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17.1: Prelude

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  • What does it mean to see and hear what others do not see and hear and how can that unique information be practically applied? The lack of a simple answer is fitting to anthropology because the work of anthropologists often demonstrates that simplistic explanations are, at best, only part of the complex stories of human culture. In this chapter, I provide examples of how the ability to see and hear is applied in practice and how these skills add value in a socio-cultural anthropology setting associated with international development. In particular, I shed light on the potential challenges of practicing anthropology within non-governmental organizations. Given the ethic of confidentiality in anthropology, I omit details about the country, organization, and ethnic groups as much as possible and instead focus on the processes involved.

    Although an education in anthropology stresses the importance of confidentiality and the potentially dire consequences of drawing attention to individuals and communities, it probably does not truly sink in until you conduct your first fieldwork and “subjects” turn into human beings with names, families, and feelings. One of the greatest ethical challenges anthropologists face in writing about individuals and communities is the additional attention drawn to them when the intention of the anthropologist is to highlight a concern that extends beyond specific individuals and communities and can thus have negative consequences. Take, for example, an assessment I conducted of a national safety net program that took place in a limited number of communities.1 If the individuals and communities participating had been explicitly identified or could be identified, they may have experienced negative political consequences such as a loss of government-provided social services or their jobs. Instead, the anonymity of the individuals and communities was protected, and the concerns and challenges were identified in a way that protected those who graciously and generously contributed their time and ideas to the research process. Complete anonymity is not always desirable, needed, or possible but is always an important consideration for anthropologists.

    Throughout the last ten years, I have worked for non-governmental organizations—about five years in Eastern Africa and shorter periods in Asia and the Middle East—as a volunteer, employee, and consultant with community-based groups and national and international organizations. In this chapter, I explore one of those experiences to convey a sense of what “seeing like an anthropologist” means by analyzing an effort to eliminate food taboos by a nongovernmental international development organization. This chapter was inspired by the work of political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, particularly his Seeing Like a State (1998). I shift the focus inward onto anthropology as a practice and a way of seeing.2