Beyond the Self-reflexive Thoughts on “Ethnography’s Edge in Development” By Pauline Gardiner Barber

Gardiner Barber, Pauline. (2005). “Chapter 6: Ethnography’s Edge in Development.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (94-109). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

This chapter situates the constructed category of collaboration, as an auto-ethnographic practice, beyond the analytical focus on stakeholder’s involvement in a common activity such as peer reviewing, teaching and/or learning[i]. In addition to approaching the notion of collaboration from perceived unequal relations, as in the two previous chapters (4 & 5), Gardiner Barber introduces the reader to her uneasiness, as an ethnographer, in capturing an essence to “the relationship between anthropology and development” (2005:94). At the very beginning of the chapter, the author’s introspective concerns pin down the tempting tendency of the anthropologist fieldworker to engage into ‘development projects’, for the sake of guaranteeing research funding, while juxtaposing one’s own research interests with the prescribed agendas of the funding institutions. Without getting involved into generalizations, Gardiner Barber exposes her own internal dialogues and reflections regarding her ‘lived experiences’ as an anthropologist and a fieldworker in the Philippine.

According to the author, the opening problem to the intersection between anthropology and development emanates from outside hasty judgments, pertaining to ‘the development industry’ (2005:95), regarding the nature as well as the usage of anthropological methods in the field site. The assumption that these methods remain applicable to understand all cultural contexts disregards two fundamental realities. First, the existing unequal power relations embedded within and across the borders of the targeted locale and its population are being overlooked by ‘development workers’ in favor of introducing economic growth from above. Second, the strategic use of anthropological methods to infiltrate the ‘under-developed’ locale prompts the ethnographer to question the implicit rationale behind setting up such an agenda that is so much preoccupied with ‘empowering communities’. Nevertheless, the practice of sustaining development seems to derive its strength from meddling with the internal affairs of an aid receiving country with the help of ‘experts in negotiating non-western culture’ (2005:95). So far, Gardiner Barber defensively explains the motives and the circumstances behind her engaging into the workshops on ‘participatory methodologies’ in the Philippine at the very beginning of the chapter before presenting her standpoints on the patterns of a global capitalism in a neo-liberal era.

In this chapter, both of the sections entitled ‘The Workshop’ (2005:97) and ‘Further Workshops’ (2005:100) are characterized by a story-telling style of narrative. Extensive use of the past tense conveys a reminiscent state of mind on the part of the author while indulging into writing her introspective auto-ethnography. The natural flow of a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ regarding the author’s dialogues with her inner self and with some of the locals managed to attract my attention while reading the text. Despite the fact that no effort is being employed by the author to familiarize the reader with the settings and the circumstances of her interactions with the informant(s), mere insistence on her positional identity as an ethnographic researcher rather than a development worker displays the complexities of combining her intellectual convictions with the realities of the neo-liberal world.

Accordingly, in the section entitled ‘The Workshop’ Gardiner Barber’s interest in livelihood issues was deliberately conveyed. She briefly comments on her physical presence as an outsider in the field site, on the daily activities of the locals characterized by precarious living situations, and on her initial encounter with a local migrant worker called Daisy. It is worth noting that the author hastily asserts her remarks on her ‘crucial’ encounter with the informant Daisy and other locals without lingering on the situational circumstances of the interaction. In short, her conclusive remarks touched upon the short-sightedness of her colleagues in assessing primary reasons for livelihood precariousness. Hence the author’s point is that the development agenda priorities revolved around merely regulating the existing economic fishing activities rather than considering external economic contributions due to the flows of migration. The author’s ethnographic involvement with the local community was conditioned by her participation in the workshop on development.

Subsequent trips to ‘receiving aid areas’ (2005:101) in the Philippine was enabled through research fellowships from CIDA and partner institutions (2005:100). While such opportunities assist in easily accessing available data and easing local bureaucracies, as a result they impel an adherence to the guidelines of the project agenda. The author attempted to detach herself from such institutional priorities and focus on her own research interests. She acknowledges the interdisciplinary expertise involved in alleviating environmental degradation in such locales depending on the establishment of different programs dedicated to ‘empower the people’ and to ‘improve household income’ (2005:101) for example. Thus a prevailing concern in the chapter comes up due to the self-reflexive approach of the author regarding her uneasy encounter with development. What are the motives behind such discourses on empowering people?

