Ethical dilemmas in professional practice in anthropology
Policy - environment - development
Case study 1
'What you shouldn't ask':
environment, landscape and vested interests in England
by Andrew Garner
This page discusses a case study set in England. It highlights how ethical issues are often imbedded in personal relationships and yet are heavily influenced by a wide range of powers that are quite diffuse.
Whenever we talk about ethical dilemmas as anthropologists the textual/oral mode subtly changes. Often we move from smoothly polished commentator encapsulating the trends of our chosen subject, highlighting the pertinent details and revealing surprising and unrealised connections, to a far more personal mode. There is far greater reflexivity; there are personal revelations; and what emerges is research - warts and all. From the impact of Malinowski's diaries, which proved the icon of ethnographic field methodologies to have feet of clay, considering the ethical dilemmas of field research can be a risky business for anthropologists. It has a tendency to reveal the sheer messiness of research relationships, the serendipity of finding connections, and the balancing act of immediate responses to unfolding events against a longer duration of reflection.
This trajectory of textual production should alert us to the 'nature' of ethics in anthropology. Questions about ethical dilemmas result in personal revelations because it is precisely in the social relationships between people that ethical questions arise. Even such umbrella statements as 'we are protecting the environment' which seems to imply an ethical stance on and about a reasonably stable object, in practice is about the politics of influencing others. Explanations about events and actions are also justifications and attempts to persuade.
What this paper attempts to do is navigate a route between the ethical dilemmas of research (the me, me, me bit) and the broader political field where the ethics involved are about the justifications for the fundamental values that people hold. I will do this by flitting between a number of instances where research went 'wrong', a case study of the competing interests and stakeholders in an environmental programme, and end up with a look at how I have gone about analysing and attempting to understanding implicit value systems.
Two key ideas structure the trajectory I wish to take:
- Changing arenas of the production of knowledge
Recalling the slightly alarming experience of having the people whose situation she was discussing turn up at an international conference, an anthropologist slightly - in a slightly exasperated tone, asked 'Why don't they - my 'informants' - just stay in the field?' In a globalised world these arenas are becoming less protected by distance or the bastions of academia. Accessibility to information is vastly increasing. The global economy is also a global knowledge economy. Groups, organisations, governments are tooling up to ensure that their agendas are pursued more widely than ever before.
- The recent theoretical discussions about what might be broadly termed the social production of nature. The social production of nature thesis casts doubt on the moral logic underlying environmental concerns. The argument that nature is intrinsically social makes it easier to ask uncomfortable questions of our world: who is currently empowered to define what counts as 'nature' - discursively and materially? What are the implications of accepted or hegemonic definitions? Asking pointed questions like this also leads to others such as: what counter-hegemonic definitions are available to us? What kind of world - socially, economically, politically and culturally - does this allow us to imagine?
When research goes wrong
A. The issue of hunting and identity
In the process of doing my PhD research in two Forest sites in the UK, I found myself, a little against my will asking questions about the vexed issue of hunting. At Hatfield Forest, National Trust staff were slightly guarded when talking about 'culling' the deer population and considerably more guarded when it came to fox-hunting. Polite promises to arrange a meeting later, for a "more convenient time", subtle discouragement in tone and body language, followed by enthusiasm for other requests or tasks, all served notice of an arena where the potential for strained social relationships was high.
Compared to the sense of cordial social relations of Hatfield, albeit pregnant with carefully managed potential stresses, tensions over hunting in the New Forest are significantly nearer the surface. In an otherwise positive initial meeting with the Forestry Commission to discuss access and directions for my research, a tentative question on the subject of hunting provoked this thin-lipped response.
If you are going to ask anything about hunting I am afraid that we
can have nothing to do with your project. We are dealing directly with the
Minister on the hunting issue and it already takes up far too much of our
staff time. I can't have you speaking to Forestry Commission staff about
it. As civil servants we are required to be neutral. It is just too much
of a hot political potato at the moment.
