Category: "applied anthropology"
Most anthropologists work outside the university where they don’t enjoy academic freedom. These anthropologists must be better prepared for the perils of non-academic applied work, Brian McKenna writes in Counterpunch. For good applied anthropology is being troublesome:
He quotes Robert Lynd who in 1939 wrote:
[T]he role of the social sciences to be troublesome, to disconcert the habitual arrangements by which we manage to live along, and to demonstrate the possibility of change in more adequate directions . . . like that of a skilled surgeon, [social scientists need to] get us into immediate trouble in order to prevent our present troubles from becoming even more dangerous. In a culture in which power is normally held by the few and used offensively and defensively to bolster their instant advantage within the status quo, the role of such a constructive troublemaker is scarcely inviting.
Too often, applied anthropologists say “Yes, sir":
Some years back Harvard anthropologist Kris Heggenhougen argued that the strength of anthropology in collaborating with other disciplines lies in saying, “yes, but. . . and to critically examine the decisive factors affecting peoples’ health including power, dominance and exploitation.” (Heggenhougen 1993)
Yes, but. . . . while that sounds good, more needs to be said.
First of all, we spend much more time saying “yes, sir” than “yes, but” in paid employment. This is necessary if we wish to stay employed. The workplace is a not a democracy but a hierarchy in which academic freedom does not apply. (…) (A)pplied anthropologists have to be prepared to travel the road from “yes, but,” to “no, sir” in order to better serve the public interest.
Brian McKenna mentions several applied anthropologists who were “troublesome". One of them is Barbara Johnston who has worked with environmental justice. She warns about associated risks:
Environmental justice work “requires confronting, challenging and changing power structures.” When someone is involved in this work, says Johnston, “backlash is inevitable.” Because most anthropologists usually enter organizations as change agent s of some kind they need to be aware that they are especially at risk of being labeled a “troublemaker” at any time. If the label sticks it can lead not only to getting fired; it also can lead to a vicious form of bullying that can make one’s life unbearable.
According to Johnston, academic culture “trivializes the importance of this work,” while, at the same time, the engaged anthropologist struggles to find disciplinary support.
Another example is Ted Downing who worked for the World Bank. In 1995, he wrote about the potential social and environmental impacts a proposed World Bank dam project will have on Chile’s Pehuenche Indians. The result: The report was censored:
After his report was censored Downing demanded that the World Bank publicly disclose his findings. The Bank responded by threatening “a lawsuit garnering Downing’s assets, income and future salary if he disclosed the contents, findings and recommendations of his independent evaluation.” (Johnson and Garcia Downing). As a result of his whistleblowing, Downing was blacklisted from the World Bank after 13 years of consulting service.
In his case, “yes, but” didn’t work. He progressed, reluctantly, to “no, sir”:
In fact this happens to many applied anthropologists but most do not have the resources, support or disciplinary guidance to assist them in their struggles. They might become whistleblowers but their careers suffer. And their stories are untold. We do not have a good accounting of how often this happens to anthropologists, but we need to learn more about this. In any case, resisting censorship is, as Downing says, “good applied” anthropology.
She spent a year in Tajikistan during her PhD, looking after goats. Two years ago, she predicted the current financial crisis. “I happen to think anthropology is a brilliant background for looking at finance,” anthropologist Gillian Tett, assistant editor at the Financial Times, says in an interview with The Guardian:
Firstly, you’re trained to look at how societies or cultures operate holistically, so you look at how all the bits move together. And most people in the City (financial district of London) don’t do that. They are so specialised, so busy, that they just look at their own little silos. And one of the reasons we got into the mess we are in is because they were all so busy looking at their own little bit that they totally failed to understand how it interacted with the rest of society.
But the other thing is, if you come from an anthropology background, you also try and put finance in a cultural context. Bankers like to imagine that money and the profit motive is as universal as gravity. They think it’s basically a given and they think it’s completely apersonal. And it’s not. What they do in finance is all about culture and interaction.
