By Carolyn Rouse (Princeton University)

The essays in this collection build on a conversation started by Richard Handler in his 2013 Cultural Anthropology article, “Disciplinary Adaptation and Undergraduate Desire: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum.” His article spoke to how we can appeal to student and institutional demands and within that framework change minds. He argues that something like the global development studies (GDS) program he and his students created at the University of Virginia offers anthropologists an opportunity to expose students to classic social science and anthropological theory in order to get them to reflect on the source of those desires in order to trouble them—to defetishize the desire to fix others, if you will. By helping to shape interdisciplinary programs like GDS, anthropologists have an opportunity to, for example, challenge Western theories of progress and value.

I appreciate Handler’s intervention, but I am going to take the conversation of what anthropologists can do pedagogically in a slightly different direction. I want to suggest other ways in which taking students to the field and/or having them participate in interdisciplinary conversations can produce more reflexive students in disciplines beyond anthropology.

In the interest of brevity, I am going to presume familiarity on the part of the reader with particular scholars and debates described by Ramah McKay in her essay in this collection. I admire greatly the anthropological critiques of development. I teach the classics, including works by anthropologists like James Ferguson (1994) and Arturo Escobar (1995), economists like William Easterly (2014) and Dambisa Moyo (2009), and even journalists like Nina Munk (2010). At the same time, I appreciate the scholarship of those who believe that anthropologists should intervene when it comes to structural violence, including works by Paul Farmer (2003), Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992), and Philippe Bourgois (2004).

But I come to the debate from a slightly different position. I am an African American, and many like me in the academy do not consider the stakes of academic knowledge production to be low, as the saying goes. Ideas legitimated by academics continue to haunt the lives of African Americans, from culture of poverty theories to historical erasure to race and IQ debates. We have witnessed the power of scholarship to legitimize socially oppressive policies, and we are therefore inclined to seek socially beneficial applications for our academic knowledge.

Another reason why we often privilege our “how does this relate to social justice?” pragmatic voice has to do with how the work of African American scholars is read. There is a racial politics to theorizing that makes our work illegible to others when we talk about things other than race. I’m thinking of Jenny Slateman’s (2001) analysis of how subjectification and embodiment are not simply willful acts on our part. Rather, “reversibility”—or how others see us—is part of the iterative process of subject formation. The question of the racial and gendered politics of theorizing is something I have attempted to grapple with in my written work and my film Listening as a Radical Act: World Anthropologies and the Decentering of Western Though (on Vimeo, While I would love to discuss this in depth, for this essay I only mention legibility and the stakes of social scientific research for African Americans to provide some explanation for how my positionality shaped my decision to go to Ghana and build a high school as a means of addressing anthropological questions about development.

My positionality meant I was less disposed than other anthropologists to the argument that anthropologists should do nothing, meaning not engage in “anti-politics” work, referring to Ferguson (1994), when it comes to international development. And I felt this even knowing the history of colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and indirect rule, and knowing that Ferguson’s analysis is brilliant. The critiques are important interventions and important object lessons for my students. But I treat the work of scholars like Arturo Escobar (1995) and James Ferguson (1994) as excellent histories of development rather than proof that the desire to change the world, and acting on that desire, is necessarily a bad thing.

Development and grappling with social change are human problems. Nostalgia for the future seems to be an aspect of human psychology linked, in part, to our need to push back against inevitable decay, like some taboos that code human action in the present as inviting either good or bad into our future lives (Piot 2010; Valeri 2000). Trying to control good and bad in the world through ritual practices like purification, witchcraft, bureaucracy, or expertise is what has enabled us to build cathedrals, fight cancer, and start wars (Douglas 1984; Evans-Pritchard 1976; Strathern 2000). And I note war because we have monuments, literally and figuratively, to human genius as well as human depravity.

So, while I reject the idea that economic development schemes are by definition imperialist and quixotic, I also reject structural violence as a useful analytic that enables us to identify what needs to be fixed (Farmer 2003). I reject it not because structural violence doesn’t exist but rather because part of the human condition requires power—existential violence and physical control of bodies—in order to bend our wills in the service of establishing community. Any attempt to eradicate all forms of power is a fool’s errand since we are legible to one another only through power.

I want to pass onto my students what I learned while building the school. One lesson is that anthropologists should not be afraid to put their theories to the test. That requires letting go of the idea that the only good interventions are those that initiate a cascade of uninterrupted, unequivocally positive social change. Development failure of one kind or another is part of any iterative process that leads to social change. The goal is to get students to understand that any good development design requires a plan that allows for multiple voices to shape and reshape the project along the way. A project that takes on a new set of goals should not be read as a failure if it emerges from democratic forms of engagement.