(Senior Forester, Forestry Commission)
Suddenly desperately worried that I might not be able to access a key areas for my research, I back tracked rapidly. I suggested that this would only be a small part of my project and that, anyway, I was thinking of pursuing it elsewhere. Apparently, about a month before this interview the FC had "been forced" to revoke a foxhunting licence for a short period because hunt saboteurs had filmed evidence of an infraction of the terms under which the licence was issued. For many of the locals this simply reinforced their view of the FC riding rough-shod over their traditional rights. For others this was a small step by the FC away from their cosy relationship with traditional countryside interests and towards fulfilling their public duties. For staff at the FC, again it seemed they could do little right.
As I came to know certain FC staff better, it became clear that hunting was an issue that evoked the whole gamut of responses. Some (most of the Game Keepers) nursed quiet, but bitterly held resentment against the enforcing of "neutrality" on an issue they felt fundamental to their identity and to the Forest. For those in this camp, the fact that I came "down from London" as a researcher with a high degree of access to the FC marked me as probably 'anti', likely to misunderstand the depths of their attachment to the landscape and definitely to be treated with suspicion. Other staff champed at the bureaucratic slowness and their inability to change the Forest "for the better" by taking an overt stance against foxhunting. A cartoon that appeared in the Log Roll, an unofficial magazine produced internally by FC staff, makes wry comment on the ambivalence of their role as preservers of the landscape (below). The nearer an issue is to the 'surface' of social life, the less room there is for neutrality. Asking almost any question about hunting presupposes a reflexivity about the issue - a thinking through which implies an already known and decided position on hunting. One is expected to have an opinion. In this sense it was virtually impossible to talk about hunting without
The problems of preserving cultural heritage (Log Roll, 3rd Ed. Christmas 2000)
implicating ourselves in relation to the debate and thus in who we are. For certain senior Foresters the combustibility of the issue forced decisions they might otherwise have preferred to avoid. Staff, for example, had to be specially allocated to manage the FC's 'official' stance. At another level, the Deputy Surveyor, as a civil servant, provides advice and information to the Minister of Agriculture Food and Fisheries (now DEFRA) and his team, thus directly influencing government policy. Again, in this fraught situation my interest in hunting was bound to provoke strong reactions. In the end I had to approach the issue of hunting through a completely different set of gatekeepers. At the same time I found myself keeping my involvement with the Forestry Commission somewhat played down.
Since completing my PhD I have returned to the Forest to do further research, but this time on the anti-hunt protestors. Partly this was spurred by comments and suggestions from my examiners, but mostly this was enforced by the ethical and practical realities of researching such a contested issue. By contacting the antis I have pretty much burned my bridges of access with the Hunt. Certainly, I will have compromised the view by hunt members that I was relatively 'safe'. On the other hand there are other researchers involved in foxhunting and relatively few examining the experience of the antis. Despite my determination to remain a neutral observer the tenseness of the political field around hunting is one that has no room for neutrality - certainly not in terms of research access. What this 'ethical' move from one side to the other made clear, however, were the complexities and diffuse nature of the power arrangements in the New Forest Landscape. On the one hand the hunt members could call on traditional cordial relations with the Forestry Commission, their unparalleled rights and ability to access the Forest, and their continuing connections with wealth and the land-owning classes; on the other there are the diffuse winds of political change - a distant but noticeable effect of the urban majority in this country - made cogently real by the strict application of the letter of the law by the Police and Forestry Commission staff. In order to understand perceptions of the environment from the perspective of people who hunt and/or those that don't one has to take into account the multi-sited elsewhere-ness of the immediate landscape.
B. stand-up arguments over the environment
(This example is examined more fully in a chapter by Garner in Bender and Winer book Contested Landscapes, Berg 2001)
The New Forest, like almost everywhere else in England, is a landscape of artifice (Cloke 1994), and in this particular area the artifice of 'natural countryside' is being deployed in increasingly urgent debates over the future of rural landscapes. The arguments, and the array of interest groups, work at many different levels - local, national and European. Part of the engagement and debate occurs in arenas that are far removed from the forest, but much of it occurs 'on the ground'. But 'on the ground' covers a multitude of places. A great deal of landscape 'making' in the New Forest is formed in the techniques and technologies deployed by those responsible for managing the landscape. Management discourse not only takes 'place' in the physical landscape but also in processes of a professionalised technological imagination - at some remove from the teams who do the work. This same metaphor of removal from the landscape - into an office - can be extended to the application of national and international laws, agreements and guidelines, with which managers are compelled to comply.
