Methods and concepts
This study follows in the methodological tradition of “new ethnographies of development” (Mosse, 2005, p. 11). This scholarship sees international development as a complex set of interactions at both the global and local level, involving actors of differing status with varying resources and often competing goals. These scholars have revealed these complex relationships by exploring development on multiple fronts. First, they have engaged with development instrumentally, as anthropologist consultants, applied researchers and program evaluators, examining the institutions and policy frameworks that seemingly guide practice. It is a comparable view to that which dominates much of humanitarian protection scholarship today. They have, however, partnered this with a non-instrumental perspective, examining the social process of policy and the informal relationships and real-life situations of development workers (Lewis & Mosse, 2006). These hidden processes in development have been revealed through the insider’s perspective provided by ethnographic field research.
The ethnographic perspective
My research applies this ethnographic gaze to humanitarian protection in order to explore the tensions that exist between the official protection frameworks and the real-world context in which they are implemented. It uses the international humanitarian aid worker - who occupies a pivotal place between official frameworks and their local impact - as the primary focus for examining that link. The everyday practices of these actors were revealed through personal observations in the field, made possible through my own professional experiences as an aid worker. This ethnographic fieldwork was carried out in northern Iraq during the battle for Mosul - some two years after our encounter with Shia militia on the road to Sinjar - and then later in Geneva, the so-called home of the humanitarian frameworks. These personal insights and observations were then complemented by interviews with some 40 humanitarian protection workers experienced in other conflicts in order to further explore the wider contextual complexities the humanitarian frameworks are meant to deal with.10
With the insider’s view provided by participant observation, this research is able to move beyond the question of whether the protection frameworks are working - the domain of normative scholarship - to reveal how they are interpreted and used by practitioners in the field. By borrowing these research tools from the anthropological discipline, it is able to build an understanding of relationships that were previously obscured or silenced by the fixation on frameworks and then articulate these through real-world examples and detailed narratives.
Importantly, these new ethnographers of development have taken their investigations beyond “thick description” (Geertz, 1973, p. 3) and detailed narratives. They have combined these revealing traits of ethnographic observation with critical theory analysis. My work continues this amalgamation of critical theory and ethnographic observation, drawing on many of the same theoretical foundations that have guided these ethnographers. At one level these scholars have been informed by the work of Foucault, analysing development as a discourse that limits the description of development and what constitutes appropriate action. Foucault's conceptualisation of discourse and power in relation to the development context is perhaps more clearly articulated through the work of Ferguson (1994), who uses it to argue that development institutions generate their own form of discourse. In a retrograde logic, this “anti-politics” discourse turns a society’s complex political realities into technical problems appropriate for a development solution. This Foucauldian view sees development as a historically specific discourse of power, which serves to universalise the Western experience and project it onto the rest of the world (see Lewis & Mosse, 2006).
While providing important critical insights into development, the Foucauldian framework of analysis used by authors such as Ferguson (1994) has been criticised for tending to see development as a homogenising, disciplinary power. It fails to acknowledge that hegemonic power is never total, but is rather an ongoing contest with multiple actors, albeit of different status. For as Murray Li (2007) explains, the “fragmentary experiences, attachments, and embedded cultural ideas” of local populations do not simply disappear in the face of an all-powerful development discourse, but remain as a source of ongoing tension, undertaking a form of resistance to the imposed order (p. 22). These local actors retain a level of agency, which, while not the main concern of most Foucauldian scholars, has been the focus of many anthropologists. Taking a bottom-up perspective provided by fieldwork, these anthropologists and development sociologists have long highlighted the continued significance of individual agency, arguing that actors use their social networks and their discourses as resources to “process information and strategize in their dealings with various local actors as well as with outside institutions and personnel” (Long & van der Ploeg, 1994, p. 64).
Like their predecessors, new ethnographers of development have emphasised individual agency and the relationships between multiple actors. Mosse (2005), a leading advocate of this form of ethnography, places the development actor at the centre of his investigation of policy and practice. The picture he paints in Cultivating Develojnnent is not the image of the monolithic and all-powerful development industry described by Ferguson (1994), but rather a fragmented, complex affair in which actors at all levels are endowed with agency. However, in introducing agency, Mosse and his ilk have not abandoned the discursive effect of the “antipolitics machine”, but instead subject it to a variety of opposing forces (see Lewis & Mosse, 2006). In this view, individuals are not only influenced by the structures in which they work, as Ferguson (1994) suggests, but their actions can also contribute to changing and adapting those same structures. My research, in essence an ethnography of humanitarian protection, takes a similar theoretical position, acknowledging both discursive power and individual agency. In this I join Mosse (2005) in turning to more recent examinations of agency and everyday practice for my theoretical foundations, notably de Certeau (1984) and Scott (1990).11