Chapter VI

Research on Minorities

One of the major areas which the Committee believed had an important impact on minorities in the discipline concerned the research that has been conducted on minority populations by anthropologists. A main complaint heard by minority students is that most of the research conducted on their particular ethnic group contained errors and distortions, and the goal of many minority students is to work to correct these distortions. Three questions, 21, 22 and 23, focused on this issue and attempted to derive an assessment of how respondents viewed the quality and usefulness of anthropological research for minority groups. The questions follow:

Question 21:

Question 22:

Question 23:

The majority of the respondents answering Question 21 (15 of 20) indicated that research on minority groups has been a disservice to their group (see Table 32, Appendix C). Ten replied that it was both a service and disservice, and 5 interpreted research on minority groups as a service.

The 5 people (3 Asians and 2 Blacks) who felt that studies on minorities had rendered a service rather than a disservice, identify the value of the service aspect as providing descriptions of the differences among groups, good ethnography and promoting understanding among people. One remark by an Asian respondent indicated that anthropological studies seemed to be of more service "since 1960." Another noted that the concept "cultural relativism" was a service factor. One person remarked that anthropological studies seemed to be a "service to the majority" with an orientation to ethnic "adaptation to white middle-class." Spanish-speaking respondents were not as precise as a group. One had "not followed the literature," one was neutral, a third "felt strongly" about research on Latin America but said nothing more. These are atypical respondents. Some Spanish speakers indicated they were not socialized as members of a native born American ethnic group, but because of their surnames, were treated in a distinct manner within the profession. In the service area, Blacks felt that anthropological studies "increased sensitivity" and emphasized the "common biological heritage" of the human species.

Of the 15 answers referring to the disservice performed by studies on minority groups, American Indians and Blacks spoke in terms of exploitation, fallacious interpretations, and speakers "for my tribe." Disservice statements included the following: American Indians were often seen as "exotics," "problems," "my people," and as "training grounds" for anthropologists. Anthropologists were labeled as "involved in tribal affairs," "expert witnesses," presenters of "embarrassing" reports, carriers of "contagious diseases," "policymakers," producers of "fatherless children" and causers of "social chaos." Blacks, on the other band, tended to be exceedingly precise about those anthropological works and authors whom they felt did a disservice to their group. Many were able to state impressions regarding other groups, particularly American Indians. Blacks generally felt that the work on Black American culture perpetuates the stereotypes of inferiority and matrifocality and assessed this work before the 1960s as being heavily biased. Other responses stated that anthropological studies explain and justify certain attitudes and sets of values of the majority society and that such studies were "handmaidens to racist thought."

A dominant theme among those who believed anthropological studies render a disservice to minority groups is the negative implication of the basic concepts and assumptions underlying these studies. Several comments by respondents on this issue follow:

Another important topic which emerged from the comments related to the relationship of anthropologists to policymakers:

And finally the focus of the research itself concerned some people:

The 10 individuals who responded in the category "both service and disservice" listed the positive as well as the negative contributions anthropological studies have made. Two of these comments follow:

Basically, anthropological studies have rendered a service to Blacks. The works of Herskovits, Raymond Smith's The Negro Family in British Guinea, Liebow's Tally's Corner, Valentine's Culture and Poverty, Harris' Patterns of Race in the Americas, Tannenbaum's Slave and Citizen and Boas' statements on Race, Language and Culture, all are rather serviceable. Carleton Coons' Origins of Races is a disservice as he moves from genes and fossils to IQ's and cultural achievement in the later pages of his works.

Anthropology has provided a disservice to minority groups in that, in the past, it has been a handmaiden to racist thought in our society. It helped to perpetuate popular views of "primitive" societies as savage, brutal and inferior. It focused on the weird, the deviant and strange, the gruesome and bizarre; and only recently have anthropologists considered other human societies in the totality of their daily lives as having some resemblance to the so-called "civilized" societies.

On the other hand, the service rendered is clearly the knowledge that the discipline has provided us about ourselves and others. All of the anthropological knowledge thus far gathered could serve as the basis for re-ordering of our world view, and reconstructing Western Society along more humane lines. Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen.

Then there were the reflective, more neutral points of view expressed, which did not feel strongly about the service-disservice aspect of minority studies, but tried to relate their answers more to anthropology as a discipline. For example:

Question 22 consisted of two parts. The first part asked the respondent to assess the research which had been conducted on his own group. The second part asked if the work could be improved. The answers to the first part of the question seemed to indicate a lack of knowledge of the literature by most respondents as a whole. The largest number (13) did not answer, 10 felt there had been no significant work, one was unfamiliar with "the group," 3 felt the work was good, 6 that it was bad, and 4 that it was both good and bad (see Table 33, Appendix C).

The responses to the second part of the question seemed to reflect stronger opinions than did answers to the first part. Sixteen persons felt that work on their minority group could be improved, 3 indicated research did not exist on their group, none opined that it could not be improved, and 18 did not answer (see Table 34, Appendix C).

In commenting, respondents indicated that native peoples could provide more direction in the improvement of research, and that a better knowledge of the group's language was needed by anthropologists. Other comments were that an assessment of the field should be done by a panel of Black and non-Black anthropologists and that research should include the application of findings.

