Know How, Know What, Know Who

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.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

6 thoughts on “Know How, Know What, Know Who

  1. As “experts” anthropologist are often called upon to be experts on things outside of their own expertise and “know who” is a nice way of talking about how this happens. I think anthropologists do have a certain responsibility to use their “know who” on behalf of those people whose voices we spend so much time listening to and who have less “know who” themselves. I think even Piven and Cloward would argue that anthropologists are well positioned to use such “know who” to direct limited state resources to those people who need it the most.

  2. “Know how, know what, know who” is a formula whose applicability far transcends academic job hunting. It is also a nice summary of a classic approach to doing social anthropology. Want to understand X (a ritual, how to build a canoe, whatever)? Learn how it’s done. Learn what people want, what resources they have and what stands in the way. Learn who is involved and what they bring to the activity.

    Just experienced a great example. Ruth and I arrived at my deceased Dad’s’ place in Virginia last night to discover that we had no hot water. A call to my brother, who lives next door resulted in his coming over to check out the water heater. The pilot light was out. My brother Dan, who has a healthy respect for gas and didn’t want either of us risking out necks trying to get it relighted called his son Kirk, a contractor and said, “Do you know the number of Buck Crow’s son, Nick the plumber.” Kirk knew the number. Dan called the plumber, got him on his cell phone and was told that he was at a birthday party but would be free in an hour or so. An hour or so later Nick showed up, checked the hot water heater and discovered that the regulator was malfunctioning. He took down the details he needed and said that he would get back to us today, probably in the afternoon, since he had a big commercial project to get started in the morning. We were pleasantly surprised, then, when Nick showed up this morning with the part and a young assistant and installed the new regulator. Dan asked “How much do we owe you?” Nick said $280 and noted, apologetically, that the regulator had cost $100. After Nick left, Dan remarked that if Nick had been an ordinary plumber we would probably have paid a lot more and the service would have been much slower. Why, then, had Nick the plumber left early from a birthday party to check out our problem and showed up early the next morning to fix it and charge us less than his competition?

    It has something to do with the fact that our families have known each other for decades. Buck Crow, who died a few years back, was one of Dan’s best hunting and fishing buddies. His wife, Nick’s mom, came from a family that used to include some elderly ladies who, we’re talking 40 years ago, needed vitamin B12 injections. My mom, an RN, popped around every week to give them the injections, saving them the trouble of doctor visits. Dan summed it up nicely when he said, “It’s nice living in a place where you know who to turn to.” A place, that is, where people remember favors and do favors in return.

    That might not, of course, be a good thing if the people in question are too exclusive about how favors are spread around or if favors mean taking unfair advantage. That’s what is, in business and political circles, properly called corruption. But the basic process, knowing who knows what and who is likely to do you a favor, that’s universal.

  3. I think John’s account of the universality of these processes is somewhat misleading. While all people have social networks, not all people have equal access to the same social networks, and this isn’t just a matter of corruption.

    A good example is how workplace discrimination works. Often employers seek to employ individuals with whom they can get along, or as they say in the business world, people who can be “team players.” It is interesting how women and minorities are often rejected because they don’t fit with preconceived notions of what it means to be a “team player.”

    What is at stake here is social capital, more than just social networks – although the two are closely related in ways that have perhaps been under-theorized.

  4. I agree absolutely that while all people have social networks, not all people have equal access to the same social networks. I would add the corollary that some social networks are more valuable than others, where the value in question may be conceptualized as social capital. I would also note Bourdieu’s observation that the particular social fields in which networks are formed may be relatively autonomous. Thus, for example, my academic connections are largely irrelevant when it comes to the business I’m in. My academic credentials are social capital only in the limited sense that, in some contexts, that give me a certain cachet: Japanese clients may be impressed by the fact that I have taught at Sophia University, which is relatively high up the Japanese academic scale.

    The critical point I’d want to make here is that the social capital to which networks give access is not a generic currency fungible across networks and learning what works where in relation to whom is a vital skill for success in today’s information economy.

    Consider, for example, the complaint that anthropologists are not invited to participate qua anthropologists in policy discussions in which we feel we have a special stake; I recall, in particular, a discussion on anthro-L of why Bill Clinton’s presidential commission on race relations in the USA included no anthropologists. The political activist in me noted not only that much of what anthropologists were likely to offer had already become part of the common currency of discussion of race-related issues. More importantly, there were too few anthropologists to represent a significant constituency. Seats on presidential commissions go to groups that can promise to deliver (or at least influence strongly) hundreds of thousands of votes or contribute millions of dollars. With (at the time) only about 4,000 members, anthropologists were peanuts, less than the population of numerous small towns, and far from being rich enough to offset lack of numbers with large infusions of cash (why corporate CEOs, for example, are more influential).

  5. Agreed, the non-fungibility of cultural capital is always an important point to remember. Still, I think academics tend to enjoy their own marginalization. It isn’t that hard to become a policy wonk if that’s what you want to do – the problem is maintaining your academic capital at the same time. (I think this came up in the discussion to Maia’s last post.)

  6. the problem is maintaining your academic capital

    Yes, oh yes, indeed. Academia has a nasty way of treating those who leave the ivory tower as second-class citizens. No question about it, too, finding time for the research and writing that maintains academic credibility can be tough, when a job and family come first. I was incredibly lucky when in 1989, more than a decade after I’d left my last academic job in 1976, I decided to see if I could publish some of my research. I was economically well off (the top of the bubble was a very nice time to be in advertising in Japan), my daughter was a teenager (wanted lots of space for herself), my wife was supportive. The Internet made it possible to do research without access to a major library. I still had to buy some books and offprints, but living in Yokohama meant that I didn’t need a car—you can afford a lot if you aren’t paying for a car, gas, repairs, insurance, parking, etc. Then, after leaving the advertising agency where I worked until 1996, I became a principal (along with my wife) in the small translation and copywriting business we own. My free time is now my own to use however I like.

    Putting aside the bragging, the point I want to make here is that pursuing academic interests outside of academia requires making choices and having the resources required to achieve your goals. I see so many young academic friends killing themselves by grinding away at one adjunct position after another in hopes of someday finding the gold ring that is tenure. I know that I have been blessed with extraordinary opportunities. Still, I can’t help wanting to say, Have you ever thought of stepping away for a while, succeeding at something else, saving up and finding yourself one day in the happy position of someone who can pursue academic interests without having to suck up to academic elders, administrators or grant sources? It can be a lot of fun. I can say that.

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