An “Accidental” Engaged Anthropologist
February 7, 2017
Visiting Fellow Stuart Kirsch of the University of Michigan has an international reputation that extends beyond his well-regarded primary research as a sociocultural anthropologist. He’s also on the forefront of “engaged anthropology,” whose proponents engage in the communities they study as advocates and activists as well as researchers.
Kirsch spent the fall 2016 semester at the Kellogg Institute completing a new book, “Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text” (under review with the University of California Press) and returns on February 14 to deliver the lecture “Making the Case for Engaged Research.”
He discusses his new work and much more in a wide-ranging conversation with Faculty Fellow Catherine Bolten, who first encountered Kirsch as an MPhil student at Cambridge University, where she took his development anthropology course. Later, he was a member of her dissertation committee at the University of Michigan.
“This time at Kellogg has been a great opportunity to reconnect with Stuart,” says Bolten. Kirsch concurs. “It’s especially fun to have had this conversation with Catherine, who I’ve known for years,” he says. “I had no idea what a wonderful interviewer she is!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bolten – After so many years of knowing you and your work, I have the pleasure of asking about your complete arc as an anthropologist! First, how do you see and understand “engaged anthropology?”
Kirsch – I actually consider myself an “accidental” engaged anthropologist. At the beginning of my career, I studied a community in Papua New Guinea that lived downstream from a large copper and gold mine that was polluting their river and eventually affected their ability to produce enough food. My work with the community led to participation in a lawsuit they brought against the Australian owners of the mine.
I initially saw my involvement in their case as a way to reciprocate for their generosity in sharing their language and culture and daily lives with me, but over time, I also came to recognize that my participation in their protests against the mine and the court case was a form of anthropology.
Understanding the interactions between people living in this rural, agrarian community and global power structures, multinational corporations, and the Australian legal system became an exciting new research project for me. But it wasn’t only academic or intellectual—it was also political. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted things to change. This resulted in a hybrid role in which I was both a scholar and an activist. It also raised important questions for me about the nature of engaged research.
Bolten – I am sure your new activist role had nothing to do with your dissertation proposal and the scholarship going on in your department. Did that also raise questions about the academy for you?
Kirsch – Another engaged anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, refers to this kind of work as a “second shift”—labor undertaken after completing our usual teaching and research. This was literally true for me because the court case was being adjudicated in Australia and there was a 14-hour time difference. I would go to bed, wake up at 1 or 2 a.m., and take a phone call from the lawyers or plaintiffs. This work wasn’t recognized by my department or the university when it came to promotion and tenure. In fact, my department treated my involvement in the court case as service…
Bolten – Rather than scholarly work?
Kirsch – Exactly. It would count when I turned it into articles or books, but anything that didn’t rise to that level was invisible to my colleagues.
Bolten – You’ve published two books on this work. Talk us through writing Reverse Anthropology (Stanford University Press, 2006) and how you came to the concept of “reversing” the lens of analysis.
Kirsch – I wanted to tell the story of the people affected by the mining project and incorporated into a post-colonial state and the global economy from their perspective. I wanted to know what kinds of intellectual resources they brought to bear on those experiences.
For example, whereas we tend to think about pollution as a technical or scientific problem, they saw the impact of the mine on their river and forests as a social relationship with the mining company. They objected to the fact that the mining company ignored the project’s impact on the people living downstream—and compared its behavior to that of a sorcerer who intentionally harms others.
I learned that they had interesting ways of making sense of their new experiences, so the book tries to tell the story of change from their perspective, comparing the way they made sense of those transformations to how we analyze similar topics through disciplines like sociology, psychology or anthropology. These responses were their version of anthropology, using their own modes of analysis to make sense of what has now become our shared world as a result of globalization.
Bolten – Did the community perspective on the mine enhance your scholarly work on Yonggom culture? Did it lay the scholarly basis for your activist work?
Kirsch – Understanding how they saw things was important for thinking about their responses to change. But at the end of the day, these were also very powerful ways of understanding the global economy, powerful ways of understanding what pollution is. My activism was a valuable supplement to writing about this “reverse” mode of anthropology.
Bolten – How did your next scholarly work, Mining Capitalism(University of California Press, 2014), come about?
Kirsch – My first book was written from the heart in an effort to explain the meaning of loss, including the destruction of meaningful places. The second book was written in anger at the way the capitalist economy produces these kinds of interactions and problems. It starts by focusing on interactions between the local community and the mining company, and then I zoom out to analyze these events as a general dynamic of capitalism. I wanted to enhance the way anthropologists and other readers understand what corporations are doing and how corporate power operates in the world.
Bolten – Corporate power was not a subject for the anthropologist’s gaze when you started. As the world changes, how do you see that anthropology has changed?
Kirsch – We’re always looking for new topics in anthropology, and to some extent our traditional niche has also shrunk. Early anthropologists had the fiction that they could draw a circle around the community in which they worked and write about what happened within that circle. Now it’s foolish to even begin there—everywhere anthropologists work, people have relatives living in other countries, have watched some of the same movies, listen to some of the same music…
Bolten – They like your status on Facebook…
Kirsch – Exactly, we’re living in a shared world. They may draw on proverbs or myths and emphasize relationships to their kin in ways that have a strong continuity with the past—but they also have desires for the future that overlap with our own experiences and expectations. We’re confronted with a new kind of world, a globalizing world that has forced anthropology to change.
