Anthropology and engagement

Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull)
Alenka Janko Spreizer (University of Primorska)
15 and R2
Start time:
27 August, 2008 at 14:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Fieldwork has been idealised as detached from political implications. Yet anthropologists have become engaged. Necessarily, the anthropologist eschews participatory violence. Engagement may also be interpreted as responding to the people's concerns. Topics can be transformed.

Long abstract:

Traditionally, the anthropologist and the discipline have been presented as ideally detached from the political implications of fieldwork. Yet the notion of the researcher as disengaged observer is a positivist legacy. Research and its very process have consequences. As participant observer, the anthropologist is confronted by choices. S/he cannot always remain disengaged, especially when confronted by suffering, hardship and injustice. Anthropologists have inevitably become involved. They have been asked to act as intermediary. Anthropologists have been engaged as expert witness in land claims and in prosecutions for discrimination and as policy advisors. They have used their privileged skills for change, eg negotiating with the authorities for the provision of a well. This is a means of giving back something, albeit small, to their hosts for hospitality and priceless knowledge. In some cases, the anthropologist has become activist. In others, the anthropologist may have to study conflict, while necessarily refraining from factional allegiances and participatory violence. In virtually all cases, the anthropologist has to engage with the topics which concern the people themselves. Thus engagement can also be interpreted as actively responding to the encounter thereby transforming the initial research focus. Preconceptions and desk bound plans may have to be jettisoned, once the anthropologist engages with the people and specific, unpredicted field contexts. Presentations in this session will explore a full range of cross-cultural engagements.