Whether dealing with the privileged landscapes of the managers or the less privileged ones of the work teams, place is always an embodied experience (Tilley 1999:177). We tend to over-emphasise the visual, forgetting how powerful soundscapes, smellscapes, and touchscapes can be (Gell 1995, Feld 1996, Porteous 1990, Corbin 1986). Thus, as well as a recognition of discourses that 'image' landscapes through various technical tools, we need to return to the immediately physical, phenomenological landscape made up of experienced places. What follows threads a tentative path between discourse and engagement, between a remote and mythical, and an intimate, lived-in and worked-over New Forest. Firstly, the Forest is introduced as not 'out there' but rather something subjectively understood and engaged with; an amalgam of historical contestation and recent tourism pressures. The way in which the Forest is presented to the 'outsider'/visitor is discussed before examining contemporary 'insider' politics emerging in one moment of confrontation. That confrontation is described, teasing apart some perceptions of place and situating these within larger social and political contexts.
The contours of contemporary landscape contests are set by the Forestry Commission (FC), Verderers Court and Commoners whom together mark the poles of a confrontational legal and management landscape. The FC is most closely connected with the everyday management of Crown land within the perambulation.
A second focus for conflict lies in the enormous growth in visitors since the early 1950s and the concomitant changes in the significance of the Forest landscape. Essentially, the New Forest has moved from land that supported a rural agricultural economy, to a major recreational and natural-heritage target for the jaded urbanite. In the process, there have been significant changes in the priorities of the FC, driven increasingly by the heritage and environmental values of a vocal urban population . At the same time there have been considerable social changes in the communities living in and around the forest - gradual erosion of older class certainties (a theme returned to in chapter 5), greater mobility and changing economic arrangements as urban incomers move to the rural fringes to commute or retire. This has had a profound effect on the importance and expression of 'local' identity.
Identity is often most clearly expressed through comparison and contrast (Boon 1982) and, furthermore, is very plastic in application. Locals are not tourists: "I was held up by grockles (tourists) queuing for cakes"(interview, 22/5/99). Local identity is also a way of claiming authority (in terms that the visitors themselves value, for very different reasons, concerning the perceived authenticity of the landscape). Often heard was the statement that, "There are only a few real Commoners left" Degrees of localness of identity and position in relation to 'local people' appeared in and underpinned the discourse of members of other 'user' groups - the Hunt, Ramblers, cyclists, horse-riders, and environmental organisations. While the discourse on who is local and who is an outsider is pervasive, and morally loaded, it is also highly variable, contradictory and contingent in application (cf Strathern 1982).
Contesting the Forest: "bunny-huggers", Commoners and the Forest with no trees.
This section moves from a mobile and essentially mythic visitor landscape to that of a face-to-face, lived-in and managed place. While the former is presented as contested, it is largely experienced as highly structured and cohesive. What follows is a description from field-notes of a meeting that took place in May 1999 between various 'interested parties' to consider the proposals for a new conservation plan. Here the day-to-day landscape is literally experienced as contested, and as a site for fervently felt and powerfully expressed emotions. It also becomes an occasion to voice a series of justifications about identity, power and knowledge.
The meeting took place at Puttles Pines a few miles out of Brockenhurst. Puttles Pines are a small straggly group of Scots pines (Pinus sylvestrus) huddled around the car park with a long view up a shallow heathland valley. The group, dressed predominately in green Barbours , gathered on the small foot-bridge at the upper end of the valley. In the middle, Joe, the FC 'Life' Ecologist helped by Clare (English Nature and the only female present) were explaining what they planned to do to re-establish a wet mire in the lower part of the valley. Standing around them were three other FC Keepers and a senior Forester, one Verderer, one Agister , two Commoners - one the representative of the Commoners Defence Association, an assistant Ecologist, and two members of a TV crew filming for a documentary being aired at the end of the year. I was introduced as a researcher looking at different perceptions of the Forest. There was laughter as someone commented that I had come to the right place.
