Public Thinker: Stuart Kirsch on Engaged Anthropology

Stuart Kirsch began his career as an anthropologist doing research on myth ...

Stuart Kirsch began his career as an anthropologist doing research on myth, magic, and sorcery in the rain forest of New Guinea. His first book, Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations (2006), examines how indigenous peoples draw on their cultural resources to make sense of their incorporation into a modern state and the global economy. His second book, Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and their Critics (2014), examines how mining companies respond to political opposition from NGOs and indigenous movements. He is one of very few anthropologists to have conducted research at both the bottom and the top of the global economy, with both indigenous peoples and corporations.

But Kirsch is best known for his work as an engaged anthropologist, which frames both of these texts. He was actively involved in the struggle of the people living downstream from the Ok Tedi copper-and-gold mine in Papua New Guinea against its Australian owners, including their landmark lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Victoria. He conducted research in the Marshall Islands for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal on behalf of the people from Rongelap Atoll, and he assisted landowners in Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, in their case against the Gold Ridge mine. He has also worked with indigenous peoples in Suriname and Guyana on their efforts to secure their land rights, as well as with people opposed to the El Dorado mine in El Salvador.

I caught up with Stuart to talk about his most recent book, Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text (2018), in which he writes about these experiences and the value of doing research that has the potential to contribute to political change.

Christopher Loperena (CL): Stuart, thank you for talking to me today about the interface between scholarly research and political engagement, which is the focus of your recent book.

In Engaged Anthropology, you present examples of interventions that build on long-term research, as well as other circumstances in which you were asked to intervene in different kinds of political and legal conflicts in places where you didn’t have extensive knowledge of the ethnographic context.

Can you talk about your decision to participate in those cases involving places where you hadn’t worked previously? How were you able to support the different claimants you were working with in their political struggles despite the lack of long-term research experience on which anthropologists usually rely?


Stuart Kirsch (SK): Thanks, Chris, it’s great to talk to you. As you know, the ideal for an anthropologist is always long-term engagement with the community under study: staying at least a year, learning the local language, finding out how people are related to each other, and so forth. But sometimes anthropologists are asked to provide information in a much shorter time frame, which precludes extended fieldwork.

To be honest, I doubt I could do my engaged work had I not started my career by spending two years conducting ethnographic research in one place. That original fieldwork provides me with a valuable comparative perspective, which helps me to see the similarities across places—for example, between people living in the rain forests of New Guinea and in the Amazon—while also recognizing the important differences.

While I don’t think the results from short- and long-term research are comparable, it is nonetheless possible to produce something of value in a relatively short period of time, especially when the community has invited you to conduct research that will benefit them in some way, such as helping them obtain recognition of their land rights. In long-term ethnography, there’s a lot of waiting around for the right people to agree to talk with you, and even of learning who to talk with in the first place. But in projects where the community members have an interest in the successful completion of your research, the work can move forward a lot more expeditiously.

In contrast to the view that anthropologists only produce knowledge of value after we’ve become deeply embedded in a particular place, we also have a complementary skill set that tends to be overlooked and undervalued, our ability to produce short-term assessments of a situation.

CL: Right. And that seems crucial if you are going in for a very short period of time, having taken the necessary steps prior to your arrival to ensure that you can access the data and produce the report that’s needed.

I am really interested in hearing more about how you see your role as an anthropologist. One of the issues that comes up when doing this type of work, especially if you’re engaged in legal advocacy, is how you can make your ethnographic findings intelligible to a court of law. Can you describe some of the challenges you’ve confronted in doing that, and how you’ve been able to navigate these dealings with various courts and tribunals as an anthropologist?


SK: Well, the first challenge is to convey a narrative or story that community members recognize as accurately representing their situation. That may not be a concern for most witnesses in court, but it’s crucial for anthropologists, who have special responsibilities to the people with whom we conduct our research. The second challenge is to produce an account that is legible to lawyers and judges, as you say, right?


CL: Yes.


SK: Anthropologists are often most uneasy about this part of the process, of addressing the legal system in their writing. But if you’re working with lawyers, they are used to providing instruction to novices in the process of taking affidavits and depositions. You are also not expected to make legal judgements; that’s their job! And they will be quite fierce about it. So I have found that writing for the courts is not as difficult as anthropologists imagine it to be.

There’s also a third challenge, which is to produce accounts that our colleagues will recognize as being “good enough” anthropology. When doing this kind of work, it is necessary to keep all three of these audiences in mind: community members, the courts, and our colleagues.

