Thursday, February 08, 2007

Kasarinlan Review: Development Anthropology

Yasushi Kikuchi, ed. Development anthropology: Beyond economics. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 2004. 349 pp.

First published in Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 20, 2 (2005): 196-200.

The nexus between development and the discipline of anthropology is one not bereft of criticism, debates and dilemma. Since its emergence as a subdiscipline, development anthropology has to hurdle the ambivalence of academics, and others similarly uncomfortable and uncertain about the legitimacy of its role in addressing development concerns. Likewise, it continues to confront staunch challenges arising from questions that deal with its identity, proper methodological approaches and place of importance among social science disciplines within the entire discourse of development. Criticisms hurled from various fronts echo discontents, for instance, among those engaged in academic anthropology who have come to develop a sense of diffidence and suspicion with regard to the application of anthropology to development-geared goals and activities, arguing that such involvement runs contrary to supposed scientific, hence neutral and objective precepts of the discipline. Those in the arena of economics (a discipline that has come to establish itself as profoundly in the field of development work), echo the same accusation pertaining to some perceived methodological ambiguity. At some point in its nascence, a critical appraisal of the subdiscipline’s engagement with development institutions arose, owing to the emergence of poststructuralist critique of the development enterprise, particularly the very tenet of modernization, which development anthropologists have purportedly come to uphold.

Development Anthropology: Beyond Economics is a compendium of insights and experiences that echo what most development workers and academics, whether in the field of anthropology or economics, should have recognized with greater depth and intensity for a long time now. The book is a contribution not only to the discourse of development but also a substantive documentation of the contributions of anthropology to development knowledge and praxis. It puts together nineteen essays from various scholars in the field and provides evidence to the significant contribution of anthropologists to development aid programs. It highlights the importance of culture and identity as crucial elements for the success of any overseas development assistance (ODA) scheme. In so doing, the book sends a clear message regarding the indispensability of the tools and methods of anthropology in unraveling such delicate and critical nuances as rights, identity, culture and politics in development assistance programs among recipient societies. Each work in the book provides a vivid account of how anthropologists have worked to bring direct development assistance beyond the usual goals informed by economics, a realm that has traditionally influenced development paradigm.

Michael M. Horowitz’s chapter “The Sustainability of Anthropology and Development” once again raises the “internal antipathy towards policy relevant anthropology” (10) and argues that:

For anthropology to survive as a meaningful discipline, it must focus attention on the very issues that engage those of us who identify our work as development anthropology. (12)
He supports this contention by presenting a case of successful intervention by development anthropologists on a river basin development and management project, in which significant recommendations were made on the economic, environmental and hydrological soundness of “alternative dam management scenarios.” Consequently, the World Bank “has considered conditioning its approval of financing the energy component of the project on acceptance of artificial flood, and it proposed a research project to test these alternative management strategies…”(27).

The chapters written by David Maybury-Lewis, Mary Racelis, Son Soubert, and Hironari Narita are particularly useful in showing how anthropology has enriched development work and policy. Lewis’ “Development and the Human Rights of Minorities” highlights the often taken for granted issue of minority rights in development undertakings and initiatives as particularly manifested by the plight of the tribal people of India. Arguing that development initiatives have often sacrificed the interests of minorities (leading to the latter’s violation of rights as well as loss of life and property) arising from “unintended consequences of large-scale development initiatives” (40), the writer argues for the need to rethink the whole notion of development. He emphasizes the need to make development process more humane by calling on states to recognize the unique characteristics of their multiethnic societies and device a more sensitive approach that would guarantee the protection of minority rights in the process of implementing development programs and policies. In so doing, the writer makes a strong claim for the usefulness of anthropological intervention in the development enterprise insofar as anthropologists can “demystify” the authoritarian state’s justifications “of development policies that trample on human rights” as well as propose “alternative development strategies” that upholds minority rights (42).

Racelis’ “Anthropology with People: Development Anthropology as People-Generated Theory and Practice” shows how anthropologists’ involvement in development planning has enriched both the discipline of anthropology and development practice. The essay argues that anthropologists have “started out with a comparative advantage for taking the social science leadership in participatory research” and in “portraying reality through the eyes, voices and behavior of the people.” Citing how “ethical commitment to value neutrality” which anthropologists exhibited in the beginning served as an inhibiting factor to participatory research, she argues that in more recent times, the “tide has turned against ethical neutrality” and that more anthropologists “have joined worldwide movements to protect endangered groups from the negative consequences of unsustainable development, sometimes also referred to as ‘development aggression’, and in extreme cases, even ‘ethnocide’” (141). Clearly, this move by anthropologists to move “beyond traditional participant observation responds to many imperatives”, thus enabling the poor and the powerless to “benefit from the presence of anthropologist-researcher in their community”. At the same time, the anthropological insights gained in participatory research shall enrich the social analysis and “heighten the critical awareness and understanding” of other practitioners through collaboration with anthropologists (150).

Soubert’s “The Anthropological Role in the Reconstruction and Development of Cambodia” deals with the issue of reconstruction in societies devastated by war and violence. The latter specifically points to the nuances (e.g., religion, language) involved in the tedious process of reconstructing war-torn Cambodia. The work emphasizes the role of anthropologists in arriving at a master plan for the reconstruction and development of the said country, particularly in surveying “the needs, the habitat, and the aspirations of the urban and rural population in order to achieve a more harmonious human relationship.” Such involvement on the part of anthropologists would make possible the implementation of development and reconstruction strategies that are more sensitive to the unique sociocultural and historical imperatives of Cambodia (172).

The chapter by Narita reveals how the role of anthropologists has evolved from being mere facilitators of development assistance to a more activist, interventionist one particularly in the area of educational development. Narita documents the ordeals of improving educational systems among Australian aborigines and the Manus of Papua New Guinea.

Beyond offering insights based on their respective experiences from the field, the authors made a conscious reexamination and rethinking of development anthropology’s methodological trajectory. For instance, the work of Graham Clarke mirrors a profound evaluation of both the strengths and weaknesses of the methodological tools employed in the field. The author raises the merits of ethnography as a method which “distinguishes anthropology from other humanistic or scientific disciplines”, while recognizing the “difficulties in empirical generalizations in anthropology” that makes it “difficult to specify in advance even the terms of an operational language that would allow for prediction” (76). Far from enthroning the supremacy of development anthropology as a factor accounting for the success of ODA, however, the book recognizes its persistent struggles for legitimacy as a subdiscipline and in no way do the contributors turn a blind eye to critical issues hounding them. Aside from methodological ones, there lies the politics of development. Practitioners of development anthropology must endlessly grapple with the constraints and dilemmas of when to be for or against development and what kind of development must be attained by particular groups of people. All these greatly shape the dynamics of anthropological work in the realm of development.

As such, the book serves as a timely repository of reminders to both academic anthropologists and those engaged in “applied” anthropology of the roots of their discipline, the gains it has made through the years, its dynamic nature, the form it has come to assume in the present, the persistent challenges, as well as the tasks it needs to accomplish in the present century.—Ma. Agnes A. Paculdar, MA Polititical Science student, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Click this link to download the review in PDF.

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