Writing Good Anthropology in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Heather Hindman. Heather is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book Mediating the Global: Expatrias Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu (Stanford University Press, 2013) explores the employment practices and daily lives of elite aid workers and diplomats over the last several decades of changes in the development industry, with a critical analysis of human resources management and cross-cultural communication. She is also co-editor of Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers (Kumarian Press, 2011). Her recent publications explore Nepals elite migration practices, the rise of voluntourism and the shifting interests of aid donors in Nepal. Currently, she is researching youth activism and labor, particularly among elites with overseas experience.]

How do scholars balance the need to write quickly and the need to write well? Pressures to “publish or perish” and the rise of “visibility indices” have led many of us to write in ways that will be recognized by our institutions, rather than in the other ways we also think and reflect. Some academics now are calling for a turn to slow scholarship, but this may be a luxury only the elite can afford. In a time of crisis, writing slowly does not work; instead, we need to write swiftly. Recently, I and many people who have conducted research in Nepal found ourselves under pressure to write quickly while still maintaining our academic integrity.

Organizing relief AYON Bijaya
AYON/Association of Youth Organizations Nepal organizing earthquake relief. Photo by Bijaya Raj Poudel.

 

The April 25th earthquake in Nepal proved devastating for the country and spurred many in the anthropological world to action and comment. In the days after the quake, and propelled forward by the major May 12th aftershock, academics in the US, Europe and Asia found themselves overwhelmed by requests for interviews and op-eds, and many of us were eager to do something. I felt paralyzed and incompetent, sitting in Austin, Texas, trying to finish the semester, working closely with local student groups and NRN (Non-Resident Nepali) organizations and operating at a high level of distraction. Social media was afire with check-ins of who had survived, where the greatest damage had occurred and what resources were needed to keep people alive on a day-to-day basis. I found myself pulled into the social media world and addicted to email and messaging as I had never been before. Many of us sought to raise funds and awareness in our own communities, to establish contact with those we care about in Nepal, and to write brief articles as we felt able for media venues. After the initial flurry of media contacts, several of those who had written about the disaster were contacted by Anthropology News to write an article for their online forum. We hoped to get someone familiar with facts on the ground, yet many anthropologists who were in Nepal were dealing with everyday needs of seeking shelter, looking out for loved ones and trying to provide basic relief as they were able. AN Managing Editor Amy Goldenberg posted a brief piece that collected links to essays written by North American-based anthropologists for other venues, and there were promises from others to write more substantive articles when more research and reflection was possible. Then, Anthropology News—an official publication of the American Anthropological Association—found a respondent in anthropologist David Beine, Professor of World Missions and Evangelism at Moody Bible Institute.

AN-homepage-Apr-5-2012_Crop

 

Beine’s piece “Earthquakes and Culture” appeared on the AN website less than two weeks after the disaster. Beine discussed how certain cultural memes had, if not caused the earthquake, exacerbated the disaster and hampered response efforts. The cultural touchstones Beine pointed to are familiar to those who have visited Nepal – clichés about responses to inaction (ke garne) or claims to community insularity that are part of the oft-touted tropes of Nepal. After the Tohoku triple crisis in Japan, “collectivist culture” was often mentioned as a reason for the vigorous post-disaster mobilization, and a reason to celebrate the Japanese community spirit, but new stereotypes and politics also emerged as the crisis lingered on. In post-quake Haiti, stereotyped “culture of poverty” arguments also circulated. Many of Beine’s stereotypes of Nepal are deployed in negative ways, e.g. pointing to aphno manche (“own people”) as an idea of why aid might be unevenly distributed, rather than as a potentially effective form of networking and community support. He cited important historical phenomena that might complicate rebuilding and resilience after the quake, including Kathmandu’s expanding urban population and the oversized role that international aid has played in the last half century of Nepal’s history. But much was missing: the intricacies of bureaucracy in Nepal, local and national level political turmoil, social and economic inequalities, Nepal’s devastating civil war, issues of privilege and politics in international development, the great diversity of the country and any sense of actual, on-the-ground Nepali efforts in the post-quake period. As a result, his article fell far short of the standards expected of contemporary cultural anthropology, relying more on outdated themes one might find in Kiss, Bow, Shake Hands than in an official AAA publication. The article seemed to blame the victim, noting that the earthquake was exacerbated by “cultural features that have led to unpreparedness.”

Paper work Bijaya
Paper work for earthquake relief. Photo by Bijaya Raj Poudel.

 

In light of the earthquake, I too felt compelled to write quickly but (I hope) with reflection and in areas about which I have research experience to bring attention and knowledge to the global agenda of earthquake relief. When Dr. Beine’s article was shared with me by a graduate student who was aghast at his culturism and objectification, I had hoped that it would be buried online, or overwhelmed by other articles with a more sophisticated view of Nepal, articles that highlighted the diversity of the country and the complexity of response to a disaster of this scale. And for a time it was, but I was naive. Two Nepali anthropologists found the piece and wrote their own response questioning the role of anthropologists in speaking to the field in times of crisis. Gaurab KC and Mallika Shakya, respected scholars and researchers in Nepal, found much to criticize—appropriately so—in Beine’s article. While the authors note that Beine’s article was likely written in haste and that it was intended for a mainly non-Nepali audience, they nonetheless take it as representative of American anthropology. And why not given that it was published by the American Anthropological Association’s official newsletter? We are living in a connected world, one in which scholars from all over the globe can access information and contribute to the scholarly conversation, although not in Anthropology News, as one must be a member of the AAA to post comment on their website.

