Situating Knowledge

As an anthropologist working at the intersection of anthropology and development studies I sometimes undertake work for development organizations. The kind of work I do does not fall into the category of applied anthropology or  the work of cultural translation. Most often  I’m asked to provide, in written form,  a rapid analytical overview of an issue or situation in relation to a pressing policy objective. What counts as a situation  or an issue  is determined by the political context and policy framing which makes it relevant at a particular moment.

The private sector takes the lead


Such work can be challenging, personally and politically. Current development paradigms which fetishize market forces and the unfettered private sector as an engine for positive social transformation are laying the foundations that consolidate the entrenchment of  new kinds of inequalities on an  unprecedented scale.  At the same time, financial transfers from richer countries to poorer ones provide much needed subsidies for improved public provision of essential basic services. Understanding where policies have traction,  and for whom,  is a critical part of the contested politics of development practice, within and between development organizations.

The politics of development knowledge and what  is prioritised as  relevant at a particular time mean that  knowledge work in development not only has financial implications in potentially influencing the direction of agency support. It is explicitly and self consciously relational. The credibility and status of development knowledge generally depends more on the social and institutional relations which position the researcher and the knowledge product than the content of the knowledge itself.

The development sector has undergone substantial changes in the ten years since I first wrote   about   how  knowledge is done differently in anthropology and in development.   The increasing privatization of aid and the growth of subcontracting between development organizations affects the ways in which development knowledge is produced, as well as how it is used and valued.  A greater proportion of development knowledge than previously is now the commercial property of the organizations contracted to produce it and those for whom it is commissioned.

Undertaking commissioned research for a public agency is now likely to be mediated through an intermediary organization which has won a competitive tender, whether a think-tank, a university, a not for profit or a commercial company. Development has long been recognized as an industry. It is also a marketplace in which  diverse actors situate themselves in order to capture business at different scales.

Although many anthropologists continue to have a problematic relationship with development both as an industry and as a post colonial project, the precarity of the current academic  jobs market  or a personal commitment to  some, at least, of the aspirations of  progressive social change promoted by development actors  from social movements to   state wide  programs mean that perhaps a greater number of us will find ourselves working with, not merely on,  development interventions and organizations.  While this kind of rapid and responsive work can be very different from the practice of academic anthropology, it is my experience that core principles and skills foundational to my anthropological practice inform my approach to development knowledge work.

Anthropological holism, the recognition that everything is connected, is an essential counterfoil to the silo-ization orientation of policy work and the politics of relevance based on sectoral framing.  Second, anthropology takes as its starting point the insight popularised through STS scholars that all knowledge is situated. Third, emotions and relationships structure all social worlds, including policy worlds.  As David Mosse shows in his ethnography of a development project which transitioned rapidly from success to failure in the eyes of funders, generating attachment through affective relations plays an essential,  albeit under acknowledged role, in  sustaining policy  traction. Last,  but not least , are the practical skills we pick up through our  research on sources and our  dialogical engagement with people in the field.   The ability to use search tools to rapidly scour multiple databases, being able to read and take in large amounts of information quickly,  and knowing how to create rapport in an interview while asking the right questions are extremely important in this kind of work.

Not all of the practices we strive to become proficient in  while doing extended projects in anthropology are as transferable.  Working outside the academic sector means learning different ways of communicating knowledge through different styles of writing within shorter time-frames. It has made me more aware of how anthropological knowledge is produced, the specialized work which goes into its production and the economies of university enterprise which enable these long drawn out and labor intensive endeavors. It’s also made me far more conscious of the disciplinary practices we routinely use to  maintain the boundaries between anthropological and other kinds of knowledge and what are constituted as the professional capabilities necessary for its production.   Situating knowledge is an active process.  The social construction of  relevance and authority  is  not confined to the development universe.



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.

