Living Heritage Best Practices: research vs preservation

Ethnographers and ICH field workers use similar methods to represent the societies and communities in which they work. The tools may be the same, but differences in scope require new best practices to ensure authenticity of context for future generations.

ICH field work, like cultural anthropology, concerns itself primarily with first hand observation of the content and method of Acculturation: the process by which a person acquires the cultural knowledge required by the community and to live (not merely survive) in their environment.

“Ethnography is a research method using first person observation by anthropologists documenting facts while being actively involved in the daily life of subject communities – so called ‘field research’ – resulting in analyses of the subject culture, accenting descriptive or qualitative documentation.” (Conrad Phillip Kottak, 2008, Italian Edition)

Likewise, ICH practitioners depend on participatory observation of the cultural practices they are helping to preserve. The primary difference, however, and something that is fundamental to the ultimate value of their work is based on the primary scope of Living Heritage preservation: the transmission.

Cultural anthropologists and ethnographers are western scientists at their core. They conduct qualitative and quantitative field work guided by a scope of understanding; they seek to learn from communities of all types, past and present, to better understand the human condition and the nuances of culture.

Living heritage practitioners are guided by the scope of transmission of the context and method of acculturation to future generations.

ICH researchers seek to answer the question, “How can future generations be taught the essential principles and knowledge needed in their society when the content, not context, is changing rapidly?” and at the same time raises the issue, “Who, then, is the true judge of authenticity?”

Case Study (anecdotal): Authenticity and the Bedouin Scorpion Vaccine


2014-09-02-16-08-30During fieldwork for the Bedouin Heritage Project in Wadi Rum, Jordan, the field team came to hear about a traditional medicine rumored to be an effective vaccine for scorpion bite, a significant health risk in that desert.

During a deep desert excursion, one of the local Bedouin collaborators was stung by what should have been a particularly poisonous scorpion and, yet, the subject showed no signs of discomfort: no swelling or venom sickness. Having observed, first hand, the efficacy of this vaccine, the team leader requested whether it would be possible to observe the vaccine preparation.

The vaccine, like most traditional medicines, was the domain of an Elder who lived alone in a tent deep in the desert…one of the few remaining women with facial tattoos. More teacher than doctor, her role was to be the living library of traditional plant preparations and would instruct all young tribal members with the knowledge they would need to survive in the hostile environment.

Upon arriving at the tent and after appropriate introductions, the videographer established his shot facing the woman who was seated in front of an open fire. As is typical in ethnographic as well as ICH representation, the cameraman was careful to position the lens eye to eye with the subject to avoid documentary bias.

The Elder began speaking to the Bedouin collaborator (paraphrased from Bedouin Arabic), “Saleem, did you bring a scorpion?” With that, Saleem produced a live scorpion captured for this purpose.

“The scorpion must be living when put into the pan. Otherwise, the poison will be too weak and will not work.”

She put the live scorpion onto a dry caste iron pan that had been placed on the hot coals earlier. At first, the insect attempted to escape but was quickly overcome by the dry heat. After it stopped moving, the scorpion was left on the pan until it became so brittle that it could be pulverized into a powder; at which point a small quantity of Camel ghee (oily butter from the fatty hump) was added to the mix and allowed to cool.

“A father must bring his child to me when he is one year old. He will have one of the three types of local scorpions. After preparing the medicine, a drop is placed on the babies tongue and, for a week, he is massaged daily with the creamy oil. This is repeated with each type of scorpion and, afterwards, he is safe from their sting.”

With this, the Elder finished and asked if there was anything else the foreigners would like to know. Had this been ethnographic field work, most likely, the representation would have been considered sufficiently authentic to be valuable. The team leader, however, had doubts as to whether this presentation would be considered authentic and of value to future generations of bedu.

Raising his concerns with Saleem, the Bedouin replied, “No. This was a bit of a show for her honored foreign guests but she is very different when she teaches the adolescent children.”

The team leader, remembering that Saleem had an almost adolescent son, inquired if he had received the instruction. He was told that he had not but that he would soon. The boy was retrieved from town and the Elder was asked to do nothing more than teach the boy the knowledge he needs.

This time, the camera was placed beside the boy’s head, lower than the elder, and she was told to ignore everyone else. All from the research team left the tent, leaving Saleem to manage the camera. The result was significantly improved by the change in the Elder’s tone, who spoke looking down to the boy like a grandmother might, and with the level of detail and practical advise given. The final piece is an authentic transmission of this practice in context as well as content and is entertaining for the target subjects.

Authenticity: a question of scope and audience


Neither of the two representations referenced in the case study were wrong, per se. The first ethnographic version would be of greater value to audiences desiring to study or understand the acculturation of this Bedouin tribe. The second could serve as a future method of acculturation when Elders in the desert no longer exist.

Numerous early ICH projects will be of limited long term value purely because best practices taken from other research sectors (to be expected in a new field of research) focused on representing the method, performance, roles without sufficient understanding of the learning process…the method of acculturation…that is essential for transmission.

Today, ethnographers and ICH field researchers often work together collected observations for western science while, at the same time, preserving knowledge and practices for the future of the community, itself.