NGO-graphies: On Knowledge Production and Contention

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The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.

When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize? to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:

Dear All,

I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.

Others replied, agreeing that the term “fetishize” had judgmental connotations and suggesting that the phrase “local knowledge” is a neutral, technical term that refers to practically-oriented understandings of phenomena prevalent at the community level: “Nothing more. No denigrating overtones. No ‘elevation’ of the local understandings. Just plain knowledge from a likely different, local point of view.” Dozens of people applied to join the panel and some just as quickly withdrew, saying that they “weren’t prepared” for those kinds of conversations.

With the panel already touched by controversy, I was excited to see if the conversation this last Tuesday would bring fireworks. While the discussion was animated, it was ultimately made up of solely academic voices, and the participants shared the viewpoint that “fetishization” can be a legitimate, non-accusatory term for the ways that organizations handle their relationship to their host communities.

The speakers addressed questions of ontology (what is the nature of this object, “local knowledge”? or knowledge of what?), epistemology (how do we know what we know? Or whose knowledge?), and positionality (who can know “local knowledge”?).

The discussion ranged across a variety of examples from public health projects and gender-based violence organizations to economic empowerment projects that showed that the fetishization and devaluation of the local can be two sides of the same coin. Some of the points established were relatively obvious but worth reinforcing: the local is not homogenous. Representatives may not be so “representative.” According to Laura Jung, in international health clinics in Honduras, any Honduran and even second-generation immigrants were considered to possess knowledge of the local, even if they had never visited the particular area where the project was taking place.

Another theme that emerged was that “the local” can be temporal rather than merely spatial. Ivana Topalovic reported that post-conflict Bosnia experienced a record-breaking surge in NGO activity that has since subsided, and the post-NGO period has left residual NGO models of development in place with “local knowledge” as the default operating system. The trauma experienced by Bosnian communities has divided NGOs between those with legitimacy based in the experience of violence and those that arrived on the scene after the fact.

Several speakers in my roundtable, most particularly Kristina Baines and Kevin Ritt, pointed to the ways in which anthropologists become entangled with NGO practice. Many anthropologists who may not (initially) be focused on the anthropological study of NGOs themselves use NGOs for access to the communities they serve and work with NGOs to gather information and evaluate their programs. The similar spaces of knowledge production that ethnographers and organizational practitioners occupy can lead to conflicts, which was apparent as several speakers mentioned moments of tension or conflict as their critiques were sought but not welcomed or their input was ignored.

My personal brush with scandal in the naming of my roundtable brought home one of the main points discussed throughout the conference as a whole: that anthropologists have a complicated relationship with NGO practitioners. Work with NGOs seems to intensify the already fraught and messy task of navigating a path through fieldwork and publishing. The conversation also brought home the importance of setting the boundaries of engagement, defining limits, and setting realistic expectations for collaborations on the part of both researchers and organizations. Some researchers suggested using a formal contract to establish terms, citing the potential for a disjuncture between what we want to know and how NGOs would use us. NGOs have agendas that may not align with our agendas as researchers.

Engagement with NGOs may entail “entanglement” (with states, consultants, donors, markets, competing NGOs, social movements, civil society, and other anthropologists). Several participants noted concerns about becoming too deeply engaged with institutions, which may provide richer data but also increases the possibility of conflict and push-back from informants. Where researchers may see themselves as helpfully providing general critique to practitioners, beyond evaluation or assessment of projects, practitioners can interpret such commentary as criticism. Working with NGOs means considering the real likelihood that our research subjects will read and publicly respond to our publications. As anthropologists, we write differently for different publics, contextualizing information and providing rich nuance for other scholars and breaking down concepts and providing concrete conclusions for NGOS and the public. Presenting the same data to different audiences can force scholars to add nuance or consider our work from new angles. According to some researchers who had consulted with NGOS, the perfect report would be concise, snappy, and tell the story they want told, but anthropologists can’t always in good conscience produce the “perfect report.” Speakers questioned whether anthropologists can effectively critique NGOs that hosted them and provided them with access. They discussed their inclinations to censor themselves rather than damage relationships with NGO workers, who might also be censoring themselves in their commentary on their organizations. Anthropologists clearly need to be reflexive about our engagement with NGOs and our roles in relation to them.

