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Working Together

Archaeological Research and Community Participation

Charles Stanish and Chapurukha M. Kusimba


In a recent edition of Current Anthropology, two social anthropologists debated a central question in anthropology: to what degree, if any, should an anthropologist act as an advocate for the community that he or she studies? On one side, Roy D'Andrade argues that the anthropologist should be as objective as possible (D'Andrade, R., 1995 Moral Models in Anthropology. Current Anthropology 36:399-408). In contrast, Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1995 The Primacy of the Ethical. Current Anthropology 35:409-420) argues that, since objectivity is impossible, we should conduct "a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology."

The two articles by D'Andrade and Scheper-Hughes, plus the 10 comments and two responses, raised a number of epistemological, theoretical, and practical issues. One of the core issues of this debate is epistemological: to what degree do the activities and values of an anthropologist affect and/or compromise the data under study. The postmodernist position is that all data are inherently biased and objectivity is impossible. Therefore, according to Scheper-Hughes, the anthropologist should take an advocacy stand, based on an "explicit ethical orientation to `the other'" (1995:418). The empiricist or neopositivist position, in contrast, is that while individual observers are biased, the scientist should maintain the most objective position as possible and then construct falsifiable models that can be tested by other scientists. Any factor that biases the observer should be avoided. The anthropologist should dispassionately follow a replicable methodology and record the relevant data. From this position, taking a moral position, as suggested by Scheper-Hughes, would represent an inappropriate bias in the methodology.

Archaeology was mentioned only once in this debate, and merely as an aside to the main arguments. However, as we read these articles and focused on the debate of anthropologist as objective observer versus active moral participant, we were struck by one of the great ironies of contemporary anthropology. The subdiscipline of anthropology historically most associated with cultural imperialism--archaeology (e.g., going to foreign lands, pillaging the cultural heritage, and then locking that heritage up in dusty natural history museums)--was now in the best position to act as an advocate for those whom it studied while at the same time maintaining the scientific integrity of the data. A number of historical factors that have occurred over the past few decades both within and outside the discipline make this possible. These factors include the rise of processual archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s that shifted the archaeologist's interest away from objects to information, the dramatic rise in society's awareness of environmental and ecological issues, the increasing importance of cultural and biological assessments in development projects around the world, and the rise in the number of indigenous archaeologists in many nonwestern nations.

In a word, archaeologists who work in developing nations can, in many instances, act as advocates for the politically and economically powerless without compromising their database. Even the most adamant postprocessualist would not argue that an object in the ground is somehow altered by the culturally bound and subjective values held by an archaeologist, be they submerged, hegemonic values or truly saintly impulses. Of course, the collection and interpretation of those objects is conditioned by those values, and they represent an important biasing factor to be controlled by explicit methodologies and sophisticated model building and testing. The point is that wherever one falls on the postprocessualist/neopositivist debate in contemporary archaeology, it is certain that cultural values will affect the interpretation and collection of data. However they will not alter the archaeological database itself, as the artifacts in the ground and the sites on the surface are a priori to any existing culturally constructed world of meaning. It is only the interaction of the archaeologist with those data that the epistemological problem of the effect of cultural values and structure (or "production") of the empirical world becomes problematic. In this one sense, archaeology is profoundly distinct from ethnography in that the actions and values of the observer are irrelevant to the nature of the database. A morally based ethnography changes the cultural context and actions of the subject(s) and therefore remains problematic from a neopositivist, scientific perspective, but an archaeology that seeks to achieve moral goals alongside scientific ones only biases the collection and interpretation process, but not the data themselves.

We offer two cases in which we, as archaeologists, have taken an advocacy role in the area of our research expertise. The first case is the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. The second involves a legal land dispute in Kenya.

The Island of the Sun is divided into three Aymara communities, the dominant indigenous ethnic group in Bolivia. During the course of two seasons of settlement survey and excavations, Stanish negotiated with one of the communities to build a complex on community land that is to serve as an educational, recreational, political, cultural, and tourist center. The community center is completely owned and run by the local residents in common. Stanish, the archaeologist, provided the funds (through private donations) to purchase nonlocal materials (cement, paint, wood, etc.) while the community provided the local materials (adobe brick, sand, rocks) and provided the labor and expertise to construct the complex. A democratically elected committee ran the entire process and continues to maintain the buildings. They will continue their work and finish the community center complex when additional funds are available.