4 thoughts on “Situating Knowledge

  1. Dear Maia, I am glad to see you mentioning David Mosse in your article. You are certainly aware of other anthropologists who worked on the aid development relations (Ferguson, Escobar, Lee May, etc.). I am nit an anthropologist myself but have work in development aid projects for the last 16 years or so; Leaving or visiting many countries. For me, Mosse’s “Cultivating Development” was an eye opening book. It very well the task to make practitioners to reflect on their practices. It put some lights on the “blind spots”. However, I still see that Development Agencies only partially accept to observe themselves. They have first of all to defend their space and guarantee their survival. They may be able to open debate internally, in very small circles of “like minded” professionals who share the ultimate goal of preserving the agency and defend its approaches to the “last drop of blood”. Sorry for the dramatic effect. I have encountered again and again, among very different agencies (multi as well as bilateral donors) closed into the same mood of maintaining their status quo and only make changes that the top levels at the HQs are putting all their bets and political weight to make. But, that is life as it was supposed to be. We cannot expect that organisations will be open to external influences, taking all them in; they will collapse the day after they try to do that. So, anthropologist should approach aid development agencies as study objects that will certainly disagree and object to some conclusions an anthropologist may present to them; they must preserve their “blind spots” as such. It is too risky for them to do otherwise. And the fascinating aspect of anthropology is exactly the interest in looking into those spots.

  2. Maia, here’s an idea. I spent thirteen years working as a copywriter and creative director for large advertising agency before I began to do research and write about the world of Japanese advertising creatives. I realized from the start that, like you, I had been called upon to come up on short notice with fresh insights and new ideas. Later, when I became involved with business anthropology and started thinking about what French business anthropologist Dominique Desjeux calls Research on Demand (ROD9 and its relationship to traditional ethnography. I knew from the start that my thirteen years in the agency were not fieldwork. I had neither the freedom to study whatever I liked nor the time to write proper field notes, let alone conduct systematic research. In retrospect, however, I had participated in hundreds of projects large and small in media ranging from product catalogues to TV commercials. As what business anthropologists now like to call an “observant participant,” I learned a lot about the industry — a lot more than than I would have as a novice anthropologist struggling with a new language while also trying to do research for only a year or two. I would like to suggest to my fellow anthropologists who work outside the academy that we have a huge opportunity to improve knowledge of organizations and industries that our academic colleagues continue to conceive largely in terms of theoretical stereotypes dating back to the 19th century.

  3. Thanks for the comment John. I agree that those of us working outside the academy have the potential to confront some of the normative assumptions which prevail as anthropological theory which are, as you say, based on nineteenth century scholarship. Part of the way in which anthropological knowledge has to be `situated’ to acquire legitimacy within the discipline makes doing this very difficult. We are always looking backwards while wearing historical costume. Suggestions of how to do anthropology differently within and beyond the academy are welcome.

  4. Maia, your statement that, “We are always looking backwards while wearing historical costume” reminds me of something I said to the Business Anthropology class I was invited to teach as a visiting professor this spring at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Anthropologists traditionally study and try to explain what is or what has been. Business is focused on what might be. The market for business anthropology expanded during the 1980s as companies found that traditional forms of marketing research were not providing the fresh insights they needed to drive product and service innovation. They turned to anthropologists because, rightly or wrongly, we were seen as individuals who go places that others don’t and notice things that others miss. Holistic analysis of custom and tradition is only seen as valuable when it points to “gaps” that new products or services might fill. Providing this kind of insight requires, however, a different orientation from the sort of anthropology that attempts to explain the function or interpret the local significance of customary behavior. Instead of “What does this mean to these people?” Or “What is its its social function?” The questions shift to “What do local people feel is missing here?” “What do they dislike about their lives?” Or “What improvements would they be willing to embrace?” Note, what is going on here is not the classical substitution of the analyst’s would be God-like perspective for local context and meaning. Now the anthropologist must observe and listen more carefully than ever, to detect opportunity where what is and what has been leaves her local collaborators unhappy with their lives.

    That’s my two yen.

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