The particular anxieties about NGO research arise from the overlap between our roles. As knowledge producers, anthropologists and NGOs compete for discursive space. It occurs to me that Pierre Bourdieu’s (1993) notion of the “field of cultural production,” the social space in which agents struggle for the power to give meaning and value to cultural products, may be helpful in understanding how this plays out. Bourdieu theorized that objects gain social and economic value in a “field of cultural production,” in which agents struggle for the power to decide which material and symbolic products are legitimate. Agents and institutions constitute the shape of the field by staking claims to the cultural capital to create and interpret meaning. As agents of cultural production, NGOs and anthropologists are similarly concerned with creating relationships with communities and undertake agendas of “doing good.” While engaged anthropologists may seek to “do good,” at a certain point it may be imperative to upset NGOs’ received moral categories, questioning who defines what it means to “do good.” Judgements about the success of organizational or anthropological projects are tied up in moral economies. Rather than feeling betrayed, we need to ask what values are being expressed when the people we work with accept or reject our conclusions, just as we hope they approach our publications with an open mind rather than a spirit of defensiveness. The response to my use of the term “fetishize” showed me my own naïveté in assuming that anthropologists’ idiosyncratic understandings of terms and tendency to auto-criticism are universal, and taking for granted my own position of authority as a knowledge generator and word herder.

My thanks go out to everyone who participated in the email conversation, roundtable, and conference. If you didn’t get a chance to participate in this year’s conference, keep a lookout for information on the next conference in 2017!


Rebecca Nelson is the executive director of América Solidaria U.S. She recently graduated with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on volunteer tourism in Guatemala and how it is opening up new avenues for tourists and hosts to develop more cosmopolitan understandings of the world (as well as opening up new forms of friction over the circulation of knowledge).

3 thoughts on “NGO-graphies: On Knowledge Production and Contention

  1. I could relate to this post on so, so many levels!

    For starters, my engagement with the “field” in Mumbai has since the beginning been mediated by collaborations with NGOs, who often work with local and state governments.

    My more recent research with a women’s NGO working on domestic violence (for my masters thesis) has been illustrative of these tensions, since, on the one hand, I have been able to see how NGOs effectively engender capabilities and change in the women in the slum communities; and on the other hand, there are inevitably tensions and frictions that arise.

    Terms like “local knowledge” and “community”, I realized, are constructs of NGOization, states and transnational processes, but also of the residents themselves. Events like cases of violence, redevelopment, and so on, put into work processes and articulations of who the community is, and what are the stakes involved in local politics.

    And even NGOs themselves are highly heterogeneous fields: in most cases, there is a very clear demarcation between the field-staff and the managerial and consulting ones. And in my work, I’ve found it to be helpful to discern between the sorts of epistemologies being produced by these different actors, and how they come to he hierarchically spatialized (which I tentatively describe as multi-sited epistemology). Thus, a front-line worker’s idea of what is “local” may turn out to be quite different from what an NGO practitioner or anthropologist might take the local to be. Ditto with terms like “gender”, “community”, and so on.

    Finally, to reflect on my own position as an ethnographer in these NGO spaces, I find Gerald Berreman to be useful, especially in how he categorically refuses the idea of there being a separate set of ethics of academic and professional anthropologists. And to take that forward, and slightly overturn it, perhaps the onus should also be on “academic” anthropologists (which I am at this moment) to reflect on our positions in these discussions (following Berreman, I would also reject a binary between “professional” and “academic” anthropologists). His idea of “principled anthropology”, I think, is a term we need to relook at in these contexts.

    Thanks again for the post, Rebecca! It was a pleasure reading it!

  2. I’m glad you found the post useful, Proshant! I agree that rigid distinctions between “academic” and “professional” (or “applied”) anthropologists just don’t hold up, the same way the boundary between NGO researchers and practitioners can be fluid. Many anthropologists work with, for, and on NGOs over their careers, serving in a variety of capacities from employee to consultant to critic. During the conference plenary, the suggestion was made that we can turn our lens of critical NGO studies on academic institutions themselves, which would make all of us NGO workers in a certain sense. That can make it even more challenging to define our roles and responsibilities in relation to NGOs as our study subjects and providers and recipients of information. We should be in touch about a specific publishing project I have in mind…

  3. I do think that would be a very interesting idea to explore more concretely through our research projects. Also: is there by any chance any way to access some of the papers/presentations that were presented during the conference? Would surely make for an interesting read. Do keep me posted about the project – would love to be of any assistance/contribution to it!

    p.s., I think you may find some of my posts on the topic interesting. You can read a few here:

    Cheers, and look forward to continuing this conversation!

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