ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 17

Cosmopolitanism in Practice: Issues and Dilemmas when Applying Anthropology - 'Apply'

Room: CBA 0.021 x 30

Panel abstract

Applied anthropology provides, in practice as well as in theory, an effective critique of the 'othering' of much traditional academic anthropology. The necessarily engaged nature of applied anthropology effectively challenges both the closed or fixed representations of culture that more traditional anthropology has rested upon and also the somewhat closed or fixed representation of academic disciplines. Hence, applied anthropology is intrinsically cosmopolitan in multiple ways and has a valuable contribution to make to the evidence base and theoretical understandings of anthropology in general.

Further, in demanding the active participation of the anthropologist in changing the world applied anthropology challenges any notions which assume a kind of passive cosmopolitanism. The experience of applied anthropologists as cosmopolitans working in cosmopolitan contexts raises questions of agency and choice in culture change and development. Engaging in applied anthropology forces the anthropologist to confront this and experience it – we do not just absorb and adapt, we also refuse - for instance those whose work takes them into direct contact with far right groups or war criminals. Applied anthropology has developed a variety of ways of engaging and dealing with the dilemmas this creates some of which support and some of which challenge the premises of cosmopolitanism.

Applied anthropology, as engaged practice, does not just do and study cosmopolitanism, it creates its conditions and also limits its reach. This session will explore these issues through discussion of projects that members of the ASA’s network of applied anthropologists are currently engaged in.


Sal Buckler
Co-convenor ‘Apply’

“How do I ‘apply’, again?” Working with and around moral tensions in eastern Germany

Anselma Gallinat, Newcastle

This paper is a reflection on fieldresearch I undertook in eastern Germany during 2001 and 2004. In the first instance I engaged with people I met locally through increasing social networks. In 2004 I worked with former political prisoners of the socialist state specifically.

This second anthropological investigation highlighted for me the cruelty of the system which my informants had suffered under. A moral obligation towards them and the policy context of German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung (‘re-working the past’) oblige me to communicate this knowledge to the eastern German public. This is, however, difficult since strong moral tensions characterise this new ‘cosmo-polis’: Private favourable views of the past state co-exist /conflict with a critical view of the past ‘regime’, whilst resentment and unhappiness about the affects of German unification prevail in parts of the public.

The paper considers the different applied aspects of this research. It highlights the dilemmas my informants and I face as cosmopolitans in a society burdened with numerous tensions. The paper will explore how in this context a cosmopolitan outlook might limit the applicability of anthropology.

"Caught in the Crossfire; when the anthropologist refuses cosmopolitanism"

Sal Buckler, Durham

This paper will examine the various conflicts and tensions I experienced in one particular situation I became involved in whilst employed as a development worker for Gypsies and Travellers. It follows the story of three young Gypsy women who have reached an age when their fathers have decided it is time for them to leave school and learn talents and skills appropriate to Gypsy women. As the three people in question were not officially of school leaving age, and as they did not want to become confined to the sites they lived on but also did not want to displease their families, an enormous degree of tension built up between the young women, their fathers, teachers and educational social workers. I was asked to help resolve this and in the attempt I was forced to confront painful emotional and ethical decisions which will be reflected upon in this paper.

Global Access through Local Stories: New Transformations of Oral Myths in Papua New Guinea.

Robin Wilson, Durham

Access to the benefits of mining for indigenous people in Papua New Guinea is governed by a complicated and overlapping network of customary and statutory law, industry best-practice guidelines and the variable agency of individuals and groups surrounding large open cast mines. One of the levers that local people use to gain legal acceptance as 'landowners' (meaning financial beneficiaries of mines) is through reworking and transforming local mytho-historical origin/ancestor narratives which bind them to the physical landscape into formats that are perceived by local people as being acceptable to a 'western' audience. Formerly oral knowledge appears in word processed, annotated documents which parody the memoranda of international business, and circulate in mining towns as part of a grassroots strategy to promote exchange and relations between the local and the global.

Traditional Knowledge of Biodiversity, Categories and Discourses

Claudia Ituarte Lima, UCL

In this paper, I argue that “Traditional Knowledge of Biological Diversity” (TK-BD) has a social life, which is manifested in different ways; specifically in relation to classifications, and as a notion used strategically in discourse. Concerning classifications; we should distinguish between TK-BD as a category within a wider classification, and, TK-BD as composed of classifications of plants and animals alone. Regarding the former, TK-BD can be part of a system of knowledge or can exist as a right among other rights.

I consider that TK-BD exists within different realms, and that the boundaries of those realms are not clearly defined. In fact the different contexts, in which TK-BD exists, interrelate and feed each other. Thus TK-BD not only has a social life as such, but that life is extremely dynamic. Traditionally it has changed, as a strategy of survival. As such TK-BD offers a significant object of study for exploring the dynamics between law and culture.

