Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Anthropology in Everything: Ethnography as Hustling

I actually saw this post by Chris Blattman a few days ago, but forgot to post it. In addition to excerpting Gang Leader for a Day, he reflects on his own research:

Like many a researcher I felt the extractiveness of these interviews -- acutely. You tell yourself that the study is for the greater good -- that it will change policies and perceptions for the benefit of all. And indeed I think it has, at least more than I imagined.

Even so, I see now that these interviews were also a hustle. Me, scouring displacement camps for rebel leaders and victims, hungrily asking questions. Them, answering questions in the hopes that I could give them something, would give them something, in return for information. And if nothing else, I was simply a way to relieve the boredom of life in a displacement camp.

He continues,

There is something very morally challenging in field work among the very poor. You fear that you exploit them. With your cleverness, wealth and influence, you think you must also protect them. But Sudhir realizes that he has overestimated his cleverness and underestimated theirs. He is using them for a selfish as well as a greater good, and they him.

In my case I think the power is less evenly distributed. However much I am hustled back, I have much more to give and gain than they do.

Although I haven't done nearly the field work that he or Sudhir Venkatesh have, but I can attest to the worry that comes with it. Any anthropologist, certainly, who doesn't feel this tension in some way is just being intellectually dishonest; anthropology has been used too many times as a facade for colonialism for the potential for abuse to be denied lightly (I realize Blattman is an economist, but the point stands).

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