By: Sonjay Singh
Last Thursday, Feb. 16, at the Rittenberg Lounge, Stuart Kirsch, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and author of Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea, gave a lecture entitled “Science and Politics, Engaged Anthropology Backstage.” The lecture focused on a new kind of anthropology in which the scientist had a subjective interest in his study and participated proactively in advocating for the people whom they are advocating for. Specifically, he focused on the backstage of his work and on its ethical implications, wondering about the impacts of a new trend of anthropologists working for the government or corporations, rather than for academia.
Kirsch worked for many years as an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea with the Yonggom people and, in his work, ended up advocating for them during the trial of the OK Medi mine when they caused immense environmental damage to the area, resulting in a class-action lawsuit. The mine dumped sediment and waste into the river causing flooding and contamination of the nearby area which damaged crops of Plantain and Taro, two important staples for the indigenous people. The mine was able to do this by having only one or two people from each village sign permits allowing them to operate in the area, and by taking advantage of people who did not know much about the potential problem.
Before Kirsch’s work, other scientists studying the area were unconcerned with the environmental impact, and instead, chose to focus on the economics. Kirsch’s emphasis on humanity, which despite being less tangible and is arguably more important, brought a new light to the issue. However, by going against the typical view in his publications, Kirsch took a political stance, an action unusual in most scientific methods. According to Kirsch, this is a new kind of science; rather than merely supplying information, scientists are actively working towards a goal. Obviously, it has certain benefits. Because of Kirsch’s advocacy, the indigenous people won millions of dollars in the lawsuit and the mine is scheduled to deactivate this year. However, it also has its dangers.
One such issue is that recently, anthropologists have not made all of their work public. Instead, they keep it for their employers, who are typically corporations. There are also fewer scientists in the academic world because more and more skilled anthropologists are offered high-paying positions for corporate interests. Even corruption is an issue, the temptation of which has affected Kirsch during his work in Papua New Guinea. While the trial against the mine was occuring, Kirsch was bribed with an impressive sum of money to switch sides, a proposal he clearly declined. With scientists on the front of issues, rather than just providing information, the information itself can become tainted and guarded. However, having scientists fighting for a goal also makes the information available faster, which creates a double-edged sword.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to tell what direction science is going in, but hopefully, wherever it goes, scientists like Kirsch will be at the forefront, promoting an ethical approach in increasingly politicized times.