AAPA hears about ongoing abuse of students at field sites

2 minute read

I’m sitting in a packed room this morning at the meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, in a session on ethics in the field. The most important presentation in the session was just delivered by Kate Clancy, who presented initial results from the Survey of Anthropological Field Experiences. She has made the written version of the presentation available on her blog, “‘I had no power to say thats not okay: Reports of harassment and abuse in the field”. It is essential reading for anyone involved in fieldwork in anthropology.

The conclusion to the talk is a call to action.

Too many of us, the authors of this study included, have told ourselves and others that we just need to suck it up, just endure one more day, to keep our heads down and power through. Survival in field-based academic science can't just be about who can put up with or witness abuse the longest—that is not an appropriate metric to measure who is the best at their science. From here on out, let's commit to opening up conversations about these issues, rather than avoiding or talking around them.

Clancy is working together with Julienne Rutherford, Robin Nelson and Katie Hinde, and they have designed the survey as a systematic research investigation. Respondents’ identities are anonymous, and the intent of their study is to quantify and describe what is going on now in the field, not to find and punish behavior. To me, the most important aspect of their research is the demonstration that the problems are systemic. Eighteen percent of female study respondents have been victims of physical assault or unwanted sexual contact in the field.

Males have also participated in the survey, including participants who have reported serious abuse. The number of participants is, however, small. The survey is still seeking to add to the sample, so that they can quantify the ways that physical and psychological abuses are happening to all students in the field without compromising the anonymity of their respondents.

It is important to note that the scope of the survey is not limited to sexual harassment, and that abusive situations have also been reported at field sites with female directors and senior staff. Hearing from more students and professionals about their field experiences will enable better reporting of all these problems, and I hope that many more people will participate in the survey.

Personally I think this is the most important thing happening at these meetings. Read the presentation and if you know students or professional anthropologists who have done fieldwork, spread the word about the survey.