Throughout our class discussion on the ethical responsibilities of proper representation for disabled people in literature and film, I noticed that many of the concepts overlapped with what I learned in my Cultural Anthropology course. The similarities occur in both areas of fieldwork and publication. In fieldwork, as seen in the case of Dr. Oliver Sacks and his patients with Williams Syndrome, our class agreed that it was important to humanize and capture all aspects of the people that one is working with rather than “defining them by their disabilities.” (class notes) This is incidentally also one of the fundamental principles of fieldwork in modern cultural anthropology. It is agreed upon by nearly all anthropologists that in order to properly understand their subjects, they must become one with their people. In both fieldwork and literary publications,  ethical representation of those being studied is extremely important.

However, this was not always the case. The origins of anthropology as an academic study has always been mired in ethical nebulousness. In the early 1800s, when it first began to emerge, anthropology was in many ways the same thing as spectating on the patients of Bedlam. Native civilizations to territories under imperial control of European countries were romanticized, exoticized and infantilized. The ethical concerns behind this are as we discussed in class: firstly, it harmed their interests, and secondly, it wronged their rights. According to modern conventional ethics, all peoples, regardless of their race or physical anomalies, should be treated with equal dignity and respect. In the early 1800s, however, the isolation and derogation of people with different physical appearances was perfectly acceptable and even a popular pastime for the wealthy and privileged (class notes). The study of different cultures and the study of disabled people shared startling similarities in the 18th to 19th century because they both isolated a group of people and reduced their individual identities to crude stereotypes for entertainment.

Not only was this phenomenon widely seen in scientific academia, but it was also reflected in some literary publications as well. In the earlier works of doctors and anthropologists, words such as “specimen” and “subject” were commonly used. These words stripped away the humanity of those being studied and presented them to the public as different and inferior. As such, authors of that time took to exoticizing and discriminating different groups of people simultaneously. In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, ethnocentrism and misrepresentation of the Indian culture was a constant theme. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the mentally ill “madwoman” wife of Mr. Rochester was portrayed as bestial and savage, blamed for nearly all of his life problems, and finally suffered a tragic death. Ethically speaking, this representation perpetuated a false image of other cultures and disabled people to the public, and contributed to much of the isolation and derogation of said peoples.

In any academic field that deals with the study of human beings, the problems of ethical representation will rise. However, I found that the similarities between anthropological fieldwork and literary writings to be significant, because they most clearly demonstrate the consequences of misrepresentation.

Susie Ngo