A Handbook of Contemporary Research
Edited by Matthew Rimmer
Chapter 17: Confidential information and anthropology: the politics of the digital knowledge economy
This chapter focuses principally on the Australian post-colonial context of research with Indigenous peoples. While many of the examples and case studies provided are informed by my own ethnographic research interests and experiences with Aboriginal peoples in remote Australian regions, the colonial project combined with the global reach of the contemporary knowledge economy suggests that parallels elsewhere would not be hard to find. Likewise, it is often the engagement of the discipline of anthropology with the Western legal system – both in litigation and the system of intellectual property management – that tends to be most confronting to our professional ethical code of conduct. The issue of the confidentiality of field notes is a significant one for the discipline, notably since the late 1970s with the emerging recognition of Indigenous land and native title rights, which have placed anthropologists as ‘experts’ in legal contexts. In the discipline of social anthropology there are a range of concepts interrelated with and indeed inseparable from the concept of ‘confidentiality’. These include anonymity, permissions and most importantly knowledge rights. Analysing these interrelated concepts is also key to getting at the ways in which the practice of confidentiality shifts, evolves and is contested at both local informal levels and within institutional settings. In oral societies, such as Indigenous societies, the ‘right to know’ is deeply political, hierarchical and gendered.
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