Research Articles

When our values conflict with theirs: linguists and community empowerment in Melanesia

  • Lise M. Dobrin


This paper is part of a larger project that attempts to come to terms with a cluster of ethical issues arising out of my fieldwork on the Arapesh languages, which are spoken in the Sepik coastal region of Papua New Guinea (PNG). While the paper focuses on a particular set of experiences I had as an outside linguist carrying out research in these endangered language communities, I believe they are of more general significance inasmuch as the social processes that motivate them can be found throughout the Melanesian cultural area, and perhaps throughout Oceania. Moreover, I suspect that the patterns of relations with outsiders they instantiate are not strictly limited to this region of the world, but may have resonances elsewhere as well. As our disciplinary focus on endangered languages has sharpened, linguists have begun to seriously discuss the ethical issues they find themselves negotiating in their cross-cultural research encounters. The argument I wish to make is that language documentation projects may mean something quite different to the community of speakers than they do to outside linguists, and that we need to take those differences seriously and respond to them as an integral aspect of our work.

Keywords: language documentation, endangered languages, ethics, social processes, cross-cultural research, Arapesh languages, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, community empowerment

How to Cite:

Dobrin, L., (2014) “When our values conflict with theirs: linguists and community empowerment in Melanesia”, Language Documentation and Description 3, 42-52. doi:

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Published on
31 Jul 2014
Peer Reviewed