To be successful also requires taking care not to fall into rabbit holes of theoretical debate, discussing the kinds of tangles that scholars love to unknot. The people in the community you are studying are unlikely to care about these debates, and the lawyers and judges reading your report generally have limited patience for them.

But that doesn’t mean simplifying the results. It doesn’t mean stripping out the relevant theory. You can incorporate references to contemporary anthropological theory as long as you explain their significance to the courts. By and large, the lawyers and judges I’ve interacted with have been open to finding new ways to think about the complex scenarios they are confronted with, especially if it helps them to reach the right conclusion.

CL: In the book you talk about how you started doing engaged research as a result of your work on the conflict over the Ok Tedi mine, in Papua New Guinea. So, could you tell us a little bit about the case, including what led you to decide to participate in the dispute as an advocate for the affected communities downstream from the mine?


SK: My involvement with the Ok Tedi case began while I was still a PhD student. I was living and working in a village located downstream from a large copper-and-gold mine that was polluting their river system. The people living in the affected area didn’t have much in the way of external support or resources to push back against the mining company. So, I started by writing about the situation, reaching out to the media, and trying to connect the people living in the affected communities with international NGOs that might help them protect their environment.

As time went by, I realized I had a choice to make: whether to pursue my own research interests and academic career, or to concentrate on the problems they were facing and how to solve them. I decided to focus on the latter. Eventually I contributed to their lawsuit against the Australian owners of the mining project.

However, while doing this work, I gradually came to realize that indigenous political movements were an understudied subject in anthropology. My interactions with community members, their lawyers, international NGOs, and the mining company were actually great sources of ethnographic data! And so I became an engaged anthropologist as the result of the decision to write about my participation in their political struggle.


CL: Wow. It’s fascinating how this rich material emerged organically in the course of your interactions with the people living there. One of the things I found interesting in the chapter on the Ok Tedi mine, but also in what you just said, is that there were important differences in perspectives among the various parties with whom you worked.

It seemed from my reading that there was a tension between how people expressed concerns about the environmental impacts from the project and their demands for compensation. How did you negotiate those different kinds of interests in doing your political work?


SK: That’s a really important issue. Some scholars have said that when anthropologists become involved in activist research, they need to identify where they agree with their informants, and that should determine what they work on together. My primary focus in the Ok Tedi case has always been the negative environmental impacts of the mining project. People living downstream from the mine were profoundly disturbed by the pollution of their rivers, the accompanying deforestation, and the disappearance of the birds and other animals living along the river corridor, as they described it all to me on numerous occasions, including during life history interviews. But the environmental impacts from the mining project also affected the food security of the people living in the affected communities, and consequently most of their public objections to the mining project took the form of demands for additional monetary compensation, to make up for the resources they had lost.

When I initially sought to draw attention to the problems downstream from the Ok Tedi mine, I emphasized the environmental consequences of the project more than their compensation claims, which were actively being discredited in national debates. This complemented what the people in the communities were saying, but put me at odds with other scholars and public intellectuals in the capital of Port Moresby and in Australia, who insisted that the dispute was primarily economic, and that paying additional compensation would settle the matter, without any corresponding need to stop discharging tailings and other mine wastes into the river system. Consequently I felt it was especially incumbent on me to convey the enormity of the environmental impacts and how they were affecting the lives of the people living there.

However, with the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, I have become more willing to discuss how the environmental and economic dimensions of the situation are interconnected. So one of the points I make in the book is that while advocates may initially focus their attention on particular issues to help gain traction in public debates, it is possible to revisit those questions in subsequent work.


Turn, Turn, Turn

By Jon Bialecki

CL: Another thing that I found compelling in your work was how you were able to develop concepts or theories that had applicability beyond the immediate case at hand. For example, I have found your theory of “culture loss,” which you formulated in relation to your work on nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, useful in my own research when thinking about territorial dispossession in Honduras among the Garifuna people and the ways in which they’re articulating their claims. But in this chapter of the new book you describe how you develop the concept of culture loss in a way that actually serves a purpose in a court case, by providing support for the payment of compensation for the damages done as a result of US nuclear testing. Could you talk a little bit about that experience and about how you came to this conceptualization of culture loss and its evidentiary weight within the court?


SK: One of the things that stands out in these court cases are the demands they make on indigenous claimants. For example, in the Australian context, Aboriginal Australians are required to demonstrate continuity in native title claims cases. In order to regain control over property that was taken from them, they are required to provide evidence that they still follow traditional law despite the passage of time, and that they still practice the associated rituals. They have to demonstrate continuity in order to gain recognition in the present. Claims about past injustices are insufficient on their own.

