Last week I presented a paper at an anthropology department in another university in the UK. It was a department where many of the staff had either worked in development, or were working on development as the subject of their inquiry. This was good, because my paper was about development and about the participation of anthropologists in development policy making. Based on recent experience of working as policy maker within the UK government’s aid agency, I argued that anthropologists rarely got involved in policy making as anthropologists, although people who had been anthropologists quite often ended up working as policy makers. Why was this?
I suggested that anthropology and policy making rely on similar conceptual and writing practices, in particular the use of categorical representations. Indeed, both anthropology and policy making are in important ways modes of social ordering, presenting the social representationally. But there are also fundamental differences between them which mean that they can also be seen as the opposite of one another. Whereas anthropology dissembles social ordering through deconstruction, policy making reconstitutes, reconstructs and reorders with a view to bringing into being modified social realities. This has implications for the extent that the practices of anthropology and policy making are compatible. Indeed, when working in the policy field I have experienced what I was doing as practically and conceptually quite distinct from what I have done as an anthropologist.
Engaging in policy making as an anthropologist is difficult. One has to move beyond critique into the kind of reordering which anthropology is more comfortable describing than engaging in. This discomfort, and the general theoretical unease around government across the social sciences more widely, I suggested, accounts for at least some of the anthropological distance from policy processes and from government. As a discipline, certainly in the UK, we have been happier to unpack, critique, comment, translate, explain and witness than to involve ourselves in making policy and in re-envisioning the social.
For an audience committed to understanding anthropology as essentially an identity my suggestion that anthropology was a particular kind of practice was untenable. To maintain that anthropology could be reconsidered as practice, rather than an identity, seemed to imply that one somehow lost one’s anthropological being or status when one engaged in other kinds of practices. The debate then turned to questions of definition and categorisation: who could say that someone was or was not an anthropologist? Were there certain kinds of practices which were not anthropological?
Obviously, to some extent practices and identities go together and what one feels about being an anthropologist as opposed to doing anthropology is highly subjective. Moreover, our identities as anthropologists, whether honed in factory or studio, are deeply felt . Its what makes this a community of Minds and Minds readers. But, having had some seven days to consider the distinction I rashly proposed, I can see some value in maintaining the separation, at least analytically.
Separating out what we do as anthropologists, the special kinds of anthropological practices around ethnography and interpretation (apologies to other fields ) which are largely determined by the institutional contexts which create anthropology as a discipline and profession, from our identity as people who have received this kind of training enables us to perceive more clearly the terms on which we are well placed to engage with the world beyond the University, that is to address what other commentators have called the problem of engagement.
I think some of the problems in dealing with the world outside stem from our adherence to rather narrow anthropological ways of representing knowledge and modes of disciplinary practice , what I have called doing anthropology, which are central to the constitution of the discipline we have built (and which are really interesting and fun and complicated and all the things we as anthropologists love about anthropology). But they are also the same things which make anthropology inaccessible for outsiders and difficult to apply to the kinds of processes in which we claim we would like to be engaged. If we choose to view anthropology as an identity maybe we are less constrained. Anthropology as an identity which encompasses competence in anthropological practices should not preclude our gaining competence in other practices more suited to the engagement we seek. There is much to learn from the outside.