Framing development ethnographies theoretically

Much of the work of the new ethnographers of development has been informed primarily by the work of Foucault. It analyses development as a discourse - “a system of knowledge, practices, technologies and power relationships that orders and limits description and action within its field” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 4). In this orientation, development is seen as a historically specific discourse of power of the West over the developing world. This approach is most clearly illustrated by Escobar (1995), who analyses the “systems or relations” that determines what can be said about development (p. 40). He argues that the social relations and the texts created through them constitute the “hegemonic worldview of development” (p. 17). This institutionalisation and professionalisation of international development “brings the Third World into the politics of expert knowledge and western science in general” (p. 45). Foucault’s conceptualisation of discourse and power also emerges in the ethnographic work of Ferguson (1994), who argues that development institutions generate their own form of discourse. As Ferguson explains, this discourse constructs the target society as a fantasy that bears little relation to the realities on the ground, but is suitable for the technical solutions development agencies can offer, rather than political ones they cannot intervene in.

While providing important critical insights into development, this deconstruc-tive anthropological orientation has been criticised for tending to see development as monolithic and controlled from the top. Such a view overlooks the collaboration and complicity of marginal actors in development, such as beneficiaries “who understand and manipulate the rhetorics, rules, and rewards of aid delivery” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 5). Moreover, this Foucauldian model effectively demotes agency and negotiation, instead describing a powerful “developmentmachine” that works to deliver specific outcomes “behind the backs or against the wills of even the most powerful actors” (Ferguson, 1994, p. 18). In other words, this deconstructive orientation fails to examine the relationship between policy and politics, and the world as understood and experienced within the lives of development actors (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 5).

Agency and negotiation

More recent ethnography of development has begun to move beyond the discourse and power conceptualisations favoured by anthropologists in the past. This ethnography is “distinctly uncomfortable with the monolithic notions of dominance, resistance, and hegemonic relations” which leave little space for agency and negotiation (Mosse, 2005, p. 6). Nor do they turn to the more populist position that privileges the local by describing “every diversion or side-tracking of development as a popular resistance arising from the presumed autonomy of the subaltern” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, p. 4). Instead they have turned to more recent examinations of agency and everyday practice for their theoretical foundation, such as de Certeau (1984) and Scott (1990). De Cerleau (1984) has added nuance to the understanding of agency by revealing the “devious, dispersed and subversive ‘consumer practices’, which are not manifest through [their] own products, but rather through [their] ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order” (ft. xiii). In other words, while beneficiaries or development workers may consent to dominant models - using the authorised scripts given them by projects - they make of them something quite different. Scott (1990) writes about the “hidden transcripts” that exist alongside the “public transcripts” of development policy. “The hidden transcript is produced for a different audience and under different constraints of power than the public transcript” (Scott, 1990, p. 5).2

This critical theory adds substantial weight to ethnographies of development, which similarly argue that people do not just adapt to or resist development, but have much more complicated strategies and reactions. This is reflected in the work of Ding and Long (1992), who introduced an actor-oriented approach to development that “recognises the ‘multiple realities’ and the diverse social practices of various actors” (p. 5). Similarly, it can be seen in the work of more recent ethnographers who have extended the scope of development research from those at the receiving end of aid to include development professionals and their relationship with the organisations they work for (see Fechter & Hindman, 2011 ; Mosse, 2011).

Actor-oriented approach

The actor-oriented approach is based on the idea that social change can only be understood by analysing the relationship between social structures and human agency. It follows Foucault in his notion that all actors have access to power, even those actors occupying subordinate positions. Yet while Foucault emphasises the

Reframing humanitarian prolection 43 power of discursive regimes, the actor-oriented approach stresses the power of social actors to influence and transform these regimes by employing alternative ways of formulating their objectives and deploying specific modes of action (Long & Long, 1992, p. 25).

Applied in the field of development research, an actor-oriented approach requires “a full analysis of the ways in which different social actors manage and interpret new elements in their life worlds, an understanding of the organizing, strategic and interpretive elements involved, and a deconstruction of conventional notions of planned intervention” (Long & Long, 1992, p. 9). In this view, development interventions are not the simple outcome of a value-free and linear planning process, but rather the changing and negotiated manifestation of diverse and sometimes competing interests.

Multiple narratives

Since they are not constrained to privilege authorised (instrumental) interpretations, ethnographies of development have also looked beyond policy language. They have revealed how the official development narratives work to “enrol supporters ... forge political connections, and create common realities from heterogeneous networks” (Lewis & Mosse, 2006, pp. 15-16). According to Mosse (2005), policy is this narrative, designed to mobilise and maintain political support in order to legitimise development activities (p. 14). A successful policy, therefore, is one that utilises sufficiently ambiguous terminology so that it is able to achieve a high degree of convergence of disparate interests (Mosse, 2005, p. 46).

Furthermore, ethnographies of development have gone beyond this unifying narrative, or what Roe (1994) calls a metanarrative, to examine the largely concealed counter narratives. Development ethnographers such as Mosse (2005) first explored these multi-layered narratives theoretically. Returning to Scott (1990), the backstage counter narratives are “hidden transcripts”, which exist alongside official narratives, or “public transcripts”. In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau (1984) makes a distinction between “strategies” as the tools used by institutions, enterprises and governments to enforce their will over a particular space, and “tactics” as opportunistic acts that take place within a social space dominated by strategies. The conceptualisation of multi-layered narratives described by these critical theorists is then complemented with thick descriptions, collected from the inside through participatory observation (see Mosse & Lewis, 2005). This approach to understanding development aid and policy reform has uncovered what Mosse and Lewis term “the hidden processes and multiple perspectives or regional interests” behind official policy discourses (p. 1).

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