Presentation: For a responsible anthropology

Updated: Jan 20


Citizen anthropology. A look at our motivations: moving towards responsible anthropology


Prsentation at the annual symposium of the anthropology department of the University of Montreal (March 3, 2006)


“First, the author briefly presents the context of international cooperation in which she grew up, and which inevitably contributes to her thinking and her position on citizen anthropology. Secondly, the fundamental motivations of the communities being studied and those of the researchers and collaborators will be questioned, emphasizing the importance of this awareness. Thirdly, the author will address the question of engaged anthropology in the context of its history and the present world situation, highlighting certain pitfalls that can emerge from it. Subsequently, the notion of scientific objectivity in the context of the human sciences will be explored, both as a tool for hindsight, but also as a brake on a humanitarian approach. Finally, the author proposes to support a tripartite approach that may allow the anthropologist to occupy a more responsible position with regard to social engagement.


The post-modernist approach argues that an individual's cultural and family background can colour their own thinking. It is in this perspective that the author wishes to underline, as the daughter of international aid workers (raised in Peru, Chad, Cameroon and Mexico in the 70s and 80s), that this look from the inside could only inspire them to question the motivations that lead to social involvement. Moreover, the author is fully aware of the inherent differences between cooperative work and anthropological research, but the fact remains that the tangible reality that both face (the field) is not is not so different.


Indeed, the communities, with which anthropologists and development workers come into contact, are confronted with a large number of identity, territorial, political, social and economic issues, and this, as much on the societal level (the group as an entity) , than on the individual level (individuals with relative positions within these groups). But what about the person who comes to join it for a while, this “outsider” (to speak of the anthropologist or the cooperator) with liminal status? Is he not struggling with his own issues and his fundamental motivations (cultural and personal)? Don’t the intentions to help, describe, support, participate hide, in certain circumstances, more personal motivations: search for one’s own identity; search for valorization through this privileged status that is sometimes attributed to “the foreigner”; seeking prestige through intervention in complex issues; search for exoticism; flight from the reality of one's own community; Western guilt in the face of the difficulties experienced by “the other”, etc. The motivations can be multiple and are rarely explicit, which can make them all the more charged with affects. Without a fundamental questioning of our own personal motivations, are we really equipped to measure ourselves against the complexity of the issues of others (sometimes misunderstood)? Are we doing this with scientific hindsight? Political, social and identity causes are the basis of the demands of communities, but also of individuals with various motivations, which makes these issues immensely complex and often even paradoxical. Today's ally can become tomorrow's enemy. The oppressed of today can sometimes, having obtained such a claimed position of power, oppress another as he himself has been. This complex movement, inherent in human nature, cannot be grasped and foreseen in this whole web of cause and effect. Taking an active position in such issues, even if you think you understand all the subtleties (which is rarely the case), sometimes means falling into a trap that you could easily have predicted and avoided. If communities, governments and individuals can appropriate for their own interests the results of the so-called scientifically "objective and descriptive" research of anthropologists, can we imagine what implication can have the research and the researchers who, intentionally, get involved and take a stand in the causes of the communities they study? In the current situation of global globalization, in which the homogenization of identities is the basis of an upsurge in identity claims, the anthropologist can only become the tool par excellence for justifying these identity claims. If anthropology was born in a context of colonialism and has even greatly contributed to its development, the fact of perpetuating an attitude of involvement, allows us once again to be the instrument of varied and changing demands, elusive and sometimes even debatable. Anthropology thus perpetuates this role of puppet animated by communities or states, instead of trying to transcend temporary alliances in order to tend towards a more reflexive position. The scientific approach or method can contribute, but only partially, to this repositioning and this retreat of the anthropologist. Indeed, if anthropology was one day baptized science, thus adopting certain precepts and methodologies, it is perhaps because a scientific attitude, which wants to be objective, emotionally detached from the object of study, made it possible to get away from the dangers of making it only a social implication. However, what is paradoxical is that over time, an overly objective attitude has come to make uncomfortable, disturb and/or partially make those who must "describe, compile and analyze" feel guilty. human societies. The anthropologist, who finds himself in the field, sometimes feels this embarrassing impression of being a voyeur who appropriates information without being able to give back to those he studies. Then sets in the impression of having become "the intellectual in his ivory tower", who appropriates the information he needs, does not get involved more than dictated, leaves once the research is finished. or is repatriated in a situation of war. It is possible that the fact of interfering in a community, with the sole objective of "describing it objectively and in a completely detached way", is an attitude which, like excessive involvement, can sometimes lead to failures or leave a bitter taste. It is in the light of this reflection that the author tends to support a position, faced with the social involvement of the anthropologist or the cooperator, which would be integrated into a more responsible approach. Initially, a fundamental questioning of the issues and personal motivations of the researcher or the development worker would make it possible to avoid thoughtless involvement in the social causes of other communities, by projecting their own personal issues onto the outside. Secondly, once in the field, the researcher could adopt an attitude of unveiling the subtleties specific to the issues and points of view (and emotional implications) conveyed within the communities studied, which would make it possible to grasp them and to explain them (the role of ethnography) as a witness without taking a position. This attitude of analysis, understanding and unveiling of complex and paradoxical issues should be part of a step back, which allows the researcher or the development worker development worker to maintain a preliminary status within the community, avoiding the trap of the stance.


Thirdly, a more enlightened understanding of his personal issues and of the individual and societal issues of those he studies, as well as the preservation of his liminal status, would allow the "stranger" to be able to maintain a mutual relationship with each of the segments of society he studies. Moreover, if the different segments of these communities are in a situation of conflict and cannot establish mutual communication, the "foreign" could serve as a terrain or neutral zone on which they could express themselves (in an indirect way) and would make it possible to reconcile and grasp each other more. Such an attitude would make it possible to participate in a reflective journey without getting lost in reactive implications. We could speak here of a responsible anthropology that knows how to reflect itself and make those with whom it comes into contact reflect, like a mirror and not a dogma or a banner. »


By: Abigaëlle Richard (Doctoral student in archaeology)