What kinds of theoretical insights have emerged from the anthropology of development? What can anthropologists learn from development work? Anthropology Through Development: Putting Development Practice into Theory is the topic of the new issue of the open access journal Anthropology Matters that was released a few days ago.
This issue, edited by Amy Pollard and Alice Street, consists of four interesting articles.
In Beyond Governmentality: Building Theory for Weak and Fragile States, Priscilla Magrath calls for a better understanding of “weak states":
(A)nthropological theory, drawing on Western European philosophy and political history, appears focused on strong governments, highlighting the potential dangers of excessive government, rather than the challenges of weak government.
Detailed ethnographies of the development encounter, including those undertaken by development practitioners themselves, can provide a foundation for building new theory to address contemporary issues, such as those faced by governments and the governed living in ‘weak and fragile states’. Such studies can enrich our understanding of development processes, while helping to bridge the gap between ‘applied’ and ‘theoretical’ anthropology.
Reconstruction efforts after the tsunami is the topic of Sonia Fèvres paper Development ethnography and the limits of practice: a case study of life stories from Aceh, Indonesia.
Development anthropology has an important part to play in contributing to the design and evaluation of humanitarian aid, she explains. Ethnographers should in her view not limit themselves to a meta-analysis of the development framework itself, or the anthropology of development.
Antonie L. Kraemer explains in Telling Us your Hopes: Ethnographic lessons from a communications for development project in Madagascar why it might be a good idea to turn informants into ethnographers.
She calls for “a more publicly engaged anthropology which does not merely “translate” other cultures, but which opens up for people to conduct their own ethnographic research by asking their own questions and capturing each other’s voices, stories and hopes as ethnographers in their own right.”
The anthropologist’s role should include “giving voice to marginalised people by facilitating access to written and online media, providing the necessary background context, and by translating and communicating joint research findings to key audiences, including the narrators themselves, the media and relevant decision makers.”
It might be fruitful to read her article together with Chris Campregher’s text Development and anthropological fieldwork: Towards a symmetrical anthropology of inter-cultural relations.
Here he questions popular assumptions about “voiceless people” and asks: Do they really need our help?
“Even as a trained anthropologist sensible to questions of ethnocentrism and cultural alterity", he writes, “I relied on this basic imagery of the poor and marginalized when I started to work for the first time in Central America. How not to? Engaging in development work implies that there will be some class of people who need support of some kind.”
Inspired from Science and Technology Studies (STS), he argues that anthropology should strive to become more symmetrical:
The interesting question that STS poses to us as anthropologists is the following: STS scholars state that they need to treat science and its outcomes (“scientific facts”) with the same methodological scrutiny that they use to explain “wrong” statements. So, how can development agents and anthropologists continue to differentiate between scientifically legitimized “knowledge” and culturally constrained “beliefs” of local communities?
Anthropologists should question and study their own methodologies, concepts, and actions in the field in the same way they study their informants. This, he thinks, “will not only lead to a new way of looking at the anthropologist as an actor in the field, but also represents a strategy favourable to those of us who work as applied anthropologists.”