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Grounding those narratives

1 August, 2007

Joana’s earlier post about uses of ICT in low-income communities emphasised the value of ethnographic research to challenge widely-held assumptions. When I read it I was reminded me of a post on Savage Minds from about the same time which referenced a Guardian article on British anthropologist Melissa Leach.

Working in the field of development studies, Leach makes clear her disdain for “bullshit research”: i.e. research which constructs grand narratives about a topic without being grounded in empirical, field-based research. In her opinion, this kind of research primarily serves to reinforce assumptions and stereotypes about a particular topic rather than accurately representing what is happening “on the ground”. I tend to agree that one of the primary virtues of good ethnographic work is to challenge and “talk back to” orthodoxies of various kinds by throwing up uncomfortable details “from the world”.  This was illustrated at a seminar I attended some time ago when a historian who was giving a paper threw up her hands in mock despair at yet another “but what about?” question from an anthropologist and exclaimed “That’s the problem with you anthropologists; you’re always ruining our nice neat theories!”

Leach also shows how ethnographic research can ruin a perfectly good master narrative:

“It’s easy,” she argues, “to come up with narratives about deforestation: all the world’s trees are disappearing fast; or, water scarcity will lead to water wars. But these are often contradicted by evidence on the ground about how environments are really changing.”

And the article lists another couple of examples:

Leach and her colleagues had shown how experts can reach wildly wrong conclusions if local knowledge and history are not taken into account. Their findings became a book, Misreading the African Landscape, and a film, Second Nature: Building Forests in West Africa’s Savannahs. A decade later, they are still being used to illustrate the power of anthropological methods.”It shaped my entire career,” she says. “A lot of my work since has been about trying to bring to life the knowledge of local people.”

Seven years later, she struck another blow for social anthropology. Leach and a local anthropologist in northern Nigeria uncovered the reasons for villagers’ fears about taking the polio vaccine, administered to them by the World Health Organisation. Polio was either not seen as a priority, they found, or it was perceived as a spiritual affliction that was impossible to prevent. Leach argued that the polio vaccination campaign was using resources that weakened, rather than strengthened, local primary care health systems.

Original article

See also this recent post on Leach on antropologi.info which also emphasises the value of “local knowledge”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 August, 2007 9:11 am

    Great article, thanks for posting. Ethnographic research is a vital component for us in the online user experience field as well — I try to use multiple research methods as much as possible to tell a more complete story (and to cross-validate findings). As an added bonus, nothing inspires you more to do a good job than seeing a user struggle when they are using your site…

  2. 3 August, 2007 9:39 am

    Thanks Rian. Yes, I think the applications are very broad and as Joana’s earlier post on ICTs makes clear, the same principles apply in development studies and user design issues. I’d never thought of observing people using a website though, so thanks for sharing that!

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