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Working Through the Community




Jan 16, 2001


David Hunter

Mario's stories concretize the basic lessons of ethnographic fieldwork - namely, before one can find out anything meaningful about a community where one is an outsider, let alone develop plans to "help," one must prove oneself to be a person/organization worthy of local notice. Anthropologists expect this "small" piece of relationship-building work to take at least a year, and adopt a stance of vulnerability and "not knowing anything" as they meet people. Some teachers of fieldwork technique even suggest that the anthropologist think of himself or herself as a "child," utterly dependent on the people she or he is meeting. This is a very different stance from someone who comes, as an "expert," to a community intending to "help" and having a set of axiomatic assumptions about what "help" really is needed.

A cautionary tale from the field. An anthropologist was studying a very remote group of native Australians (back when they were still called aborigines). He noted that these folks spent a lot of time cutting down trees and doing carpentry using chipped flint axes, which themselves took a very long time to produce. He decided to "help" these people by bringing in a load of steel axes, which immediately replaced the flint tools in the local culture because they were already finished tools, worked so much better, and people were able to be much more efficient in their woodworking. But of course there was a rub: it turns out that the making of chipped flint axes was an activity deeply embedded in the group's religion, and their distribution was a key activity cementing social relationships. The steel axes mooted both fundamental religious rituals and the symbols of local social organization. The group, as I remember, ultimately succumbed to the forces of social disintegration.

This tale could be read as a luddite attack on technological change. I don't intend it that way. What I do want to underline is that we must understand (as much as we can) the local meaning of whatever changes we want to help introduce in a community...and should expect to invest a lot of time and effort working on relationships in getting to the point where we can reasonably believe that we know enough about the local context to offer useful inputs (of both information and resources) into local decisions.

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