Another lesson my students learn in the field is that a pragmatic approach more in line with Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, is more sustainable than one drawn from Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist. What do I mean by that? I consider applied anthropology an oxymoron. Anthropology is, at its best, a reflexive discipline. Applied anthropologists often cannot afford to be too abstractly theoretically given that they have to adapt their findings to institutional power, meaning a policy expert still has to decide at what income a family no longer receives earned-income credit, a drug-court judge still has to decide which addicts must go back to prison, and professors have to decide whether to give a student an A, B, or C even knowing that our students have different backgrounds and some have to work twenty hours per week to pay for their educations.

In her essay in this volume, Kim Fortun uses Gregory Bateson’s theory of the double bind to characterize these dilemmas (Bateson et al. 1956). The moment when an anthropologist must apply his or her power by making a decision is when he or she switches from being reflective and theoretical to pragmatic and instrumental. Getting students to understand and analyze how choices are made, how we switch from theory to practice, is one of the values of taking students into the field. And remember, as much as Farmer writes about structural violence, he essentially works for President Paul Kagame. Arendt (1958) recognizes that in order be politically engaged we cannot leave Plato’s cave. To theorize from outside the cave is to feign immortality or to mistake that we are not vulnerable to the things that make us human.

In order to learn how to translate theory into practice, the students that I take to Ghana participate in projects from creating curriculum for the high school to building a wind turbine and teaching. What I do with my students when I take them to the field is to slowly disabuse them of the sense that they are as in control as they think they are. Each of their projects is constrained by Ghanaian educational policy, land, law, local aesthetics, history, and available resources. Whatever they imagined they were going to be doing when they signed up to participate in a school project is altered while in the field. Their experiences are altered by what I call the regulatory ecologies extant in Ghana, which are shaped by culture, but also by the social fields adjacent to and running through culture and the environment that are available to strangers, including law, infrastructure, aesthetics, and exchange.

Again, my goal is to get students to objectify or become cognizant of the information they are using to inform decision-making and to trouble that information in ways denoted by Handler (2013). Rather than see this as instrumentalizing anthropology, I consider this an act of translation. And we can’t forget that testing our theories provides us an opportunity to sharpen them.

In the late twentieth century, we saw the growth of abstract theorizing not only in anthropology but in adjacent disciplines such as critical theory, media studies, feminism, and postcolonial theory. As anthropologists became more abstract, economists and other social scientists simplified their hypotheses and introduced their readers to their methods; behavioral economics, behavioral psychology, p-hacking, randomized control trials, ecological determinism. From Freakonomics to Scarcity to Thinking Fast and Slow, other social scientists have captured the imaginations of even President Obama, who invited Cass Sunstein to the White House to help explain how to nudge people.

We recognize the folly of that oversimplification, but we also recognize the folly of abstract theorizing untethered to experience. Perhaps now is the time to meet in the middle. Our methods continue to be robust, but our methods have their limits. Reflexivity is important, but for what? How again do we translate our findings? What information matters, and how can we get our students to consider that?

Given this focus, at an institutional level I am now building more interdisciplinary bridges with other departments and programs, but on our terms. And rather than trying to sell students and faculty (particularly those from other disciplines) on anthropological theory, we start with methods. With our program in entrepreneurship, we focus on design thinking and the value of ethnography. With computer science, we are demonstrating how ethnography is necessary for better big-data analyses. And with the introduction of concepts like “fake news,” we are introducing our students to media theory and questions about digital evidence. We are doing this through the Ethnographic Data Visualization Lab (VizE Lab) I created, as well as through our methods classes and our new ethnographic studies certificate, which trains students around campus.

So, my goal has been to take students from a generative place of wanting to save the world to getting them to rethink theory through experience, to getting them to challenge evidence and expertise given what they now know. That’s the journey I envision for my students. If I leave my students with nothing else, I am happy.


Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, Gregory, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. 1956. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” Behavioral Science 1 (4): 251–54.

Douglas, Mary. 1984. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: ARK Paperbacks.

Easterly, William. 2013. The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. New York: Basic Books.

Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farmer, Paul. 2003. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Handler, Richard. 2013. “Disciplinary Adaptation and Undergraduate Desire: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (2): 181–203.

Moyo, Dambisa. 2009. Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Munk, Nina. 2013. The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. New York: Random House.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Philippe Bourgois. 2004. “Introduction: Making Sense of Violence.” In Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Slateman, Jenny. 2001. “Tele-vision: Between Trust and Perceptual Faith,” In Religion and Media, edited by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2000. “Introduction: New Accountabilities.” In Audit Culture: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy, edited by Marilyn Strathern. New York: Routledge.

Valeri, Valerio. 2000. Forest of Taboos: Morality, Hunting, and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.