Saturday, May 23, 2009

HTS and Barack Obama's Mother: Whose "Anthropology"

I have been kind of amused to see some discussion on other anthro blogs about the Human Terrain System and the idea that Barack Obama should know better than to support that endeavour because his mother was an Anthropologist.

But let's unpack that baggage shall we. What kind of anthropologist was she? Barack Obama's mother worked, at various times, for the Ford Foundations, USAID, and the World Bank. I have some sympathy for the work she was trying to do. I, myself, tried my stint with USAID in Tanzania. In the end, I realized how badly I was fooling myself: it is neocolonial. It is what we used to call; interference. Plain and simple. It isn't really anthropology. Not my kind.

I understand the seduction of it. Before I attempted it, I had already had a full fieldwork experience in Tanzania which left me in a kind of personal belief limbo. Flying into Newark (my Grandparents live in Jersey) we came right by the Statue of Liberty. With my fieldnotes piled high in my lap (yes the flight attendants were not happy with me but it was another time), I burst into tears at the sight of her. I was coming home. I felt the beginnings of relief. Good bye to the worries of clean water. I spent a full year plotting access to boiled water. It was always on my mind. Many things were always on my mind in Tanzania. They weren't in America.

Later would come the guilt. When you are offered the opportunity to "do something" about the guilt, is is very seductive. In the end, if you are very honest, you realize that development work like that, is all about you and your relationship with the guilt, or some other psychological reason. Because, in reality, there is, always, someone there, "in-country", one of "them", who can do better than you. There is always someone there that can do better than "us". And "us" is busy trying to create them anew in our image. It is our own arrogance that makes "us" want to save "them". And perhaps, perhaps "they" should be saved from "us". No?

But sometimes nationalistic sentiment prevails and perhaps a bit of personal arrogance, and perhaps a bit of professional arrogance, as well. And, maybe just maybe that is what Barack Obama learned from his mother. For to work for USAID or to become President of the United States, or to be an Anthropologist under the Human Terrain System means that you place America first and Anthropology second. For Anthropology recognizes the danger of thinking any one person or any one nation is better than any other and has the right to drive another's bus. At least, my anthropology does.


larry c wilson said...

William Graham Sumner would understand and approve your stance.

Dylan said...

i particularly agreed with your last para. well said

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you, Dylan. I believe there is a fine southern saying that expresses my thoughts: "even a blind pig can find an acorn, every now and then."

Wigon said...

Sorry I know this is an old blog post, but I'm curious about something. Working with USAID, did you ever think, "how can I apply and modify development work in a way that supports local customs and traditions?"
It's been my experience that while yes, there is an awful lot of culturaly destructive development work in poor countries, it most often is due to a lack of imagination, planning, and predictive analysis regarding negative aspects of the development. One example of such a project that I read about was the distribution of seeds to a select group farmers who seemed most knowledgable in an area of Nepal if I remember correctly. It ended up causing massive political chaos as suddenly these elite groups of farmers overnight became powerful political actors. You can imagine how that project turned out. If it's done right, development projects can be done very much in harmony with local cultures and traditions. It's all in just being highly selective about who and what government agency or NGO you work for. For some clues as to both good and bad development work, check out the "Culture and Agriculture" anthropology Journal.
You normally can email agricultural ministers in the nations that a project operates in to get more information on projects (and their opinion of them). You can also often get ahold of local officials if you speak their language and can find a current telephone listing.
So I agree with you as far as not being naive about development work, but I would throw the whole idea out just because its difficult to do well or because you were unlucky enough to be part of a poorly managed project.

Pamthropologist said...

Wigon, I think there has been enough written about the higher level criticism of the philosophy of "development" in general, without having to reproduce is here. I don't think those criticism are going to solved by a more sensitive application of the process. I like to feel I offerred that. Nor do I think I was part of a poorly managed project. And, yes, I have read a good number of works on development. My issues are with the neocolonial aspects of the overall process not the implementation of any particular project. Hope that helps.