The construction of this center has several important implications for the community. First, it disabuses negative stereotypes of rural peoples by Bolivia's urban elite, particularly in regard to work ethics and their abilities to self-organize. Second, the center will serve as a museum, at the insistence of the community, to present their culture to the outside in terms that they themselves decide. Third, the center will serve as a powerful physical symbol of community unity replacing earlier buildings associated with the hacienda complex and a little-used church. Fourth, the center will permit the community to control tourism on the island: tourists will have a safe place to sleep and interact with the community on the latters' own terms, and community members will be able to present their culture in a manner that elicits pride and dignity as they define it. Fifth, the center will serve as a negotiating tool with large tour companies who can develop contractual relationships with the community for future tourist-community relationships. Finally, as tourism continues to increase, the community should be able to maintain some control over the process. The degree to which the community directly benefits from tourism is the degree to which the community will protect the cultural and natural resources that attract those tourists.

The second case concerns a legal land dispute on the Island of Wasini in Kenya. The Island of Wasini is located several hundred meters off the southern Kenyan coast in Kwale district. It is inhabited by two communities: the Wavumba of Wasini village and the Wachifundi of Mukwiro village. Both communities belong to the large community of Swahili peoples of the East African coast. Archaeological data collected from the island suggest that the island has been inhabited since the 13th century A.D. Oral tradition collected by Kusimba suggests that present peoples migrated to the island in the 18th century from Vumba Kuu on the mainland following an epidemic and constant attacks by mainland communities.

Kusimba's primary research has been to understand the development of complex Swahili polities of the East African Coast between A.D. 700 and 1750. This research has involved the integration of historical, anthropological, ethnoarchaeological, and archaeometallurgical approaches to understand the role of indigenous economic and technological production in the development of urban polities in the region. While collecting oral traditions Kusimba became aware that many Swahili peoples were angry at the way in which the anthropologists and historians had presented their cultural history. Many of them bitterly complained, arguing that their falsified culture and identity had negatively influenced government policy against Swahili, especially Muslim Swahili. They argued that current destruction of Swahili sites and monuments and systematic appropriation of Swahili lands, underinvestment in human power, and ethnic and religious discrimination of the Swahili in Kenya could only be understood in those terms. These problems created a dilemma at several levels. Kusimba wrote a critique of the manner in which anthropologists and historians had written the history of the Swahili peoples arguing that the falsified history of the Swahilis, presenting them as descendants of Asian colonists, had caused irreversible damage to the community's perception of itself in relation to other Kenyans. More importantly, such a history, which questions the legitimacy of Swahilis as true Africans, had provided the political tools for the Kenya government to appropriate the Swahilis most important means of subsistence and survival: their land (Kusimba C. M., 1996 Kenya's Destruction of Swahili Cultural Heritage. In Plundering Africa's Past, R. MacIntosh, and P. Schmidt, editors, Indiana University Press: Bloomington). The paper that Kusimba published focused on several cases of appropriation of Swahili lands by government officials. Central to this was the land case that was pending in the High Court of Kenya involving Abdulrahman Saggaf Alwy and others versus the attorney general and others. Abdulrahman and other legitimate heirs of Wasini Island had been removed from the island in 1965 when the government instituted a land adjudication program. They had sued the government in 1969 and their case had not been heard by 1992 when Kusimba first met the plaintiff. As expected, many colleagues both in Kenya and abroad criticized Kusimba for being to "pro-Swahili." A draft of this paper with its detailed documentation on the question to the Wasini Island case was given to the plaintiff who made the copy available to the judicial authorities through his lawyer. In July this year, a verdict favorable to the plaintiffs was made by the High Court in Mombasa based in part on the information provided to the justices by the paper.

These two cases illustrate that when archaeologists engage in community action they can both empower local communities and at the same time reverse processes that lead to the erosion of local identity and its past. In one case, the position of the archaeologist as intermediary between a community and an urban elite permitted the development of a cultural institution that strengthened the community's standing in the country as a whole. In the other case, the archaeological and historical data were used directly by an individual to obtain a just legal judgment against more powerful adversaries.

In both instances, the advocacy activity of the archaeologist was parallel to the scientific research. The database was not compromised, and if anything, the collection and interpretation of those data were strengthened by the active participation by the archaeologists in the lives of the community in which they worked.

Charles Stanish is associate curator and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, Illinois. Chapurukha M. Kusimba is assistant curator of African Prehistory at the Department of Anthropology of the Field Museum.


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