“Divorce your theory” – A conversation with Paul Farmer (part two)

(This is the second half of an interview (the first half is here) by Ståle Wig. Ståle Wig has recently completed a research based MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, with a thesis on development workers in Lesotho. He is affiliated at the Center for Development and the Environment, and teaches a class in Science Outreach and Journalism at the University of Oslo.)

Last year I got together with Dr. Paul Farmer for a talk. In part two of our conversation, I ask Farmer about the limits of “applied” social science; the reasons for his apparent optimism; and whether, after all these years, he at all considers himself an anthropologist.

In terms of attending to the practical needs of the poor, there are few who doubt that Paul Farmer practices what he preaches. In 1987, while still a young anthropology student at Harvard, he co-founded Partners in Health with his fellow student Jim Yong Kim (today president of the World Bank) among others. Since his ethnographic fieldwork in Haiti in the late 1980s, a whole host of “Paul Farmers” seem to have sprung up: Doctor, Harvard professor, author, infectious-disease specialist, UN special envoi to Haiti, globetrotting Robin Hood.

But when I ask whether he also still considers himself an anthropologist, after all his travels outside the confines of the discipline, he looks surprised.

PF: Yes, I do. I mean you don’t have to, but I do, and I always will. I didn’t know that being an anthropologist meant that you had to be, as we say in the US, a card carrying anthropologist.

[…] Here is how I feel: It doesn’t matter if my ideas are not that influential in academic circles. If someone doesn’t like a paper I wrote in an anthropology journal, that’s OK. You know, I’ll try some other time, or maybe try a new idea, right? I am not inside a single institution; I am not inside a single hospital at Harvard, or in Haiti. I admire people who can do that – enclose themselves – but I can’t.

And I am not offended when people don’t like a paper I wrote. I used to be when I was a graduate student, but I was cured of that by being a physician and working in places like Haiti.

The uses of the ivory tower

SW: I get a sense from what you are saying here that social science has been too concerned these last few decades with deconstruction, or destructive critique.

PF: Well, I feel that academia can contribute very constructively through critique and understanding, and partly does so already. For example, a lot of people in NGOs, aid and development work are unable to do social analysis. And that is hurtful to them; because they are not aware of what they are doing can hurt beneficiaries, or doesn’t help them. So I think there is a big role for the weaving together practical policy and social analysis. It has to be an accurate analysis though. Let’s say you write a book about an institution and you don’t do ethnographic work – you wouldn’t do that as an anthropologist.

But I think it comes down to a division of labor. And if there is enough division of labor, people who do critical academic work can perform a valuable service to people living in poverty. But the answer to the question of “what is to be done” is not always to write a new book.

The people living in poverty are my core constituency. And I have never, in 30 years of engagement, had a patient ask me to write another book. But I write them anyway, so that I can think more clearly. I can’t think clearly without reading a lot of other people’s work and writing. Some people I am told can do that, and I believe it, but not me. But no-one’s ever said to me, “Dr. Paul, we really wish you would stop seeing us as patients and building hospitals, and work more on a book about social theory.” That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it, if I had more time. I think I would actually enjoy writing a whole book about a concept like structural violence. But I can’t do that, because I don’t have enough time. But if other people do that, and enjoy it, and I’m cheering them on.

SW: There seems to be a core of optimism in your writing, which seems rare to find among scholars working in deprived locations. Where does that come from?

PF: “Pessimism of the intellect is appropriate but optimism of the spirit is necessary.” I don’t remember who coined that phrase, but I’ve always liked it.

But part of my optimism comes from working collectively. A lot of academics don’t get to do that. They work by themselves. If you put your energy in a collective movement, say, labor rights in Norway, or racial equality in the 1960s, or fighting against unjust wars – and if you stick with it long enough, and you believe that the arc of history is fundamentally bending towards justice – then it doesn’t seem to be optimism to the point of not understanding realistic and sound analysis.

So, there are several sources of optimism. Getting out there with others is important. That’s what doctors do, not so much academics.

SW: Getting out of the ivory tower.

PF: Yes, and think of all the ways in which we have ivory towers! Gated communities, monasteries, those are good places to think and write. And at times it is useful to lock yourself in, to think that your ideas are the most important thing on earth, to cut off the rest the world. It is by creating a bubble that you can get deep thinking and writing done.

But I’ve seen a lot of people become in love with their own ideas at the end of that process. And then spend their careers repeating their ideas, and feeling in the end that their ideas are products not to be molded, and shaped and improved but to be maintained. And I don’t that recommend that to my students because it’s a trap. And luckily, ethnographers can get out of that by just going out to a new place.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org