Gaining access and the right to research

by Annabel Bennett

As a new MA student in Anthropology, I am about to embark on my first overseas fieldwork. Excited and enthusiastic, I got stuck into my initial task: gaining access to the potential fieldsite in Vanuatu. Access in ethnographic research, depending on the research location, can be a difficult and unpredictable process. For me, I had to apply to the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS/Vanuatu Cultural Centre) for a research permit, which ended up taking about three months. Throughout the string of back and forth emails, building contacts and just a little bit of patience, I had time to ponder how my first fieldwork challenge highlights the issue of who owns knowledge and who has the right to research it.

Vanuatu, a Melanesian nation in Oceania, has long been a destination for anthropologists wishing to explore the diverse languages and seemingly ‘exotic’ practices that characterise the area. These traditions, the most famous being cargo cults and land-diving, are probably as interesting to anthropologists as they are to the host of tourists that now visit them.

In 1980 Vanuatu became independent following about 70 years under English and French colonial administration. The Vanuatu government, fueled by a strong sense of nationalism, set about building a new ni-Vanuatu identity and regaining control of their development. As part of this, they imposed a ban on all foreign researchers from the humanities coming into Vanuatu.

The moratorium on research lasted nine years – from 1985-1994. This gave the government opportunity to assert control over the indigenous peoples’ kastom and give ni-Vanuatu the chance to document it themselves. Such an endeavour was assisted by the strengthening of the Fieldworker programme under the VKS. Men and women from different linguistic origins around Vanautu were trained to undertake research on Kastom in their own communities, and all outcomes were stored in VKS archives.

Vanatu photo - Martin Bennett
House nestled in a palm tree plantation on Malekula (photo by Martin Bennett)

When Vanuatu reopened its borders to foreign researchers, it did so with a new policy that research be approved and undertaken through the VKS, and in most cases include collaboration with a local fieldworker counterpart. Ni-Vanuatu anthropologist and politician Ralph Reganvanu clarifies that this reopening was not directly aimed at encouraging overseas research, but rather was due to a desire to document kastom, especially amongst the older generation, that was too much for ni-Vanuatu fieldworkers to carry out alone. However a strong focus on collaboration between researchers and VKS/fieldworkers meant that “ni-Vanuatu can perceive research as an exercise over which they have some control, in which they can meaningfully participate, and from which they can benefit”  (Regenvanu 1999: 99).  A temporary moratorium was put in place on new applications from June 2013-June 2014 in order to catalogue and overview the research done and ensure it was beneficial for ni-Vanuatu as opposed to being done in the researchers’ own self interest.

So what have I learned?

The bureaucratic permit process, drenched in uncertainty from start to finish, has taught me not to take access for granted. It reaffirmed to me how crucial it is for the ‘subjects’ of research to have control over their own cultural knowledge; their way of life, stories and histories are not a resource mine for outsiders to exploit. Vanuatu’s moratorium and permit process makes such a statement clear. I support this approach because now I see my admission to Vanuatu as a privilege, not a right.

Another lesson was to closely consider how the people who will participate in my project may conceive of, understand, and perhaps benefit from, the research outcomes. A few Oceanic writers highlight their concern that the very people whose culture and practices are often represented in academia, will probably never read the publications about them, nor experience any direct benefit from it (see Regenvanu 1999). I am exploring the use of multi-media during fieldwork in an attempt to make some of the material accessible and valuable to my participants.

My thought-provoking ‘gaining access story’ is, I’m sure, one of many firsts to come during my fieldwork. I finish with the words Epeli Hau’ofa, who sums up my predicament pretty well:

“While we are steeped in our preoccupation with our own problems of trying to      maintain access to our traditional fieldwork areas, we should also give serious thought to encouraging actively the rise of fully trained local colleagues, as far as is possible, in each Pacific country” (Hauʻofa 2008: 8).

Annabel photo

Annabel Bennett is an MA student in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research focuses on indigenous owned tourism ventures on the island of Malekula in Vanuatu, where she will be conducting fieldwork with entrepreneurs and others involved in running tourism businesses such as bungalows, eco-tours and cultural performances, exploring how tourism impacts peoples’ lives, and their attitudes, experiences and hopes for related business in their communities.

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