Documentary Explores Anthropological Controversies

On Monday evening BBC Four broadcast Secrets of the Tribe as part of its Storyville strand. The documentary, which was widely reviewed when it came out last year, explores various controversies and ethical scandals around anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami people in the Amazon basin – these range from feuds over method and the interpretation of data through to the sexual abuse of minors and accusations of involvement with  fatal medical experiments funded by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the programme focuses in particular on Napoleon Chagnon, a Hemingway-like character who has been controversial for some time: in 2000 a journalist named Patrick Tierney published a book that accused him of having been part of a project that had spread disease among the Yanomami, and other anthropologists have rejected his characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce warrior people. Chagnon in turn is scathing of his critics, accusing them of idealising and misrepresenting the Yanomami, and of ignoring the role of biology; although he may be isolated among anthropologists, he now has a new audience with sociobiologists, and we’re shown footage from an event in Chagnon’s honour held by the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. One speaker here (John Tooby, although not identified in the programme) commends Chagnon because “what really pisses off anthropologists is [that] in all their different ways they have their pretentions Nap outdid them.” One hostile former colleague, Kenneth Good (himself controversial for having married an underage Yanomami girl in the 1970s), regards Chagnon as “jumping on the sociobiology and evolutionary psychology bandwagon”.

The documentary also explores the behaviour of Jacques Lizot, a powerful protégé of Claude Lévi-Strauss. A number of Yanomami interviewees accuse Lizot of sexual predations against young boys, and his name is now given to priapic statuettes made by the group; the linguist Marie-Claude Müller realised that something was wrong when she noticed that Lizot had gratuitously imposed sexual meanings onto his translations of Yanomami words such as the word for “stroking”. Both Chagnon and local Salesian missionaries are accused of having failed to report Lizot’s abuses, and although the Salesians eventually had Lizot removed from the field, one Salesian interviewee, named Maria Isobel Eguillor, remains supportive:

He taught all of us anthropology. He gave us linguistic classes. He fought for health, for education. I believe Lizot did not exploit the Yanomami. Rather, he collaborated with us in education. Each man’s personal life is his own concern, right?

Those in the UK can watch the documentary for the next few weeks here.

I previously blogged on ethical controversy around anthropology here.

One Response

  1. […] Documentary Explores Anthropological Controversies Posted on January 14, 2011 by Richard Bartholomew ( […]

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