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29 October 2009

Thoughts on an Answer to the Previous Question

The previous question being "How can (Should?) anthropologists help the communities they work with?" More broadly, the question is, should we try to make the world a "better" place and how? The question is difficult to phrase without seeming idealistic, but I hope my meaning comes across.
I really appreciate the answers I received from Stacie and Josh (see comments on the previous post), and I'm still thinking about how to work those into my own conceptions. Here are some of my own thoughts:
1) I reject the premise that we can or should do nothing. Doing nothing is still doing something, that is, it's a political and moral choice that has consequences and repercussions. Even research for research's sake has consequences - we interact with a community, we write up our findings, we build a career based on our research, we talk to people about our research and all of these have not-insignificant consequences.
2) With that in mind, the only options are to a) intentionally reduce your impact as much as you can so as to limit the repercussions or b) attempt to direct your research toward some benefit.
3) If you choose option a), that's fine, but you still have to recognize the possibility that your research may have larger and unintended consequences. In which case, you'll have to take a more active role. If you choose b) then you have to recognize the possibility that your research may be used in ways that you don't approve and actively resist those uses.
4) If you choose option b) then you have to figure out a) What tools do you have? What are their potentials and their limitations? b) What is your ethical stance? and c) How effective is your research?
5) Anthropology has a set of tools including: a holistic perspective, a deep cultural knowledge about our communities, high resolution informations on large scale issues, the ability to compare cross-culturally, and the ability to translate cross-culturally (let me know if you can think of any more).
6) Ethically, you have to consider why you're conducting this research, where does the funding come from, who does it benefit and how. You also have to look at your own personal and professional history to see how it might interact with the community and the issues.
7) Much of the work of anthropologists is fairly ineffective, which, in some cases, may be a good thing. Most of the time research is simply published in an academic journal or book, recommendations are given and information is "disseminated" (a word I'm beginning to loathe). If you want your research to be effective, you're going to have to go beyond these activities - you'll have to advocate, reach out to the public, build networks, critique, etc. Sometimes you'll have to do one of these, sometimes you'll have to do several. I am convinced that any project that goes in with the idea of "doing X for this group" or of "helping this group do X" will fail. It will fail for two reasons, first, because it is always external. Even if X comes from community members it will still be only a partial representation of what the community wants or needs. Second, it is always teleological. Nobody can really predict how their research will turn out or the consequences of that research. Case study books in applied anthropology are full of these kinds of projects, and they tend to read like tragedies where nobody really gets anything from the project (except maybe lessons learned for the researcher).

In a world where powerful forces (capitalism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, etc.) are driving unprecedented cultural (and biological) homogenization, it seems to me that one of the most politically positive acts one can do is to propagate and promote Difference. This implies a 2 pronged strategy, advocacy for marginal groups and critique (or resistance to) dominant groups. That's where I stand now, and for this I am inspired by Bateson, Deleuze and Guattari, Escobar, Connolly, and DeLanda among many others I can't think of right now.


Stacie Gilmore said...

"it seems to me that one of the most politically positive acts one can do is to propagate and promote Difference. This implies a 2 pronged strategy, advocacy for marginal groups and critique (or resistance to) dominant groups."

Definitely an interesting idea, but it's hard for me to see what it might look like in practice. Any specific examples that you were thinking of?

Jeremy Trombley said...

I'm thinking of Escobar's Territories of Difference. Also Diane Rocheleau's work in the Dominican Republic. I haven't read his work yet, but there's also the guy who did work with the anti-MTR groups. Even Elinor Ostrom, in a recent report to the World Bank on Global Climate Change advocated what she called a "polycentric" approach over global scale solutions.
It's definitely a difficult strategy, and it's hard to maintain that balance. However, it is the most ethical and effective strategy I can think of.

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