According to Gardiner Barber, the ubiquitous tendencies of the experts in development to strictly adhere to the agenda’s project, rather than to attempt to fathom the complexities of the social structural relations of the studied population, account for the existence of a hegemonic ‘mono-culture’ of inclusion. Such tendencies result in conceiving of incompatible remedies to issues of livelihood such as the focus on regulating the environment as well as the existing economic activities. As a result mediated discourses on ‘empowering’ the local community contribute to the transformation of the paradigms of functioning of a local structure. Local patterns of normalcy tend to erode in favor of a more global standardized invasion to the way of being. The author argues that such concerted intrusions from above in the name of economic development affect the local policies of governance as well, such as the ‘mayor’s conversion to environmentalism’(2005:102). Adding to this the existing market relations among locals undergo a sort of gradual metamorphosis. In the absence of alternative economical means of subsistence recourse to dependence on external markets, characterized by prioritizing exploitative profits, promotion of productivity, consumerism and ‘economic independence’ from the gradually disappearing patterns of social solidarities, account for concerted policies dedicated towards long-term implementations of neo-liberal ideals globally in the name of ‘sustainable human development’(2005:103).

As a result, skepticism regarding the rationale behind development explains the uneasiness of anthropologists to affiliate their research interests with the agendas of the funding institutions such as CIDA. Strikingly enough, the author situates her ambivalence to such a reality within a moral aspiration for compassion and the common good for ‘other’ peoples, whose life perhaps ‘worth caring about’, and the pragmatic keenness on pursuing her research interests that are funded by the same criticized institutions. Recourse to such a liminal situation explains the tone of hesitance in conveying her standpoint straightforwardly at the beginning of the chapter despite her attempt to engage the reader by asking the question ‘is this as straightforward as it might seem?’(2005:94). Her diplomatic, or rather, careful use of the language in the text anticipates an eventual ‘ethnography’s edge’ portrayed as a compromise land of quiescence. Gardiner Barber suggests a ‘positive’ possibility of pursuing anthropological research interests while being affiliated to the agendas of development based on her own academic experience.

I think that the text stems its strength from the author’s willingness to expose her self-reflexivity, perhaps, according to the emerging conventions of the ‘auto-ethnographic’ style of writing. Indeed it is beautifully studded with analytic constructions revolving around the inner self of the author and her standpoints. However, in the midst of portraying the good intentions of the reminiscent internal dialogue I feel the obligation to note that the author’s conception of collaboration with the ‘other’ was portrayed rather in a way that resembles how the strong center reacts to the alternative less stronger peripheries. This chapter is an excellent incitation to reconsider the grey overlapping areas, beyond the control of the ethnographic researcher, which aims at synchronizing the abstract questions regarding moral values, or convictions, in anthropology with the complex realities of methodologically practicing ethnography. The anthropologist Gardiner Barber situates her fieldwork experiences at the edge of ethnography in development and asserts proudly towards the end of the chapter ‘and still I continue my dance alongside development’ (2005:107)


[i] Both of the chapters 4 & 5 in the second part entitled ‘collaborations’ seem to rely heavily on the perceived processes of interaction in ‘the objective world’ regarding their methodological approaches to their respected subjects of scrutiny.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond the Self-reflexive Thoughts on “Ethnography’s Edge in Development” By Pauline Gardiner Barber

  1. Interesting finish. I wonder what it means to practice reflexivity when you imagine those in your periphery (as you explained it) as ‘lesser’ or ‘weaker’ than yourself.

    • Thanks for bringing this up 🙂 I had hard time to ‘diplomatically’ convey the impression I had while reading this chapter. Perhaps due to some ‘Geertzian’ influence on the author of the text itself, it seems that everything revolves around her self while translating a past ‘being there’: being approached by the project coordinator, the informant Daisy etc. Is there a tiny place for agency while reflecting? I think the author’s dwelling on ‘development anthropology’ made the task of reflecting on ‘the anthropology of development’ more uneasy and challenging. It is a good text though 🙂 make you think about abstract patterns of thoughts and their significance or insignificance.

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