(Exerpt from: Nærmere kommer du ikke... Håndbok i antropologisk feltarbeid - Nielsen 1996)
The word "informant" is an anthropological concept, a common term for people one meets in the field and gets information from; and since the goal of fieldwork is to obtain information, it is self-evident that the "informants" must have a central place in anthropology. The word "informant" itself is contentious, and recently it has gotten a rather dubious reputation in anthropology; some have suggested that it be eliminated. The concept arose in an era when anthropologists mostly studied distant tribal peoples, with little contact with the Western world, and few opportunities to influence or respond to the written work of anthropologists. As soon as fieldwork was over, the "informants" became silent, and so it was easy to think of them as passive objects of anthropological study, rather than as active participants in the research process. Today, this situation has changed radically. "Informants" are no longer safely isolated "out there". They often make themselves felt in your life: they visit your family, know your colleagues, read your books, and sometimes they even write about you. The word "informant" not only seems old-fashioned, but as a disembodied and technical label that reduces people to numerals in an academic accounting business. Besides, the concept can mislead us into believing that people will not speak out, that we cannot be made responsible for what we, as academics and fieldworkers, do. As one anthropologist put it, "What you do during fieldwork is an ethical and political activity. When you go around calling people 'my informants', it gives you a kind of licence to disregard common rules of ethics and decency." It is easy to imagine that such an attitude may be both impolite and risky. "Only by admitting the truth about participant observation - that it implies a certain amount of deception and impression management - can we hope to behave in an ethically responsible way in the field," says the author of a well-known book on methods. The human relations we develop in the field have a very particular character, and must not be confused with relations we have to people otherwise in life. They demand to be referred to with a specific term. We may like or dislike our "informants"; they may become close friends, bitter enemies, colleagues, drinking buddies, rivals, teachers, pests - even family. All relations that we know from our daily lives may be ressurected during fieldwork, but with on very fundamental difference: the reason why these relations arise at all, the reason why we are in the field and get to know people there, is that we are doing research about them. No matter how involved we become in individuals' lives, we will always remember, somewhere in the back of our minds, that what happens can turn out to be relevant "data", which we later can make use of in our writings. We are "spies", and we must never forget it.
For other opinions about the subject, click (here) og (here).