Intervening as an Anthropologist: Whose ethics apply?

My most uncomfortable encounters in schools during my observations for my fieldwork were incidents of not knowing if I should report a pattern of teachers hitting students that I witnessed in classrooms to the principals, who acted as my overseers at schools. India has outlawed corporal punishment in schools, but in the minds of many teachers and parents, it is justified as a necessary and acceptable form of discipline. In one school at the beginning of my research, it was rampant. Teachers would often hit students and the loud, “Thhwaaack” of rulers meeting supple first-grade wrists is heard sprinkled throughout my recordings. This is something I do not condone and I found myself so uncomfortable with this practice and with a few other aspects of that school that I decided to search for another school in which to conduct my observations. Since I was starting out in my research and since I had witnessed almost every teacher and even the principal hit students at that school from time to time, I decided against saying anything. I stayed silent also thinking that my role as an anthropologist is always to only observe and not to try and change the environment in which I observe any more than my mere presence already does.

However, at a different school, the one that I settled on for my year-long observations, I noted that even in the recruitment literature for prospective families there was a sentence about how the teachers explicitly do not practice corporal punishment. I found that one teacher would though. She would get frustrated by the students and on occasion, smack them upside the head, or on their backs and arms in anger. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to report it.

I asked around and consulted my friends and relatives about this practice. Many mentioned that while they were hit in school they knew that the laws had changed since their school-going days and teachers were not to be hitting students anymore. Some were even shocked that I had repeatedly witnessed this practice at such a reputable school. I built up the courage and in my last meeting with the principal, I mentioned to her that I had witnessed a teacher hitting students. I had decided to keep the name of the teacher out of it, stating that my intention was not to get anyone into trouble. I felt she should know and could address it without signaling out the one teacher. However, it turned out that she had suspected another teacher of hitting students and asked me to confirm the identity of the teacher. I gave in and assured her it was not the one she mentioned, hoping that the wrong teacher would not get into trouble but the conversation led me to reveal the identity of the teacher. The principal had also had a hunch about the teacher I mentioned and my reporting helped her to confirm it.

While I do not know if the teacher has stopped since I reported the behavior at the end of my research, it felt to me like the right thing to do even though I was a visiting researcher in their community. It was a difficult position to be in knowing that I was an outsider in the room and I was often the only other adult other than the teacher to witness the goings-on in classrooms. There is good oversight at the school though, with class assistants often in the room and the principal checks in often. But when the principal would visit, she would only sit in for short periods and everyone would be on their best behaviors. And the classroom assistants were in subordinate positions or perhaps on board with corporal punishment and did not or could not call out the teacher.

I had not intended to be a spy for the principal and I never felt that I was explicitly put into the position to report anything to the principal, but I also felt that I should advocate for the students who were 3 and 4 years old and would not know to speak up about this practice. I may have changed some aspects of the environment at the school but I feel assured in my decision to do so. Now I am working on incorporating this corporal punishment aspect into my analyses on language use. Often the teacher would get so frustrated because her role was to use English in the classroom with students who had very limited knowledge of the language, therefore creating a classroom where students often did not (could not) comply by rules, do homework correctly, or follow along in the lesson attentively. So while it was a disturbing part of my research that I hope I had put a stop to at this school, it is very illuminating for an analysis of the consequences and impacts of multilingual language education.