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Fieldwork as material and intellectual exchange: a Chini interpretation of nascent linguist-community relations

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Title: Fieldwork as material and intellectual exchange: a Chini interpretation of nascent linguist-community relations
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Recently, communities in the Middle Ramu region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), have responded to the presence of linguists by requesting more to come acquire their languages. Having begun my fieldwork among the Chini by responding to their request, I address the cultural motivations underlying their expectations and the ways in which those expectations were conveyed during the initial fieldwork period. In so doing, I argue for a greater contextualization of ethics in linguistic fieldwork, where the ethical outlook of linguists is grounded in careful interpretation of community expectations as they develop according to local frameworks of meaning.

Community members‘ interpretation and construction of the research touch on the current discussion among documentary linguists about what practices might lead to more ethical approaches and what role contextuality should have within that process. Some scholars have focused on linguists‘ need to meet the expectations of endangered language communities that the research will be geared toward community interests, and ‘collaboration‘ has thus emerged as a dominant paradigm (Dwyer 2006; Yamada 2007; Czaykowska-Higgins 2009; Leonard & Haynes 2010; Rice 2011, inter alia). Others, however, have emphasized the culture-based motivations that give rise to community expectations and do not necessarily align with linguists‘ assumptions about what is ethically desirable (Dobrin 2008; Holton 2009) as well as the related potential for cross-cultural miscommunication between linguists and communities (Dobrin 2012).

The Chini interpreted my research on their language not in terms of collaboration but as part of an exchange relationship with material and intellectual components. They initially constructed my role as that of an outsider whose local integration is expected to lead to increased local development through the introduction of otherwise unattainable material goods. Community members initially offered, in indirect and culturally-specific ways, their language and their participation in linguistic research as tradeable objects in exchange for those goods. But as the research progressed and the community learned that the linguist‘s transcription of their language was based on knowledge which neither they nor the former colonial administrators possessed, they reinterpreted the documentation process as having previously withheld intellectual benefits that might eventually bring them the standard of living of westerners. The ways in which the Chini constructed research on their language in their own cultural terms and conveyed their expectations of the researcher add to our understanding of the Melanesian context and highlight the importance of a more contextualized approach to ethics in linguistic fieldwork.

Czaykowska-Higgins, Ewa. 2009. Research models, community engagement, and linguistic fieldwork: Reflections on working within Canadian Indigenous communities. Language Documentation & Conservation 3(1). 15-50. []

Dobrin, Lise. 2008. From linguistic elicitation to eliciting the linguist: Lessons in community empowerment from Melanesia. Language 84(2). 300-324.

Dobrin, Lise. 2012. Ethnopoetic analysis as a resource for endangered-language linguistics: The social production of an Arapesh text. Anthropological Linguistics 54(1). 1-32.

Dwyer, Arienne M. 2006. Ethics and practicalities of cooperative fieldwork and analysis. In Jost Gippert, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann and Ulrike Mosel (eds.), Essentials of language documentation. 31-66. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Holton, Gary. 2009. Relatively ethical: A comparison of linguistic research paradigms in Alaska and Indonesia. Language Documentation & Conservation 3(2). 161-175. []

Leonard & Haynes 2010. Making "collaboration" collaborative: An examination of perspectives that frame field research. Language Documentation & Collaboration 4. 268-293. []

Rice, Keren. 2011. Documentary linguistics and community relations. Language Documentation & Conservation 5. 187-207. []
Yamada, Racquel-María. 2007. Collaborative linguistic fieldwork: Practical application of the empowerment model. Language Documentation & Conservation 1(2). 257-282. []
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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