On questions of access, authenticity, and authority in ethnographic research.
Over the years, anthropology’s position on which type of ethnographer has the most advantageous position has shifted. During the 1970s and 1980s it was thought that only a non-native anthropologist, or a “true outsider,” would be able to objectively study the natives of a culture. This perspective hailed from the colonial roots of the discipline and predominated during a period wherein non-native anthropologists were the primary researchers featured within the discipline. This was certainly true for the anthropological study of Iran. Prior to 1978, non-Iranian Iran scholars such as Mary Hegland, Michael Fischer, William O. Beeman, and Erica Friedl authored many of the ethnographies that received wide circulation and attention, but shifting approaches in anthropology coalesced with the 1979 Revolution to drastically change the ethnographic terrain in Iran, raising methodological questions about access, authenticity, and authority.
Following the post-colonial turn, some wondered if native anthropologists actually had the more advantageous position due to their “intimate” knowledge of their interlocutors and in the years after the revolution native Iranian scholars, including Shahla Haeri and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, gained prominence within the ethnographic literature. During the Khatami era, those of us entering Iran to conduct ethnographic fieldwork were “halfies” or “somewhat native” anthropologists; Whereas the natives were Iranian-born, halfies were foreign-born but still claimed strong ties to Iran. What placed people like myself in this later group was a combination of having some Iranian heritage (my parents were born and raised in Iran and only migrated to the U.S. shortly before I was born), a somewhat native command of Persian (for me it was my first language, despite the fact that I was raised in the U.S.), and, for many of us, Iranian passports, which were crucial in gaining entry to Iran.
Following the post-colonial turn, some wondered if native anthropologists actually had the more advantageous position due to their “intimate” knowledge of their interlocutors.