Re: Anthros as activists

William M. Loker (wloker@RA.MSSTATE.EDU)
Sun, 14 Jan 1996 12:25:17 -0600

Mike Salovseh recently sent a very thoughtful and moving missive on the
notion of anthropology and advocacy. Unintentionally I think Mike made a
good case for anthropolgist as advocate, at least a certain kind of
advocacy, under certain
circumstances. let me just say that i do believe anthropolgists have a
special role in terms of informing the public (whatever public we can get
ahold of .. which is often limited) about the difficulties indigenous
people face, oppressive acts of the state that threaten indigenous
or other relatively less powerful people (*not* powerless*!), and to do
what we can -- in *consultation* with the people we
work with (indigenous or not) to make a positive contribution to the
communities we study.

When i say Mike unintentianlly advocated advocacy, here's what I mean.
For example, Mike wrote about the case of rapacious middle-men in
Chiapas. Hopefully he incorporated this information into whatever
writing or other communication he did in describing conditions in
communities in Chiapas. regardless of whether this discussion took place
in a class room or board room or smoke filled room (ala Chicago politics)
it would be a form of advocacy, at least in the sense of raising
awareness about social and poltiical conditions in these communities.
Now, if you can get this information in the right ears, it can be very
positive. In the wrong ears, potentially disastrous.

--Much snipping here, then he goes on to say:
> The people I studied weren't babies and they weren't ignorant and they
> weren't stupid. They knew, and know, lots more about their own situation
> than I will ever know. I don't know enough to become an activist on their
> behalf. Period. Even if I did, I don't have the right to assume that
> they would want me to tell them what to do or what they should want.

Ponit well-taken. But sometimes we do have useful knowledge to impart to
people we study that can help solve problems or ameliorate negative
conditions.. information about technologies, about efforts to solve
problems in other regions of the country/world that have had some success,
about political developments, availability of funds, etc. We are, after
all social scientists, and often have a comparative experience and broader
perspective that could be insightful to some people some times.

> In short, I don't know about the shit they have to shovel.
> If, as, and when they ask my help, I give it to them as best I can --
> AFTER I ask for their advice as to what to do. I've been lucky enough to
> help them get improved schools when THEY decided they wanted them, to
> help them get a better road when THEY initiated the drive to get one, and
> to help in getting better health programs and potable water supplies when
> THEY asked for that help. But notice that I said I HELP: it's their
> programs, and their solutions, and their work that makes the advances.
> They also are perfectly capable of shoving me out of their road when I
> get in the way.

Antoher good point. But presumably you wouldn't *refuse* to help people
once they hav asked out of some commitment to scientific detachment and
"letting evolution run its course." When you helped folks (at their
request) you were doing some form of advocacy, I'd say.

--Some Editing here, then Mike writes:

> The Indians and poor
> Ladinos I know are much better able to help themselves than I am, thank
> God, because if I were to become an Activist On Their Behalf it would
> mean that I would be taking over the hegemonic power.

I can't agree that this is always necessarily true. We need to combat the
stereotype that the rural poor, or indigenous or urban poor, whoever are
ignorant. But at the same time, lets not grant them omnisience about
their own social situations and possible solutions. Again, informed
social science may have a role in opening new channels of information,
funding, and political action that people are not aware of. We have an
equal obligation to inform those making policies of the effects of those
policies and conditions in the campo/barrio/wherever so that more positive
policies can be formulated and implemented. In inserting yourself in this
dynamic of power, struggle, advocacy and policy formulation/implementation
I don't believe you are "taking over hegemonic power." You are simply
inserting another voice in the power/policy process that may in fact have
positive outcomes. In my experience, the most dificult thing is to get a
voice, have a seat at the metaphorical table and influence policy
outcomes. But to not engage out of fear of "taking over hegemonic power"
I think is silly. There's a big difference between trying to influence
public discourse and policy and taking it over!

Also, things are not as simple as either Mike or I make out. Much depends
on context and the coyuntura actual. Mike or I could surely spin
hypothetical cases, or describe actual ones, in wich its best to keep your
mouth shut and stay out of everyone's business for fear of doing more
harm than good. But i just don't believe that is true as a principle.

I enjoyed Mike's comments and am enjoying this thread.

Bill Loker