Activist Anthropology

Instead of attempting to foster some sense of objectivity, an activist anthropologist goes into a project both embracing and confronting her own biases and political agenda. The practice of activist anthropology, according to Christopher Hale of the University of Texas at Austin,

“asks us to identify our deepest ethical-political convictions, and to let them drive the formulation of our research objectives.”

Rather than attempting to suppress those convictions,

“activist research endorses the contrasting tack of making our politics explicit and up-front, reflecting honestly and systematically on how they have shaped our understanding the porblem at hand, and putting them to the service of our analytical endeavor.”

The researcher utilizes personal convictions as a strength, incorporating it into her methodology. Part of activist anthropology involves developing the research questions and project while working with informants, allowing them to participate in the production of knowledge which will contribute to understanding the issues they face and how to resolve them.

“The goal is to carry out the research such that a specified group of people can actively participate, thereby learning research skills themselves, contributing to the data collection, taking an active role in the process of knowledge creation.”

I think that Hale is right that people will provide much better data if they are involved in the data-production process, and that activist anthropology can be a very useful approach when you’re working with activists, or with a population that is experiencing the effects of economic and other kinds of oppression, or that is dealing with ethnic conflicts, etc. Most of the time I think that it is crucial to fully address, and even to embrace one’s own personal-political stance and account for how it directs and affects the research process — in any project. However, I imagine that some kinds of research endeavors require some attempt at distancing oneself — suppressing the subjective, as it were, to some degree. For example, what if the researcher is working with populations that oppose each other, and her own bias gets in the way of generating data, while an appearance of neutrality might grant her more insight into the big picture? What if she’s working with a population whose ethics and politics contradict her own? In other words, how feasible is activist anthropology if the anthropologist is trying to study an “elite” population and doesn’t already sympathize with their concerns? Isn’t there some value to the traditional “outsider” and constructivist “mock-objective” approach in situations like these?

Hale asks some similar questions in the paper, but doesn’t address them there. I wonder what others think …

7 thoughts on “Activist Anthropology

  1. To understand a situation at you need to have some form of objectivity. I don’t think you can be an anthropologist and and activist at the same time, they both contradict each others in their aims. YOu have to pick one or you’ll be both a bad anthropologist and a laid back activist

  2. Hi folks.

    I am working towards my PhD Proposal on the role of Oral Culture in constituting a non-violent resistance poetics while i belong to the same Oromo society engaged in a Liberation Movement against the Christian Abyssinian domination now for over 40 years.

    What is to be done about “Objectivity” to suit to the academic demands of my Professors? Obejecttivity to what? While int the field to non-selectively collect the folklore data, or Observation or Interpretation or Analysis or what? And the Inter-subjectivity between me, the Insider, and the Researched?

    Please have a Say!

  3. Now that you know whom you are, it would depend on where you are studying. If you’re studying in the West, well, give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s due and to God, what belongs to God. Most post-Ph.d students end up with a dissertation that forms the core of their first publication, and then other material which they hold close at heart, but couldn’t use for one reason or the other. This always goes to constitute their second publication. It also seems that most anthropologists only get to be themselves only after obtaining tenure. Until then, you have to play the gallery. This is cynical, but that’s the pragmatic line most have developed. My strategy as a non-Westerner is always to keep two portfolios – one for Caesar, and the other for God. Those interests are diametrically opposed. Which do you think your professors care more about: the institutional interests of the discipline, or those of Oromo people and all that feuding lot?

  4. This approach is actually confining, in the sense that it implicitly assumes an anthropology that is in sympathy with the informant group. Can there be an ‘activist anthropology’ that is actively against a particular group, employing research methods to undermine a set of cultural claims? And if such a thing is unthinkable, does this not describe an incredibly limited scope for the anthropological gaze, one which risks anthropologists becoming little more than ‘useful idiots’?

    1. Urban – you can absolutely do what’s called “critical ethnography”, in which you’re critical of the cultural claims made by the group you’re working with. See Vincent Crapanzano’s work on religion.

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