“(Anthropology is) a weird background to have. But it’s helped me in covering the financial crisis. Having seen the Japanese financial crisis, I’ve always known that banks can fall apart. We never imagined that the Soviet Union would break up. And then in Tajikistan there was a horrific civil war. So that whole experience taught me that extraordinarily unexpected things can happen.
Tett was Japan correspondent for the Financial Times during the country’s financial collapse, and wrote a book about it, “Saving the Sun”:
The behaviour and the psychological mood of the markets in late July was almost identical to what happened in the autumn of 1997 in Japan. I was busy cancelling holidays and things. But it came out of the blue for many people - investors, policymakers, bankers, our readers were suddenly completely at sea, at a loss to make sense of it. The financial system is so dysfunctional, so tribal, that people just don’t communicate with each other.
More non-economics should be interested in finance, she says:
People who come from a background of arts and humanities and social studies tend to think that money and the City is boring and somehow dirty. But if you don’t look at how money goes round the world you don’t actually understand the world at all. When you try and join up the dots about how money can be linked to politics, can be linked to culture, then it’s electrifying.
“They’re natural born killers. They’re good, they’re lethal, they’re fantastic. I love working with them", says Major Robert Holbert. He was part of the first Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan in 2007 and tells his story in a fascinating interview with Lisa Wynn at Culture Matters.
The interview gives insight in the way HTS-people ("cultural advisors” for the US-army) think. And it uncovers that their way of thinking only works within their own cosmology - only as long as you accept that it is okay to colonize / occupy Afghanistan or Iraq:
Lisa Wynn: OK, well let me ask a hard question, the kind of question I can imagine opponents of HTS posing. Yes, you’re saying this saves lives, and probably that’s true. But at the same time, it facilitates a military occupation of another country. You say it’s about winning a war. But talking about winning, it takes the war for granted. In the end, you’re facilitating the U.S. occupation of another country. How would you answer that?
Robert Holbert: [sighs] I’m not going to completely disagree, it’s not… God. It is what it is. OK, you say we’re an occupying army, we’re an occupying army. If that’s how you look at it, that’s how it is. What else do you call it when you’re not from the country and you’re in it? But if you’re going to fight it, then you’re there. This is an opportunity to change the culture of the military, this is our golden hour as progressives, and yeah, we’re in a country, we’re occupying it, but I’m trying to work myself out of a job, you know.
It reminds me of what Kerim Friedman wrote three month ago in his post The Myth of Cultural Miscommunication (Savage Minds, 26.6.08):
Treating the military’s lack of respect for local cultural knowledge as a cultural problem which can be solved by hiring anthropologists ignores the very real ways in which the military itself operates as a system for producing knowledge about the world, and the role of local knowledge in that system.
I haven’t written about military stuff recently, so in case you’ve missed some earlier posts on this issue in the anthrosphere, you might be interested in reading that The Human Terrain System spreads to Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean (Open Anthropology, 7.9.08) , about resistance against Pentagon’s Minerva project (military-social science partnership) (Culture Matters 5.8.08) and a review of an article by embedded journalist Steve Featherstone about the HTS entitled “Human Quicksand” (Culture Matters 29.8.08). Culture Matters provides also an annotated bibliography on HTS, Minerva, and PRISP
Banks is the founder of kiwanja, an organisation, that helps non-profit organisations to make better use of information and communications technology in their work - of course with an anthropological perspective. “Anthropology is interestingly the area which raises the most eyebrows among delegates at conferences", he writes on his website.
As our ever-expanding digital world slowly reaches some of the poorest and marginalized members of society, opportunities to deliver financial aid to them electronically becomes less myth and more reality.
Mobile phone users in a growing number of developing countries can already pay for goods and services wirelessly through their mobile phones, and there are few technical challenges in allowing someone in the U.K., for example, to make a direct donation to a user in Kenya by way of airtime credit to their phone.
Just as the Internet redefined the way we shop, the mobile phone will likely end up doing the same for international aid.
