Conversations with History: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

[EDIT: Tried to link to clip so it begins 18mins in, where they begin to discuss Ireland, but it didn’t work. You might want to skip to there yourself…]

In class with some second year undergraduate students of sociology & politics (NUI Galway) this morning we discussed qualitative research methods, particularly participant observation, ethnography, the issues surrounding access, and ethics.  During this discussion I mentioned the controversial work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and her book Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland (1979).  This was a study of madness among bachelor farmers on the Dingle Peninsula in West Kerry in the early 70’s.  The research is notable for many reasons, not least, the contrast in how the work was received by different audiences.  While Scheper-Hughes won the Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1980, she was vilified in Ireland and in the local community in which she conducted her study most of all.  She discusses this in the interview above, and in paper in 2000, Ire in Ireland (paywall).  The ethical dilemma, she says, was best summed up by one of the townspeople of ‘Ballyban’ on her (short-lived) return in 1999, when he said:

‘It’s not your science I’m questioning but this: don’t we have the right to lead unexamined lives, to not be analyzed?  Don’t we have a right to hold on to an image of ourselves as “different” to be sure, but as innocent and unblemished all the same? (Scheper-Hughes, 2001, p.xvi).

The question we need to ask ourselves as social researchers is why; why are we doing this work; who benefits; is it worth it, in the end?  This a question of ethics, but it is more so a question of justification.  Is our intervention justified and what are the consequences of our work?  If, after all, we can make the case, on whatever grounds, for the value of what we do then may we invoke the right to upset participants or their communities?  And what of the role of power here and in other aspects of the research process?

JH

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