Given this swiftly changing context, the world of development is increasingly fertile ground for anthropologists seeking to engage with the public sphere in creative ways. Here are two ways that we think anthropology can be put to good use:
1) As new development regimes change people’s lives in unexpected directions, anthropology can help us understand how this situation creates opportunities for positive social change. Many anthropologists will argue that they should remain as skeptical and critical of these neo-imperial projects as they were of the older ones. If nothing else, the shifts in the development field are sure to bring about a host of new problems.
But there are also new possibilities. Ethnographic fieldwork is ideally situated to capture not only the harmful aspects of new development regimes but also the opportunities for social creativity that may arise as the “ancient régime” crumbles. Fieldwork lets us delve into the cracks and work at the interstices, revealing how development creates new aspects of social life as much as it destroys and dominates others…
2) Based on the ethnographic record, we should use our knowledge to propose alternative solutions to persistent social problems. If we extend the case of anthropology’s selective appropriation of Foucault to the anthropological project as a whole, we might say that simply denouncing and lambasting development actually cuts anthropology short of its full potential. Tellingly, Harry Walker recently observed in a review of anarchist anthropology that, “anthropology has an important role to play in revealing the diversity of existing worlds in the service of conceiving alternatives”. Some of the most stunning discoveries that anthropologists have made are stunning not simply because they’re theoretically sophisticated, but also because people in this world actually do them. In other words, we are all capable of leading different lives and creating different societies.