Sliding on the participant-observer continuum

Denmark awaits Seoul’s extradition request for Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (The Guardian, 2 January 2017)

So the presidential scandal in Korea is far from dying down. On the contrary, it’s like peeling an onion; there is always more and it stinks.

Yesterday Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of the woman at the centre of the scandal, was arrested in Denmark. It has been alleged that Chung herself has also been heavily involved in the wrongdoing. What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that this arrest was made possible by a Korea journalist tipping Danish police off Chung’s whereabouts. The journalist belongs to a cable station called JTBC. The station has been playing a crucial role so far, including this latest exclusive. JTBC’s news reporting division, led by the iconic journalist Sohn Suk-hee, has therefore been lauded by many as doing what politicians and law enforcers should have been doing but failed to.

Then an op-ed came out today. Written by a director in a media consulting firm, the piece has triggered a heated debate about whether it is appropriate for journalists to intervene. The author categorically argues the JTBC journalist shouldn’t have, citing Rachel Smolkin’s 2006 article on the topic. It’s like the criticism levelled at Kevin Carter and his famous photograph of a vulture and a child, but only inversely.

‘When to step in (if at all)’ is an age-old dilemma and not limited to journalism. I too discuss it extensively with our doctoral researchers, so I am adding this case to my metaphorical scrapbook. One I turn to most frequently in class is the following passage from Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomami (1991: 102-103):

I stood there, my heart pounding. I had no doubt I could scare these kids away. They were half-afraid of me anyway, and if I picked up a stick and gave a good loud, threatening yell, they’d scatter like the wind. On the other hand, I was an anthropologist, not a policeman. I wasn’t supposed to take sides and make value judgements and direct their behaviour. This kind of thing went on. If a woman left her village and showed up somewhere else unattached, chances were she’d be raped. She knew it, they knew it. It was expected behaviour. What was I supposed to do, I thought, try to inject my own standards of morality? I hadn’t come down here to change these people or because I thought I’d love everything they did; I’d come to study them.

The author of the op-ed is of course entitled to his concern for the integrity of the field he cares about. I think, however, he has missed the point that ‘observer’ and ‘participant’ are not two dichotomous states. To draw on Junker (1960), it is a continuum along which we all slide back and forth, guided by our professional moral compass.

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