Ethics and reciprocity

“Methodology is not something mechanical. It’s not just a set of techniques or a set of instrumentalities. Methodologies have lives; methodologies have suffering; you suffer a methodology; methodologies come out of very deep introspection.” -Rustom Bharucha

I spend a lot of time thinking (and worrying!) about my methodologies. I’m planning an ethnographic study of museums that narrate the histories of apartheid (and eventually a study of museum-going publics), and at the crux of my research is the question of the relationship between academic and public history. Lately, I’ve been wondering about what reciprocity might mean in this study. In my case, what is my responsibility to the museums I study and the publics they serve?

Reciprocity is a tricky thing, a critical component of the self-reflexive turn in anthropology. It’s also more than a little bound up in representation–though representation is, of course, a pretty big topic in its own right. For me, these are, if not exactly two sides of the same coin, certainly related. After all, how can I write about public and academic history without thinking about how accessible my own work is to the subjects of my research, or how it might be taken up within and beyond the academy?

There are many potential answers–working collaboratively with museums, sharing data when appropriate, respecting concerns about privacy and/or anonymity–but I’ve also been thinking about what happens after: the question of publication and accessibility. It’s no secret that much of academic publishing is simply inaccessible to the general populace, and not because we like our words polysyllabic. As the recent arrest of Aaron Swartz reminds us, the bulk of academic articles (the currency of our academic capital) is locked behind paywalls. And even if you do have access to an academic library, databases are expensive, and many libraries with smaller budgets simply can’t afford many.

So do I think that open-access publishing is the answer? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a good start, but we’re certainly going to have to tackle the reality that, as of 2010,¬† 22% of the world has access to computers. That’s still a heck of a lot of people, but it’s not quite the universal, democratizing rhetoric that we digital humanists like to espouse sometimes.

I suppose that, until we figure it out, I’ll just have to hand out consent forms and business cards to my survey respondents and interviewees. Maybe somewhere, among the 1 billion Google searches per day, my research will pop up.

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