All posts by Maia


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.

Anthropology as a Global Chain?

The web changes the way in which we do research and reading. It seems as if its always been this easy to get stuff, but its really only a few years since google and e journals combined became really effective. Its now possible to find almost everything ever written on a topic across disciplines and times, certainly that which was published in the journals now in JSTOR. And this makes new connections and chance discoveries possible, as well as the deliberate searching out of old thinkers. Last week I found a gem of an essay by Mary Douglas called The Hotel Kwilu. A Model of a Model and which had appeared in American Anthropologist in 1989. The essay is a commentary on the lack of connection between anthropology and the world, including the world of other social sciences. Mary Douglas likens this state of isolation to that of the Sheraton style hotel where she had stayed on a revisit to her fieldwork villages in what was then Zaire, a hotel which was perfectly fine but which was not connected to any national infrastructure. There were taps and a bathroom, but no running water. There were light fittings but no electricity. The hotel was in a state of anticipated and optimistic readiness for incorporation into a system from which it was excluded. I am sure all of us have stayed at similar places.

Anthropology has changed a bit since then. So have hotels in rural Africa. But not always in the ways anticipated back in the 1980’s. Connection to international media via satelite television and mobile phone networks is now quite common for even quite local hotels in Tanzania for example. Connection to water less usual. The direction of change is equally unpredictable in anthropology. Anthropology today is more likely to study transnational communities, interstitial social settings and social movements than in the 1980s. We are also looking at bigger issues. From our own singular perspectives. Perhaps where the Sheraton analogy still apt is in this replication of what makes this perspective institutionally possible across much of the world. Despite neoliberalism, cuts in public education and so on, globally, it seems to me that there have never been more anthropology departments in universities and never more anthropologists. What are the implications of this? Are university departments of anthropology part of a global chain? And how diverse are the different institutional products of different countries and regions?

Is the Magic Fading?

The recent debate around FGC on Savage Minds raised some important questions about the political implications of how we choose to perceive social practice. It also raised the issue of agency in our selection of the analytic positions through which we situate practices relationally, and hence within particular political frames of argument. The key point here is not what the issue is, so much as with what other issues is it represented as being articulated in various ways. This articulation may be represented either within a particular social context, as in for example the relation between forms of practice and social outcomes, for which in the recent example read gender. Or, adopting the kind of argument put forward by Marilyn Strathern in her Partial Connections, it may be about how the issue is related through ethnography to what are represented as equivalent examples of social practice across social contexts, that is within anthropological theory or social theory more generally.

The ways in which issues become relationally articulated within anthropology is fundamental to establishing the legitimacy of what become accepted, or acceptable, responses to social phenomena within the discipline, some of which, despite anthropology’s claims to reflexivity and to the consistent examination of constructivist positions, seem remarkably persistent. The disciplinary representation of witchcraft is a case in point. Not only is witchcraft represented persistently as a problem of knowledge, rather than a problem of power, terror, inequality and violence manifested differently at different times and places. It is commonly represented as related to Zande practices of the late 1920’s as somehow paradigmatic, if not in terms modalities of divination then in terms of the essential logic and systematicity of Zande witchcraft cosmology.

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic provides an account of the place of witchcraft in Zande society and the interrelationship between the persistence of witchcraft beliefs and oracular authority as mediated by princely rulers themselves subjected to Anglo- Egyptian colonial power. This book, a classic of functionalist ethnography and one which posits as its centre the question of the rationality of belief, continues to be a staple of anthropology reading lists, certainly in the UK. It also remains widely cited within the anthropology of religion, science studies and philosophy. This strikes me as somewhat surprising. What Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic actually describes is not so much the rationality of belief in witchcraft, as a political system in which the powerless are liable to be accused of involuntary murder and then forced to pay compensation for the deaths of alleged victims. To suggest that the comparative value of Evans Pritchard’s text lies in the power play of witchcraft as a weapon of violence working in conjunction with regimes of power is not to underplay the salience of ideas and world views in effecting social practice, merely to question why certain interpretations become established. Some of this has to do with what they are brought into relation to. Can disestablishment follow on then from new juxtapositions and new relations?

