Do we really need more new development ethnography? – a response to Ed Carr

Ed Carr asked a few days ago Should ethnographies have an expiration date? and invited me and other colleagues to comment-which I am more than happy to do.
I do not disagree with Ed in principle (he already anticipated on facebook that we are likely ending up ‘hugging it out’ ;) and his argument for more relevant ethnography in development research is very valid as is his main question whether and how such anthropological knowledge ‘expires’.
However, his post triggered a few thoughts of my own and there are some nuances about contemporary development anthropology that I want to elaborate on a bit more:

‘Clusterfication’ of (development) anthropology
Substantial parts of my doctoral field research took place in Nepal, probably one of the best researched places with regard to anthropology, ethnography and development research.
And as much as I have enjoyed meeting fascinating colleagues and learning a lot about various places and spaces, there was a feeling sometimes that Nepal is ‘over-researched’. So rather than just arguing for ‘more (development) anthropology’, we should have a more critical discussion about those
clusters (e.g. Afghanistan) and whether popularity of an issue or region affects the shelf life’ of the ethnography. There are always funding, political, institutional and personal trends involved and Ed and I probably agree that we need more development anthropology at ‘the margins’.

The non-existence of ‘re-visits’ and re-research in development anthropology
Ed is hinting at this point towards the end of his post that he has some sense of how ‘his’ field site is changing with the potential of his research becoming obsolete to some extent. But formal re-visits are still fairly uncommon in recent anthropology (although Michael Burawoy disagrees in his paper Revisits: An Outline of a Theory of Reflexive Ethnography)-and I have not come across a study that explicitly re-visits a development anthropological site. The quest for discovering something ‘new’ is an essential part of the academic endeavor and funding as well as academic policies that usually prevent re-visits from happening in the context of PhD research. Whether or not you should send a student to re-research ‘your’ old site and what such an engagement could look like probably requires a separate discussion.

Traditional thesis writing and ‘the literature review’

Does work ‘expire’ as long as it shows up in the literature review of books, articles and/or theses?
Like discovering something ‘new’, reviewing literature is a key component of academic writing traditions.
But does a ritualistic reference to, say, Geertz keep his work relevant and ‘safes’ it from expiration or should anthropological writing be more ‘forgetful’ about traditional anthropologists and their work? There is no simple answer to this. In my recent review of Stephen Nugents Critical Anthropology I enjoyed re-discovering some traditional anthropological texts, but at the same time the volume also raised some interesting questions about gender dynamics, accessibility of writing and traditional (Western? male?) discussion cultures – some of which certainly could do with some expiration…

The Holy Grail of ‘influencing policy’

The conference seems to be all economists, which I'm obviously not really going to complain about but it might have been interesting to see some of the fruits of the qualitative work. There are some really big names in the economics of education
It may not be the intention of Roving Bandits post on the Young Lives conference, but when it comes to policy-related debates, qualitative research, including ethnography, is often reduced to the role of a court jester who should entertain the royalties of political science and economy land during the coffee break. As much as I believe in going to where various forms of ‘power’ are, I have become more critical when it comes to actually influencing institutions with qualitative research. This probably deserves another round of discussion, but it is somewhat linked to Ed’s questions about expiry dates: I think it is part of our task as anthropologists to ‘save’ some of the obscure or ‘useless’ works from expiration rather than pondering on how, say, military interventions can become more ethnographically-savvy.

Keep stretching those boundaries of what ‘the field’ is!

My final point is linked to one of the great and unique features of (development) anthropology: You can determine where it ‘takes place’. As an organizational anthropologist I am less interested in ‘outside’ geographical field sites, but going ‘inside’: Attending meetings, workshops, conferences and hanging out in offices and reading publications.
Rosalind Eyben and Laura Savage’s research on the Busan High Level Forum (
Emerging and Submerging Powers: Imagined Geographies in the New Development Partnership at the Busan Fourth High Level Forum) is a great example of this direction of organizational development anthropology. It keeps ethnography relevant and interesting and we certainly need more of that!

So to finally answer one of Ed’s central questions: We may not need standards to determine expiry dates of ethnography, but we should always be aware of how we are going to engage, disengage and re-engage with a ‘field’ that not always has to be ‘new’, but never can and will be ahistorical.


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