Conflict is ethical

One of the key criticisms of an approach which seeks to give power to the research subject over representations of themselves is that they will hide the ugly truth about themselves.

The assumption in the above criticism is that consensus must be the ultimate goal of collaboration. I want to suggest that, while we should work hard for consensus on translation, contestation over critique is actually a healthy byproduct of an ethical open-ness.

Talal Asad draws a distinction between translation and critique in his essay in Writing Culture. He argues that explaining why the actions of another make sense (‘translating’ them) does not equate to justifying the right-ness or wrong-ness of those same actions. Producing an account of another culture that makes it coherent is not an act of charity, but one of accuracy in translation.

A critique of culture is slightly different. A critique assesses the validity — the right-ness or wrong-ness — of an argument, tradition, or act. Asad suggests critique is only ethical when it is contestable by those who are being critiqued. As Asad says:

“Criticising ‘savages who after all are some distance away’ in an ethnographic monograph they cannot read, does not seem to me to have the same kind of purpose [as his own academic critique of Gellner]. In order for criticism to be responsible, it must always be addressed to someone who can contest it”.

So, working in collaboration with a community should give you more rather than less right to produce social critique for the very reason that it creates the space for open disagreement. Conflict can be ethical.

Asad, T. (1986) “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology”, pp 141-164, in Clifford, J and Marcus, G. (eds) Writing culture : the poetics and politics of ethnography, University of California Press, Berkeley.


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