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Anthropology 101: The Prime Directive

Updated on September 19, 2017

What it Means

The Prime Directive, as enunciated
on Star Trek, is actually 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
the proto-anthropologist 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

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 into the volcano. 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, without a volcano, the dangers to the Interfering Anthropologist are the same.

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

Hence, suggesting 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

If one examines current events, one sees the dangers of trying to go against a culture.

For example, attempting to have children vaccinated in particular countries.

Attempts to vaccinate have stirred up tribal leaders and led to the deaths of
medical personal. The result is that a disease like polio, which could have been eradicated, persists.

The problem is that whomever was sent to do the original study on the culture of the persons one intends to vaccinate, (if a study was actually done) did not truly investigate.

If a Study was actually done, a proper study by properly trained Anthropologists,who would have explored the culture to the extent that s/he could have the leaders and the people themselves desire the vaccination.

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

Making the injection a bit more elaborate 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 the subject
of may studies.

In some areas, offering cows to
girls who forego the procedure
has beens successful.

In others areas, Imams have
lectured against the procedure.

Neither method is actually working, as the culture which demands Female Circumcision 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,can not simply stand
in front of the girl saying 'No.'

Although it is difficult to not interfere, it is the only way for the Anthropologist to have some credence, and, of course, to leave the area without difficulty. It is the only way is to do a study which is, at least honest, and may inspire the solution.

Why The Prime Directive

It has been proven, whether in Alternate Dispute Resolution, or in successful Anthropological studies, that the only way to change a culture is to have the people themselves enforce the change.

The culture studied is not to be interfered with. People do things which might seem ridiculous to Western eyes, but may have actual scientific and/or survival value.

Although they may be horrendous practices, they allow a society to exist.


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    • qeyler profile image

      qeyler 7 years ago

      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".

    • Faybe Bay profile image

      Faye Constantino 7 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.