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With quals just behind me and research ramping up, I've been struggling to come to terms with my academic identity and to rekindle a passion for my research that I know is there, but has been dormant for the last little while. It struck me that one book in particular has influenced me more than any other in the last year -- and this has been a particularly mind-expanding year for me. (I'll post more article and book summaries soon to demonstrate.) But for anyone interested in development, modernization, globalization, or Africa -- or any combination of these -- I highly, highly recommend Global Shadows by James Ferguson. It's extremely well-written, and though certainly not an "easy" read, it is very illuminating. In a way, it has both opened my eyes and (temporarily, hopefully) paralyzed me -- I can't help but think that there's just too much that I don't know for me to make any useful difference. But Ferguson himself would not accept such an excuse (I've taken a class with him and am pretty sure of this), so I'm back in the ring, taking more anthropology, equipping myself to grapple effectively with such thorny, complicated issues. (As a side note, I scoff at anyone who thinks computer science or statistics is harder than this stuff. I've done both; I know.)

Below is the summary I wrote of the book last November. It's very long, but for those of you interested in these topics, I think it is worth the time and effort -- and the book even more so! (I was thinking of dividing this across multiple posts, but wanted any ensuing discussion -- and I hope there's some! -- to happen in one place, so I chose not to.)

What is “Africa”? What are globalization, development and modernity? These concepts – though they may be at times vague and ill-conceived – nonetheless play a central role in discourses, economic and otherwise, about the fate of the many interconnected yet unique groups on the continent. It is understandable, James Ferguson argues, for anthropologists to dismiss the notion of a unitary “Africa” as culturally absurd, but the fact remains that just such a notion is used by many around the world, including those in Africa, to justify political and economic decisions from which anthropologists have been largely absent. In this book, Ferguson proposes ways of defining (or redefining) the idea of “Africa,” as well as the ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” He calls on anthropologists to face these and other similar issues head-on, and to address themselves to wider audiences, in their own work.

How is “Africa” defined? Africa is a place that confounds the definitions of modernity, development, and globalization: many of the usual hopes and fears associated with these concepts simply don’t fit the case of Africa. Ferguson says Africa is often defined “through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” – when Africa is even present at all in discussion, it is as a “shadow” place of “black” markets and informal economies, parallel to, or echoing, the “legitimate,” “authentic” ones. But this view is inaccurate and inadequate, just as anthropologists’ status-blind celebration of the cultural diversity of Africa is. The latter, Ferguson argues, blithely ignores the stark economic inequalities between various regions of the world.

Globalization )and modernity )and development, oh my! )

a 'native' perspective from Zambia )

the real face of modern foreign investment in Africa )

Economic language and Africa )

Complicating neat definitions of 'local' and 'national' ) (As a side note, this strikes a chord with me because my home discipline of communication has been working to address this issue for years.)

These new definitions suggest intriguing directions for anthropology and for thinking about Africa, modernity, development, and globalization (and “civil society”) more generally. First, how could this be taken up in our own work? What issues are there with the definitions as Ferguson has presented them – do we buy them? Second, how do they reflect on other authors we’ve read: Charles Piot’s arguments for African modernity in Togo (Ferguson explicitly critiques this on page 167), the “informal” but highly organized and hierarchical economic structures Janet Roitman documented in areas in and around Cameroon (seems to fit with Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/national/international to some degree), Liisa Malkki’s discussion of how refugees in Tanzania imagine themselves, Donald Moore’s documentation of discipline and skirmishes between local and state in Zimbabwe (where would Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/state fit with this?), Louise Meintjes’ overseas-focused musicians in Johannesburg, Nuttall and Mbembe’s ideas around Johannesburg modernity and their call to approach studies in Africa not as intrinsically “other” but a place like any other place? Finally, what can we make of Ferguson’s rallying call to anthropologists to actually weigh in on political debates, instead of (sometimes purposefully) standing by the sidelines and remaining in academic circles – do we buy that, and what are its implications? What is the future of anthropology in an increasingly non-local, status-defined world?
chimerically: (dolls)
I went to a great talk this morning, and then this and this show up in my RSS feed. It's going to be one of those high-energy research-ideas days, I can tell already. (And I remind those of you who think the day's half-over already that I'm not a morning person. :~))

It does make me wonder what all these folks really mean when they talk about "ethnography," though. I'm still learning what it means myself, and I probably won't start to have a good answer until I spend a few years in the field doing it (and of course, my definition would surely continue to shift and evolve past that, too). The inimitable Jean Lave, while liberal and accepting in so many ways, holds a very strict definition of ethnography (as do many ethnographers). Among other things, she says that one must have a long-term immersion in the culture under study (where long-term is on the order of years, not days). None of this "rapid ethnography" that seems to be popular in HCI, and none of this substituting the term "ethnographic" for "qualitative" willy-nilly. Long amounts of time are necessary for many reasons: it takes time to really understand all of the intricacies and different points of view within a community (and such an understanding both pays respect to the lives of one's subjects and to the research process), it takes time to realize and challenge the assumptions the researcher brings to the table, and it takes time to collect enough data to start building hypotheses from the ground-up, based on observations rather than preconceived notions of what might be interesting. And there are many more reasons, too.

There's another factor Jean Lave talks about in realizing and challenging our implicit assumptions, the second point above. Ethnographers seem to traditionally require that the culture under study is sufficiently different from the anthropologist's because otherwise, important cultural influences are as invisible as water is to a fish (or as the air we breathe is to us, I suppose). While having this as a hard-and-fast rule has been questioned and stretched to an extent, most still recognize that cultural familiarity does breed many assumptions and unspoken understandings.

Speaking of which, this is one thing that makes me most uncomfortable about quantitative studies. They can be immensely powerful, summarizing more data and investigating more users than a qualitative study ever could, but naturally there's still a degree of interpretation that is often not discussed: what is interesting to focus on, what kinds of data is collected, what kinds of hypotheses are made and what assumptions are built into them. There aren't as many opportunities to "test" assumptions "in the field" when one is doing quantitative research, and it's so easy to miss what's really important or find oneself at a loss when challenged with questions of why or how a community does what it does. Here it's unclear whether having familiarity with a culture is more of an asset or liability: it can lead to the same kinds of assumptions but it can also give you insights that you couldn't get from the data alone. It's a drawback on quantitative research generally, I guess. Just one of the many reasons I'm trying to figure out how to walk the line between the two ...

Another thing that intrigues me about the talk this morning is how the speaker integrates design into the research process. It seems that many social scientists, even those doing research on technological artifacts in various ways, don't think directly about design ... even though some fora where they present their work expect it, as Paul Dourish said so well at the recent CHI conference. Others are more adept at design and system-building, and their social analyses seem to, at the very least, be lacking from the point of view of social science communities. But here's someone who seems very adept in both spaces, and that's impressive to me. I'd love to get the chance to work with this person (and also folks like Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson at Intel ... just while I'm naming names :~)) and find out how to do the blending effectively.


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