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09 May 2010

Authenticity and the Anthropologist

I haven't been posting a lot lately, primarily because I've been saving my writing energy for putting together my internship proposal. As some of you know, I'll be heading out to Nevada this summer to work for the BLM on evaluating Shoshone traditional cultural properties (TCPs). Before I go, though, I have to write a proposal and defend it in front of my committee. So far I've finished the "conceptual approach" section and have pulled together some information for the background. Since it's basically finished, I thought it might be nice to post my conceptual approach here and get some feedback before I have to submit the proposal. If you have any comments, suggestions, questions, etc. please let me know so I can clarify and make changes as needed. Thanks in advance for your help!

Authenticity and the Anthropologist: A Conceptual Approach to Evaluating TCPs

The practical and sometimes ethical challenges involved in evaluating traditional cultural properties (TCPs) often come down to fundamental epistemological questions such as “What is Culture?” and “What is authenticity?” These questions require careful consideration and a proper conceptual framework.

If in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhon could find 169 different definitions and a dozen different conceptual approaches for the term “Culture” the diversity of the term has likely only increased in the intervening years (Kroeber, et. al. 1952). In spite of the noble efforts of many anthropologists, there has been little progress in formulating an operational definition of the term, and many have begun to dispense with it all together. However, the concept still plays an important role in public controversies (i.e. “Culture Wars,” “Cultural Rights,” etc.), as well as in defining the field of anthropology and our role as professionals. As a result, I believe it would be unwise to dispense with the term, though we may have to accept some degree of ambiguity in its definition.

With that in mind, there are some general principles that anthropologists have found (often the hard way) for understanding culture. First of all, we can no longer think of cultures as bounded entities with a high degree of historical continuity – cultures constantly interact with one another, change, grow, decay, vanish and occasionally reemerge in a new form. Second, we must avoid the Scylla of reification and essentialism and the Charybdis of reductionism. In other words, we can no longer think of cultures as structures which determine behavior, nor can we think of cultures as simply amalgamations of individual behavior and knowledge.

Past concepts of culture have often been too rigid, too bounded, and too structural. However, it is these concepts which the term calls to mind among many people outside of the field, and it is this kind of culture that we are expected to provide. For example, when we are called upon to evaluate TCPs, there is a bias in the guidelines toward clearly bounded communities with a continuous tradition. When, as often happens, this image of culture confronts the reality of cultures as diffuse and dynamic, questions of authenticity arise. In the case of the Chumash and Point Conception, Wilcoxon et al were asked to evaluate Point Conception and the surrounding area for TCP status. They found that there was little evidence to support the traditional use of the site by Chumash natives, though the site had become significant to the modern Chumash community. Furthermore, they they found discrepancies in the claim to bounded and continuous culture that the modern Chumash were trying to project. Ultimately, they opted to grant TCP status to the Point Conception site itself based on the limited evidence available, but denied the status to the surrounding area since it did not meet the requirements for a TCP. In such cases it becomes our role as “experts” to either re-solidify culture by granting the status of authenticity or to disperse it by denying the claim (though the granting or rejecting of individual claims will not likely be sufficient to accomplish either fully).

The question is, are these sites “authentic?” In some cases, the decision may be plain – the site has cultural significance or it doesn't. In other cases, such as the Point Conception case, the decision is a little more ambiguous. The cultural significance of the site may have emerged or been “rediscovered” recently or the community itself may not be as clearly defined as the guidelines dictate. In these cases, it's necessary to understand what constitutes “authenticity” and how it is defined both in public discourse and among anthropologists.

There are three ways to look at authenticity and the role of the ethnographer in evaluating claims. First, there is the traditional view of authenticity as an objective fact or essential characteristic of an object, which can be evaluated using material clues or based on the testimony of legitimate informants. The role of the ethnographer in this case is to act as a professionalized arbiter of authenticity, who has at his disposal certain methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and skills for determining the legitimacy of claimants and the authenticity of their claims. Evaluation generally starts from the assumption that the claim is false, and it is the job of the ethnographer to collect information to prove the veracity of the claim. If they can't do so, then the object is classified as inauthentic and any rights or benefits associated with authenticity are withdrawn. This is the role that we are generally expected to play by the public, by those who dispute a claim (See note 1 Below), and often by the claimants themselves. All hold a vested interest in determining the objective authenticity of a claim, but this role doesn't fit well with the concept of culture that most anthropologists subscribe to – the dynamic and dispersed concept.

