’: Interpreting translation practices in the field. Graduate Journal of Social Science 6(3), 108–130.

Gibb, R. and J. Danero Iglesias (2017). Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research. The Sociological Review 65(1), 134–149.

Mandel, J. L. (2003). Negotiating expectations in the field: Gatekeepers, research fatigue and cultural biases. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 24(2), 198–210.

Molony, T. and D. Hammett (2007). The friendly financier: Talking money with the silenced assistant. Human Organization 66(3), 292–300.

Mudimbe, V.-Y. (1988). The Invention of Africa. Rochester, NY: James Currey and Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Temple, B. and R. Edwards (2002). Interpreters/translators and cross-language research: Reflexivity and border crossings. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 1(2), no pagination.

Tonkin, E. (1984). Language learning. In R. F. Ellen (Ed.), Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct, pp. 178–187. London, UK: Academic Press.

Turner, S. (2010). Research note: The silenced assistant. Reflections of invisible interpreters and research assistants. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 51(2), 206–219.

Ethical concerns before, during and after ethnographic research

As I will soon be teaching a module on research ethics for PhD students in translation and interpreting, this post a bit more of a literature review. Social research is, at its core, a relational activity. We interact with colleagues, participants and audiences/readers.

So, how can we make sure these interactions remain ethical?

1. Ethics of anticipation: ethical review and informed consent

Anthropologists have long argued that the requirements of institutional ethical review (common in the UK and the US, not at all in francophone countries!) and informed consent do not fit the specificities of ethnographic field research, where ethics is a “recognition of the problem”, rather than a solution (Lambek, 2012, p. 142) and an on-going decision-making process that cannot be reduced simply to obtaining informed consent:

“A wider conception of ethics recognizes that moral judgements are made at every juncture of ’scientific’ practice, and these judgements are made together with other parties involved in the research. Despite wider pressures to do so, it is vital to resist discussion of ethics as a methodological and institutional ’tool’, or as a mode of legitimization and authorization, and to continue to argue that ethics involves a broader field of negotiations with varied moralities, philosophies and politics.” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133)

Ethical review and informed consent are problematic in ethnographic research, as it supposes that the researcher is able to anticipate “with whom, for how long, to what end, and where” she will work (Simpson, 2011, p. 380), which runs counter to the inductive, iterative and open-ended nature of ethnographic inquiry. Furthermore, it is not easy to define who is a participant, i.e. who is affected directly or indirectly by the researcher’s presence in the field. Therefore, “[a]pplying the logics of autonomous individuals and signed consent forms to the ethics of participant observation necessarily makes ethnographic practice appear non-consensual” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133). Secondly, obtaining informed consent mainly in order to allow the researcher to protect herself and avoid liability (cf. the “audit culture” in contemporary anthropology (Lambek, 2012, p. 141)) is an unethical use of research ethics.

In light of the specificities of ethnographic research, the American Anthropological Association has adopted a broader definition of informed consent:

“Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research. It is understood that the degree and breadth of informed consent required will depend on the nature of the project and may be affected by requirements of other codes, laws, and ethics of the country or community in which the research is pursued. Further, it is understood that the informed consent process is dynamic and continuous; the process should be initiated in the project design and continue through implementation by way of dialogue and negotiation with those studied. Researchers are responsible for identifying and complying with the various informed consent codes, laws and regulations affecting their projects. Informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant.” (American Anthropological Association, 2009, Art. 4)

Ethical review requirements vary considerably between countries, we can argue that there are “national cultures of ethics” in the social sciences (Fassin, 2006), linked closely to national traditions of higher education. The ethnographic method is particularly difficult to fit into ethical review requirements (“serious tension” (Simpson, 2011, p. 379); “useless restrictions” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)). More importantly, ethical review and informed consent fail to adequately address the ethical concerns that arise during fieldwork:

