From Classroom to Confiscation: The Mandate to “Collect Everything” in 1930s Brazilian Ethnography

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:50 PM
Madison Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Micah Oelze, Florida International University
In 1936, fifty students enrolled in São Paulo’s state-sponsored ethnography course, taught by Dina Levi-Strauss, wife of the then-unknown anthropological pioneer Claude Levi-Strauss. Over the next twenty weeks, the students learned to: “collect everything” that could be useful for posterity, subject Amerindian women to intrusive physical examinations, lie to informants as to the nature of the research, and secretly tape performances when subjects did not want to be recorded. This investigation seeks to contextualize the dubious ethical teachings and subsequent ethnographic practices carried out young ethnographers. Specifically, it compares the course’s lecture notes and students’ field books to contemporaneous publications within São Paulo and across the broader Atlantic. The results suggest not a complete rejection of ethical considerations, but rather a hierarchy of priorities. Preserving the patrimony of the nation outranked subjects’ rights to their personal possessions. Furthering an international scientific project of data collection, in turn, justified transgressing a subject’s privacy and safety. But the profiles of the subjects, including a large community of Afro-Brazilian subjects from impoverished communities, suggests that the ethnographers (in this case both French and Brazilian) believed these nationalist and positivist projects justified the further dispossession of marginalized communities.