ASA14 Decennial: Anthropology and Enlightenment

The end of last week saw the decennial gathering of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth, with a host of plenaries, panels, films and events loosely themed around the legacy that the Scottish Enlightenment has had on the discipline. I wasn’t presenting at the conference myself, but was given the opportunity to attend by ExCiteS on the principle that as interdisciplinary researchers we are at a comparative disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with our primary disciplinary affiliations (or in other words, it’s hard to get to know other anthropologists when I spend most of my time with engineers!). There was a huge amount going on at the conference that was incredibly relevant and interesting – not just for my anthropological research into knowledge production processes, but also for the project of “Extreme” Citizen Science in general. So, in order to share some insights, this blog post is going to be a bit of a meandering tour through a few of the papers and panel discussions that I think speak most pertinently to the stuff we (and particularly the Sapelli team with which I’m mostly engaged) are doing in ExCiteS.

As a tool for scientifically valid data collection by non-literate users, ExCiteS’ Sapelli app has a lot of potential uses in community monitoring projects to support the implementation of national and global environmental policies. Indeed, we are currently engaging with several organisations involved in Community Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (CMRV) of things like carbon and biodiversity levels for the UN’s Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) initiative. However, as Marc Brightman pointed out in his paper for the panel Made to Measure, these kinds of initiatives attempt to render incommensurable things commensurable, with the principle aim of entering them into the market place. This can have potentially damaging implications for the local communities who are recruited as monitors – not only does marketization create perverse incentives for outsiders to exploit natural resources like forests, but standardised and commensurable measures of the “value” of these resources reinforces the role of conservation organisations as expert researchers and custodians, and disenfranchises local people who may have very different understandings about what the value of those resources is. In such cases, tools of measurement (like Sapelli), and the measures they create, become sources of power – but not necessarily for their users.

Sticking with the forest conservation theme, Evan Killick’s paper for the Rituals of Development panel looked at the common belief that indigenous people are more concerned about environmental sustainability because of their “closeness to nature”. He links this idea, which is often consciously or unconsciously incorporated into environmental monitoring projects like REDD+, with the recent trend in anthropology to claim that different groups of people occupy not only different cultures/worldviews, but different worlds altogether. His concern is that by arguing for difference at an ontological level, anthropologists risk reifying that difference in ways that can feed unintentionally into development discourses and processes, reinforcing existing unhelpful oppositions in the minds of development project planners between “Western” and “indigenous” societies. In his research, far from engaging with things like REDD+ because of a concern for sustainability, the responses of local people in Amazonia to climate change initiatives are driven more by pragmatism – they feel that potential payments for monitoring work in REDD+ projects are just the most recent capitalist interest in the region, like logging and rubber and other interests that came before, and with which they have also engaged.

Finally, and also on the Rituals of Development panel, Veronika Groke’s discussion of capacity building workshops conducted by NGOs with indigenous people in the Bolivian Chaco highlighted the way in which actors situated in different positions had very different ideas about the purpose of such workshops. For the NGOs, capacity building was seen as a finite activity with an end point – once capacity was built among indigenous communities it would not need to be built again. However, the workshop recipients envisioned capacity building as an ongoing service that the NGO would continue to provide – albeit with indigenous “experts” able to take on leadership roles within the workshops once they felt ready. What resulted was that neither group’s expectations were met in the strict sense, however the creative “friction” between their positions (to borrow a term from Anna Tsing) meant that the ritual of the workshop itself was maintained, and thus ensured the future continuation of NGO projects in the region. In terms of ExCiteS’ work, this paper stands as an important reminder that the range of actors within participatory projects can have wildly different expectations and understandings of each other, even if on the face of it a project appears to be working well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.