Instead of attempting to foster some sense of objectivity, an activist anthropologist goes into a project both embracing and confronting her own biases and political agenda. The practice of activist anthropology, according to Christopher Hale of the University of Texas at Austin,
“asks us to identify our deepest ethical-political convictions, and to let them drive the formulation of our research objectives.”
Rather than attempting to suppress those convictions,
“activist research endorses the contrasting tack of making our politics explicit and up-front, reflecting honestly and systematically on how they have shaped our understanding the porblem at hand, and putting them to the service of our analytical endeavor.”
The researcher utilizes personal convictions as a strength, incorporating it into her methodology. Part of activist anthropology involves developing the research questions and project while working with informants, allowing them to participate in the production of knowledge which will contribute to understanding the issues they face and how to resolve them.
“The goal is to carry out the research such that a specified group of people can actively participate, thereby learning research skills themselves, contributing to the data collection, taking an active role in the process of knowledge creation.”
I think that Hale is right that people will provide much better data if they are involved in the data-production process, and that activist anthropology can be a very useful approach when you’re working with activists, or with a population that is experiencing the effects of economic and other kinds of oppression, or that is dealing with ethnic conflicts, etc. Most of the time I think that it is crucial to fully address, and even to embrace one’s own personal-political stance and account for how it directs and affects the research process — in any project. However, I imagine that some kinds of research endeavors require some attempt at distancing oneself — suppressing the subjective, as it were, to some degree. For example, what if the researcher is working with populations that oppose each other, and her own bias gets in the way of generating data, while an appearance of neutrality might grant her more insight into the big picture? What if she’s working with a population whose ethics and politics contradict her own? In other words, how feasible is activist anthropology if the anthropologist is trying to study an “elite” population and doesn’t already sympathize with their concerns? Isn’t there some value to the traditional “outsider” and constructivist “mock-objective” approach in situations like these?
Hale asks some similar questions in the paper, but doesn’t address them there. I wonder what others think …