In the Marshall Islands case, however, the demands on the claimants were reversed. The tribunal was set up to adjudicate loss and damage to persons and property. The people were not being asked to demonstrate cultural continuity, but rather to attest to how their lives have been profoundly disrupted by their relocation. It was necessary to emphasize the long-lasting negative impacts of nuclear weapons testing for the people from Rongelap.


CL: Yes.


SK: One example of the losses associated with their relocation was their inability to build and sail long-distance canoes. Being unable to live on their home atoll meant that they no longer had access to the tall, straight breadfruit trees with which they build sailing canoes, or the pandanus trees with which they fashion the mats for sails. But losing access to these material resources was only one dimension of the problem. Without these resources, they couldn’t teach members of the next generation how to build and sail their canoes for ocean voyages. Without access to these materials, there was an accompanying loss of an important domain of technical knowledge. So we argued that there was a direct link between the material dimensions of their losses and the continuity of important cultural and intellectual resources associated with them. That’s one of the main issues I wanted to bring to the attention of the tribunal.


CL: Yes. And do you feel like the court, in this case the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands, was receptive to these types of arguments? By using the idea of cultural property rights you were able to make some really powerful interventions in the case. But from my reading, the judgment seemed to focus narrowly on compensation to the people of Rongelap for their lost access to land. How was the argument around cultural property rights incorporated into that judgment, from your perspective?


SK: Courts respond differently to innovative claims. On the one hand, you can help create a legal precedent that may influence other cases. But on the other, some courts are reluctant to take too great of a leap. And with regard to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in particular, which was set up by the United States as part of a settlement with the people of the Marshall Islands for the consequences of nuclear weapons testing, any judgment by the tribunal has to be allocated funds by the US Congress. So the tribunal is inherently conservative, because they don’t want their judgment to be rejected. So, from my perspective, the tribunal played it safe in its assessment of the claims by the people of Rongelap. Questions about culture loss were relegated to the footnotes of the judgment. And what the footnotes say is that these matters are incorporated under payments for the loss of access, loss of use, and other established legal categories. But it’s also true that the award in the Rongelap case was the largest of a series of judgments about the impact of nuclear weapons testing on different atolls in the Marshall Islands. So it is possible to conclude that even though this argument wasn’t formally acknowledged by the tribunal, it was nonetheless influential in the final outcome.


Conjuring Anthropology’s Future

By Simon During

CL: Absolutely. In Engaged Anthropology, you speak to at least two problems associated with civil conflict. You write about the “ethnic tensions” in the Solomon Islands from 1998 to 2003, and also about the conflict in Indonesian West Papua, including a large refugee movement to Papua New Guinea that took place in the mid-1980s.

You also talk about some of the challenges of doing work in support of the refugee community and about being able to do research in these areas of acute tension. I was interested in knowing more about how you do the work of bearing witness to violence, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes has described it, and also contend with the constraints of doing research in such a situation, including the risk to one’s own safety. How do you negotiate that? And is the responsibility to bear witness an ethical responsibility, or is it more of an epistemic issue, or is it both?


SK: When I started out conducting ethnographic research in a village in Papua New Guinea near the border with Indonesian West Papua, there was a refugee camp less than a mile away. Most of the West Papuan refugees were from the same language community as the people living in the village. They had left their homes and walked across the border several years earlier because of their objections to military rule in Indonesia. I understood that the refugee leaders were suspicious of outsiders attempting to learn about the situation, so initially I limited my research to the people from Papua New Guinea. I walked past the refugee camp on a regular basis, but I didn’t stop to conduct interviews, although given that many of the refugees were related to the people from the village where I was living, I gradually became acquainted with some of them as individuals.

Nearly a full year went by without my interviewing the refugees about their political concerns. And finally, one of the refugees came and said to me, “Stuart, why don’t you ever come into our homes and talk to us about our situation?” And I responded by saying, “Well, invite me and I’ll come.” And that interaction kick-started the second component of my research, in which I worked closely with the refugees, listened to their stories, and learned about their political ambitions. I had to be patient with them until they decided they were comfortable talking with me.

The other part of the story has to do with their subsequent demand that I become involved in their struggle for freedom, or merdeka, in West Papua. In the new book, I recount how several of the refugees turned to me during the middle of a male initiation ceremony in which we were all participants, asking: “Are you going to use this information to help us, or to help the people working against us?” It was clear they saw this as an either/or situation: if I didn’t help them, then I would be betraying their trust. I felt as though my participation in their most important ritual had established an obligation for me to reciprocate by supporting their political ambitions, at least to the extent that I was able to do so.


