The NGOs and Nonprofits Special Interest Group held its second biennial conference before the AAAs last week. It’s designed to give anthropologists and practitioners working in and with NGOs a chance to engage with each other in a more intimate, focused way before diving into the chaos of the AAAs. Entitled “NGOgraphies,” this year’s conference explored the dual meaning of the term, coined by Steven Sampson and Julie Hemment in 2001, which refers both to critical ethnography of NGOs in general and to analysis of the human geography of NGOs in particular. The conference attracted 112 attendees from 13 countries, and session organizers were encouraged to use alternate formats to engage participants, ranging from workshops to roundtables. Rather than a general report on the conference, this post is a reflection on some of the specific conversations and lines of thought the conference generated for me.
When I circulated the call for papers for my roundtable panel “What Is This ‘Local Knowledge’ that Development Organizations Fetishize?” to the NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group listserv in May, I got the following email in reply:
I might have been interested in participating, but will likely be traveling overseas for humanitarian work at the time. I have worked for international NGOs and aid agencies for 30 years, as I do now. However, I must say that the title of the session troubles me. As a long-time member and leader of such organizations, I have never known our community to “fetishize” local knowledge. I think the term is disrespectful to my colleagues and their work and insights. This seems like some sort of construct or perception of research-based academics.
(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.
[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel’s previous post here.]
Anthropology as a discipline and ethnography as a set of practices enjoyed a period of heightened popularity in the world of market research in the U.S. from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. During that time, anthropology was seen as the “next big thing,” a new, improved way of understanding the behaviors and motivations of consumers. Stories about the special insights that ethnography could bring offer abounded in the popular press, trade journals, and even on NPR’s Motley Fool radio show. Advertising firms and makers of consumer goods touted ethnography’s ability to offer a more authentic and deeper view of consumer attitudes and practices. These enhanced understandings, it was promised, would enable ad agencies and product manufacturers to target new markets, develop new products, transform their brand image, and, ultimately, sell more snacks and widgets. My entry into this landscape was a function of chance; I earned my PhD in cultural anthropology in 2002, during anthropology’s hottest corporate moment. Newly credentialed, on the academic job market, and broke, I was more than a little interested when an anthropologist friend in similar (actually, identical) circumstances told me about a small consumer research firm that was hiring anthropologists to “do ethnographies” on consumer habits. For the next three years on and off, I worked for this small outfit and, with teams of other anthropologists and videographers, helped produce ethnographic videos and reports on products ranging from snack and convenience foods to appliances to phamaceuticals. This snapshot of that work is not meant as expose, but rather an account of what ethnography signified and looked like in that context. It not an entirely negative story. To be sure, much substance can be lost when knowledge is produced under such instrumentalizing constraints and conditions. But to my surprise, this interlude furnished gains beyond the adjunct-salary-shaming paycheck. I’m still not sure that what my colleagues and I produced were ethnographies per se, but the experience, as I’ll explain, has expanded how I imagine the possibilities of ethnographic research and intellectual collaboration. Continue reading