Bones of Contention

Negotiating Anthropological Ethics within Fields of Ainu Refusal

Author: Ann-Elise Lewallen


Contemporary anthropologists often confront a complex history of informant-researcher interactions preceding their own work, which, if left unaddressed, can effectively block access to host communities. In this article, I discuss the obstacles I faced in conducting ethnographic fieldwork with indigenous Ainu women in Hokkaido, Japan, to initiate a dialogue about ethnographic responsibility, researcher morality, and anthropological ethics as paths toward developing an engaged anthropology. During my field research, I was compelled to confront the research methods of my disciplinary predecessors, including the pilfering of human remains and burial accessories from communal gravesites and unconsented blood sampling. These methodologies exemplify “Colonial Studies,” a science informed by Japan's imperialist projects. The collective memory of these research practices retains currency among contemporary Ainu political activists. Today these narratives are transmitted intergenerationally, resulting in suspicion and often contempt toward researchers. With these ethically dubious practices in mind, I consider recent developments in ethical guidelines for ethnographic research both in Japan and the United States, and compare these approaches with indigenous research protocols now mandated by several indigenous communities. Social scientists cannot claim primary authority as interpreters of socially marginal communities. In recent years, Ainu and other marginalized persons have begun earning advanced degrees and introducing community-sensitive approaches to research. Here I argue that anthropologists and researchers using the ethnographic method must develop research practices rooted in prior consultation, cooperation, and collaboration with local communities, and must introduce reciprocal processes with tangible benefit for local communities, if ethnographic work is to continue.

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December 2007
© Jeff Kingston