I’ve been asked – again – why I’m opposed to ethnographic studies as a part of environmental-cultural-social impact assessment. Let me try to be clear.
1. I’m not. It’s a bum rap. What I’m opposed to is the assumption that one MUST do such a study in order to identify places or things of cultural importance to people. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
2. Here, I think, are the basic rules one should follow in deciding whether such a study is needed.
a. If a group of people say something is culturally significant to them, it is. You ought to take them at their word, because after all, who can possibly know better than they? You don’t need an ethnographic study to verify that it’s important to them. To say you do is deeply ethnocentric: “I’m not going to believe you until an expert, not of your culture but of mine, verifies that what you say is true.” Insisting on a study will also, of course, take time and cost money, both of which can be saved by just accepting what people assert.
b. If one subgroup of a group says something is culturally significant, and another subgroup of the same group (e.g. tribe) says it’s not, then you may need a study of some kind to determine why you’re getting diverse perspectives, but it’s likely you can deal with the question more simply and straightforwardly just by sitting down with both subgroups and discussing where they’re coming from.
c. If the cultural significance of something is suspected, but not asserted by anyone, then you probably DO need an ethnographic study (by whatever name) to find out whether it has such significance in someone’s eyes. For example, there are plenty of things (places, plants, minerals, etc.) that are important to people who aren’t very directly represented by, say, a tribal government, and/or who don’t readily take part in Euroamerican decision making processes. A careful, respectful study may be needed to find out what the concerns of such people may be.
d. If there’s reason to believe that a relatively dominant subgroup (say, a tribal government) is suppressing the concerns of a less dominant one (say, elders), then some kind of study to ascertain the concerns of the latter may be in order – because both subgroups are human beings and citizens, and have the right to be heard. Exactly what kind of study is needed, or what alternatives to a study may be pursued, is something that needs to be very carefully worked out in view of the inevitable political complications involved.
e. Finally, if you’re trying to relate the significance of something to some set of specific criteria – like those for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places – then you may need a study to do so, but for the sake both of efficiency and of being respectful to people, you ought first to consider the option of just assuming the thing is significant for the purposes of whatever planning exercise you’re engaged in.
In short, I don’t object to ethnographic studies where they serve a real purpose. What I object to is treating them as an across-the-board, standard thing to do, and what I object to even more is using them as a way to “vet” what a group of people say is significant to them. Such vetting is particularly offensive when the group is a sovereign tribal government or its equivalent.
OK, is that clear?