“[The ethical review model] leaves aside most of the important ethical issues raised by fieldwork and gives a false guarantee that ethics is respected through purely formal operations. In this sense, as well, it threatens ethnography by proposing lazy responses to real needs and, thus, avoiding the more painful moral and political questions sociologists and anthropologists should deal with.” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)

And create the illusion that ethical dilemmas have right or wrong answers:

“Sometimes the course of action is obvious but more often it is ambiguous, as one is confronted with novel circumstances and criteria, or even the ostensible absence of criteria, and pulled between different sets and kinds of obligations and commitments. It is a mistake —an ethical blind spot —to expect there is always an obvious, single, right, virtuous judgement to make or a correct path to follow in every situation” (Lambek, 2012, p. 143).

In the context of research involving participants from developing countries, the considerable power gap between researchers and participants, and the often vulnerable status of aid beneficiaries begs the question of their general ability to provide informed consent (Simpson, 2011, p. 379)! Relationships with research participants in the field are particularly challenging from an ethical perspective and differ considerably from the types of relationships built in an interview setting. One of the negative consequences of ethical review is a “conflation of interviews and ethnography”, where one becomes a proxy for the other and ethnography is reconfigured as a series of discrete, recordable interactions (Simpson, 2011, p. 381).

2. Ethics of interaction: relationships with participants

In development projects and humanitarian aid, researchers might easily be perceived as being part of the NGO/international organisation delivering aid (Batianga-Kinzi, 2014), and sometimes they are (Moussa, 2014). The power asymmetry and agency gap between researcher and aid beneficiaries creates a potential for dependency, including the solicitation of money (Molony & Hammett, 2007), and close emotional involvement (Ouedraogo, 2014; Sundberg, 2014). The “participant” in ethnographic field research comes in many forms, “informants, interlocutors, consociates, collaborators, consultants, and friends” (Simpson, 2011, p. 384), and exists as part of a wider network of relationships. This relationality of participants makes it difficult to manage informed consent in practice (e.g. A driver provides useful information about how an NGO is viewed by the local population. This information is crucial to understand our data, yet no informed consent has been obtained from the driver.).

The anthropologist as participant-observer becomes part of the field and of the network of relationships between actors. As interlocutors in the field are far from homogenous, conflicts might sometimes be unavoidable. Furthermore, researchers will likely encounter attitudes that go against their own values. The ethical challenge here consist of engaging with these attitudes, even though this might sometimes result in advocacy or taking sides. Far from a “rule-based notion of ethics”, researchers are confronted with building complex relationships that are “founded on trust, respect, and an avoidance of delimiting the subject” (Simpson, 2011, p. 385).

An example from my PhD fieldwork in Kenya:

A Kenyan informant, who had provided me with very useful insights about Kenya throughout my field work, got angry when, during my third visit to Nairobi I went to UNHCR to train refugee interpreters. Why was I spending time training Somalis when there were many Kenyan’s not able to get education? Why was I helping the refugees who were already getting everything for free and just benefitting from handouts? My liberal, generally open attitude had allowed me to build a good relationship with this Kenyan, yet in applying the very same attitude to Somali refugees, I was compromising this relationship. In the interest of my relationship with my Kenyan informant, and in the interest of an ethical relationship with my interlocutors in Nairobi in general, I sat down with him for a long conversation. My aim was to better understand his attitude, but also to humanise Somali refugees. We discussed ethics, in the form of Christian values that I knew he adhered to, and the implications of these values for interactions with others. In an environment where the risk of ethnic and inter-religious violence remains high, neutrality or pretending to agree with his attitude for the sake of a peaceful relationship did not seem like the most ethical way forward.

