The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell

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From an anthropological lens, what were at least four errors the scientific expedition team to the planet Rakhat committed that resulted in a failed mission in The Sparrow?

Four things that anthropologists would consider errors the scientific expedition team to the planet Rakhat committed in The Sparrow are neglecting to obtain informed consent, introducing foreign goods, implementing foreign practices such as gardening, and privileging ethnocentrism over relativism.

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The expedition to Rakhat, which is supported by a Catholic denomination, leaves for the distant plant without having formulated a clear research project. The expedition’s members speak in general terms about their desire not to disturb the indigenous culture, yet they have not figured out in advance how they will accomplish that goal. The overall lack of planning contributes to the severe impact that the team has on the planet’s culture and society. At least four things they do go against established anthropological theories, ethics, and practices.

When the team arrives, they begin doing research without consulting with the local people and authorities. The foreigners apparently suspect that their work might be opposed so they do not seek the consent of the people with whom they plan to work.

Another problematic area is material culture as related to technological change. The team brings and eventually distributes numerous goods and technologies with which the local people were previously unfamiliar. Closely related is food production technology. The planet’s people were hunters and gatherers, but as the team settles down, they practice horticulture. This change leads to a higher birth rate, which can soon cause overpopulation.

Overall, the team shows a lack of familiarity with anthropological theories of cultural relativism. They privilege and try to impose their own cultural values, using the concept of ethnocentrism, when the local people engage in practices with which they disagree. This becomes notable in their opposition to infanticide. Rather than try to understand the culture on its own terms—using the fundamental idea of cultural relativism—they insist on the correctness of their own position. These and other problems contribute to the violent confrontations that ensue.

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