This approach corresponds to a bounded and continuous concept of culture. The suggestion that a culture has changed or that it is not a discrete community would seem to demonstrate a lack of authenticity. Claimants may take this as an attack on their integrity, and the disputants might, unreasonably given the true nature of culture, take it as invalidating the claim. On the other hand, granting authenticity to a certain claim based on this faulty notion of culture, despite evidence to the contrary, is just as problematic. For the claimant, it could reify a notion of culture that is not necessarily valid and potentially privilege certain sub-groups within the culture (i.e. traditionalists) over others (i.e. non-traditionalists)(Haley et. al. 1997). In the minds of the disputant the anthropologist may be viewed as naïvely accepting whatever the claimants say, and unfairly ignoring their dispute. Clearly, this approach is problematic epistemologically, methodologically and ethically, and some other approach is necessary.

A second approach to authenticity is to view it as a social construct – an epistemological category that is actively created by human beings rather than being merely given or taken for granted. In this view, authenticity is no longer an objective fact or an essential quality of the object, but an ascribed category which is historically and socially contingent with certain social and political ramifications. “Traditions … are invariably defined in the present and reinterpreted to meet the ideological needs of the living” (Chambers). For the ethnographer, then, it is these ramifications that are of primary concern. Both the claim and the dispute are seen as being equally constructed, and it is the job of the ethnographer to evaluate the political and ethical consequences of each, and, from a critical perspective, uphold the constructs of the marginalized communities. In ascribing authenticity, then, the anthropologist makes a political statement in favor of one side or the other. S/he may choose to ascribe authenticity to the object in order to assist a marginalized population or to counter hegemonic forces. S/he may also choose not to deem the object authentic for the same reasons. This role, as with the previous one, puts a great deal of power in the hands of the ethnographer.

The question is no longer “Is this object authentic?” it is now “Who benefits from the ascription of authenticity upon this object and what are the political ramifications of that status?” The anthropologist may use ethnographic data to back his/her decision, and surely it will not be accepted by the stakeholders if some evidence is not provided, but the ultimate decision is a political one rather than an objective one. If the evidence is ambiguous, as is often the case, then the anthropologist has some degree of leeway in deciding whether or not to ascribe the status of authenticity.

Culture in the social constructivist view is always being invented, making it extremely dynamic and dispersed to the point of being non-existent (indeed, it is partially the result of the constructivist influence in anthropology that many have begun to dispense with the term Culture all together). The problem with this approach is that there can be no solid criteria for evaluating authenticity and the final decision may appear to many as the arbitrary decision of the ethnographer based on his or her own political agenda. There are those who attempt to find a middle ground between the first approach and the second, accepting some degree of objectivity to the claim of authenticity while maintaining a fundamentally constructivist position. But, in the end, there is no way to reconcile the two and a third approach is needed to move forward.

A third way of understanding authenticity is as a negotiated reality. That is, authenticity becomes an ontological reality through the process of evaluation/negotiation. The category is still viewed as historical and socially contingent, but it is no longer simply an arbitrary classification that the ethnographer ascribes based on political considerations. Instead, both the claim and the dispute are taken as being equally valid, and the ontological qualities of the object are negotiated among a heterogeneous set of mediators including ethnographic texts, members of the culture, government employees, stakeholder communities, legal documents, guidelines for evaluation, the characteristics of the object itself, cultural knowledge that may be embedded in the object, political and ethical considerations, and the anthropologist herself.

It is the far more humble role of the ethnographer to assemble as many mediators as possible, and it's in this process of assembling mediators that the status of the object (as either authentic or inauthentic) is constructed (in the sense of being built). In the end, whatever status the object achieves (since authenticity is no longer an a priori quality of the object or an arbitrarily ascribed status, but a status that must be worked toward), it must be well constructed(Latour 2007). Its status may change in the future as pieces of the assemblage are removed and new ones added (new information comes to light, regulations change, previous information is proven false, etc.) but if the status is well constructed, then it should be able to hold out in spite of these changes.

