Ok, so that title was meant to goad my fellow anthropologists, but before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean. The best anthropology, to quote Marshall Sahlins, “consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition.” This is, of course, not bound by time. Understanding the thought of others, wherever and whenever it occurs, helps to illuminate the human condition. In that sense, ethnographies are forever.
However, in the context of development and climate change, ethnography has potential value beyond this very broad goal. The understandings of human behavior produced through ethnographic research are critical to the achievement of the most noble and progressive goals of development*. As I have argued time and again, we understand far less about what those in the Global South are doing than we think, and I wrote a book highlighting how our assumptions about life in such places are a) mostly incorrect and b) potentially very dangerous to the long-term well-being of everyone on Earth. To correct this problem, development research, design, and monitoring and evaluation all need much, much more engagement with qualitative research, including ethnographic work. Such work brings a richness to our understanding of other people, and lives in other places, that is invaluable to the design of progressive programs and projects that meet the actual (as opposed to assumed) needs of the global poor now and in the future.
As I see it, the need for ethnographic work in development presents two significant problems. The first, which I have discussed before, is the dearth of such work in the world. Everyone seems to think the world is crawling with anthropologists and human geographers who do this sort of work, but how many books and dissertations are completed each year? A thousand? Less? Compare that to the two billion (or more) poor people living in low-income countries (and that leaves aside the billion or so very poor that Andy Sumner has identified as living in middle-income countries). A thousand books for at least two billion people? No problem, it just means that each book or dissertation has to cover the detailed experiences, motivations, and emotions of two million people. I mean, sure, the typical ethnography addresses an N that ranges from a half dozen to communities of a few hundred, but surely we can just adjust the scale…
OK, so there is a huge shortage of this work, and we need much, much more of it. Well, the good new is that people have been doing this sort of work for a long time. Granted, the underlying assumptions about other people have shifted over time (“scientific racism” was pretty much the norm back in the first half of the 20th Century), but surely the observations of human behavior and thought might serve to fill the gaps from which we currently suffer, right. After all, if a thousand people a year knocked out a book or dissertation over the past hundred years, surely our coverage will improve. Right?
Well, maybe not. Ethnographies describe a place and a time, and most of the Global South is changing very, very rapidly. Indeed, it has been changing for a while, but of late the pace of change seems to be accelerating (again, see Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion). Things change so quickly, and can change so pervasively, that I wonder how long it takes for many of the fundamental observations about life and thought that populate ethnographies to become historical relics that tell us a great deal about a bygone era, but do not reflect present realities. For example, in my work in Ghana, I drew upon some of the very few ethnographies of the Akan, written during the colonial era. These were useful for the archaeological component of my work, as they helped me to contextualize artifacts I was recovering from the time of those ethnographies. But their descriptions of economic practice, local politics, social roles, and livelihoods really had very little to do with life in Ghana’s Central Region in the late 1990s. In terms of their utility for interpreting contemporary life among the Akan, they had, for all intents and purposes, expired.
So, the questions I pose here:
1) How do we know when an ethnography has expired? Is it expired when any aspect of the ethnography is no longer true, or when a majority of its observations no longer hold?
2) Whatever standard we might hold them to, how long does it take to reach that standard? Five years? Ten years? Thus far, my work from 2001 in Ghana seems to be holding, but things are wobbling a bit. It is possible that a permanent shift in livelihoods took place in 2006 (I need to examine this), which would invalidate the utility of my earlier work for project design in this area.
These are questions worth debating. If we are to bring more qualitative, ethnographic work to the table in development, we have to find ways to improve our coverage of the world and our ability to assess the resources from which we might draw.
*I know some people think that “noble” and “progressive” are terms that cannot be applied to development. I’m not going to take up that debate here.