3. Ethics of textualisation: anonymity and dissemination of results

Confidentiality refers to not discussing research-related information with anyone outside the research team, while anonymity specifically refers to protecting the identity of research participants (Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015). Anonymity can be preserved by using pseudonyms for participants and research locations (Zolesio, 2011; Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015), or by completely omitting data segments from a publication (Thomson et al., 2005) (which makes it difficult to assess the rigour of a study! (Wiles et al., 2008)). In some cases, authors have opted to transform their qualitative data into a fictionalised account (for an example involving a development project see Rottenburg, 2009). Anonymising research locations allows for greater decontextualisation of findings, making it easier to draw comparisons across locations, however, it also creates the risk of over-generalisation (Nespor, 2000).

Two recent trends have imposed practical limits on anonymity: technology and the participatory turn. Technology, in particular social media, makes it difficult to fully anonymise research locations (researchers presence in a city or their participation in a public event will leave an on-line trace, as people might take photographs and upload these to social media) and research participants (who might be part of the researcher’s network of friends) (Nespor, 2000; Saunders et al., 2015). Additionally, research participants might want to be mentioned by name and credited as participants in a particular project (Saunders et al., 2015; Wiles et al., 2012).

Ethical decision-making at the writing stage involves a threefold relationship between informants, truths and publics, and a selection process whose “politics” are rarely made explicit (Simpson, 2011, p. 389).

4. Further reading…

For an entertaining yet very realistic insight into the ethical dilemmas researchers are faced with as participant-observers: Bogerhoff Mulder & Logson (1996); Barley (2000).

General introduction to different forms of ethnographic writing and the textualisation of culture: Van Maanen (1988); Clifford & Marcus (1986).

Ethical challenges of ethnographic research in development/humanitarian aid contexts: Aympam et al. (2014).

References

American Anthropological Association (2009). Code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association .

Aympam, S., Chelpi-den Hamer, M. & Bouju, J. (2014). Défis éthiques et risques pratiques du terrain en situation de développement ou d’urgence humantaire. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 21–41.

Barley, N. (2000). The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut. Waveland Press.

Batianga-Kinzi, S. (2014). L’ethnographie au risque de l’agression : expérience de terrain à risque. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 87–97.

Bogerhoff Mulder, M. & Logson, W. (1996). I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters. RDR Books: Oakland California.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley.

Fassin, D. (2006). The end of ethnography as collateral damage of ethical regulation? American Ethnologist 33 (4), 522–524.

Lambek, M. (2012). Ethics out of the ordinary. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 140–152.

Molony, T. & Hammett, D. (2007). The friendly financier: Talking money with the silenced assistant. Human Organization 66 (3), 292–300.

Mookherjee, N. (2012). Twenty-first century ethics for audited anthropologists. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 130–140.

Moussa, H. (2014). L’anthropologue entre les tyrannies des terrains et le choix d’une éthique. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 99–121.

Nespor, J. (2000). Anonymity and place in qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry 6 (4), 546–569.

Ouedraogo, R. (2014). Face à l’avortement : exigences éthiques et dilemme moral à Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 123–141.

Rottenburg, R. (2009). Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J. & Kitzinger, C. (2015). Anonymising interview data: challenges and compromise in practice. Qualitative Research 15 (5), 616–632.

Simpson, B. (2011). Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, 377–393.

Sundberg, M. (2014). Ethnographic Challenges Encountered in Rwanda’s Social Topography. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 71–86.

Thomson, D., Bzdel, L., Golden-Biddle, K., Reay, T. & Estabrooks, C. A. (2005). Central questions of anonymization: A case study of secondary use of qualitative data. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6 (1), no pag.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wiles, R., Coffey, A., Robinson, J. & Heath, S. (2012). Anonymisation and visual images: issues of respect, ’voice’ and protection. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 15 (1), 41–53.

Wiles, R., Crow, G., Heath, S. & Charles, V. (2008). The Management of Confidentiality and Anonymity in Social Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11 (5), 417–428.

Zolesio, E. (2011). Anonymiser les enquêtés. Revue ¿ Interrogations ? 12 (Quoi de neuf dans le salariat ?), no pag.