The following essay is Chapter 1, pp. 17-27 in Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, Editor. Handle with Care: Ownership and Control of Ethnographic Maerials. University of Pittsburgh Press. There may be some slight differences between this article and the book chapter. If you wish to cite this chapter please consult the book for complete accuracy.

Talking to Ourselves or Getting The Word Back

Dorothy and David Counts Professors Emeriti,

University of Waterloo and McMaster University

Adjunct Professors, Department of Anthropology

Okanagan University College, Kelowna, British Columbai

If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it, one should remain in the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one's subject matter (Margaret Mead in Metraux 1979:252/3).

This volume addresses the problems and challenges of returning information to the people from which it came. The information involved is in at least two forms: publications (books and scholarly journal articles) and raw data (field notes, photographs and other visual images, and tape recordings). While the books and articles are the end result of the research process, they are also interpretations of the data gathered by the researchers. The 'raw' data may seem more like archival truth (the facts), but these data, too, are the product of selection and interpretation. We are obligated to return these materials, but we are also obligated to consider how we do so and what the result of so doing might be.

For more than two decades we did research with and wrote about a community - the village of Kandoka - in Kaliai, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Nevertheless, we have little experience with returning our published data to this community. With one exception - a volume of myths and folktales in Tok Pisin and English - our work is only minimally accessible to the people who were our hosts. Although we sent our publications to the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) library and to the relevant provincial office, they were written in academic English and not easily understandable by most Kaliai.

In more than thirty years only one person from Kandoka village has read much of the material we have published, and Ursula Kolkolo is unique. As far as we know, she is the only Kaliai woman with a graduate degree and the only Kaliai who has a graduate degree earned abroad. Consequently, Ursula spent many years in school away from the village. When she visited our home while pursuing a graduate study in Canada, we asked her to read our publications. She spent many hours doing this and, to our great relief, said that she learned from our writing things about her people's history and customs that she had never had the opportunity to learn. We also discussed with her the best strategy for returning our unpublished data to Papua New Guinea. We were particularly concerned to protect those who were our sources of information. Ursula suggested that we deposit our field notes in the UPNG library (as well as the Melanesian Archives) but that we seal them until 2025. She also advised us to retain the real names of people in our notes because changing them would ruin their value as historical documents for later generations of Kaliai. All Kaliai, including the more traditionally oriented people who figure most prominently in our notes, might not agree with this reasoning. We are aware of the irony of our asking her to comment on the accuracy of our writings and to help us find the best way to return information to her people.

For the purposes of this volume, it is important to note that most anthropologists agree on two general principles. First, we are obligated to foster knowledge. Second, in fostering knowledge, we must try to assure that no harm comes to 'our people' as a result of our actions. These principles are the core of the ethical guidelines suggested by the American Anthropological Association, the Society for Applied Anthropology, the Canadian Anthropology Society, and other professional anthropology societies. Arguably, when injury comes to the people that anthropologists study, it comes as an unintended result of their reports and publications and not from their behavior in the field. Our writings are, then, potentially sources of both benefit and harm to the people who share their knowledge with us.

Harm may result when governments and other officials use our data or information from our publications to control, tax, or punish the people about whom we write. More subtle is the problem of authority. When we write it down, and especially when we publish it, we give substance and authority, ipso facto, to an edited version of history, of reality, of truth. Multiple versions, interpretations, and experiences become one. Multi vocality is lost. As Keith and Anne Chambers note (chapter 10) the process and semantics of returning information is complex and "the repatriated materials (and even the repatriation process itself) alters the local culture and research context forever after."

For example, as we mentioned above, in 1982 Dorothy published The Tales of Laupu, a volume of oral history, legends, and folk tales in Tok Pisin and English through the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. The book was inexpensive and accessible in the language many villagers read. It was also widely distributed in the country, sold at the teacher's college and police academy, and in airports.

The main storytellers, Jakob Mua and Benedict Solou, were two of the sons of Laupu who had been a renowned raconteur. Like their father, Mua and Solou are among the most knowledgeable men in the village and popular storytellers. Maria Sapanga, who contributed a story of domestic violence often told by women and considered by villagers to be a comedy, is the wife of Jakob Mua.

Although this book was just a collection of stories, it was also interpretive. Dorothy selected which versions to include, edited them, and provided background information. For example, she chose two stories of the early settlement of the area for inclusion. She selected those because they were the stories of the two largest kin groups and because the tales were complex and had both plot and character development. The book's publication disseminated these versions of the stories throughout the country and gave them authority over alternative ones. In the versions published some people's ancestors were lauded for their strength of character and bravery, while others' ancestors - principally those from the lesser kin groups - were portrayed as weak or, at best, ineffective. A few copies of the book reached Kandoka village. When we returned in 1985, Dorothy was scolded for not having collected (and published) stories from other kin groups or other 'more authentic' versions of the published ones!