Most of the 4 American Indian respondents assessed work on their group as both good and bad. Two comments were especially appropriate:

American Indian respondents made the following suggestions for improvement of research on their group:

Answers to this question by 4 Asians who responded were brief. Respondents claimed that little work had been done in the United States on Asian minorities, and what had been done was "skimpy," and "irrelevant or distorted; for example using outsider's categories." One person responded: "I must admit that I have not kept abreast of the literature on my own minority group, so I cannot really judge." Three of these respondents suggested that research on their minority group could be improved by (1) promoting joint research projects between minority and non-minority scholars, (2) improving language abilities of the researchers and testing "recently proposed hypotheses," and (3) employing members of the minority culture as researchers, being careful to "select those who are as little contaminated or brainwashed as possible by the `training' of standard anthropologists."

Answers given by 7 Spanish-speaking respondents, like those given by the Asian respondents, were brief. Considering aspects of each answer as multiple, 3 responses indicated no research had been done on their particular Latin minority culture, and 4 indicated that research could be improved. For example:

Two of these respondents commented that they did not have a minority group, referring to their Hispanic ancestry as other than Chicano:

The 6 Blacks who answered the question linked an assessment of the literature and work on their group with suggestions for its improvement. Assessment of work on Blacks in this country was rated as "abominable," "racist oriented," "shoddy," "shallow," "ill-informed," "arrogant," "naive," "one-sided," "heavily biased," "distorted," and "designed to equip the ruling class with perpetual authority." Samples of the responses from Blacks follow:

Among the ideas for improving the quality of research on the Black community was the suggestion that studies be done by committed Black anthropologists and that these studies be geared to the needs of the Black communities, that studies be explicitly oriented towards facilitating far reaching change. A conceptual reorientation was also proposed by one respondent:

Question 23 asked our respondents to suggest ways for making anthropology more relevant and useful to minority groups. This question resulted in a greater number of responses from our sample of 37 than the others considered in this section. Thirty responded, only 2 respondents had no comment, and 5 did not respond (see Table 35, Appendix C).

A few persons responded with general observations. For example:

Suggestions on the way in which anthropology can be utilized to serve the needs of minority groups will be discussed under appropriate headings, as follows:

Funding

Four respondents made suggestions about funding. It was proposed that research funds be controlled in some manner by the group to be studied. In one case, the suggestion was made that funds be controlled by the community; in the second case, they would be controlled by minority member anthropologists.

Training and Education of Minorities

Two people commented on the training of minorities. The suggestion here was that anthropologists should train members of the group not to be professional anthropologists but "to meet the needs of the people and the administrators with whom they must deal." In addition, "anthropology must train students in the institutions of higher learning to be more aware of contemporary society."

Educating the Public

Eight people believed that educating the public was a good way for anthropology to serve the needs of minority groups. Disseminating anthropological material to the general public through the mass media and the education of school teachers received the greatest emphasis. Examples:

New Research Directions

Ten people emphasized the importance of new directions in anthropological research. The most dominant theme that emerged here was that anthropologists should study the pattern of authority and domination and turn away from the study of minority groups. Examples:

Relationship with the Minority Community

Four respondents made suggestions concerning the relationship between the researcher and the minority community. Essentially, the anthropologists should work closer with the community in the planning and execution of the research and should see that the results of the research are made available to the people.

Government Agencies and Programs

Five respondents suggested that anthropologists should participate more in policy-making decisions. The anthropologists should, "seek to provide institutionalized roles for anthropological researchers and advisers in all government agencies with minority group responsibilities."

Anthropology and the University

The recruitment of minority students and the "hiring [of] teachers and researchers on equal status" in anthropology was the focus of the 6 responses which fill-in this category.

Suggestions for Minority Anthropologists

The main suggestion here by 7 anthropologists was to "create a Third World anthropology" and to engage in activities to improve the number of minority anthropologists as well as the conditions of minorities in this society.

What emerged from the results of these three questions is that minority scholars are generally displeased with anthropological research on their groups. However, most people visualized the positive or potentially positive benefits of anthropology and remain relatively optimistic. In fact, a relatively strong sentiment for changing the focus of the discipline emerged. The perceived biases and distortions cause many minority anthropologists a great deal of difficulty. When one is a member of a group that has been characterized by a study in terms of such concepts as disorganization, fatalism, etc., it is difficult not to take this personally and set the task for oneself "to correct all the damn lies anthropologists have written about us."

It was observed earlier in this chapter that American Indians and Blacks were the most familiar and often the most critical of works on their respective groups while Asians and Spanish-speakers seemed relatively unfamiliar with writings on their group. Earlier, in Chapter I, it was observed that Blacks and American Indians had lived the minority experience in America to a much greater degree than the Spanish-speakers and Asians in our sample. Thus, Blacks and American Indians, as native American minorities, have participated more in the social movements that took place in this country in the last decade, which placed great emphasis on knowledge and pride in one's ethnic background.

Among the Black and American Indian respondents, many characterized specific works in positive or negative terms. What is interesting to note in this respect, is that different individuals characterized the same book, for example, Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner as a service and a disservice. What this fact may indicate more than anything else is that a great deal of variation will exist among the members of any one particular minority group as to what direction a "Third World" anthropology should take.

Table of Contents / Back to Chapter 5 / Forward to Chapter 7 / Appendix

horizontal line
About AAA
/ Join AAA / Jobs & Careers / AAA Meetings / AAA Publications
Sections & Interest Groups
/ Staff Directory / Anthro Links / Support AAA

Questions or comments? We want to hear from you!
Contact us  / AAA Privacy Policy

Copyright 1996-2006, American Anthropological Association
2200 Wilson Blvd, Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22201; phone 703/528-1902; fax 703/528-3546
horizontal line