KC and Shakya’s article concludes with several provocative questions, including asking if “the anthropology on Nepal has kept pace with emerging anthropological movements elsewhere, especially within South Asia and the Global South?” I have long been proud to work in Nepal, and found the anthropological discourse on the Himalayas to be one that seeks to go beyond fetishism, Orientalism, and objectification in asking questions about “virtual Sherpas,” Prisoners of Shangri-la, and “Little America in Kathmandu,” and in thinking reflectively and reflexively about the role of anthropology in Nepal, especially in relation to aid work and cultural exoticization. Yet, as it now stands, the voice of the American Anthropological Association on the earthquake in Nepal suggests that if Nepalis had only been in well-constructed Christian churches, rather than decrepit Hindu temples, maybe fewer would have died on April 25.

All this prompts me to ask a question about editing decisions and peer review in Anthropology News. I write in Savage Minds, not because it is “peer reviewed,” but because I read the work of my peers there. Each year, I send hundreds of dollars to AAA, and yet I learn little of what goes into vetting the articles that are put up in “my name” and which are read by scholars around the world. I fully understand the offense taken by KC and Shakya regarding this article that purports to explain the “culture of Nepal.” There is far more at stake than “good methods and data” in vetting an academic article, but I wonder what editorial vetting was done of “Earthquakes and Culture.” As relief and recovery continue, aid organizations and journalists will still be clamoring for sound bites and quickly digestible “truisms” about Nepal’s culture. The discipline has been through this before, evidenced by guilt/shame culture from Benedict’s remote scholarship for Chrysanthemum and the Sword on to more recent adventures with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System. Shakya and KC present anthropologists with an important admonition, to think before we write, to be aware of our limitations, and to avoid playing to the stereotyped paradigms in which media and development agencies wish to slot our knowledge. But I hope that they and others will understand that Dr. David Beine does not speak for me, and certainly does not speak for all anthropologists concerned for Nepal.

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “Writing Good Anthropology in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake

  1. Yes, I agree, and these sort of culturalist arguments not just miss so much, but also enable certain sorts of dismissals and repercussions. But one correction: Heather Hindman is the author of this article, not me. I simply put it up on the SM website on her behalf.

  2. Just read Dr. Beine’s article and if that is what anthropology is today, I’m glad I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. after majoring in anthropology (and spending time in Nepal in 1977) as an undergraduate. Luckily, as a public health professional I have run into excellent anthropologists, so know that Dr. Beine’s perspective is not representative of the profession. No country or culture (especially one as diverse as Nepal) can be “explained” with just a few phrases. I am also a writer, and from that perspective am also disappointed that AAA did not do a better job editing before publishing.

  3. I am certainly no fan of Moody Bible College being represented in greater academia and solemnly believe that proselytizing in Nepal does damage to the people it touches and influences. Perhaps anthropologists take a more analytical approach to the effects of evangelism. I have not trained in anthropology and do not pretend to understand the methodology and trade terminology of anthropologists. Simply, my observations are anecdotal, and I hope that the professionals here don’t mind entertaining an utter tenderfoot.

    That said, I have a technical, language question. From my personal experience, ‘aphno manche’ in common parlance is a disparaging term. In my (limited) experience it has been used only to describe people with entitlements including unethical bureaucrats who use their station and leverage to look after their own kin, kith and wider entourage in a self-serving way rather than acting as a proper functionary and serving the community impartially. Would it not then seem incongruous to use ‘aphno manche’ to project something optimistic–“an effective form of networking and community support”?

    Additionally, with my limited understanding, Beine’s shortcomings hit upon by the anthropologists writing for the Kathmandu Post seem not unlike descriptions of anthropologists they cite as proper models, at least as briefly cited — a ‘heart heavier than the Heart Sutra’ and a second hand source mentioning music being a cure for the earthquake’s pain and death… this second example about music might be quantifiable–that would require elaboration not possible in their brief op-ed.

    I know these statements were cited by the KP writers primarily to exemplify anthropologists connected to a community under study (like it or not, the evangelist was also embedded in a community , too–Gorkha where apparently he did ‘research’). Yet, the statements cited do not seem suitable as prima facie knowledge. They seem as non-empirical as the evangelist’s wayward statements that rightly brought scrutiny…

    Without being argumentative or controversial, I would appreciate learning more from an anthropologist’s viewpoint about how the other cited comments are more acceptable given the abstract, non-measurable quality of them. In my layman’s understanding, ’heart as heavy as the Heart Sutra’… although poetic, seems to apply most aptly to a community of Mahayana monks and seems to imply that the speaker layers personal religious beliefs into her perception of Nepal (referencing scripture formulated in ancient China and India) as does the Christian proselytizer…

    In any case, the credentials of Moody Bible College Professor of World Missions and Evangelism would do well to raise immediate flags with editors, most of all editors of a professional association of anthropologists. It somehow escaped them, and that understandably rankles anthropologists. Let’s at least hope that relief money that pours in doesn’t go towards evangelizing and church building.

    I will step away now, and truly appreciate any impartial information that might come back. Many cheers for the professional work of Nepal anthropologists and their continued endeavors–the benefits of that hard work and enlightening scholarship are a true boon to us all.

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