As I've mentioned before, I recently wrote a post for Ryan Anderson's blog Anthropologies. In it I argued that the purpose of anthropology is to "make a difference," and that the idea of "engaging wider audiences" ought to be secondary - a means to make a difference rather than an end in itself. This idea of "making a difference" has been with me for a while, but I've written little about it so far. So here I'd like to give some thoughts on what it means to make a difference and how I think it can be done.
First of all, there are some underlying assumptions that need to be cleared up. One of these is that there is a world apart from our perception and/or representation of it (rejecting solipsism and extreme constructivism), and that, while we may never be able to completely know that world (because we are situated within it) we can contact it - we can alter and affect it, just as it can alter and affect us.
Another assumption is that the world is perpetually becoming. This is what the second law of thermodynamics teaches us. Time has an arrow, and entropy cannot be reversed, therefore, every moment is new. As a result, we can only make a difference. The question is, is it a difference which is the same or is it a difference that is different. That is, is the difference we make one which recreates in the new moment the relations which persisted before, or is it one which creates new relations? Every system will succumb to entropy, but a system can be reinforced or maintained by continually adding energy to it - in other words, by working to keep it around. Think of a house or a car; if you repair it often, it will last longer. As soon as you stop repairing it, it starts to decay. It will likely decay either way, but faster if you don't do anything to fix it (that is, if you don't put energy into the system). The same is true for any system - social, organic, mechanical, etc.
Recently, I sat in a class and listened to a woman from USAID talk about some biodiversity conservation projects she had been involved in. One involved growing chili peppers around farms to keep elephants out of farms (thus, hopefully, enlisting the farmers' help in preventing elephant poaching), and another involved helping people in Africa start farms so that they would stop some destructive fishing practices. As I listened to her, I felt torn. I'm generally skeptical of USAID anyway, thanks to an old professor who had worked with them in the past, but now I felt torn between wanting to be optimistic about these projects and this underlying cynicism I have towards the agency. But what bothered me was that every story she told somehow involved bringing these people into the market system - creating a market for chili peppers, teaching people to farm so that they can sell their goods on the market and earn money to live. What I realized is that, while USAID may be helping these people survive within the market a bit better, they do nothing to address the fact that it is the market system, which dominates the world today, that is causing a good deal of their problems in the first place.
In essence, by using market forces to solve these peoples' problems, USAID is reinforcing and maintaining (fighting entropy) the very system that is causing a great deal of those problems. For people who recognize this problem, the typical response is a reification of the system. In other words, it is the system that is the problem and any small-scale changes are simply band-aids. Ultimately the solution that presents itself logically is revolutionary action to overthrow the system. But this path is so fraught with problems that it's opponents have little trouble in branding revolutionaries as naive, idealistic, young folks who don't know how the "real world" works. This is the classic conflict between making small changes that help a few people at a time versus changing the system - a prospect that is difficult to imagine, let alone implement.
What the revolutionaries don't see (they may, but it's often discounted) is that the system is composed of small relations, and that the system as a whole - where such a thing exists - is not something we can manipulate. You have your revolution, you and your vanguard take control, you seize the means of production, the means of ideological production, and the political structure, you make your changes, but still you get feedback - still there are people who don't agree with the changes you're making, still there are people who resist, or people who simply don't fit into your nice neat system. What do you do with them? Past revolutions have treated them as "counter-revolutionary" and thrown them in prison or worse. Is that what a just world looks like?
But there is hope. Small changes to the small relations that compose a system can and do make a difference to the system. The problem with band-aid solutions such as those that USAID supports is not that they are small in scale, but that they replicate the existing set of relations. A successful solution will create not only new relations, but new kinds of relations - new possible ways of interacting. These new kinds of relations may or may not directly undermine the existing set of relations, or the system as it is, but their very existence undermines the system by taking away some of the energy that goes into replicating it (thus causing it to succumb to entropy). The more different kinds of relations exist, the more likely the system will transform or collapse, but also, the more opportunities people have for surviving or coping with such a collapse.
An example of this is the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham. Rather than inciting revolution or giving in to market forces, they've chosen to solve small-scale, real world problems in ways that ultimately undermine the capitalist system. By deconstructing representations of capitalism, and encouraging people to find non-capitalist resources within their communities, they have created new kinds of relations both within these communities and between communities. In other words, they have helped to foster a "globalization otherwise" (in the words of the World Social Forum "Another World is Possible").
Now there's a values judgment that needs to be considered. We can create new kinds of relations, but novelty is not the value that ought to reign. New forms of oppression are still novel. The goal, in my opinion, is to create new kinds of relations that are also more just and more sustainable than those that exist. At the same time, there are just and sustainable relations that already exist, and where those cannot be improved upon, they ought to be maintained - why fix it if it's not broken?
The key ideas to take away from this are: 1) Making a difference takes work (energy), but if you're working you can't help but make a difference, 2) the question, then, is what kind of difference are you making? 3) the difference you ought to make is one which creates new relations or maintains existing relations that are just and sustainable rather than creating or maintaining relations that are oppressive and destructive. So ask yourself whenever you undertake any project - no matter how big or small - what kinds of relations am I creating or maintaining through this practice, and are those the kinds of relations I want? We* create the world anew in every moment - what kind of world are you creating, and what kind of world do you want to create?
*By "we" I don't mean just humans - I mean all living entities, and, to some extent, non-living entities as well.
PS - Another critique of small changes is that they often tend to be "personal choice" changes, and often "consumer choice" changes. This critique holds here too. Personal choice changes - changing a light bulb, buying food at a farmer's market, etc. - do not create new kinds of relations. In fact, to the extent that they are consumer choice changes, they will replicate the existing consumer capitalist system. That's not to say that changing light bulbs and buying from farmer's markets is bad, but it's important to realize that these are differences which don't necessarily make a difference.