False Egalitarianism and Illusions of Inherent Good

Before jumping into some cautions about mentoring as part of critical pedagogy and anthropological practice, I want to point out that I updated my last post to reflect two specific references:

  1. John McCreery’s discussion of teaching/learning as “fellow travellers on a great plain” comes from Stanley Cavell’s book Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism.
  2. I also added a link and reference to the Willen, Mulligan and Casteneda’s article (see full reference at the end of the post).

Although this will be my last post as a guest blogger on Savage Minds, I’m planning to continue writing and thinking about this idea of mentoring. I hope to start a bibliography and maybe continue to write here if anyone is interested for future reference – maybe someone out there will want to do anthropological research on mentoring that captures some of the multiple ways such relationships might develop and play out as John McCreery suggested in comments on my previous post. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

While there are numerous ideas, critiques, and issues that commenters brought up in the last couple of posts, I want to focus here very briefly on what those interested in mentoring and/or teaching and learning as critical praxis might want to be careful about in engaging this kind of practice.

While I feel very inspired about the potential of transforming mentoring relationships by thinking more intentionally about how such relationships might result in a more democratic production of knowledge and a more intense focus on developing critical thinking skills, I also recognize that getting caught up in an idealized vision of the work of critical pedagogy can actually end up undermining it.

Engaging critical pedagogies in mentoring and other teaching/learning relationships is difficult work that is not inherently liberatory just because we are following the steps (insofar as there are specific sets of steps) of engagement. Discuss White Privilege and mastaliu pointed this issue out in comments on the previous post. For example, mastaliu mentioned “the often ‘cute’ photostory type projects that can be a medium or space for expression, but do not move towards shifting power relations, public dialogue, etc.” Photostory is a method often used in participatory research to “give voice” to people who don’t often get to speak in academic or public settings. But mastaliu is right in a lot of ways. The idea of giving voice itself is problematic because it implies a necessary imbalance of power – as in some people cannot speak unless and until academics (or others who lead these kinds of projects) create the space for them to do so. And acknowledging that photostory is a participatory method doesn’t make it part of any kind of critical praxis as I have been talking about it here. It can, in fact, be in opposition to the foundational values of critical praxis. To extend this to mentoring and teaching/learning there is nothing inherently “good,” “critical,” or “liberatory” about mentoring founded on the ideas of critical praxis. Speaking about participatory action research (PAR, which is founded on similar principles to those I laid out in my last post), Kysa Nygreen (2009/2010: 19) has argued:

The critical dilemma of power, therefore, is the following: although PAR aims to equalize power relations between the researcher and researched, (or at a minimum to reduce power inequalities between them), in practice PAR projects may quite easily reproduce and exacerbate power inequalities while obscuring these processes through a discourse of false egalitarianism.

The same is true for mentoring. Just because I say I am mentoring, for example, the high school students in the YPAR (youth participatory action research) project I worked on last year, doesn’t mean that I am actually doing anything to encourage the development of critical knowledge and action. And perhaps more to the point, just because I base my mentoring practice on Freire’s notions of critical pedagogy and praxis and claim that the resulting relationships are egalitarian doesn’t mean that I am not also reproducing particular relationships of power. And that’s why I think this intentionality is really important. Maybe the anthropological practice of participant observation, a little auto-ethnography (or, if you prefer, just setting aside time for some serious self-reflection), and ethnographic research collaboration within mentoring relationships about that relationship itself provides one avenue through which one can begin to develop that kind of intentionality.

That’s it for this guest blogger. Thanks to all of you for engaging in this discussion of mentoring in anthropology. I, for one, have learned a lot and hope to continue to participate in more of these conversations in the future.


Nygreen, Kysa. 2009-2010. Critical Dilemmas in PAR: Toward a New Theory of Engaged Research for Social Change. Social Justice 36(4): 14-35.

Willen, Sarah S., Jessica Mulligan, Heide Castañeda. 2011. “Take a Stand Commentary: How Can Medical Anthropologists Contribute to Contemporary Conversations on ‘Illegal’ Im/migration and Health?<http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-1387.2011.01164.x/abstract>” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 25(3): 331–356.

Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University.

Mary Alice Scott is assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. Her research focuses on health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.