There’s a lot to explore on Kiwanja’s website and elsewhere on the web . Some weeks ago he wrote the article Anthropology’s Technology-driven Renaissance (PC World), Africa’s grassroots mobile revolution – a traveller’s perspective (Vodafone Retriever). And his projects were presented by the BBC (Mobile development rings true), Global Voices (Zimbabwe: Using New Technologies to Fight for Democracy) and Mongabay.com (Cell phones, text-messaging revolutionalize conservation approaches - An interview with IT conservation expert Ken Banks)
Some of you might remember an related article in the New York Times by ethnographer Jan Chipchase Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?.
(Image courtesy of www.kiwanja.net)
Some years ago, the researchers observed how people talked on the phone while watching the same TV show. Now Motorola-anthropologist Crysta Metcalf and her team are designing a Social TV, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The researchers designed a prototype and recruited friends of friends for the first phase of testing. “It looked like a PC attached to a television with a big microphone on a coffee table,” Metcalf says.
There are several publications by her and her team online, among others Ambient social tv: drawing people into a shared experience. There is also a pdf of a presentation at a conference by the Society of Applied Anthropology Investigating the Sharing Practices of Family & Friends to Inform Communication Technology Innovations
What is the state of anthropology at African universities? African anthropology is interdisciplinary and focuses on solving problems like poverty, diseases and violence, Paul Nchoji Nkwi writes in the book World Anthropologies (download the book):
The West invented anthropology to study the “Other” and it defined the canons. But in developing economies, where resources are scarce, science has to be either useful or be gone.
In his very interesting text that is available online (Word-document), he describes the recent developments of our discipline in Africa and calls for a better cooperation between anthropologists in Africa with anthropologists in other parts of the world:
The European and American traditions of the discipline are distinct and the discipline surely deserves an African twist as well. It is time for the social sciences, including anthropology, across Africa to regroup and to face the challenges that confront us as a continent and as part of the human family: Disease, hunger, HIV/AIDS, ethnic wars, poverty … We need to look for answers to these scourges. It will be salutary for Africans to bring their own particular perspectives to all the social sciences, including anthropology
It is the applied option that dominates anthropology in Africa. Applied anthropology as the focus of academic work rehabilitated the discipline that has been discredited in post-colonial Africa because of its history as the handmaiden of colonialism:
African anthropologists grew up in societies that were either colonized or recently decolonized. Westerners initially controlled the production of anthropological knowledge and the result was functionalist studies. These studies were explicitly ahistorical and often myopic about colonialism. After the colonial period, the new nations of Africa dismissed anthropology both as a cultivation of primitivism and as an apologetic for colonialism.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s African and Africanist anthropologists found it difficult to practice their profession openly, Paul Nchoji Nkwi writes. Anthropology took cover within African Studies programs, or anthropology institutes disappeared into sociology departments.
Some African anthropologists like Kwesi Prah (papers), Godwin Nukunya, Harris Memel-Fotê and Théophile Obenga, remained in Africa, while others like Adam Kuper, John Comaroff and Brian du Toit, Archie Mafeje, and Maxwell Owusu, left their countries “in search of more conducive environments".
But by the 1980s, there was more and more demand for anthropological knowledge - mainly regarding development projects. Many projects had failed due to their top-down approach. A perspective from below was needed - an anthropological perspective. Also, a shift from hospital-centered to people-centered health care gave medical anthropologists a window of opportunity.
In 1987, the Pan African Anthropological Association (PAAA) was established. This was another event in the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped integrate anthropology into the discourse of development in Africa.
Anthropology, Paul Nchoji Nkwi writes, had to rediscover itself as a discipline that could help to solve problems:
During the first PAAA conference in 1989, many participants argued that addressing important human issues, such as the need for health care, the spread of famine, rapid population growth, environmental degradation, discrimination and violence against women, poverty, and ethnic violence would enhance the discipline’s tarnished image.
Since 1989, the PAAA has organized twelve annual conferences and a series of training workshops for junior anthropologists. The association has also worked hard to bring the discipline closer to other social sciences. The future of anthropology depends, we feel, on how well the discipline integrates with the other social sciences. For anthropology to attract funds it must take on, and bring a unique perspective to, research problems that are common to other social sciences.
