Neuroanthropology

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Critique – Making a Difference

Posted by dlende on August 18, 2009

Critique is option #1 in our Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, and the principal way most anthropologists approach being relevant. Relying only on critique can be problematic – it emphasizes passivity over engagement, promotes an academic idea of change, and can keep us from developing ideas and getting data about other ways of making a difference. But critique also has a real-world impact.

Amidst a wealth of work, I have highlighted two prominent books as well as recent examples of putting critique into action. I also cover how critique is often most useful when used to improve our own efforts.

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

Jonathan Marks’ 2003 book What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee is an excellent example of critical work in biological anthropology. Marks draws on the breadth of anthropology to produce a trenchant analysis of both science and popular ideas about genetics and human nature. As the American Scientist review says, “A trenchant assault on genetic reductionism and a spirited call for a more critical science, one better informed by the perspectives of anthropology and the humanities.”

James Ferguson’s (1994) The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho is now a classic in the anthropological critique of development. Ferguson shows how poverty and powerlessness are reduced to technical and bureaucratic problems, even as the state extends its realm of control locally. As the American Political Science review puts it, “He strips the development community of its conceptual attire and leaves it naked for all to see.”

Open Anthropology is Maximilian Forte’s admirable effort to put critical analysis to use, both with respect to the field and to the current state of the world. Open Anthropology aims to “transform anthropology into something that is neither Eurocentric nor elitist,” while also focusing on critical issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military is co-opting social science through projects like the Human Terrain System and Minerva. With Open Anthropology, critique is now online.

In An Anthropological Research Protocol for Marine Protected Areas: Creating a Niche in a Multidisciplinary Cultural Hierarchy, Ben G. Blount and Ariana Pitchon (2007) use the critique of institutions, knowledge and power to examine how anthropology can be used to connect multidisciplinary research with the actual concerns of people. Here critique becomes part of an integrated and applicable anthropology.

Three online papers cover prominent critical approaches to biomedicine. Each highlights an important set of issues that shape health and well-being but that biomedicine does not adequately consider. Ideally these three approaches should work together so we can develop a more comprehensive critical take:

Paul Farmer et al.’s (2006), Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine
Arthur Kleinman & Peter Benson’s (2006), Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Culture Competence and How to Fix It
Wenda Trevathan, E.O. Smith and James J. McKenna’s (2007), Introduction and Overview of Evolutionary Medicine

Focus on the Field – Critique

Critique can help us become better at making a difference. I cover a theoretical critique, an analysis of how we use critique, critique that directs us towards having a greater impact, and constructive reflections on mistakes and failures made during a long-term applied project.

Alan Goodman & Thomas Leatherman’s 1998 edited volume, Building A New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology represents a general critique of biological anthropology. The volume showed the role that political economy and inequality plays in human biology and argued for biological anthropology to examine problems with greater relevance in today’s world.

Jean Jacques Paiement’s 2007 article Anthropology and Development brings together anthropology’s postcolonial critique of development with actual work done by anthropologists in development. His historical analysis of both sides ends with Paiement’s signaling the significant contributions anthropologists can make to development.

Colin Hemmings’s 2005 Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology Is Failing Medicine examines why medical anthropology, despite being highly relevant, does not have a greater impact within medicine. It focuses on how we can move towards providing more realistic solutions, rather than continued critiques.

Ben Wallace provides Critical Reflections: Confessions from the Director of a 15-year Agroforestry Research and Development Project in the Philippines in a 2009 Human Organization article. He reviews errors in judgment and other mistakes made in developing the Good Roots Project, with the aim to increase our own accountability and to show how projects can improve over time.

References

Blount, Ben G., and Ariana Pitchon
2007 An Anthropological Research Protocol for Marine Protected Areas: Creating a Niche in a Multidisciplinary Cultural Hierarchy. Human Organization 66(2):103-111.

Farmer, Paul E., Bruce Nizeye, Sara Stulac, and Salmaan Keshavjee
2006 Structural Violence and Clinical Medicine. PLoS Medicine 3(10):e449. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0030449

Ferguson, James
1994 The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Forte, Maximilian
2007 Open Anthropology. http://openanthropology.wordpress.com/

Goodman, Alan H., and Thomas L. Leatherman, eds.
1998 Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-economic Perspectives on Human Biology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hemmings, Colin P.
2005 Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology Is Failing Medicine. Anthropology and Medicine 12(2):91-103.

Kleinman, Arthur and Peter Benson
2006 Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Culture Competence and How to Fix It. PLoS Medicine 3(10):e294. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0030294

Mark, Jonathan
2003 What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and Their Genes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paiement, Jason Jacques
2007 Anthropology and Development. NAPA Bulletin 27(1):196-223.

Trevathan, Wenda. R., Euclid O. Smith, and James J. McKenna
2008 An Introduction and Overview of Evolutionary Medicine. In Evolutionary Medicine and Health: New Perspectives. Wenda Trevathan, E.O. Smith, and James J. McKenna, eds. Pp. 1-54. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wallace, Ben
2009 Critical Reflections: Confessions from the Director of a 15-year Agroforestry Research and Development Project in the Philippines. Human Organization 68(1):55-63.

3 Responses to “Critique – Making a Difference”

  1. Hi, thanks very much for the kind mention!

  2. ryan a said

    You know, there are some very different ideas about where anthropology can and should be heading, as illustrated by certain threads over at the OAC. In my opinion, there is something more to anthropology than passive, objective analysis of cultures and societies–there has to be something more, especially since anthropologists do not exist outside of the social world (no matter what they tell themselves). So, in short, I appreciate your efforts at exploring ways of making a difference.

  3. [...] Last August I outlined ten ways for anthropologists to make a difference. The first of those was our default option, critique. [...]

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