Anthropology 101: The Prime Directive

What it Means

The Prime Directive, as
enunciated on Star Trek,
is the foundation for
Anthropological research.

One is never to interfere
in a culture one encounters.

No matter what is happening,
no matter how disgusting or
stupid or violent, the anthropologist is not to interfere.

The famous story of the Virgin & the Volcano is usually recounted before one steps into the field.


The Volcano & the Virgin

Every so often, in this particular
tribe, a virgin is tossed into the
volcano to prevent it erupting.

This has been going on for
centuries.

An Anthropologist arrives,
he is outraged.
He leaps to the fore,
stopping this ritual.

In some versions of the story the Anthropologist and the Virgin are tossed in, in others, when the volcano erupts the Anthropologist is chopped to pieces. In a third, when the Volcano doesn't erupt and the Chief sees the power moving from him to the Anthropologist he tosses the Anthropologist into the volcano.

No matter which way it goes, it doesn't end well for the Anthropologist.


The Dangers

In most studies, the facts are not as clear as in the Volcano & the Virgin. However, the volcano, but the dangers to the Interfering Anthropologist are.

The leader, be he a Chief of a Tribe, a Don in a City, or an elected official takes any interference as an encroachment on his power.

Hence, by suggesting that one change some centuries old practice is not going to go over well.

As a bye-product, it makes the research worthless, because the Anthropologist instead of studying the culture is now interferring in it.


Modern Day

The problem in having children vaccinated in particular countries has led to the death of medical personal and has prevented a disease like polio from being fully eradicated.

The problem is that whomever was sent to do the original study, (if anyone was sent) did not explore the culture to the extent that s/he could have the people themselves desire the vaccination, and bring the leaders full on board.

Where Northern Nigeria resisted until so many of the people came down with polio, in another section, the studies done were so useful that the vaccination became a test of the strength of the people.

Making it a bit more painful than it needed to be, all men and all women took that injection to prove how strong they were, and the children were encouraged to show that they could withstand it.

Hence, everyone was voluntarily vaccinated.

This is because the Anthropologist who studied these people, who saw how important it was for them to prove their ability to withstand pain, was able to use that information to their benefit.


Female Circumcision

The difficulty in stopping female circumcision has been widely studied. In some areas offering cows to girls who forego the procedure has beens successful. In others Imams have lectured against the procedure.

Neither method is working, as the culture is so powerful. The ideas behind this brutal practice have got to be chipped away over time.

Those who study these cultures, who are to find a solution is not simply standing in front of the virgin and saying 'No.'

Although it is difficult to not interfere, it is the only way for the Anthropologist to leave without difficulty. The only way to do a study which is, at least honest, and may inspire the solution.

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Comments 2 comments

Faybe Bay profile image

Faybe Bay 6 years ago from Florida

Well said. I often point to the fact that in many cultures a stranger is blamed for any new occurrence, such as crops failing. Sometimes a change comes about that had nothing to do with the anthropologist, and that will also go badly for him. It is the same here. When I was born, my mother became ill. I was treated differently, I was the precursor of her illness. An elected official (say Ronald Reagan) takes office and the hostages are returned. He did nothing to facilitate the return, yet he takes credit. If the hostages had been put to death he would have been blamed. I think about the other side of that coin; even our culture seeks to destroy the proponent of change, much like Martin Luther King was killed for trying to change things. Suffragettes were tortured for trying to bring about change. Some prime directive.


qeyler profile image

qeyler 6 years ago Author

What is crucial is that an anthropologist is only there to observe. Observe and then report. The slightest interference destroys the validity of the research..."The behaviour of Pitcairn Islanders when watched by the Anthropologist".

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