Returning analyses of disputes over land tenure, accounts of marriage arrangements, discussions of the symbolism of songs or ceremonies, or the interpretation of inheritance rules or chieftainship would be even more problematic. Keith and Anne Chambers (chapter 10) examine the problems of repatriating these sorts of data.

How, then, do we balance our desire to share knowledge and to return it to those who provided it against the potential harm sharing that knowledge might do? Will our publications harm or embarrass our informants (or their descendants)? Will the people whom our field notes name as accused sorcerers, thieves or adulterers receive more benefit than harm from this knowledge?

Until the last decade most of us have avoided the issue. We who worked in the 'exotic' regions of the planet with populations not yet literate in any of the world's major languages assumed that few if any of our informants would ever read our work. We made the results of our research known, but few members of the public, other than a small group of scholars who shared our interests, read them. The time when we can enjoy the luxury of speaking only to ourselves is over. As communications technology shrinks the planet, and as developing countries bring their populations to a state of literacy, we can no longer assume that Pacific islanders will be unable to read and critique what we have said about them. They will read what we write and they will be critical.

Our contribution to this volume is not a discussion of our experience in returning knowledge to the people of Kaliai who shared it with us. Rather we wish to consider what we have learned as a result of shifting our research focus to a North American population. Since 1990 we have done research with a well educated, literate (and opinionated) population who expect to read what we say about them and to make judgments about both its authenticity and its accuracy. It will not be long before the people of Papua New Guinea will also expect to know how we have interpreted the information they gave us and to contest our interpretation. We must prepare to face their criticism.

Who Is Our Audience?

The audience we anthropologists have addressed over the past decades has primarily been our own academic community. While some of us have shared information with indigenous scholars from the Pacific Islands and included them in discussion of our ideas about Pacific cultures, this has not been a primary concern for most of us. They are aware of our failure to give back knowledge. One Pacific islander, commenting on the book in Tok Pisin and our West New Britain Web site expressed it this way: "Too often research about us in the Pacific is used for other purposes and our people are no better off. I am impressed with your efforts to share the information about your research."(1)

In the past decade or so, our ability to communicate our ideas even among ourselves has been handicapped by heavy reliance on jargon that makes much of what we write almost impossible to understand. In 1995 James Peacock tackled this problem in his Plenary Presidential address to the American Anthropological Association. He asked how many in the audience had read an anthropology book for fun in the past year. Looking around at the lowered hands he observed that we have a problem. "If we only talk to each other," he said, "we're dead." The response to Peacock's question underscores the validity of the argument that anthropological writing is usually boring and often unreadable. As one frustrated scholar put it: "These days the most revealing question to ask one's colleagues is not whether they have read Kinship among the X, but whether they have finished it. While there have been some recent attempts to modify the genre, the sad truth still seems to be that, if academic anthropologists were not paid to read these weighty tomes, most of them wouldn't" (MacClancy 1996a:237).

If MacClancy is right that we usually have to be paid to read each other's work, it is no surprise that we are not good at sharing our findings with the general public: at 'popularizing' anthropology. Mitchell defines 'popularize' as "'to cause to be liked or esteemed', and 'to present in generally understandable or interesting form'" (Mitchell 1996:123), while MacClancy notes "there are as many different ways to 'popularize' anthropology as there are audiences for it" (MacClancy 1996b:5). What we (and MacClancy) mean by 'popularize' is the process of making our work - in all its complexity - available to the public. We must write so that our work is accessible to the public at large.

People who live in recreation vehicles (RVers), with whom we have been working with since 1990, expect to be able to read what we write and to criticize what they read. They also expect to be able to use what we write to promote their own ends, primarily to make friends and family understand who they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. If we are to meet their expectations, we must make our work interesting to the non-academic members of our culture. They must not wonder, as Mary Louise Pratt does, why our work is so boring: "For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves " (Pratt 1986:33)?

Writing a respectable scholarly work in a way that enables interested members of the general public to read it requires a lot of thought. When we were writing Over the Next Hill, our RVing book, we sent an early draft to Asterisk Productions, the Canadian film company who were making a documentary on RVing communities. Sherry Lepage, one of their editors, after reading the draft wrote us suggesting that we should consider our audience. Who were we trying to reach with this book? Only our colleagues? Or were we writing it for RVers? Her question changed our attitude toward the book. We wanted to write something the community we studied, and North Americans in general could - and might want to - read.

