Ethical Othering in the Past and Future: An Anthropological Dilemma


In their article “Race, Racism, and the History of U.S. Anthropology,” Baker and Patterson argue that the development of the anthropological discipline has been fueled by issues relating to race and racism. Along with racist perspectives invading research historically, the discourse of anthropological discipline that attempts to counter these problems creates an unintended oversaturation of literature (Baker & Patterson, 1994). In this essay, I argue that the ethical dilemmas relating to race that have plagued anthropologists historically past still exist today. The difference is that they are presented through different media and power practices, such as social media platforms and podcasts. I will discuss how the implications of a racist history are still apparent in contemporary anthropological discourse and practice. My examples are drawn from my focus in user experience and digital archaeology. The internet brings with it a new way to conference with fellow academics, greater accessibility, and a broader reach for information. Unfortunately, this wider reach and greater connectivity has done little to solve the problems of racism in anthropological discourse.

A prime example of how racism still influences anthropological research is in our utilization of search engines to find relevant literature. In their text Algorithms of Oppression, Noble shows, through multiple detailed case studies, that there are clear issues when it comes to what pages show up in searches related to race and gender. because this is a system that is already in place and causing harm. According to Noble, the architecture of technology was built on racism and sexism, and this issue requires immediate fixing (Noble, 2018). There is an obvious implication here when it comes to conducting research. Anthropologists use search engine systems all the time to do our research and draw conclusions. Laura Ahearn demonstrates some of these implications in a study on keywords and titles that were sampled from articles in the American Ethnologist journal (Ahearn, 2013). The samples chosen were the years 1982, 1992, 2002, and 2012. On discussing the survey results, Ahearn argues that the selection of keywords has social, intellectual, political, and economic influences that may or may not match up with the wording of titles (Ahearn, 2013). What implications might there be for future anthropologists if the texts available choose keywords that are more targeted toward popular themes of discourse, rather than representing the actual content of the texts? Ahearn’s article is part of this discourse as well, located in the same accessible gray area as those they studied.

Going Rogue: Othering the Institution

Baker and Patterson mention many authors who were key in providing an alternative discourse of activism to counter some of the racist ideologies that were motivating anthropological research (Baker & Patterson, 1994). W.E.B. Du Bois used their voice to both speak at conferences and speak out again the United States Immigrant Commission (Baker & Patterson, 1994). Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish are also noted for their series of works on race. These anthropologists used their affiliations with racist institutions to develop activist content of otherness. We continue to see a similar reaction to racial policy and institutions in modern times where much of the discussion and true activism are done outside of institutional constraints. Now, we see a similar alternative discourse emerging with social media and blogging (L.-J. Richardson, 2014). Whether this external discourse helps to alleviate any racism, or simply serves to produce more racism related content is not apparent. This process of becoming aware of racial bias and calling out the discourse is an example of reflexivity in action. Reflexivity refers to an awareness of the self as part of the production of knowledge, and the process of positioning this awareness within the context of specific research projects (Hodder, 2003). The tendency of academics to attribute a higher status to knowledge that has been produced within institutions may be part how uneven power balances perpetuate. Silberman asserts that archaeologists specifically tend to favor institutional orientations rather than the ideas presented in popular media sources (Silberman, 2008). According to Silberman, archaeologists incorrectly assume that their audiences are uneducated and misinformed by popular media. It is the fault of archaeologists if they choose to produce their knowledge for academic audiences only. Silberman’s argument shows an opportunity of media for archaeologists to harness to inform existing audiences, rather than to alienate them.

Responsible and Reflexive Counter-narratives

Historically, it appears that the most prominent ethical dilemma of the anthropologist is that despite our best intentions, we are constantly at risk of doing harm. While there may be some potential benefit for humanity, there are also often unintended consequences, and these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Since we are undeniably a part of constructing this process, anthropologists must also take responsibility to counteract the potential harm they may cause. Ian Hodder suggests that reflexivity is a solution to the colonial influences of academic discourse (Hodder, 2003). Without a practice framed in reflexivity, researchers risk furthering unintended consequences simple by being unaware of how their experiences influence the discourse they produce. My experiences as an undergraduate student were essential to framing my arguments as a freelance researcher. There is no separation of a lived experience and the work we do, however objective we may aim to be.

In order to provide a broader discourse to counteract racism that can reach beyond institutional funding, anthropologists should consider regularly taking their voice outside of journals and institutions, and into venues where the issues of race can be discussed without fears. Since our work is largely constrained by the goals of whichever institutions we happen to be employed in, we risk that being our loudest voice. Virtual spaces present new opportunities for reflexive practices, such as blogging and online conferences. One example of this reflexivity online was the Day of Archaeology blogging event (L. J. Richardson, 2014). This event requested that archaeologists write a piece about their experiences on a particular day. These blogs were intended to educate the public about archaeology, but also became an archive of online archaeological discourse (L. J. Richardson, 2014). Each individual anthropologist exists as a representation of societal zeitgeist. Such as those rogue anthropologists of the past, we have chosen to focus our attention on these issues, and so have also chosen a responsibility to reflect on our own opinions and motivations while doing research. Whether it be through blogging, major films, or journalism, there are many opportunities for reflexivity for anthropologists to explore.


Ahearn, L. (2013). Keywords as a Literacy Practice in the History of Anthropological Theory. American Ethnologist, 40(1).

Baker, L. D., & Patterson, T. C. (1994). Race, Racism, and the History of U.S. Anthropology. Transforming Anthropology, 5(1‐2), 1–7.

Hodder, I. (2003). Archaeological Reflexivity and the “Local” Voice. Anthropological Quarterly, 76(1), 55–69.

Noble, S. U. (2018). Introduction: The Power of Algorithms. In Algorithms of oppression: how search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.

Richardson, L. J. (2014). The Day of Archaeology: blogging and online archaeological communities. European Journal of Post-Classical Archaeologies, 4 (2014), 421–446.

Richardson, L.-J. (2014). Online Survey Data from Twitter and Archaeology Surveys 2011-2013. Journal of Open Archaeology Data, 3(0).

Silberman, N. A. (2008). Still Not Ready for Primetime. Near Eastern Archaeology, 71(3), 174–176.

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