CL: I’m interested in hearing more from you about critiques within the academy of politically engaged research, or what is sometimes called activist anthropology, which some people claim will lead to the politicization of research and thereby compromise the validity of anthropological findings. Based on your long experience doing this type of work, how would you respond to those critiques?


SK: This kind of work is always already political. There’s no ducking that question anymore. To some extent, the anthropologists associated with the writing culture era in anthropology, during the 1980s, already resolved this question. When they examined how the positionality of anthropologists influences their research projects, they realized that it isn’t possible for anthropologists to write themselves out of their ethnographies by claiming to possess an objective view of things. What they called for instead is greater reflexivity, or attention to the political underpinnings of research projects. What is especially noteworthy about these observations is that anthropology and anthropologists have now had three decades to adjust to this recognition.

But other disciplines haven’t undergone a similar period of introspection. When I read about recent controversies in the scientific community, I sometimes think they would benefit from a dose of reflexivity. Let me give you one example that comes to mind, about climate change research. When climate change researchers are attacked for being political, they step back and say, “No, no, no; we’re objective, not political.” Instead of acknowledging the urgency of the moment, and how that affects what they study and publish, they insist on defending their work as scientifically sound but political neutral.

Climate change scientists agree on the importance of sharing their data in accessible formats. But they are often uncomfortable discussing the obvious political rationale and consequences of such actions. Like most other scientists, they haven’t really undergone the kind of disciplinary introspection anthropologists went through several decades ago. Many of them still believe you can completely separate out, or purify, scientific knowledge from the social context in which it is produced. They are under a great deal of pressure from their critics, but don’t have a lot of practical experience grappling with these issues.


CL: Yes.


SK: With respect to your question about engaged anthropology, there are a number of critiques out there, including the notion that aligning ourselves with one side or the other in a conflict will limit our ability to contribute to positive outcomes.

There are a variety of responses to this claim. Chris, you published an important essay that describes how taking a stand on a contentious issue can increase the anthropologist’s access to people on the other side of the debate rather than limiting who they are able to speak with.1 Anthropologists who say, “Oh, you’re not being neutral, therefore you’re not able to gain a productive understanding of the situation,” generally haven’t tried to do this kind of work themselves. People who do engaged anthropology don’t feel this way at all.

CL: Right. And it seems like, despite all the shifts in the ways we do anthropological research, which you trace back to the ’80s, and despite the long history of people doing this type of engaged work, there’s still some pushback from within the discipline and perhaps from within the scientific community at large. That’s one of the reasons why I think this work is so important.

For my last question I would like to know, and it’s really a two-part question, which I’m good at, apparently: What were your objectives in writing this book, and what do you consider to be the larger implications of this work for anthropology?


SK: Thanks, Chris. What I wanted to do in writing this book was to help keep open the space for anthropologists who want to do work that is explicitly political, that is intended to support our informants in their endeavors, or that is intended to help bring about change. Here I’m thinking in particular about graduate students and junior colleagues who, as you say, are likely to experience pushback when they try to do engaged research.

People decide to become anthropologists and enroll in graduate school for all sorts of reasons. It isn’t only about the pursuit of an academic career, and that’s especially true given the precarity of academic life these days. These students are often motivated by larger questions and problems. They want to do research that will make some kind of meaningful contribution to the world.

To some extent, this has always been true for anthropologists. I also think it is true for scholars in many of the other social and natural sciences. For example, most of my biologist friends have gone on to become conservationists, because they want to protect the species they have spent their lives observing and interacting with. I think most scholars envision making some kind of positive contribution to the world as a result of their pursuit of knowledge.

The idea of using academic knowledge to try to make a difference in the world is something that attracts a lot of students to anthropology and to other fields as well. One of the goals of the book was to bring attention to such efforts. I also wanted to write about these issues in a way that examines how such practices work, what I call the “backstage” of engaged research.


CL: Yes.


SK: And finally, I also wanted to demonstrate—through a series of case studies in different locations—the value of engaged research, the kinds of insights it has to offer in addition to its political contributions.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Christopher Loperena, “A Divided Community: The Ethics and Politics of Activist Research,” Current Anthropology, vol. 57, no. 3 (2016).
Featured image: Members of the Inter-American Commission on and Court of Human Rights visit Suriname in August 2015. Captain Margriet Biswane (center) of Alfonsdorp responds to questions from Fergus MacKay (right), attorney for the Kaliña and Lokono. Photograph by Cecilia La Hoz Barrera