In the next draft we asked our daughter and son-in-law to be 'jargon police', marking in red all examples of stuffy academic pontification. We used the voices of RVers as much as possible, relegated the heavy stuff to endnotes and appendices, and tried for the 'light touch'. We intended the book to have a serious message but, as with first year classes, we must keep our readers awake first. The results have been good. RVers tell us they read the text and then turned to the back to read the questionnaire results and the other appendices. Even better, they have ordered copies to give to family and friends "so they'll know why I'm doing this. That I'm not nuts."(2) This response from the people we studied is possibly the best review we could have.

We must, as members of an academic discipline, take seriously those who, like Mary Louise Pratt and our RVing audience, want to read what we write. If these native English speakers find our work boring and inaccessible in 1999, what will the people of Papua New Guinea, Raratonga, and the Marquesas think of it in 2018? If they cannot understand it, contest it, and use it for their own purposes, then we are not doing our job: we are not fostering knowledge.

Reaching Our Audience Today

Even if the children and grandchildren of the people who share knowledge with us are able to read our work in the future, what about those who shared? How do we make our interpretation of their lives and culture available to them? Can we ensure that Pacific people are better off as a result of our research?

The government of Papua New Guinea insists that we who do research there meet a part of our obligation to share our findings with the communities we study by sending copies of our publications to the university library. We do this, but it is not enough. Only the intellectual and political elite have ready access to the University library. Materials disappear from provincial offices. Only a tiny proportion of the population can read much of what we write. By sending copies of our work to national libraries we communicate our results to Pacific islanders who have a post-secondary education, but most of the people who were helpful to us can never read any of our work.

We discussed with Ursula our concerns about what to do with our field notes, but Ursula is a highly educated woman whose experience and training has distanced her from the concerns of her fellow villagers. We do not suggest that her ideas were wrong or that we should ignore them. In part our discussion is about how to make our work accessible to the children and grandchildren of today's villagers. But what about the villagers from whom most of us collected most of our information and who will never attend university? They also are, or should be, part of our 'public', and they should be able to read our publications. Certainly the academic voice will not reach them. How can we, then, share our findings with them?

One possible solution is the one discussed by Alan Howard in this volume. He has established a Web site for Rotuma, using the Internet as an interactive way of disseminating information and encouraging conversation about his work and the work done by other anthropologists. We have recently set up a West New Britain Web site,(3) which includes photographs of the area, a comprehensive bibliography in process, copies of several papers about West New Britain, myth texts in both English and Tok Pisin, and information about current events in the province from academics who were recently there. The possibilities for sharing knowledge in this way are exciting. However, and again, our Web site will reach only members of the educated, urban middle and upper class in Papua New Guinea. None of them live in West New Britain villages where, as far as we know, there is no Internet access.

Another solution, one that relates to part of the earlier discussion would be to translate our own work into a language spoken by the people we study. In the volume Popularizing Anthropology Campbell says, "If it was demanded of academics that, to be taken seriously, every one had to produce a piece of work for the popular market ... or something in that idiom, the exercise would generally be found enormously challenging ... "(1996:80).

What if each of us who worked in Papua New Guinea translated at least some of our work into Tok Pisin and put it on a Web page? Challenging? Indeed! What would we do about the jargon that too often obfuscates rather than clarifies? Many of us would likely have to do as Mead suggested and hole up in our university's cloistered halls until we understood our subject better. And perhaps we would have to stay even longer if we were to avoid the pitfall of poor translation - not only of our work into their languages, but of their words into our languages. If our friends from the villages read the careless and shoddy translations that we sometimes make of their words (often defended as maintaining the 'authenticity of their voices') they would be horrified and greatly offended.

Another challenge to making our work accessible to our host communities is finding a way for publications to reach them. How could work written in a language they could understand be gotten to them? The Internet is one possibility. Another might be a special series of publications in various vernaculars made available at cost. Would such projects be appropriate enterprises for our professional organizations like the ASAO?

The two of us have the advantage of being retired. Nobody can refuse to grant us tenure or promote us to anything. However, the system we're all a part of makes the approach we used in Over the Next Hill difficult for younger scholars. If anybody can read it, it's not legitimate. If it looks like fun, it must be a scam. Must we apologize?

When we first proposed our recreation vehicle research in 1990 nobody took us seriously. The folks in the research office at the University of Waterloo laughed at Dorothy. The Dean of Social Science at McMaster was embarrassed to support David's proposal, and one of David's colleagues suggested that when he finished the RVing research the two of them should write a grant proposal to study Club Med (nudge nudge, wink wink). A McMaster graduate student who did her MA thesis on Outward Bound, gave a presentation on her research at a departmental brown bag colloquium. By way of self-justification, she showed photos of herself in a quinsy and rock climbing. Her explanation: she had been "accused of being like the Counts, doing research that's fun. I want you to know it wasn't all fun."

