Sat 8 Apr 2006
Belatedly catching up on more of the SfAA meetings:
Wednesday afternoon I gave my talk about holistic cultural assessment in ICT for Development projects in an evaluation-focused session that my former advisor, Tony Whitehead, put together.
Aside from the fact that I thought my talk went pretty well, and Tamar was brilliant, there were a couple of other highlights of the session. First, Charity Goodman from the USGAO had some interesting things to say about 'anticipatory anthropology' and 'foresight work'. Now, these were new concepts to me, and it seems like a formalization of something that most good researchers do anyway, but I like the idea of applying a systematic, culture-centered approach to thinking ahead.
I couldn't find an easy definition of any of those terms. Anticipatory anthropology seems to be something that many folks put in their lists of interests, but skip out on defining. But I did find an interesting site on 'Ethnographic Futures Research' that probably overlaps quite a bit. This Wikipedia article on futures research is also an interesting (and slightly comical) read.
The second thing I wanted to mention about the session was the comments of Mary Odell Butler, who works at Battelle. Mary has had a long career in evaluation, and is one of those rare people who can speak broadly and concisely in a way that is easy to understand. I found her comments on all the papers to be wonderful and insightful. In particular I remember the wisdom of her suggestion that anthropologists ought to quit using the word 'culture' wherever possible, especially when working in multi-disciplinary and non-academic environments. It's not that it isn't a valuable concept, it's just that it creates a discussion that can be as much an argument about what culture means as an exploration of the particular phenomenon under discussion. And really, she said, there's no point in arguing about what culture means.
The larger and more interesting point she made is that talking about culture instead of more specific perceptions or processes, is a scapegoat. It relieves us of the burden of explaining specific ideas, habits, and histories. She gave an example that I remember well. Contrast these two statements:
Many African-American women have developed a culturally-based perception that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.
Many African-American women have learned through their experience and that of their friends and family that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.
Culture, in other words, is too often a gloss for actual perception and practice. Why not call a rose a rose? (I hope I've been fair to her intent with these remarks – and I hope I'll hear about it if I haven't!)