Nancy Scheper-Hughes and the Question of Ethical Fieldwork

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In 1974, Nancy Scheper-Hughes traveled to a village in rural Ireland which she later nicknamed “Ballybran” (Scheper-Hughes 2000-128)). Her findings there led her to publish Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland in 1979, in which she attempted to explain the social causes of Ireland’s surprisingly high rates of schizophrenia (Scheper-Hughes 2000:128). Saints was met with a backlash of criticism from both the anthropological community and the villagers who had served as her informants. The criticism eventually led to Scheper-Hughes being expelled indefinitely from the village in which she had worked (Scheper-Hughes 2000:118) and raised serious questions about the ethics of anthropological inquiry. In this essay I will argue that Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ fieldwork in Ireland was fundamentally unethical on the grounds that she morally wronged her participants through her fictionalized representation of them, and that she did not seek their informed consent. That being said, she was also committed to structural analysis, which is distinctly lacking in twenty-first century anthropological inquiry.

Nancy-Scheper Hughes has often been criticized for morally wronging her informants in a variety of ways, including breach of privacy, deception and misrepresentation (Schrag 2009:140). These attacks did not come until much later, however, and the initial complaints against her work were centered around her conclusions, which were perceived to be based on faulty methodology including drawing conclusions without sufficient data to support them, and misreading her informants’ reactions to her book (Messenger 1982:14). The villagers themselves were upset that she had misrepresented them, remarking that she had violated local codes of hospitality (Scheper-Hughes 1982:13), portrayed nothing but the “negative” aspects of Irish rural life (Scheper-Hughes 2000:119) and formed their individual identities into fictional characters in her efforts to conceal them (Scheper-Hughes 1982:13).

Though perhaps well-intentioned, Scheper-Hughes’ attempt to conceal the identities of her informants resulted in forming them into scattered, fictional characters, according to the villagers themselves (Scheper-Hughes 1982:13). In this the villagers are justified, as she hid reality by burying it within archetypal representations which led to a misrepresentation of her informants. It turns reality into a caricature, calling into question the validity of her portrayals and therefore the basis of her entire analysis. Moreover, it is unfair to the informants themselves because it gives credit for words spoken by real people to fictional characters. At best, Scheper-Hughes’ attempt to protect the individual privacy of her informants backfired and warped their identities into something false and grounded in the misrepresentation of reality; therefore, criticism from the villagers regarding her “scattering” of their identities are indeed warranted.

Clearly, Scheper-Hughes wronged her informants by fragmenting their words and contributions, and by giving credit to false identities when it was actually due to real ones. One informant actually remarked that “[she] just didn’t give us credit” (Scheper-Hughes 2000:119). And yet despite her efforts to conceal the identities of her informants by disguising them as fictional characters, they were still able to identify themselves and each other (Schrag 2009:150). Since the primary purpose of identity concealment is to keep an informants’ secrets intact by hiding them from community members, the fact that the villagers in Ballybran were able to re-construct each others’ identities in her published work shows that she did not properly protect confidential information, and therefore did not put the interests of her participants first. The anthropologist has a moral duty to protect the secrets of her informants once divulged, especially when publishing them, no matter when and where the...
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