This approach to authenticity corresponds to a dynamic and dispersed view of culture. One in which culture is an ontological entity, but is not essentialized, or reified, which accounts for both structure and agency. Culture can be thought of as a complex, dynamic entanglement of a heterogeneous set of actors; not a discrete, static entity but a dynamic process of relations. This concept of culture accounts for both structure and agency and offers a better understanding of the ways different cultural groups interact and affect one another.

It is this last approach to authenticity that I will be using in evaluating the Shoshone TCPs. I don't anticipate as many complications as that of the Point Conception area with the Chumash natives, but it is important nevertheless to articulate the theoretical framework for my research. Understanding what constitutes authenticity and how it relates to different conceptions of culture will help to shape the methodology used to evaluate the sites, and will provide an ethical background should controversy arise.

(1) In the case of TCPs and other National Register sites there isn't necessarily a disputant to the claim of authenticity. Rather, there is an inherent skepticism built into the evaluation process, and the government represents the general public by anticipating potential conflicts of interest.


michael~ said...


It’s good to now you are continuing your learning throughout the summer with this new project. I wonder, though, what you think about approaches that attempt to “evaluate traditional cultural properties” in light of the all too subtle and continued colonization of life-worlds and life-ways by Western instrumental rationality? When we approach “culture” and traditions through the lens of “resource assessment”, or “knowledge management”, is that not in and of itself an appropriation and erasure of potential alternatives to the capital-based techno-economic systems (and institutions) that currently dominate the social field?

Let me fully disclose as well: I am one of those anthro-types turned technocrats which I am critiquing above. I work with public health and education systems to “increase capacity” and develop more holistic, people-based “programs”. So I certainly partake in projects and processes that make definitive use of instrumental rationality and ‘management-type’ mentalities. But to what end?

Now I hope that my own approach is highly sensitive to issues of micro to macro colonization, because I have certainly gone to great lengths to develop methods, styles and framing language that implicitly rebukes a narrow instrumental view of human activities, but I can tell you from experience that the people I work with (for the most part) are not at all sensitive to the fact that their ways of communicating and relating to the world and people are culturally specific and often quite symbolically violent.

To be sure, I don’t want to come off as an extreme cultural relativist, and understand that aboriginal peoples are already more or less integrated (assimilated) into the mainstream of modernity. There is, as you point out, no “pure” unit of culture, and all peoples are local manifestations emergent from a variety of forces, flows and assembled objects. But that is the point: aboriginal peoples are living populations with hybrid cultural lives, and should be allowed and encouraged to be as self-determinate and expressive as possible. So whom does the evaluation of cultural properties serve most?

What I am weary of is how we anthro-types are actually (and often unconsciously) helping to complete the process of colonialism in the name of the preservation of “cultural traditional properties”. That is to say, through some combination of idealism, sentimentality and amnesia applied anthropological work is often aligned with systemically dominating institutions, states and social projects. By bestowing “authenticity” and incorporating (tracking, codifying and translating) non-Western modes of being-in-the-world into certain neo-European evaluative projects and schemas we limit the practical existence of potential alternative ways of becoming, doing and relating, and help place legal and material constraints on particular social assemblages. In effect, we limit possible resistances, erase self-inscribed determinations and narratives, and cool off heated dynamics of contestation. These peoples and places and ecologies should, rather (in my opinion), stay OPEN – and, where desirable by the people themselves, in defiance of the whole legitimating apparatus of which “applied” projects are a part…

But maybe, in the context of “traditional cultural properties”, it’s a situation of we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t – because the blizzard of the consumer-capital world is relentlessly blanketing all possible resistances?


Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks for commenting, Michael, and I would love to discuss your experiences further. I share your concerns about colonialism and the nature of applied anthropological work - particularly with a government agency. I don't really have an answer either. On the one hand, the legal framework of the National Register and the "TCPs" is a western construct and certainly constrains the potential for cultural expression. On the other hand, the tribes themselves are using this legal framework as a resource to defend their cultures against encroaching colonial-capitalism. In this particular case, the tribes identified these sites for protection as a result of a development project that might interfere with the cultural associations of the sites. It's unfortunate that these areas have been swamped by Western culture and colonial-consumer-capitalism, but I would hate to deprive the tribes of one of the few means they have of holding back the flood. It's like Ghassan Hage said in his talk, On Gaza and Narcissitic Victimhood - we have to think in terms of making a bad relation a good relation.