Over the years, African anthropologists have worked closely with environmental biologists, organic chemists, economists, demographers, health providers, and others. This experience showed that multi-disciplinary work is mutually enriching since each discipline draws on its unique insights to attain a common goal.
At the University of Yaoundé, there were 525 students majoring in anthropology in the 2002-2003 academic year, the same number of students took it as their minor. Paul Nchoji Nkwi witnessed an “increased involvement of the social sciences in health, agriculture, animal, environmental, and population research programs funded by the government":
Targeting critical areas such as general health, reproductive health, population growth, the environment, and agricultural development led to the design of courses in medical anthropology, development anthropology, and environmental impact assessment. Today, the University of Yaoundé-I has one of the most active and dynamic departments of anthropology in Central Africa, attracting students from the entire region.
African anthropologists want opportunities to work and earn their way - in partnership with their colleagues all over the world, he stresses:
To bring this about requires a series of small but doable changes in the formal academic training programs, grant administration procedures, and grant requirements to promote better partnership arrangements.
Strengthening the ability of Africans to organize and develop their own professional associations is a way to address all of these issues at once. Truly professional associations will link Northern and African anthropologists in a single intellectual, publishing, and teaching endeavor on a more equal footing.
SOME LINKS RELATED TO AFRICAN ANTHROPOLOGY:
Pan African Anthropological Association (PAAA) (no updates since 2005!)
African Anthropologist (Journal of the Pan African Anthropological Association)
The collaboration between the U.S. military and anthropologists has been criticized for both political and ethical reasons. According to a recent article in Newsweek, the whole project could end as a fiasco: The implementation of the $40 million project has fallen short, according to more than a dozen people involved in the program that were interviewed by Newsweek.
Recruitment appears to have been mishandled from the start, with administrators offering positions to even marginally qualified applicants:
Several team members say they were accepted after brief phone interviews and that their language skills were never tested. As a result, instead of top regional experts, the anthropologists sent to Iraq include a Latin America specialist and an authority on Native Americans. One is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on America’s goth, punk and rave subcultures.
Of 19 Human Terrain members operating in five teams in Iraq, fewer than a handful can be described loosely as Middle East experts, and only three speak Arabic. The rest are social scientists or former GIs who (…) are transposing research skills from their unrelated fields at home.
Most team members admit they are hampered by an inability to conduct real fieldwork in a war zone. Some complain that the four-month training they underwent in the States was often a waste of time.
Matt Tompkins, who returned home in January after five months in Iraq, said he thought his team provided helpful input to its brigade, but the contribution was more superficial than planners of the program had conceived. “Without the ability to truly immerse yourself in the population, existing knowledge of the culture … is critical,” he said in an e-mail. “Lacking that, we were basically an open-source research cell.”
Actually, language skills and the fact that you have been to Iran to attend academic conferences can make you suspicious - as it was the case with Zenia Helbig, a 31-year-old doctoral student at the University of Virginia with a concentration in Islamic studies and proficiency in both Farsi and Arabic. She had according to Newsweek one of the more impressive résumés of all the recruits.
“The running joke was that I was clearly a spy and the only question was which country I worked for.”
The articles continues:
The banter turned ugly when, over beers one night, team members began speculating whether the U.S. military would eventually be called on to invade Iran. In the jocular spirit of the moment, Helbig made what she now describes as a careless remark: “I said, ‘OK, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border and switch sides’.” In an academic setting, the comment might not have been particularly shocking. Her supervisors settled for a rebuke. But an officer in the program complained to security officials at Fort Leavenworth whose investigation led to her dismissal.
According to Wire, “Human Terrain Teams are hopping mad about the Newsweek article” and anthropologist Montgomery McFate, one of the main architects of the human terrain teams, wrote a lengthy response >> read the letter
UPDATE: The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has also responded to the Newsweek article. >> read the letter to the editor on AAAs website
Furthermore, Maximilian Forte has written several related posts recently, see Reviewing the AAA’s Report on Anthropology and the Military and American Anthropologists against Counterinsurgency: Part Two.
“The Art and Science of Applied Anthropology in the 21st Century” is the topic of the first podcast from the annual meeting of the Society of Applied Anthropology.