My post on anthropology as identity or practice has generated some great responses. Most of those who have commented have touched on questions that recur in what we might reframe as the engaged anthropology (as opposed to applied) anthropology debate. This debate highlights ethical and political dilemmas pertaining to the issue of engagement. Do anthropologists as doers of anthropology (see my previous post) have an obligation to engage in public processes as advocates of the communities with whom they have worked, or is the obligation to engage the broader more amorphous responsibility of an empirical social science which seeks not only to understand the world, but to contribute to how it is perceived and acted upon by policy makers and others?
Conversely, is there an obligation only to Knowledge, to the academic project and to a perception of public obligation as limited to making this knowledge publicly available. These are difficult questions and I do not have answers to them. But they bring me to the theme of this post which examines the relation between different kinds of knowing and engagement in policy processes.
Recent graduates and young job seekers in Tanzania have often expressed to me their frustration with trying to obtain employment in the development sector.
Its <em>know who</em> they are after, not <em>know how</em>’ they comment, remarking how they have sent numerous applications for a range of positions with no success whatsoever.What you know does not matter in this instance’ , I was repeatedly told. It’s a question of who.
This may of may or may not be an accurate representation of employment practices in Tanzania at the moment. I think that, in reality, the sector is less nepotistic than they imply. Its just that like in academia there are too many highly qualified candidates chasing too few vacancies. In this situation, those who have some experience within the kinds of employing agencies (and hence know who) seem a safer bet to employers than those who have qualifications alone without personal experience of the sector.
I thought of know who and know how earlier this month, while attending a two day meeting of policy makers and representatives of the international community on children affected by HIV and AIDS. I was not attending the meeting as an anthropologist or as someone who does anthropology. Indeed, I do not have anthropological expertise based on fieldwork and ethnographic research on that particular topic, although I do have expertise on rural Tanzania. I was there because I had contributed to some of the background policy analysis which informed one of the meeting themes. Although there were a couple of other anthropologists attending the meeting, they too were there because of their situation within institutions engaged in policy processes around children and AIDS, and not necessarily because they had conducted anthropological research on the meeting themes.
For the anthropologists at the meeting, participation was not determined primarily by disciplinary knowledge, but through knowledge of a different kind: the social relations and institutional nexus of policy and research on children and AIDS. Embedding in social relations brought anthropologists, and indeed other experts to the meeting. In this context, know who mattered more than know how or, perhaps more accurately, know what.
This situation confronts the common sense suppositions about the relationship between knowledge and engagement which is often represented in abstract terms, as if knowledge or research or findings simply filter through and inform policy and public action. They don’t. Whether they do or not depends on the mediation of a host of social and institutional relationships, and on whether individuals engaged in these select or otherwise particular bits of research to make political arguments. Engagement is as much an institutional as an intellectual project. Getting knowledge out and into public processes, whichever side you are on, depends on social relations. Know what, know how, know who.