This is why I think a flat ontological approach is a useful way of thinking - even though it doesn't solve everything. Aboriginal cultures, being hybrid entities, as you say, can draw on Western tools without necessarily becoming Western themselves, and use those tools to resist the force of Western hegemony. I'm not sure who the TCP denomination benefits most - I think it's a very complex issue - but I wouldn't say that the Tribes are necessarily wholly victimized in this context.

Then again, maybe I'm just trying to justify. I certainly continue to think about it, and maybe a better understanding of how the process works will be one of the outcomes of this internship.

michael~ said...

I don’t believe there are any 'right' answers here – only approximations and points of departure for ongoing discussion.

It is a relief to know that tribal leadership is making use of the National Register to resist encroachments. If that is indeed the case then it would be hypocritically of me not to support that project.

It reminds me of a project I took on in Fort Good Hope (K'asho Got'ine), NWT, Canada with the Sahtu Dene – located a few kilometers beneath the artic circle. I was contacted by the NWT government to go up there and help “restructure” the local medical center and train the staff.

Initially I declined the offer (and the ridiculous amount of tax-payer money they were willing to throw at me), citing a skepticism about the effectiveness of any medical system “managed” by imported medical staff and caucasian bureaucrats sitting in offices 800kms away. However, I did agree to go up there after a phone call from community leaders insisting the project was initiated by local concerns and interests.

So I arrived in the community inside a 3 seat plane that looks as though it was held together by duct-tape and in minus 60 degrees Celsius. (what did it expect at the artic circle in February!)

The long and the short of it is that I worked with local leaders to change medical center practices (programs, hours of operation, forms, procedures, ambience, etc), transfer people not sensitive to community needs, and hired 2 fulltime social workers to act as community liaisons – both of whom were Dene and grew up in the area.

Yet, even in that I had to negotiate and communicate with administrators and territorial authorities who unquestionably pushed for developing modern infrastructure and forms of “economic opportunity” that would directly entangle the community in a corporate controlled network of industrial production and resource exploitation. Authorities used the ever-present incentive of “jobs” and promises of urban-style comforts and wealth to negotiate acceptance of corporate projects.

Even my presence there was exploited by authorities who used the “restructuring” of the medi-center as “proof” that the territory was dedicating to protecting native heritage, and that cultural sensitivity and “modernization” (economic development) do not necessarily conflict.

So in a nutshell, I believed at the time that I acted as a mediator for an increased sensitivity to and inclusion of local interests in governmental systems, but was in fact a part of a continual and diffuse technic and organizational encroachment into Dene lifeways.

Was I “helping” the locals because they specifically asked for my assistance, or was I used as a pawn by local Dene elites, government decision-makers and corporate interests in a more complex move towards increased infiltration and appropriation?

michael~ said...

little did my employers know that I used my 'off hours' to meet with elders and youth, and generally rouse interest in resistance activities and begin conversations about ways to maintan a certain degree of "cultural" autonomy (e.,g, cultivating expressions of difference, bringing back old social events, designing local governance frameworks, etc.)...

Jeremy Trombley said...

Fascinating. I would love to hear more about your experiences, as it sounds as if you were in a very similar situation as the one I'll be in this summer.

Here's the thing: Yes, the tribes are using the TCP framework to protect certain sites from a development project (I can't talk much about the specifics since a lot of the information is confidential). So they are not innocent victims in this situation.

On the other hand, one could say that my job this summer will be to demonstrate that at least some of those sites are not TCPs. One could also say, depending on how you look at it, that my job is to collect information to prove to the BLM that the sites are TCPs. One could also say that my job is to act as a neutral party collecting data on the sites which the BLM and the Tribes can use to negotiate a particular status.

Practically speaking, I'm not sure that it makes a difference which view I take. Ethically speaking, it certainly does! Furthermore, the TCP status does not guarantee the protection of the site - it simply requires the project to undergo tribal consultation and mitigation procedures. If the project is deemed more valuable than the sites, and mitigation is not possible, then it's still possible for the sites to be harmed/destroyed.

This is all very complicated, and I feel I will not be viewed kindly by many people on either side. Maybe that doesn't matter, though.

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