Time Expired

My time is up. My fortnight as a guest blogger is ended. Its been a great experience. First, feeling connected to a critical, engaged and international anthropological community. Second, for me at any rate, experimenting with a different kind of writing within and about anthropology. This is only just starting. I wonder whether we will see a new kind of hybrid anthropological arguing emerging which combines the blog process of iterative thinking in response to critical commentary and academic styling. I hope that new collaborative authorships will emerge as a result of connections made in the blogosphere. For this to happen more of us have to make the shift from reading to writing in this kind of space, and hence to a different kind of more immediate relationship between reading and writing than we are used to in anthropology at present.

When we consider the culture of anthropological presentations and knowledge dissemination through writing these don’t seem to have changed much since the birth of the discipline, at least here in the UK. Take seminars for example, the weekly fora which anthropology departments have for the sharing and presentation of knowledge and which typically involve one person reading aloud for an hour a paper which they have produced for production in an academic journal. The audience interacts after the reading, via commentaries and questions which may or may not be taken up later by the author.

The aim is to confront the author’s interpretation: discussion never really moves off the points made in the paper. So if the seminar is a springboard to knowledge its focused on the presenter’s paper, not on taking forward issues which might arise more generally. Of course this happens for individuals who have heard the paper, listening as a proxy experience of reading, but if this occurs it occurs inside their heads. Are we back to the social production of the individualism which I suggested characterised contemporary social anthropology? To what extent would changing our institutions and practices change our knowledge? How can we explain this conservatism of forms?

Tales of the Academy

I returned from London with two things, a bad cold and a copy of the Borofsky book on Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy. It was a good combination, because having the cold gave me the opportunity to stay home and read it. And I read it pretty much in one go. I get the sense from the general aheadness of Minds Readers that many of you have already read it, so I won’t go into the details of what the book is about. In any case, the main positions set out in the book were in the public domain long before it was published.

Aside from the controversy with which it explicitly deals, the book offers fascinating insights into the organisation of anthropology today, indeed it could be taken as a contribution to something one of its own contributors calls for, an anthropology of anthropology. The book is structured around three successive `roundtables’ in which individuals with expertise in Yanomami politics and anthropology give their perspectives via written submissions on the main issues in the controversy. This format serves the book’s purpose effectively, providing clearly contrasting positions which enable the reader to weigh different sides of the debate. But it also sheds light on the individualistic culture of professional anthropology.

Contributors to the round tables write not so much as against one position or another implicated in the Darkness book, but , certainly by round table three, as against each other. Some of this doubtless stems from the way in which the round table format was set up. However, I think it provides an interesting snapshot of anthropology as a discipline concerned with the primacy of individual interpretations over the possibilities for collaborative working or consensus. This normative position is so strong that even in a book which highlights the limitations of single researcher perspectives and fieldwork, the possibilities of collaborative research or teamwork are not considered, although revisits to the same field site by successive generations of individual researchers are proposed.

What anthropologies of anthropology can others recommend? Laboratory Life is a good starting point for academia in general, part ethnography, part career manual for grant attracting scientists. Have we yet subjected ourselves to what we advocate for other sciences?

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.

Anthropology as Identity or Practice?

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.

Thanks for the Introduction

Hi! My name is Maia Green , a UK based anthropologist and, for the next two weeks, a temporary mind. I’d like to thank the Savage Minds team for responding so generously and so quickly to my impromptu offer to join them.

I have never blogged before, although I have often thought about it. When I first began exploring anthropology blogs a couple of years ago there did not seem to be any sites which offered the opportunity for the kind of informed engagement that Savage Minds offers today. Some sites were listlike aggregations of material thought to appeal to anthropologists; others were interesting but very general. If they made use of anthropology they used it to provide a perspective on the worlds they wrote about. They did not apply the same kind of critical reflexivity to anthropology.

My interest in blogging derives not so much from an interest in technology or the new communication possibilities of the web, although these are important. It seems to me that the blog format and blog community of ongoing interactive engagement provides a unique space in which people with an interest in anthropology can engage in debates about issues which are not only problematic for ourselves as members of a discipline, but which are rarely discussed in the public domains of our publications or on our webpages. Different propositions can be explored as moments in a web conversation or thought process than can be articulated in formal submissions to academic journals or associated correspondence.

I think we see the benefits of this new disciplinary freedom in the kinds of debates ongoing within the Savage Minds community; the concerns with issues of engagement, matters of ethics and the public role of anthropology within and outside a rapidly changing academia. As an anthropologist within a university who is also engaged in worlds outside it these are very much my concerns. I welcome the opportunity to share these concerns with others. Please bear with me while I get used to the technology of inputting. Watch this space.