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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Making Culture a Part of Development and Social Justice

So far we’ve had some wonderful articles on specific development or health problems. I would, at the risk of seeming too hand wavy, like to discuss social justice, development, and culture. In particular, what do we mean by social justice? Is the “just society” a plural or singular concept? And what should we make of cultural difference when considering the ends of development?

One answer is to treat culture instrumentally. Under such a perspective culture is treated almost like any other input for development. Like land, labor, capital or forms of human capital, culture needs to be manipulated strategically to produce a desired outcome. Culture may take the form of a type of human capital, or knowledge that can be used for certain developmental ends; for example, local agricultural knowledge about a staple crop. NGOs and development organizations have also found such a perspective useful. Or, culture may be seen as a set of attitudes that hinders or helps a society develop. A fair amount of literature on development uses this perspective—most famously the school of thought known as modernization theory.

Indeed, viewing culture instrumentally allows us to ask and answer very practical questions. What sorts of cultural attitudes promote or hinder development? How might we adjust attitudes or incentivize behavior to achieve these goals? The instrumental perspective takes ideas seriously as motivators of human action. Likewise a strategic approach to culture views culture as something malleable rather than fixed. We can change it. Programs like gender mainstreaming, for example, would not be possible if we viewed culture as relatively fixed or from such a radically relativist perspective that we saw all gender practices as essentially equal or incommensurable.

However, many anthropologists chafe at such a perspective. It reduces culture to a mere variable, and can sometimes assume an undue superiority or objectivity in our own ways of knowing. In effect, it precludes any substantial discussion about what the ends of development should be. It shifts social justice and development from a topic of discussion, a political process, to a technical problem. My argument is that social justice should be both.

One of the primary insights of 20th century anthropological work on development is that it is a profoundly political process. Developmentand the knowledge that drives itinvolves choosing alternatives, a process that is always on some level non-rational, or cultural. This was Foucault’s point—knowledge and power are linked. How and what we quantify, what we consider and do not consider in things like cost-benefit analysis, forms and degree of distribution, how much inequality we as a society are willing to sacrifice for economic growth, all of these are political questions. Development may seem like a technical problem at times, but it is laden with difficult ethical questions and our answers to them are shaped by our particular ideological perspectives.

The other asset anthropologists bring to the table is a humility that comes from taking other ways of life seriously and seeing our own way of life as not necessary but historically and culturally contingent. To put it more bluntly, anthropologists firmly believe and try to show through their work that other people know things and that the fact that other people could conceive of and live so differently from us shows that our own way of living is far from the natural or only way. Anthropology would have us try to understand other people in their own terms and to take them as serious alternatives to our own way of living.
Is this progress? Are there problems with how we
think about development?

At its worst, such a perspective becomes a debilitating form of relativism or naïve romanticism of what pre-industrial life was like. But at its best and most convincing it’s a request to pause and step back and to give serious consideration to what other people think and where our own thinking may be limited. In more conventional terms, it’s an attempt to democratize development. Here I mean not democracy as a system of voting where majority rules, but in the sense of equality and a process involving the demos or people—a focus on providing a more equal space for alternative voices to be heard.

Or are anthropologists just romanticizing
pre-industrial life?

In fact, just such a belief is what got me interested in anthropology as an approach to development and in Bhutan, where I study. In my next post I will talk about the issue of “Gross national Happiness” that seems to have become a fad around the world and gained much of its notoriety from Bhutan. Why has “happiness” caught on globally as an economic measurement? What implications, if any, does it have for how we think about development? Is it an example of indigenous culture speaking back to orthodox development?


  1. One question I'm hoping you'll address, Jason, is how the discipline of anthropology has contributed to development around the world, and whether that contribution has been positive or negative. For economics, I can point to a number of success stories - but I'm not sure about the answer to the second half of the question; there are plenty of disasters that come to mind too. Does anthropology have a cleaner track record? How honest are people about its failures?

  2. I will definitely try to make the case using specific examples that an anthropological perspective can be used for both more effective and more just development. Danika's post already alluded to Paul Farmer and the issue of a capacity for complexity--an anthropologist (and medical doctor) and a concept most anthropologists would strongly support.

    But, on the balance I don't think anthropology has done any better than economics. Anthropology, for example, has a very complicated historical connection with colonialism and now with the Human Terrain System in the military. There's considerable debate in the discipline about how this history should be understood as well as how applied anthropology should try to be. If anything I'd say anthropologists become so engrossed in (self) criticism that they make the discipline too esoteric.


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