In “Anthropology and the Development Encounter,” Arturo Escobar discusses the past approaches of development anthropology as problematic. He focuses on the epistemology of development, the complicity of anthropologists in the modernization approach of development, and the Western worldview assumptions that pervade the discourse even among critics of development within the discipline. In this short response, I will focus my attention on the alternative episteme Escobar offers, particularly in his discussion of alternatives to development and indigenous resistance to the development process. I will then quickly profile Nash’s view of activist anthropology, and argue this methodology offers the applied anthropology of development an avenue to explore alternatives to development.
“[M]ost development anthropologists assume that development either has to take place or inevitably will” (Escobar 1991, 670). Escobar, and other post-development theorists, challenge this fundamental assumption long held within academia and in the popular discourse of development. The predominating discourse cites the impetus for development comes not only from powerful nations, banks and corporations that wish to exploit the developing world, but from the developing nations and its citizens themselves. We are to assume that “the large majority of the world’s population want development for themselves and their families” (Scudder, in Escobar 1991, 670). Escobar wonders how Scudder and other development anthropologists might substantiate this claim, particularly in light of “widespread resistance to development projects in many parts of the Third World” (ibid., 670).
Escobar points to anthropologists and post-development theorists who critically engage the development process and complicit academicians, and he addresses “alternatives to development” which abandon “the whole epistemological and political field of postwar development” (ibid., 675). The alternatives to development offer:
1) “a critical stance with respect to established scientific discourse and … a rejection of the ethnocentric, patriarchal, and ecocidal character of development models;
2) “a defense of pluralistic grassroots movements, in the belief that these movements, and ‘new social movements’ in general may be providing a new basis for transforming the structures and discourses of the modern developmentalist states in the Third World; and
3) “a conviction that we must work toward a relation between truth and reality different from that which has characterized Western modernity in general and development in particular” (ibid.).
Escobar argues that “development has functioned as a mechanism of power for the production and management of the Third World … through the systematic elaboration of forms of knowledge concerning all aspects of importance in the life of Third World societies, and through the creation of corresponding fields of intervention …” (ibid., 676). But his critique is not limited to a dependency or world system’s perspective. Rather, he challenges the worldview that provides a framework for the development process and the discourse thereof. Development is “historically specific” and should not be presumed as natural. Further, we should consider the “[r]esistance to development and the repeated failure of many development projects …” (ibid.). He offers a perspective that may be considered essentially conservative, problematizing the very nature of contact, citing Gustavo Esteva who argues that “almost every contact of the peasants with others is an occasion for being damaged” (in Escobar 1991, 676).
In concluding the article, Escobar calls on “a type of anthropological practice that distances itself from mainstream development institutions and conceptions …” (677). Instead, they should focus on social and resistance movements, and to communities that assert both traditional identity and local control of production through resistance to development technologies. His analysis of the history of development anthropology and the development process itself gives legitimacy to such claims. But what would such an anthropology of alternatives to development look like?
June Nash, in “When Isms Became Wasms,” offers a methodological view of such an approach with her discussion of activist anthropology. Nash suggests that activism represents “a new emphasis in gaining rapport in an increasingly polarized world,” rather than a paradigm shift (2007, 15). It may, however, be necessary for an epistemological shift from a modernist worldview that would, in fact, represent a new paradigm – Escobar seems to represent this view. However, Nash provides a critical look at dominant methodologies that offer the false promise of objective research by only engaging the population as a research subject.
Instead, the activist anthropologist crosses the researcher-subject line, and surpasses observation to active engagement in the struggles of the population – in the case of the discussion at hand, this might require involvement in grassroots movements opposing development. “[A]ctivist anthropologists … take their lead from the people they study, adapting their talents and resources to the needs and interests of the people they join as they become engaged in transformative actions for structural change” (Nash 2007, 29).
Nash points to a collaborative publication between ethnographers and Zapatista women where the research methods moved beyond simple representation to self-representation. We might also consider the work of Vandana Shiva in the Chipko Movement (see also Goldsmith, “The Green Revolutionary”), and Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Globalization, edited by Jerry Mander and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and containing writings of indigenous peoples’ from around the world who discuss their communities’ struggles against development.
Post-development theory and activist anthropology offer radical approaches that challenge the paternalistic and imperialistic tendencies rife within the tradition of anthropology and the social sciences. Post-development theorists have been criticized for offering only polemics and no practical solutions (see Pieterse 2000). Nash and her vision of activist anthropologist offer a methodological approach that would certainly move the post-development view beyond criticism.
Escobar, Arturo, “Anthropology and the development encounter: the making and marketing of development anthropology,” American Ethnologist 18(4), 1991, pp. 658-682. Print.
Goldsmith, Edward, “Green Revolutionary,” http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=3351185323669993067#. Film.
Mander, Jerry and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Globalization, Sierra Club Books, 2007. Print.
Nash, Jan, “When Isms Became Wasms: Paradigms Lost and Regained,” Practicing Ethnography in a Globalizing World: An Anthropological Odyssey, Alta Mira Press, 2007, pp. 15-34. Print.
Pieterse, Jan Nederveen, “After post-development,” Third World Quarterly, 21, 2, 2000, pp. 175-191. Print.