Most people who know me know my politics. And I like it that way.
Most people who know me and know that I do anthropology also know that I do a very politically-oriented sort of anthropology. Among the many parts of my life that I have been thinking about since I started grad school has been how to represent a volatile political situation in which a(n admittedly) biased researcher does in some sense want to give credence to a multi-faceted story; that is, how can I depict a situation in which I have my own political interests in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, including those with whom I disagree?
Last week, my environmental anthropology class had a guest lecturer, Paige West, whose book Conservation is Our Government Now presents a discussion of the effects of conservation programs developed in the west and imposed in small villages in Papua New Guinea. While I won’t attempt to do her amazing and beautifully written book justice here, it does not have the overt, manifesto-like political action arguments that anthropologists have tended toward writing recently and toward which I typically gravitate. She made an active effort to explain and to problematize conservation in a way that would allow her work to be read by conservation biologists, among others – while she clearly challenges the effects their programs had on the Gimi people she works with, she never condemns their projects outright.
In her lecture, however, Dr. West discussed that she has major political opinions of conservation, of the conservation biologists she met in PNG, of the mining projects that have become common in PNG, and of broader neocolonial efforts of westerners to tell “Third Worlders” how to treat their nature as well as their selves. But she didn’t want this to be the focus of the book, for numerous reasons, and she is working toward the idea that anthropologists shouldn’t necessarily view their research sites and subjects through our own politics.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week, and it came up again in our class. The facilitator of the class is Melissa Checker, whose work on an environmental justice group in Georgia has been one of the most influential enthnographies shaping my own work. Her work very clearly is of the activist anthropology genre, though she doesn’t completely exclude the perspective of the people against whom the group she write about are working. I don’t mean that these these two women are at odds with one another, but I do see two types of ethnography here. At what point do we try not to privilege one group over another, at what point do we attempt not to alienate diverging groups, and at what point do we sell out? When we’re talking about political issues, who are we most obliged to represent? Clearly, in both cases – and probably in most instances of political action and impact – one group has already been privileged. In my own work, coal companies have more power than activists or workers to propagate their own interests – but this doesn’t mean I can write them off and only talk to miners or environmentalists if I want to write an ‘accurate’ account of a situation. Indeed, I do hope that I will be able to talk to mining company representatives because this is a complex picture, and in some sense all these different perspectives are valid ones, even if I don’t agree with what a person or group is doing to achieve their ends. That said, can someone such as myself even access this group (who will surely know of my political leanings before agreeing to an interview), let alone write in a way that doesn’t simply attack them for their life’s work, which I might full well see as totally destructive? Does attempting to show all the sides take away from what I think is most important, which are the impacts of such destruction on less powerful people’s lives?
This brings to mind Laura Nader‘s seminal piece, “Up the Anthropologist”: Nader suggests that “studying up” and focusing on those in power can provide a different sort of insight than the one we gain from studying the powerless, one which anthropologists have neglected throughout the discipline’s history. This essay was published in 1972, and I think anthropologists still haven’t done justice to her idea – myself included. If our obligation is legitimate representation, then these are the sorts of complications to grapple with, no matter what our political leanings may be.
In the end, though, how much impact can an ethnography have? As Dr. West suggested, a book that doesn’t overly privilege one political agenda over another will be more widely consumed, though a more activist-style work may instigate more controversy and discussion within the discipline. If we want anthropology to leave the Ivory Tower, is it more important to be more politically loud in a more public way, or should we temper ourselves and attempt to challenge the worldview accepted by the interlocutors we view as negatively impacting a view of a group? Either way, we see ourselves as holding the knowledge of a certain kind of truth that only we are privy to and that we have to share with others – we’re really only choosing an audience.
Checker, Melissa. 2005 Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town. New York: NYU Press.
Nader, Laura. 1972 “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up” in In: Dell H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books: p. 284-311.
West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.