The meeting was called by the Life Partnership staff to discuss the future of this particular part of the open forest. The Life Partnership is built around a 5million budget, half of which comes from the European Union and half from ten partner organisations . The project aims to "restore and enhance" the New Forest's ancient woodlands, lowland valley mires and heathland, by
removal of exotic species, repair of erosion damage, encouragement
of traditional forest management practices, protection of heathland from
encroaching plants and reconstruction of endangered wetland habitats.
(Life leaflet on Lowland Valley Mires, nd.)
This was an important meeting for them as they needed to persuade the Commoners of the necessity of their work so the Verderers court would not exercise their right of veto over these proposals. Such a blunt statement does little to convey the complexity of politics involved or the degree to which the Life Project cross-cuts other categories of belonging. The Verderers of the New Forest are already members of the Life Partnership. The presence of so many Keepers, indicates both their interest in the project and that most are also Commoners. The Life team needed to persuade the FC Keepers as much as anyone else. The presence of the TV camera crew may also have encouraged a certain amount of statement-of-position-for-the-record rather than debate.
Joe started by getting out a clipboard and a map. He referred to this as he described what he planned to do to re-establish the mire system. Essentially, the work consisted of collapsing some of the deeper drainage ditches and filling in the side of the eroded main stream with heather bales. This would slow the through-flow of water and help "wet up" the surrounding valley. "Any questions?" he asked.
"How are our ponies going to cross the stream when it's all backed up?" "Why are you collapsing the ditches - they help take the water away to the stream?" "What is going to happen to the grassland on either side - next thing we know there won't be any grazing for our stock?" "Why don't you fill in lower down where it is wet already?"
As Joe fielded the questions it became increasingly clear among those listening that their ideas of what the landscape was for were fundamentally different. Joe temporised and suggested we move further down the valley to look at the erosion of the stream edge. There he explained that the attempts to drain the valley in the past had caused this erosion. "Yes, and gave us grazing", a Commoner interrupted. One of the Keepers, prodding a collapsing bank with his stick to check the depth, wanted to know why they didn't just leave it alone as it looked like it was already well on the way to re-establishing a bog. Joe referred to his map and started to explain slope angles and drainage rates. One of the Keepers interrupted to ask why they didn't just leave it all alone and save them all a wasted morning. Joe abandoned his notes and asked if they really understood how important valley mires were and then launched into a justification of the project.
I don't think you understand. We have to do this because of the EU
requirement and because this sort of environment is so rare and
threatened. There are only 120 valley mire systems in the whole of Europe
and 90 of them are found here. There are plants and animals and insects
that are only found in these systems. Anyway the mire acts like a big
sponge and slowly releases the water over the summer, keeping grass
greener and supplying water in a drought. Surely you can see that what we
are doing is right?
(Joe, Life Project Ecologist, 1999)
Somebody snorted loudly during his outburst. The atmosphere was tense. Clare talked about the statutory requirements under Ramsar and SSSI status to protect this sort of environment. They decided to move on further down the valley to discuss putting bales in at the bottom end that was already quite boggy.
As they spread out to wander I found myself next to one of the Commoners.
"Bloody bunny-huggers!" I nodded. "You know we are the true original ecologists. We have looked after the countryside for hundreds of years and don't need any university-educated ecologists to tell us what to do. Why not trust us to do what has protected the countryside so far? If it is not one thing its another with this bloody FC. They are coming on all soft now but they just want us to agree to their plans. This Forest has survived for 900 years without European money and protection for bits of boggy land. They only want to do this because they have to show that they are spending the money. Why don't they spend it on something that they are legally meant to do- like draining and clearing the gorse ? Those heather bales - they are just going to fill up with mud and make it dangerous for the ponies. Next thing you know we'll be pulling a dead animal out of here. Why can't they leave well alone? All those plants and bugs have survived so long anyway."
At the final stop, almost directly opposite the pine trees planted to shield the car park, things deteriorated further. Voices got louder and a senior Forester reminded everyone of the "rules of civilised discussion". Joe was visibly rattled and suggesting that if they were only going to allow him to put bales in down here it was hardly worth it. Where was their give and take? No agreement was forthcoming. The group broke into individual conversations and most meandered back to their vehicles to move on to the next site. The TV crew cornered four people to interview rounding off what for them was a very successful day's filming.
