Saturday, April 18, 2020

Anthropology in the Pandemic

At the University of British Columbia all non-essential and non-COVID-19 research has been 'curtailed' by the university (link).  There is a specific prohibition on in person research (though a definition of such is assumed, not defined).  I assume in-person research is simply any kind of human subject research wherein the researcher and the research participant are  physically in the same general space.  

Research that can be conducted over the phone or internet can, if approved, be continued. 

I have been trying to find the provincial health order that might have compelled UBC to ban all in person research out right.  My various questions to officials in the research ethics off or the office of the vice-president of research have, to date, gone unanswered.*  It would be useful to know what provincial or federal guidance/order/notice was followed to come to a decision to essentially shut down most kinds of anthropological research. 

My understanding of the provincial (and various associated federal and regional) health orders and guidance notes around physical distancing would suggest that anthropological research could be conducted, as long as the appropriate measures  were followed (personal protective equipment as appropriate, 2 meters distance, etc). Yet UBC has 'curtailed' all in person research, even that which might be in compliance with the orders around physical distancing.

There are many types of anthropological research , of course, but that which my students and I engage in is not driven by structured interviews in which 'informants' are lined up and interviewed like cogs on a conveyor belt.  We engage in a classic kind of research that involves participation, engagement, observation, conversation, and moments of shared silence.  There are types of 'qualitative' research in which the interview is at the core of the project (these kinds of research could be tossed online with minimal disruption). But the heart of anthropological research is more humane, personable, and intimate. It involves actually being there (where ever the 'there' might be). 

I could imagine a number of project one might wish to start up today. 

For example, the fishing industry is currently facing a major slow down and market disruption. This isn't just in BC, it's global. Fleets are being beached, processing workers laid off, markets crashing, all around the globe. One project might involve reaching out to fishermen along our coast to learn and observe how onboard practices may have changed.  Perhaps the researcher might even sign up to join the boat as a crewmember (from what I hear it's hard to hire a crew right now). Fishing (along with hunting and cultivation) is labeled an essential part of the food production chain and thus currently deemed essential in BC.  The only drawback is there isn't much of a market right now given the global shutdown.
My current research involves small teams (one, two or three) working in the coastal alpine. Essentially we are hiking along remote mountain ranges observing mountain goats (filming and collecting biological samples) and then talking with family and friends about what we observed to gain greater understanding of long standing Gitxaała practices within the coastal alpine.

My ‘questioning’ of UBC’s ’curtailment’ includes a concern with the meta level principles/health orders that led to the ban on all in person research and with a more micro level focus on the criteria that would make in person research feasible. I raise the first concern as I think UBC’s curtailment goes beyond the health orders.  I ask the second as I think we need to engage in some curtailment and I am therefore intersted in what criteria we might use to facilitate local in person research.  

*Update, April 18, 8:30pm: one response was received that referred me to this page and noted that in addition to physical distancing orders, there are restrictions on non-essential travel and concerns with impacts on remote areas. That is reasonable. Remaining to consider are criteria for in person research within one's own locality (thus obviating issues with non-essential travel). Also, travel should not be confused with commuting. Travel implies a notion of journey of some time, whereas commuting is a regular movement from a home to a place of work and back. Commuting is not, from what I can see, prohibited.

There is also a category 'field research' that might apply for anthropological research, however I suspect that the kind of 'fieldwork' envisioned is more of the biological or geological sciences, for example.

One looks forward to a more engaged process that brings in a wide array of disciplinary specialists so that the full range and nuance of 'field' and in-person research can be considered fairly and safely.

Update, April 19, 5:30am: One further thought - there is a sense to which the university is envisioning faculty's core and primary roles as teachers. This is only one portion of what we do, research (which includes writing and publishing) and administrative functions being the bulk of our work. But the work from home directives focus primarily upon our teaching. That is understandable as teaching is at the core of the university's public face and core 'market.'  Teaching and learning was the publicly disruptive act of curtailment and required immediate attention. But it does underline a perception that research, especially in the arts, is something 'other,' almost a luxury that can be set aside until later.  


  1. "The onus is on the researcher to demonstrate that they can work within the provincially imposed public health restrictions. From the point of view of ethics, it is necessary to demonstrate that the community is willing to accept the risks of having non-residents visit the community and that the risks to the potential participants and to the researchers themselves are merited by the timeliness and academic /scientific merits of the research now."

    I received the above unsolicited comment. A good lot of which I would agree with (and most anthropologists would to: that a community is willing to be researched & accept those associated risks. However, one clear ideological notion is this one about the "scientific merits of research." Anthropologists, especially those of us who do not do more quantitative' research are always being called out for lacking 'scientific' merit, even in the best of times. Many anthropologists anguish over 'making their work meaningful.' What the pandemic response is showing is the rise of a kind of managerialism in triumph, acting with impunity to define what is 'real' or 'worthwhile' research, what counts, what doesn't. Nothing has really changed in this, but now those in positions of control are acting without pretence.

  2. One additional thought here - the comment's author also assumes that anthropological research must necessarily involve an outsider traveling to an isolate community and imposing research upon that community. Clearly, there are (and especially were) anthropologies like that. But times have changed and a lot more people do research where they live, in their own communities, and do not feel the need to engage in cultural voyeurism.