family and development

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Tue, 29 Nov 1994 16:29:53 CST

Dear Bjorn,
It sometimes gets nasty, as you see. You've raised a legitimate issue
which any anthropologist with some field experience can relate to. What
struck me most about your posting was the apposition of the family on the one
hand and the individual on the other. This is one version of the venerable
individual vs. the collectivity opposition, which is a legitimate ethnographic
issue in those societies in which people define the person as an individual.
But not all societies define personhood in that way. "The individual," in
other words, is not a universal category, but rather a parochial one and pretty
restricted in its geographic and ethnographic distribution over space and time.

It seems to me that you are dealing with two issues that need to be kept
analytically distinct, at least for starters. How do the people with whom you
had to deal define personhood, i.e., what does it mean to be a person? This is
a strictly ethnographic question, and I think it is a mistake to assume any
definition of the person apart from what those specific people tell you. There
is a good deal of ethnographic literature on the meaning of personhood at this
point, particularly from the Oceanic and South Asia data. You might want to
consult some of this literature just to get an idea of the kinds of questions
you'd need to ask to ascertain what brand of personhood you're dealing with.

The second question is whether development and development planning is
possible in any society that does not define the person as an individual. This
is not the same kind of question as that of whether social or sociopolitical
change is possible in communities that do not define the person as an
individual. Clearly change is possible and happens in societies defining
personhood in some other way. But development? That all depends on what
development means and what are its minimum requirements. Does a development
project require that people trade their most profound assumptions about the
nature of the universe for tripling their income? This begins to sound like
religious conversion, only more profound. Is this what you have in mind?
Or is it possible to design a program that would bring material benefits to a
community while leaving it to them to organize the allocation of personnel
and distribution of benefits as community members feel is appropriate?

In my experience, societies that define the person sociocentrically, that
is as a relatum, part of a social relationship, tend to be very suspicious of
innovation, at least of some sorts. If it is not the innovation itself that is
problematic, it is often the innovator that draws suspicion, given that
innovation is an act of will and willfulness may be suspicious. Or it may be
suspicion over who benefits from the innovation. That is, what you interpret
as family solidarity standing in the way of progress may be something quite

Luckily, these are all ethnographic questions that can be answered with
solid research. While you're doing the research, you might want to look at
how people in that community ordinarily conduct their activities. That is,
take the activity as your analytical unit and find out how, who, with whom,
with what, when, for how long, etc., each specific activity is conducted.
Once you begin to see how activities are connected with other activities, you
get an idea of how relations in a community are ordered by necessity. When
you reach that point, you are in a position to forecast just how a particular
development project would affect the normal course of activities in a community
and what it's likely outcomes would be. The people whom you are trying to help
are likely doing precisely this kind of forecasting themselves, which may
explain the sort of disinterest or resistance you're meeting in the field.

Take a look at Ward Goodenough's (1963) _Cooperation in Change_, chapter
7 for an excellent overview of activities analysis and how to use it. If you
want to take a look at some bibliography on personhood and some applications
of activity analysis, email me directly, and I'll send you some stuff.

Mike Lieber