During the nearly thirty years of our academic careers, we played the game - we got grants, went to the field, slept on the ground, and published stuff with colons in the title that even one of our fathers refused to read. We were promoted through the ranks and held administrative positions. Nevertheless in 1990 we had trouble being taken seriously because our work was perceived to be 'popular'. What does this mean for junior scholars, and, implicitly, for those whom they study and write about?

The Future: Dealing with the Press

James Peacock was right: if we only talk to ourselves, our discipline is irrelevant and eventually will be either dead or kept as an odd curiosity by a few universities (see chapter 8). The question is, how do we address a broader audience?

Among the opportunities for communication is use of the press, TV and print media, the fourth estate. As MacClancy says: "Instead of turning away from the fourth estate, anthropologists should use it to inform the public of their work, and of its value, especially if, in a time of shrinking public funds, they wish their subject to survive" (MacClancy 1996b:44-45).

Maria Lepowsky has written about her experience with the press after her ethnography Fruit of the Motherland came to the attention of the popular print and television media (Lepowsky 1994a, 1994b, 1995). This happened after Lepowsky's book was reviewed favorably in the New York Times. In it she had described a society in which there was little distinction between gender roles, and in which there seemed to be true gender egalitarianism. Her thesis, though drawn from an 'exotic' society in Papua New Guinea, spoke to concerns currently under discussion in North American and other industrialized societies. Sixty years earlier, Margaret Mead's Samoan work had also been directed to the concerns of modern societies. Throughout her long career, Mead made astute use of the media. She was, and still is, criticized for this practice.

While our new 'exotic' research society of RVers is found on the roads of the US and Canada, we have had our own run with the fourth estate. We wish, in the rest of this paper, to use our experience with the media to offer suggestions about both the promise and the pitfalls of doing work that becomes 'popular'.

In over two decades of doing research with and writing about the people of Kaliai, until the 1990s the only interest expressed in our work by a representative of the press was in 1967 when Dorothy was invited to be a guest on an afternoon television talk show in San Antonio, her home town. The interview was brief and the only question she can remember the host asking was: "Where is Old Guinea?" In the 1990s, press interest in our research in Papua New Guinea has been a spin-off from the attention given our research with RVers. One of the first questions we were asked on television by the host of a TV program for senior Canadians illustrates this relationship: "Why would anthropologists who have worked in PNG want to do research with RVers? Where are the bones in their noses?"

Since 1990 we have spent about 18 months on the road doing research with people who live full-time in recreation vehicles (RVs). The scholarly publications resulting from that research are one major journal article (Counts and Counts 1992) and an ethnography, Over the Next Hill (Counts and Counts 1996). In contrast with our work in PNG, the public interest in this research has been intense. We have been on public and commercial radio and TV in the US and Canada. Newspapers have published interviews with us across the US and Canada. One interview done by a Reuters reporter was picked up and published on the CNN Web site for two weeks, leading to live on-air interviews with radio stations in Japan and South Africa. Our research was the topic of two TV broadcasts, one a seven minute spot on commercial TV, the other a twenty-five minute documentary on a national cable network in Canada.

In the Spring of 1995 and again in the fall months of 1997 and 1998 we were asked by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association to do 'media tours' on their behalf publicizing our research. These tours were managed by a public relations firm on behalf of the RVIA. During the 1997 and 1998 tours we combined media interviews with public lectures on university campuses. From our perspective the tours worked well. It was good to meet with colleagues who were interested in both our research and the idea of the tour. The lively discussions sometimes suggested ways of looking at our data that had not occurred to us. From the RVIA's perspective it was successful because we attracted media attention. Most of the reporters were intrigued by our research and by the fact that it had been done by anthropologists, and much of the coverage was sympathetic and/or good-humored.

We have encountered some perils in this process. First, having one's 'advance publicity' done by a public relations firm makes us uncomfortable. We wince at some of the claims they make for the results of our research. Second, some of the reporters were skeptical about our research because we were working with an associated industry. One reported frankly asked "Are you being paid to tout RVs?" While we had a straightforward negative answer to our question, it was disconcerting to have to field it. The growing cooperation between university researchers and industry will make such questions increasingly frequent.

Third, the agenda of the media is to get the public's attention. Sometimes they try to accomplish this by emphasizing the negative or bizarre, by ridicule, or by misrepresentation. As Lepowsky observes (1994b), this leaves the anthropologist protesting, "But that's not what I said." This protest draws no audience and remedies no misunderstanding.

