This post raises several very interesting issues and questions – and thanks of course for finding these resources online and for posting this great synopsis.
One of the issues has to do with relevance, to be, as stated above, “either useful, or gone.” I would not disagree with the value of what African anthropologists have done as stated above.
However, I do recognize a tendency that I also encountered in the Caribbean, and it can be a nasty one: to use scarcity (many African countries simply do not have scarce natural resources, so here we need to question how scarcity is manufactured) as a means of silencing critical thinking and, of course, dissidents. The tendency then is for some local scholars to mute other local scholars whose work is too critical, not policy-oriented, not on board with the development team. These debates are had locally, and fought out locally, but the speaker seems to be projecting a picture of unanimity that I think is not too credible (unless a massive and bloody purge has happened). As I said, some of these nations have vast natural wealth, and it’s not scarcity, but how regimes work in tandem with an international system to keep poverty local, and to export wealth to the top and to foreign interests. This kind of problematic is absent in the discussion above.
Research that questions cultural practice, power, ways of doing politics, etc., will not put a roof on a house, will not fix teeth or remove a diseased appendix – but it can be part of a movement that targets something that is also a terrible challenge to people’s health and wellbeing: the oppressive state. It would be interesting to hear from Ugandan anthropologists who worked under Idi Amin, given that Makerere University has one of the continent’s oldest anthropology departments and the university did not escape the violent repression.
In other words, and for reasons one can understand without engaging in personal vilification, some of the representations offered above are conservative and careful. Aside from all of this, it would be great to hear from some of our African colleagues online.
Thanks for your interesting comment (and the extended version on your blog Useful Anthropology (and “Political Gonorrhoea”). I’m not sure how “conservative” his positions are. Maybe I also should have included this “anti-government"-paragraph by Paul Nchoji Nkwi:
While anthropologists must continue to produce knowledge as their primary objective, they cannot remain indifferent to the problems faced by local communities every day.
How many anthropologists confront their governments for failing to improve the quality of life of the people?
How many produce ethnographies as their Ph.D. theses, obtain their degrees, and promote their careers, while remaining indifferent to the plight of people whom they studied?
What use is anthropology if we do not listen to the people and assist them in finding lasting solutions to their daily problems? Anthropology must and can find ways to survive as a useful discipline without sacrificing scholarship.
You’re right about this, and I only vaguely recalled this side to his piece since I read it some time ago. I think this is about as anti-government as he will get. Incidentally, I am not blaming him personally; he is walking a tightrope and trying to satisfy a lot of competing interests and pressures in as moderate and pragmatic way as possible.
Comment from: Zei Zoh
How many anthropologists confront their governments for failing to improve the quality of life of the people? What a question? A proopsal for an anthropology for action? We thought that our discipline would enable us to attain the principles of functioning which underlies social forms and perhaps indicate schemes or packages of initiatives that would yield results. We wonder that his would be through an anthropology for action.
Comment from: Senait Bahta
Yes I agree that Anthropology started by the Europeans to study the ‘others’ but it is rooted on the history of Western civilization as a field of knowledge as Murphy would suggest. So can’t we have African anthropology not meaning the study of African societies but the history of African civilization?
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