Activist Anthropology and the Politics of Doing Good

We’ve recently launched a Facebook Group, The Familiar Strange Chats. It’s a place where people can chat about anthropology and culture, engage with a community of similarly curious thinkers, and pose questions and ideas. Our most recent interview podcast episode is with the amazing Professor Emma Kowal, a cultural and medical anthropologist in Deakin University’s interdisciplinary Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In TFS Chats, Jodie posed a question to Emma about how one navigates the complex notion of being an activist anthropologist. Emma gave such a thoughtful response that we decided it needed a broader audience – so we’ve transformed it into a blog!

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Activist anthropology vs cultural critique

There are a few ways to think about activist anthropology, and whether or not you want to, can, or should take this approach in your own research. Knowledge is political, and the creation or framing of knowledge always has political effects. It’s important to understand the implications of taking an activist approach before you make a decision.

On the one hand, you can decide to be an activist-scholar. This means that your scholarship has a political goal from the start and you don’t apologise for that. Charles Hale, one scholar who writes well about this, defines activist research as “a method through which we affirm a political alignment with an organized group of people in struggle, and allow dialogue with them to shape each phase of the process, from conception of the research topic to data collection to verification and dissemination of the results.” (p. 97).

Hale differentiates between activist anthropologists and those who write cultural critiques. Activist anthropologists “have dual loyalties – to academia and to a political struggle that often encompasses, but always reaches beyond, the university setting” (p. 100). Anthropologists who write “cultural critiques” are more committed to intellectual ideals than to the enactment of change, and claim that activist research “is simplistic, unproblematized, and undertheorized” (p. 101). Although Hale never denies the complexity of dwelling and working within these “dual loyalties”, his argument is that activist research is enriched by existing “amid the tension between utopian ideals and practical politics.” (p. 100). So, that’s one way to look at it.

Good research vs effective politics

On the other hand, you can take the view that anthropology needs to be removed from political goals in order to make accurate/’true’ knowledge. This can sound like a move towards a naive scientific objectivity1 (which we know is not actually ‘objective’) but when social scientists do it, it is (hopefully) more nuanced than that.

I am thinking here of Ghassan Hage‘s use of Pierre Bourdieu. Hage’s paper Hating Israel in the Field: On ethnography and political emotions is a good example. He describes how, as a young man growing up in Lebanon, he was very pro-Israel – a common position in a Christian Lebanese environment. However, through engaging with Marxist readings during his undergraduate degree in Australia in the 70s, he transformed into an “anti-Israeli” and a “leftie” (although this was an intellectual position, rather than an overly zealous, emotional one). Later again, as he began to read Bourdieu, he came to reflect quite critically on his own intellectual leftism:

…and the facile way it invited me to fuse political and social scientific pursuits. Bourdieu, after Weber, refers to this ‘leftism’ as a ‘proletaroid’ intellectual culture. He is critical of it as an intellectual position which gives precedence to political interests over social scientific interests. Instead, he argued for the autonomy of the intellectual field and that good politics does not necessarily produce good social science. He was also critical of this leftism as an ineffective political position… I took this reflexive critique on board and by the time I was getting more affectively enmeshed with the Palestinian question, I no longer simplistically believed that being pro-Palestinian gave me a better access to ‘the truth’. Perhaps this detachment was facilitated by the fact that French, but even more so, English, were my analytical languages, and my emotions towards the Palestinian question were, as mentioned above, more enmeshed in the Arabic language. (Hage 2009, p. 64)

Here, Hage is unpacking his politics and its multi-layered and conflicting effects on his scholarship. I needed to do the same with my own work.

As I was studying white progressive people (a group I also identified with) for my PhD, in my view, the effects of politics on knowledge production had to be a subject of analysis.

But others would approach things differently. In fact, I had a supervisor early on who withdrew from supervising me because she felt my work could endanger self-determination: “the entitlement of peoples to have control over their destiny and to be treated respectfully [including] peoples being free to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” This is enshrined in international human rights treaties that Australia has signed onto. She was afraid that by studying self-determination (or more specifically, studying how white anti-racist people conceptualised self-determination) I could be putting these incredibly important treaties at risk within the Australian context.

Yet my other supervisor Ian Anderson supported the work from the start and all the way through. The fact that I had a non-Indigenous scholar who was uneasy about my work and an Indigenous scholar who was enthusiastic about it was certainly an important reason why I continued on.

What an activist anthropologist can do

So, if you believe that the effects of all kinds of politics on knowledge production are part of the object of enquiry2, then you may not be willing to approach your research with the kind of unashamed bias towards your participants that a scholar like Charles Hale would recommend. Activist anthropology is probably not a good option for you (though I’d be happy to hear opposing view on this). It then follows that the political outcomes of your scholarship are uncertain.

To take my book Trapped in the Gap as an example. As I worked through the project, I realised my goal was to help people (especially those working in Indigenous affairs) to understand the constitutive tensions of trying to enact postcolonial justice in a settler state. I think that my work has been effective in doing this, judging from what I have heard from readers and from participants in a short course I taught for 13 years aimed at people working in Indigenous affairs. I feel confident that my work is useful for people to understand another aspect of why addressing Indigenous disadvantage is so difficult.

And I should note, this is putting aside the question of whether there are good policies in place and enough resources to realise them.  These are hugely important questions but I was more interested in what happens when you have well-resourced and well-skilled non-Indigenous and Indigenous people working together on a problem. This is the kind of question that I think anthropologists can uniquely address.

Let’s say you accept my assertion that my work has successfully helped some people come to terms with the underlying tensions between achieving statistical equality and maintaining essential or cultural difference. What then? What were the effects of this on them and their work?

The effects were not predictable. Some people might do things differently, some people might do things the same but think about them differently. I personally think I probably prevented ‘burnout’ in some cases by helping people understand the complexities of their situation. That could be seen as a good thing to reduce the turnover of people working in Indigenous affairs, but maybe not if you think those people should leave.

In conclusion: It depends…

To summarise, there is no easy answer to the question of whether you should take an activist approach to your research. The answer may change depending on the context. Some aspects of my work are in an activist scholar mode – e.g. on the importance of Indigenous governance of genomics (GOOD), and the issue of using genetic tests for Aboriginality (NOT GOOD). And I have often done more instrumental publications with colleagues in Indigenous health in parallel with my ethnographic research.

But for me, my intellectual focus is on questions that can’t be answered with a good/not good framework. I am prepared to be responsible for the uncertain outcomes of this scholarship.

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Thanks so much for your response, Emma! So what do you think, readers? Should anthropology, or social science research more generally, try to retain “the autonomy of the intellectual field”? Is it our responsibility to our participants to take an activist approach? Is moving the boundaries of public discourse through “cultural critique” enough? We’d love to hear your thoughts – either in the comments below this post, on our Facebook group The Familiar Strange Chats, on Twitter, or shoot us an email at submissions@thefamiliarstrange.com.

                [Image by Tom Coe, Upsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/cWprUH8sZ9M] 

  1. STS scholars often take a post-constructivist approach, eschewing what the discipline labels “naive realism” or “naive positivism” for its belief that reality is “out there” and can be discovered without the researcher’s biases being taken into account. Post-constructivists also, however, go beyond social constructivism, which says that everything is socially constructed, by reintroducing material realities into the field of study. For more information about these various approaches, Maaike Knol’s 2011 lecture is helpful []
  2. object of enquiry means the central topic being researched []

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