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* On being “ethnographed”

October 14, 2018

anthropologistsThere are quite a few of us living here in the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area who have worked in Madagascar as Lutheran missionaries. Several years ago an interesting person appeared. A grad student. Doctoral. From a very good Big Ten school. But not just a grad student. Someone with ties to our past. Our long ago past. In my case, related to the person who around the turn of the century assembled the house I grew up in. Which is in a small town on the southeast coast of Madagascar then still called Fort Dauphin. So the wooden frame house, which was shipped prefab from Norway in a Norwegian sailing ship around the turn of the century, had been built by her great-great-grandfather.

She had moved here to the Twin Cities for a year or so to do an ethnography for her dissertation. Of us. As in those of us former Lutheran missionaries to Madagascar who were now living in the Twin Cities who helped out at one of two local but international Lutheran nonprofit efforts that provided medical supplies and equipment to the Lutheran medical system in Madagascar.

She came and settled in, like good doctoral grad students doing ethnographies do. When I met with her I clearly remember talking over the Human Subjects form for her study, one of the longest and most complete I’d ever seen. And I also remember wondering at the time what we were in for? As I had done a mini-ethnography as part of my own dissertation. So had some idea of what it involved. Including the implications of where the person doing it was coming from?

And she joined in on the work of both of the nonprofits. Being present at most of the things that I showed up for.  What she focused on was work done by both nonprofits to identify medical supplies which were donated or were being disposed of by medical institutions here in the US, that were worth being shipped to Madagascar for use in Malagasy Lutheran hospitals and clinics. It involved collecting a wide variety of things from various sites (something I helped with), then bringing them to the warehouse space of either nonprofit where they were sorted,  with anything not meeting standards discarded. The rest was sorted into that which was packed and shipped to Madagascar in containers. Those items identified of good quality but not useful for Madagascar were provided to other organizations which shipped them to other countries. It was a very slow, hands-on process as each medical item had to be evaluated.

And in the midst of it all was our very own ethnographer. Researching us. Helping us in our efforts, apparently writing up her findings at other times as I never saw her writing up notes when I was with her.

Then she was gone. Off somewhere writing up her dissertation. Until it was done. At which point I was able to get my hands on a copy–if any of us she studied saw a draft before it was published I don’t know who they were. She went on to earn her dissertation and landed a job in higher ed. Her reworked dissertation ended up being published by the U of Chicago. So she did very well through it all. And continues to do so.

And us? Well, like a lot of folks around the world who’ve been “ethnographed,” we have gone down in history, described as she chose to write it up. But there are a few things about it all that concern me.

For one, the method she used of making us “anonymous” was laughable. We are a small community here in the Twin Cities. There were 2 organizations at that time sending medical supplies to Madagascar. About the only attempt, I see that she made to protect identities was to change names. Which means absolutely nothing to those of us who know who we are. And anyone else doing even just a very brief amount of research about us. So “anonymous” we are not.

And then there are some of her statements about us:

  • Like “Aid workers’ [this would be us] labor with medical discards [makes for more interesting reading but is way too simplistic a term] thus operates as a cultural practice in which to reconfirm one’s commitment to God through the sorting and selection of useful things.” What for her is a “cultural practice” is for us a way to live out our faith which has a much deeper meaning to us than just a cultural practice.
  • Then there’s “Downplaying the discards’ previous lives is a way of attempting to make them anew, pressing these institutional ‘end products’ into a new future…” This in reference to the reality that some of what she saw being shipped overseas had the name of the hospital they were from on them (staff clothing or sheets for example). What she describes as”institutional ‘end products'” in this country, with no future in Madagascar is to display a gross misunderstanding of the challenges of seeking to provide health care in that country. Again, she’s the one who’s put it into writing, complete with her own limited understanding of the realities of what health care is like in Madagascar.
  • But maybe most disappointing is how this author so easily labels what is being sent, with love, across the seas to Malagasy sisters and brothers, for health care they are providing with it as “socialities of waste.” To a naive grad student, perhaps, who hasn’t faced the realities of medical care–actually mostly the lack thereof–in most of Madagascar. But to Malagasy facing better health care due to these supplies, it’s hardly “waste.”Would this study and its results have been different had said grad student needed health care during her very brief time there? With Malagasy medical experts using “waste” to treat her? Hopefully maybe. But possibly maybe not.The above quotes are from, an article based on the research done by the above-mentioned grad student to do her dissertation.
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