The precursor to the study of corporations was research on states, which many anthropologists addressed during the 1990s and 2000s, although I think our obsession with states led us to neglect the role of corporate power in shaping the world. It’s been a blind spot in anthropology that I’ve tried to help correct.
Bolten – The field of “development anthropology” brought us both to Kellogg. What are your thoughts on how development has changed and where it is now?
Kirsch – When I was in my first year of college, one of my professors invited several World Bank anthropologists to our class—men in rumpled suits with ashen faces, like in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” They had gone to work for the World Bank excited about changing the world, but were swallowed up by the bureaucracy and consequently disheartened. That had a big influence on me.
In those days, development was top-down, and anthropologists established a cottage industry critiquing the results. The big question we asked was: “Who benefits from these interventions?” If development projects focus on the extraction of raw materials or even taking logs and turning them into lumber and furniture, those countries will still remain at the periphery of the global economy—in contrast to the real money in copyrights, patents, and other intellectual property in the information age.
Things have changed since then. Now we’re in an era of public-private partnerships, in which corporations join with international agencies to build roads, fund new mining projects, provide education to women, or establish cooperatives to provide communities with bargaining power when producing commodities like rubber. You also have new sources of funding, like sovereign wealth funds, that compete with the development establishment. But some of the questions about who benefits from these interventions remain the same.
Bolten – That was my next question for you—how do you see development as a normative concern?
Kirsch – Let me try to answer that by talking about social entrepreneurship, which we were discussing at Kellogg recently. To anthropologists, social entrepreneurship means individual action, and there are good things about individual action. You’re not a recipient of aid, you make your own decisions, and so forth—but when we talk about entrepreneurialism and individual action, it doesn’t address more fundamental problems of structural inequality.
I want to know more about the factors that perpetuate power imbalances. For example, what’s the best way to improve the performance of the agricultural sector in Africa? Should we focus on farmers or their governments? Maybe both, but there are also other factors. Agricultural surplus dumped on African markets prevents local farmers from getting fair prices for their crops. Developed countries subsidize key agricultural products, suppressing global prices. Import tariffs prevent African farmers from gaining access to foreign markets.
Bolten – We see this in Sierra Leone, my field site, where the staple food is rice. Ninety percent of it is imported from Pakistan and Thailand, and the local farmers cannot compete.
Kirsch – One suggestion has been to introduce genetically modified crops to Africa, and individual farmers would be supportive if it increased their yields and profits. But a substantial portion of the economic benefits would accrue to the corporations who own the intellectual property rights to GMOs. I’m still interested in structural questions about how global inequalities continue to be reproduced through development interventions.
Bolten – How do you see anthropology’s unique contributions to the study of development?
Kirsch – We get to know places very well. We learn to speak the language. We learn who the different actors are. We get to know families and what’s important to them. We have a valuable perspective from the ground up about the potential consequences of development projects, what might work, what might fail.
But that’s only part of it. We’re also good at recognizing patterns and how they operate at different scales, including how local conditions are affected by events at the macro level. If we implement this policy, what are its implications for actual communities and families? We’re also good at comparative approaches—this might work in Sierra Leone, but will it work in Cameroon? It’s still West Africa, but maybe the environment is different. Maybe the people, the political system, the culture, the history, and gender roles are different. We’re good at not only understanding the local but thinking about comparative implications.
Bolten – Countering the “have model, will travel” model—I agree. Can you tell us about the book on engaged anthropology that you’ve worked on at Kellogg?
Kirsch – It’s a retrospective work looking at a number of places where I became engaged with the local community and tried to achieve a particular result, projects I’ve worked on over the last 25 years. Starting with the original court case against the owners of the mine in Papua New Guinea, I tell stories I have never been able to write about before, but am now able to discuss because of the passage of time.
Each chapter talks about a particular project—how I got involved, what the outcomes were, and what kind of lesson or implication it has for thinking about engaged scholarship. One example is a conservation project I wanted very much to succeed, because it was intended to provide an alternative to destructive forms of resource extraction like mining, and this affected what I ended up writing about it. Despite the fact that my analysis correctly showed why the project was going to fail, I still presented the overall initiative in a positive light. An engaged scholar’s hope for a particular outcome may influence how the results are presented—that’s the lesson.
Another chapter questions the assumption that the outcomes of applied or engaged projects are not as valuable as basic scientific research because they answer a practical, specific set of questions only relevant to that particular place and time.
I show how conclusions drawn from another engaged project ended up having much larger implications: the findings of this project have been incorporated into debates about global climate change and what’s called “noneconomic loss and damage,” referring to impacts that are difficult to quantify or monetize. This includes the value of sacred sites, burial grounds, and places where people have lived for generations. It includes the value of an ecosystem and all of the unpriced amenities it provides. It refers to the difference between wages and livelihoods.
Studying these uncommodified forms of loss and damage helps us to better understand the way people’s lives are being affected by global climate change. Engaged projects are not lesser forms of science; they can result in generalizable findings that can travel.
The book is meant to open up what happens backstage in engaged anthropology. There’s considerable skepticism and undervaluing of engaged research in the academy. There are also scholars who say we should abandon traditional anthropology, that everyone should do engaged research. I’m in the middle—I want to help expand the space for this kind of work.
Some scholars may do this a little bit in their careers, some may do it a lot, and others may chose not to do this kind of anthropology at all, and that’s fine, too. There are plenty of topics that don’t lend themselves to this approach. But I want students of anthropology—as well as scholars more generally—to recognize that engaged research can be a valuable and productive way of carrying out their work while positively contributing to change.