And what, in 2050, will be the basis for theorizing about human nature
and variability: what information will the future anthropologist have
on the range of known cultures, the different ways of being human?
Many of the societies or cultures that have been studied by ethnographers
or archaeologists will have long since disappeared or changed drastically.
Some of what these scholars had learned will have been published;
but how much of what had been in their notes will never have seen
print, and how much of what had been published will demand reexamination
against the original records if these records are available?
For anthropology, the unpublished records of the past are of more
than historical interest; they are more than resources for study of
the history of the discipline. They constitute the basic data of all
research data that are unique and unrecoverable. Where they
contain information on excavated or destroyed sites, societies that
have been fundamentally changed, or cultural products that no longer
exist, they represent a thin thread of linkage to knowledge that will
otherwise be lost. Moreover, in anthropology perhaps more than in
other disciplines, the "raw" data of research and the records
of personal lives and social relationships are interlinked. We have
learned that the professional and the personal in anthropology are
in mutual interaction and must be understood together.
Yet much of this unpublished record of anthropology has been or will
be destroyed, scattered, or left to deteriorate in the basement of
a descendant. All anthropologists have a responsibility to the future
of the discipline to ensure that as much of the record as possible
is preserved, appropriately archived, and made available to future
The Uses of the Anthropological
The personal and professional papers that are generated by practitioners
of any discipline have potential value for the future study of the
history of that field and for the history of ideas in general. The
research uses of the anthropological record, however, are at least
First, the record is of value as primary data, which are potentially
relevant for anthropological research in the future as much for the
scholar who collected or generated them. In many sciences, data records
are analyzed, interpreted, written up, and then may be discarded or
treated only as "history." In anthropology, however, records
such as field notes are never "done with." The first-hand
records of cultures, sites, or languages are irreplaceable and may
be returned to again and again. Nor are such records ever to be relegated
to history or treated only as a prior condition against which change
may be measured. We know that whatever is observed by an anthropologist
is specific to its time and place. These data will always be the basis
of anthropological research and thinking.
Second, the anthropological record is needed for the kind of historical
understanding that permits proper interpretation of the primary data.
This includes both the process of contextualizing specific data through
records that reveal how they were constructed, and the wider-ranging
study of the history of lives, relationships, and institutions for
the purpose of better comprehending the work of the discipline. This
use may be defined as the history of anthropology for anthropological
A third use of the record is to enable study of the history of anthropology
as part of the history of science or ideas. This kind of disciplinary
history may be pursued by anthropological historians or historians
of science/ideas for a variety of purposes. All three uses need to
be kept in mind in deciding what should be saved, where, and in what
The special nature of anthropological records also has implications
for preservation strategy. Field notes, for example, are not merely
"raw data" generated by particular methodological operations.
They are the product of intricate relationships between the personal
and the technical, the anthropologist and the people he/she interacts
with, the context and the content, as well as many other elements.
All of this complicates the potential uses (and misuses) of such records
and makes for multifaceted sensitivities. At the same time, it underlines
the uniqueness of these records and the urgency of preserving them.
Anthropological records also have a special quality in that there
is a seamless continuity between observation (or other forms of encounter
with the focus of study), the recording of "data," interpretation,
and writeup. There are further continuities with teaching, other professional
activities, and more private arenas. We have become increasingly aware
of how each activity (each generating its own records) is constructed
by the others. If future scholars are to make sense of the research
process, they will have to be able to recover all aspects of it and
trace their interconnections.
As compared with the records of other disciplines, anthropologys
are marked by an extraordinary range and diversity, corresponding
to the range of its subject matter. The subfields generate different
kinds of records, and all extend across the world geographically and
over great spans of time. Moreover, the social organization of research
varies by subfield and by theoretical or methodological approach within
the subfield. Biological anthropologists and archaeologists often
carry out their research in teams, frequently incorporating specialists
from other disciplines, while ethnographers and linguists have tended
(for the most part) to work as individuals or in pairs. The different
organizational modes lead to different kinds of record sets and different
patterns of retention.
The problems of locating, coordinating, organizing, and generally
keeping track of this diversity and range might seem daunting. Yet
for anthropology the totality is not only as an accumulation of miscellaneous
records but an integral resource to which the discipline and other
interested users must have access.
Whose Records Are They?
It is too easily assumed that unpublished materials are the property
of the anthropologist who produced or collected them, and his/hers
to dispose of at will. While this might be true of certain personal
papers, it is not the case for records generated in the course of
research or other professional activity. Consider field notes. They
may have been written by the anthropologist, but many parties contributed
to their creation and may have interests in them: the people who provided
information, the community or society that hosted the anthropologist,
the agencies that funded the project, the institutions with which
the researcher was affiliated, and others. While specific obligations
might not have been incurred contractually, the anthropologist has
at least a moral responsibility to consider the interests of all these
Taking into account the multiple interests of diverse partiesand
above all the interests of the people about whom information is contained
in recordsmeans that there are legitimate sensitivities about
how these records should be handled. Such sensitivities are probably
more complex for anthropologists than for other scholars holding records
of historical significance, but they are not unique to anthropology.
There are ways of dealing with all concerns that might (indeed, should)
be raised about the potential misuse of records. It is vital, and
also possible, to address the problem of materials containing confidential
or sensitive information so as to ensure protection of those involved
while also recognizing the need for access by researchers, by the
social or cultural groups the materials pertain to, and by others
with legitimate interests in them. Such concerns should not be taken
as reasons for withholding or destroying materials or for downplaying
the importance of preservation. They do, however, need to be incorporated
into professional training as pertinent issues of ethics and scholarship.
There are also more fundamental responsibilities to be considered:
to the anthropological enterprise in general, to scholars of the future,
and to the descendants of those who are the subject of the research.
Many peoples draw a distinction between ownership and custodianship,
which also applies to the ethnographer who has acquired and controls
cultural materials. In a more general sense, the anthropologist is
always a steward of the records that contain cultural information.
Understood in that light, instances of deliberate destruction of unpublished
papers and to a lesser extent, negligence of care and denial
of access must be seen as a failure of professional responsibility.
Primary responsibility for preserving and appropriately
depositing records must rest with the individual anthropologist who
holds them, but the discipline as a whole, and the organizations and
institutions that have specific charges within it, need to acknowledge
this responsibility and place it high on their agenda. Too often,
preservation has been relegated to low-priority status, something
to be tended to later ("when there is time"), and too often
those professionals concerned with archiving have been regarded merely
as service providers for the "real" business of research.
We now need to rearrange our priorities, to start to understand the
intimate relationship between research and preservation, and to make
effective stewardship of the anthropological record a component of
all anthropological study.
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research