Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Anthropology of Relevance

Anthropology of Relevance

Recently in an egroup that I am part of that discusses environment, culture, and geopolitical issues, there was a spirited exchange on the relevance of anthropology and anthropologists in these exciting times. Wading through the verbal firestorm, I found many insights, which will help me in my current dissertation work. I would like to explore other aspects though of the ongoing conversation.

The first is that I seem to notice a collective angst on what anthropology’s status and role are at present. What is it’s contribution to the GES (global environmental sustainability) and gepolitical debates in the macro sense? Specifically, are anthropologists being read, listened to, and recognized especially by decision makers? Does their work have impact in the local and in the global settings? Should anthropologists even care if their work has impact? The angst is there because of global warming and the continuing Iraq debacle, among others. Anthropologists long knew what was wrong and what should be done, but why were our voices not heard? Our advice not heeded? The prophet was not recognized in his hometown, so what now?

Might the issue have to do with scale? The GES and Iraq occupation have global consequences but anthropologist’s work is generally site specific. Our findings and insights may improve our understanding of human culture, but what next? Who will bridge the gap of theory to practice for the WORLD to use? Do we let others do it or do we, ourselves, complete the “supply chain”? A few others cited many anthropologists doing terrific, groundbreaking work theoretically and in the applied setting. Shouldn’t the challenge then be scaling up and replication if these works posit best practices the world can benefit from?

My research focuses on a faith-based movement in the Philippines known as Gawad Kalinga meaning “to give care”. It aims to build 700,000 homes, in 7,000 communities, in 7 years or the GK777 movement. In Gawad Kalinga, the thesis is that poverty is behavioral not economic. Poverty results from a breakdown of relationships among family members, between neighbors, between social classes, and within society. Thus, the rich need to become better stewards of their resources, talents, and time. The poor need to regain their dignity, hope, and dreams, and to build capacities. Both can do so by helping each other, working together, and building partnerships.

Slum home in Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines

Gawad Kalinga housing
Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines

In practical terms poverty (and the resulting environmental crisis) can be addressed through sharing of time and resources, MASSIVE mobilization of partners and "padugo"- "bleeding for the cause" and modeling "patriotism in action". Since then, it has built over 20,000 homes in 1,420 communities for the poor and initiated activities in three other countries, with intentions of going global. GK claims their "transformed" communities are peace and faith zones, environmentally healthy, empowered, and productive through initiatives on shelter, youth development, health, food, livelihood, and values formation. GK claims their sites are “non-sectarian, multi-sectoral, non-partisan and non-discriminatory”. Each volunteer is a hero (bayani) to one another, which leads to community-wide assistance (bayanihan). Replicated over time sand space, bayanihan then stimulates nation (bayan) building. GK’s success resulted in the GK Executive Director/Founder and the organization winning the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay (Asian Nobel prize) awards for individual and organizational community leadership and other similar awards. They have gotten so much support from the private and public sectors that other cause oriented groups and aid agencies have been put on notice: deliver or lose support.

By the way, they are also currently recruiting another one million volunteers worldwide and establishing volunteer research institutes in any university willing to partner up with them. They are becoming viral.

The movement is anchored on faith, culture work, and partnerships. Importantly, it is massive in scale (geographically) and is transformative in intention.What can be more cultural (for research and applied work) than social engineering initiatives such as this?

The implication for anthropologists today is that social movements like Gawad Kalinga or MoveOn, social networking initiatives such as MySpace and FaceBook, faith-based movements or even the Christian Right is that their outlook is global. Their actions are cheekily in the pursuit of some form of “global domination”. Globalization is not only about commerce, but fundamentally cultural. The GES, geopolitics, and poverty are both local and global.

How do anthropology and anthropologists adapt to a shrinking and globalizing world vis-à-vis our research and our work?

To me it isn’t relevance per se. All work is relevant if you find inspiration in it. But if we want others to consider us relevant, then we have to look at reality.

And the reality is: events of concern to anthropologists are global in dimension. Our work and research must then have scientific rigor, practical application, and global insight.


I interviewed a British-Nigerian Catholic priest working in the Manila slums. One of his favorite sayings in approximate words is:

“I like the way I am doing things better than the way you aren’t doing anything at all”

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