My students have been writing to me about consent forms. In Scotland, summer is when Honors students conduct the research for their fourth-year projects, and they are subject to the same ethical approval process as academic staff at the university. They must complete an ethics checklist and risk assessment, trying to anticipate the kinds of conundrums they might face during their summer experiments in conducting fieldwork. And after their projects have received approval, off they go, armed with their curiosity and with the consent forms they are required to give to their interlocutors. Some of them are finding that the consent forms are a problem: something that many anthropologists have found of an ethics approval process that was originally designed for medical research with literate, educated, European or North American “subjects.” It is hard to see how one can seek meaningful consent with a disclaimer, a set of tick boxes, and a signature.
In anthropology, research ethics are about far more than releasing ourselves, our universities, and our funding bodies from legal liability. But what do we now mean by consent, at a historical juncture where the concept is required to do double duty: that which we seek from the people we work with in our research, and that which many academic women say has not been sought from them in their own places of work and education?
Consent in Academia and Ecologies of Desire
As the #MeToo movement and its ongoing ramifications have shown, the notion of research as violation has immediate parallels in the academy itself. Do graduate students and early-career academics truly consent to the punitive conditions under which they work, duped, as Sarah Kendzior has argued, into believing they are without value if they don’t stay on the treadmill of adjunct and fixed-term lecturing for years? What are we consenting to when we take on the myriad forms of unpaid labor that comprise key components of our academic work: attending and organizing conferences, serving on the boards of journals and professional associations, and acting as reviewers and authors for journals which then sequester the products of this labor behind paywalls? Questions like these prompt Miya Tokumitsu to hold up academia as one of the more egregious examples of the exploitative “do what you love” ethos, wherein the only work that is valued culturally is work that has no economic value attached to it—indeed, no recognition that it is work at all.
This kind of work, Tokumitsu notes, disproportionately falls to women, who are still presumed to depend for their livelihoods on economies of kinship and sentiment. The inclusion of sexuality among the forms of sentimental work done by women has, too often, extended to their academic labor, which (alongside the other modes of exploitation mentioned above) makes a mockery of consent. This is where the future of ethics in anthropology, both in the seminar room and in the field, demands exploring analogies between the things to which one can meaningfully consent. What do we want when we ask for consent, and how have we learned what is acceptable to ask for? How do the conditions of our own working lives structure our relationships as researchers to research populations?
Amia Srinivasan points to the importance of being explicit about the ways that most forms of work are sexed, and that work done by women—even outside of actual sex work—is sexualized through the political structurings of who is allowed to desire what in the work that they do, and who is entitled to make demands of whom. If all academics, but particularly women, are expected to do the work we do because we love it and not because it is real work worthy of dignified remuneration, hours, or professional regard, then what are we learning about the character of love, for our vocation as scholars and for the ethical foundations of our discipline?
Our blithe disregard for the social organization of our own institutions has meant that even before we set foot in the field, some desires carry more political weight than others and some forms of consent are worth more or less. And when profoundly unprofessional expressions of desire are made under conditions of inequity, say, when a junior scholar is confronted with declarations of love by her departmental line manager, it is obvious enough to suggest that there is little space for true consent. But the nature of love itself—for a scholarly pursuit, for an academic career—is compromised by the freedom to ignore the distinction between the personal and the professional that is wielded by some members of the academy at the expense of others.
It is this “ecology of desire,” as Andrea Long Chu has put it, which anthropology has belatedly begun to discuss, but which may also provide a way out of the quagmire we have created for ourselves. For Chu, those on the margins of this ecology are at risk for further marginalization if they are also required to have “desires of their own which are inevitably more ethical than anyone else’s.” Such expectations can become yet another form of dispossession and oppression, whereby the agency of structurally disadvantaged persons is only allowed to be oriented toward a narrow spectrum of objects and activities that will contribute to their uplift.
But if #MeToo proves to have any enduring effects in anthropology, they will be in the uncovering of an irony at the center of our discussions around consent and ethics, one that always belonged at the heart of our everyday practices and not just our fieldwork. The irony is this: consent has to be more than a person agreeing to have their personal or social integrity violated in some way. Once we acknowledge as much and ask what real consent might look like, we open the door to any number of questions around what anyone wants from anyone else in the academic endeavor, including wanting the things we shouldn’t. Perhaps we could even take our cues from communities outside of the academy.
In sexual subcultures from queer and BDSM communities to the freewheeling hedonism of Burning Man, discussions of consent have gone well beyond preventing rape. These spaces were always about rejecting what Kim TallBear has termed “settler sexuality,” wherein sexuality, like land, is a form of property to be transacted, claimed, or forcibly alienated. These spaces have developed models of consent that transcend the notion of sexuality as an extractive relation involving a doer and a done-to, instead recognizing it as involving a multiplicity of agents and modes of desire, the cocreation of intimate acts, and the kinds of intersubjectivity for which anthropologists have long argued in our models of social relationships. If we can at least get that far, then the possibility of an anthropology marked by real collaboration—between supervisors and students, junior and senior colleagues, ethnographers and hosts—may just become visible.