Through examples in Latin America, I show that even when TK-BD is recognised in laws such as the Convention of Biological Diversity and included in public policies, it is clear that these changes are not perceived in the same way by policy makers and by those who consider themselves indigenous. The overall research explores how indigenous ideas and practices may contribute to a more general understanding of how notions stated in international legal instruments can be applied in multicultural contexts, particularly in Latin America.

The Appliance of (Social) Science: Cormorants, Cosmopolitanism and Confrontation

Mariella Marzano, Durham

This paper focuses on my involvement as an anthropologist in a pan-European project, INTERCAFE (Interdisciplinary initiative to reduce pan-European cormorant conflicts). The project, which I co-manage, was designed specifically to be interdisciplinary and involves the collaboration of biological and social scientists and practical experience of local people. Building on a natural research network created under a previous project, the recent inclusion of social scientists in the cosmopolitan world of ‘cormorant conflicts’, represents a recognition, by natural scientists, of the need for a greater understanding of the socio-cultural/ economic/political contexts in which these conflicts take place.

Having trained as an academic anthropologist and worked in development, often as an advocate for the ‘disempowered’, the applied nature of my involvement in INTERCAFE has proved challenging, professionally and personally. The biggest challenge has been the extent to which I have had to continuously negotiate and confront the reality of my role as anthropologist and, sometimes, gatekeeper within the project. I discuss the case of a specific fisheries group and the realisation that not all disadvantaged ‘stakeholders’ are disempowered. Some are actually very powerful as a result of astute political lobbying, which raises a serious dilemma for (this) anthropologist when such a group appears to prefer to work against a collaborative project rather than contribute to it.

Local or global? Organizational ethnography in the Multinational organisation

Hanne Tange, Aarhus

One example of Applied Anthropologists’ “othering” of academic anthropology is the focus on “shop floor natives” in organizational ethnography. Since the 1980s, a growing number of anthropologists have moved into the tribal offices of local institutions and organizations in order to uncover the underlying structures and relationships of the workplace. By so doing, they have brought anthropology home, identifying the exotic nature of the local environment.

While the anthropologists’ field has shrunk, the market has expanded. Successful companies now operate on a global scale, which makes it important for organizational ethnographers to confront the multinational dimension of international business. Corporate culture, language policies and intercultural exchanges influence the working lives of members at all levels of the organization, making the multinational corporation a truly cosmopolitan space.

Based on my fieldwork in the Danish company Grundfos, I will demonstrate how local and global structures intertwine in the multinational organization. This affects the working practices and conditions of individual members, placing them in different local and global roles. Language workers, for example, often perform low-status, routine tasks at the local level, while their language expertise places them in key positions within the global organization. They participate in different frames and networks, in other words, which are not always mutually supportive.

In order to present an adequate picture of the multinational corporation, I will argue, organizational ethnographers need to follow their natives from the tribal office back into the jungle. We must be at once home and abroad, reconnecting the local and the global. Hence, we need to develop a theory that will allow us to combine traditional and applied anthropological perspectives, bringing the global home, while “othering” the local.

Cosmopolitan abstractions

Georgina Born, Cambridge

This paper is based on the experience of doing an 'engaged' institutional ethnography of the BBC, one that attempted to provide 'useful' knowledge of relevance to policy, government and the world of media practitioners, while at the same time remaining experimental in form, analysis and scope. One feature of the study was an ethnographically-grounded critique of the BBC's institutional racism, which led me to write back to the institution and policy-makers to argue for the necessity of the BBC responding to 'cosmopolitan' realities in its employment practices and programming. The paper reflects on the paradox entailed in making such arguments to an institution like the BBC utilising similar reified and reifying terms that the institution itself employs as part of its armoury of defences against criticism and change - such as its 'accountability to its publics'. The paradox echoes Debbora Battaglia's observation (citing Derrida) that in identity politics, 'cultural identity presents itself, paradoxically, as "the irreplaceable inscription of the universal in the singular"'. On the other hand, the paper details also the BBC's imperfect attempts to engage with the messy complexity of its audiences' experiences, and to weave the insights back into its practices - to translate the rhetorics into operational form. Can we utilise terms such as 'cosmopolitanism' as a short-hand in exchanges with dominant public institutions in applied anthropology without risking a descent into the abstractions of contemporary social theory, which abjure specificity and complexity? Does the practice of applied anthropology, which speaks for or in alliance with 'others' in its engagements with powerful bodies, necessarily require such a reduction? Is such a reduction in tension with the nature of anthropological knowledge?

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