Should anthropologists be involved in applying their knowledge and skills to the goals of international development? Why or why not?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Anthropology is the study of humans and their cultures, in the past and the present. In the United States, four areas of specialty have emerged: sociocultural, biological/physical, archeological, and linguistic (American Anthropological Association). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) states that "one central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems" (What is Anthropology?, AAA, para.1).  Certainly, the goals of international development might be viewed as an aspect of the human condition that anthropology could apply itself to, but anthropologists might very well view the goals themselves as problematic in some ways, making it tempting to decline to advise or assist in this endeavor. Assuming that there is any consensus on what the goals of international development are, let's look at a few pros and cons. 

For the purposes of this discussion, with its focus on anthropology, I am going to assume the following about the goals of international development: 

1. The goals are premised upon capitalist endeavor. 

2. The goals are premised on establishing democracy.

2. One goal is to create "first world" societies where there are undeveloped or developing societies, which includes these elements: 

     a. The creation of "first world" infrastructure,

     b. Food and housing security,

     c. Safety, and

     d. A better standard of living.

3. One goal is to allow businesses to transcend national, cultural, or ethnic borders to serve their stakeholders' interests.

Assuming all of these to be true, how might anthropologists help or hurt humankind by offering assistance?

Anthropologists, because of their concerns for humankind and their extensive knowledge of past and present societies, can provide a bigger and more balanced picture, mitigating against the intrusive and damaging aspect of international development, which tends to not take into account the societies it is trying to change. One example of this that comes to mind is the relocation of the Falashas, a group of historically Jewish Ethiopian people, from their almost hunter/gatherer existence, to modern Israel, with dismaying results. Had anthropologists been consulted, their knowledge of such societies would have eased the transition and made it far smoother.  International development almost inevitably involves much disruption, frequently cultural disruption, and it could be reasonably said that anthropologists have an ethical obligation to safeguard or at the very least, militate against that disruption for those who have little or no voice.   

Next, anthropologists can offer significantly practical advice on issues such as food and housing security or infrastructure, if they have studied the past and present societies where change is sought.  There are patterns and traditions in how these systems manifest, and an understanding of these can allow changes to be rooted in the patterns and traditions. If farming is done in a particular way, there are no doubt good reasons for this, and an anthropologist is likely to know what they are and how to incorporate those into a new method of farming.  If people are refusing to use new roads, it could be because of a superstition or because a new road prevents them from visiting friends along the way, a socially disruptive change.  An anthropologist will be able to have insight into problems like this and be able to offer concrete suggestions on how to get around the problems.   

Additionally, anthropologists who are assisting in international development endeavors are going to be value-neutral. By that I mean that anthropologists, as a matter of principle, do not find one kind of society better than another in any way.  A tribe of hunters and gatherers in the deepest rain forest is one kind of society; the Upper West Side of New York City is another.  No judgement is placed upon either. This implies that for those who seek to impose a capitalistic and/or democratic structure on societies that have neither, the anthropologist can weigh in intelligently on why such an imposition may or may not be a good idea. 

Nevertheless, there are those anthropologists who consider their discipline to be a "pure" one, such that bringing to bear their skills and knowledge in an effort to impose change from without would be considered unethical. Traditionally, anthropologists have made every effort possible to not change the societies they studied, and using their knowledge to help effectuate change in the name of international development could very well be untenable.

Furthermore, if anthropologists are on the payroll of international developers whose primary goals are capitalistic, this could be said to create a conflict of interest for those anthropologists, who do not want to bite the hands of those that feed them. They might elevate the concerns of those developers over their concerns as anthropologists, which would be the interest of all stakeholders, not just those who are paying the bill.

Having said all that, I must say that in writing all of this, I have persuaded myself of how very useful anthropology is. It has a great deal to teach us about how to make the world a better place for all. 

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