Naming something states what it 'is' and claims ownership of it. In the New Forest, at one level calling a place a "valley mire system" is obviously different from calling it "grazing". At a second level there are the namings that enforce national and worldwide landscape encoding. Here are the reminders of the FC's legal requirement to drain the valley, the subsequent (and not-so-subtle) reminder of the English Nature representative of statutory requirements of environmental protection. These designations themselves immediately include those in the know and exclude others. Here also, the Life project through its capital investment, its staff, and the new coalitions it has spawned represents a new spatial arena. In this arena contemporary environmental notions of nature as threatened by humans on a global scale are written afresh in the valorisation of "endangered habitats" and "rare species". Finally, there is the reflexive naming - "bloody FC", "pig-headed Commoners" - where rehearsal of roles in the landscape is paramount. Embedded in this is a degree of ambivalence as the Life project has opened up the concept of landscape value for an imagined human totality, and a subsequent trying-on-for-size of this new expanded field within the terms of the old power structures.
Secondly, who is making these power/knowledge statements? Using the metaphors of colonial geography of Blunt and Rose (1994), we might imagine the FC as representing a powerful 'colonial' discourse. They have the ability to significantly change the landscape, to 'make' it theirs through direct intervention. But 'the FC' on examination disintegrates. Keepers, Foresters, Ecologists - each have distinctive landscapes, part inherited pattern, part training, part individual interests. Joe was as much talking to the Keepers present as anyone else. On another occasion a manager asked how they should keep the Keepers "on message"? The FC attempts to present a cohesive discourse but is itself riven, complex and dynamic - Keepers are often also Commoners. The Commoners themselves claim an identity part historical, part mythical. But they, too, fragment into partial representatives, occasional visitors to the role of Commoner among their other social lives. In other contexts they distinguish between 'real' Commoners and those who are just visitors who have bought land. Some who are vocal, active in consultation panels and at the Verderers Court, are also incomers with time and motivation to spare for debate. Others with commoning rights do not exercise them and maintain a very low profile in debates about the Forest. They also have families with children who either cannot afford to take over farms or do not want to.
Thirdly, there are the technical and professional modes of claiming power/knowledge. In the introduction it was suggested that a great deal of 'making' the landscape by managers takes 'place' in office environments. A crucial part of this process is the production and use of maps and the measurements on which these are based. The FC has a planning department whose sole aim is producing maps for management interventions (see also chapter 6). With constant reference to his maps and plans Joe was making claims to an authority and a sense of control not evident in the 'real' world of bitter confrontation. The Commoners and Keepers present were repeatedly drawing his attention away from the maps to their landscape. For Joe, power to imagine the morally right universe of a re-established mire was most effectively expressed through the maps and the technical surety of his measurements. The power claimed in this discourse is what Lefebvre (1991) glosses as the "illusion of transparency", the claim of mimetic representation in maps. As Blunt and Rose explain;
Transparent space assumes that the world can be seen as it really is
and that there can be unmediated access to the truth of objects it sees;
it is a space of mimetic representation
Furthermore, transparent space tends toward homogeneity, toward a denial of difference and an assumption of authority by removing the possibility of alternative landscapes. Creating what the valley might have been (a boggy piece of land that evolved into a particular environment over hundreds of years of human/animal/vegetable interaction) measuring what it is, and mapping what it should be elides an imagined future with a 'transparent' present and past. Technical tools obscure the highly specific valuation, the careful selection of significance and the overriding import of proposing a dramatic change in the landscape by reference to the past.
I hope this discussion has been successful in highlighting some of the ethical dilemmas facing researchers in England (or at least me). It demonstrates how much of the ethics involved are to do with personal relationships, but ones which are tensioned, and indeed in some instances created by quite distant and diffuse powers and places. It sometimes takes research to go 'wrong' to underline how much issues observed through a distant academic lens always have the potential to become personal, immediate and challenging. We should never forget that 'interesting' issues can be fundamental to people's identities and we are required to respect that. On the other hand, to stress a distant observers role fails to engage with our own, messy, 'already-engaged' status. There are certainly no easy answers.
As a brief coda, below is a table that represents one of my attempts to make sense of a moral/ethical landscape from the point of view of members of the hunt.