How do we meet the challenge?

What does our discussion of our experience with the media resulting with our North American research have to do with the repatriation of our Pacific data and publications and the accessibility of this work to the people of our own culture?

If the media interest and the subsequent public interest in our research with RVers occurs because audiences in our home countries are interested only in themselves, then we must make what we have learned in other cultures relevant to the people of our culture. We must operate as though our work will interest them only if we address an agenda that concerns them, as Lepowsky and Mead have done. Anthropologists have some credibility with the fourth estate because they do interesting things. If we think of ourselves as storytellers - which we ought to be - then we might have a better chance to get the word out both to those who finance our research and to the Pacific people whose lives provide us with the material for our stories.

Good storytellers must find a variety of ways to tell their stories. Our audiences are varied: some are literate in English and are sophisticated users of the World Wide Web, others have fluent literacy only in their own vernacular, while others communicate primarily through an oral tradition. Our challenge is to find ways to communicate to our audiences in ways that are comprehensible and appropriate to them.

As storytellers we must remember the danger that the version of the story we tell may become THE only widely known version, inappropriately imbued with legitimacy. We must also remember that we are accountable to those who "own" the stories and that we are ultimately accountable for how others use the stories we tell. If a story harms the people about whom the story is told then - as Alan Howard and Keith and Anne Chambers suggest - then it may be best to leave it untold.

Some of our goals may be contradictory. We may not be able simultaniously to provide members of our culture with access to our work, make our work available to members of the societies which have hosted us, and protect the interests of those who provided us with the information in the first place. As we learned from our RVers and with the publication of the Tales of Laupu, if we "get the word back," some people may think that we have returned the wrong word, or argue that our word is not the last word. Others may be disturbed by the implications and consequences of what we write. Other chapters in this work, particularly those by Keith and Anne Chambers and Bryan Oles, focus on these concerns.

Repatriation has risks as does any other form of sharing knowledge. Yet, in our view anthropologists -- being aware of the pitfalls -- are obliged to try to return information to the people to whom it belongs. We also think that our discipline is at much greater risk if we continue to be irrelevant, becoming merely a curiosity of academia "...wandering round the attics of anthropology wearing Malinoski's jodphurs,"(4).

Reference Cited


Campbell, A. 1996 Tricky Tropes: Styles of the Popular and the Pompous. In Popularizing Anthropology. J. MacClancy and C. McDonaugh, eds., pp. 58-82. London: Routledge.

Counts, D. A. 1982 The Tales of Laupu: Stories from Kaliai, West New Britain. Told by J. M. Laupu, B. S. Laupu, and M. Sapanga. Boroko: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies.

Counts, D. A and D. R. Counts. 1992 "They're My Family Now" Anthropologica XXXIV 153-182. Counts, D. A. and D. R. Counts.

Counts, D. A and D. R. Counts 1996 Over the Next Hill: an Ethnography of Senior RVers in North America. Peterborough: Broadview press.

Lepowsky, M. 1994a Writing for many audiences. Anthropology Newsletter 35(8):48.

Lepowsky, M.1994b An anthropologist in media land. Anthropology Newsletter 35(9): 27.

Lepowsky, M.1995 Getting the word out. Anthropology Newsletter 36(1):37, 47.

MacClancy, J. 1996a Fieldwork styles. Pp. 225-244 In Jeremy MacClancy and Chris McDonaugh, eds. Popularizing Anthropology. London: Routledge.

1996b Popularizing anthropology. In Popularizing Anthropology. J. MacClancy and C. McDonaugh, eds., pp. 1-57. London: Routledge.

Metraux, R., ed. 1979 Margaret Mead: Some personal views. New York: W. Norton. [Quoted in Mitchell 1996: 123.]

Mitchell, W. E. 1996 Communicating culture: Margaret Mead and the practice of popular anthropology. In Popularizing Anthropology. J. MacClancy and C. McDonaugh, eds., pp. 122-134. London: Routledge.

Pratt, M. L. 1986 Fieldwork in common places. In Writing Culture. J. Clifford and G. Marcus, eds., pp. 27-50. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Quoted in Campbell 1996:80.]


1. This comment came in e-mail correspondence between Dorothy and a member of the staff of the Secretariat of Pacific Communities in Noumea, New Caledonia.

2. This quote comes from a letter we received from an RVer who had ordered four copies of our book.

3. The address is < WestNewBritain.html>.

4. Our thanks to Roy Wagner for this unforgettable phrase coined by him in a conversation many years ago.