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  • Socio-cultural anthropology is best understood by its primary approach to data collection: participant observation. This key component of ethnographic research involves long-term engagement, living with and learning from a cultural community different from one’s own. In listening, learning about, and seeing the world from the perspectives of others, anthropologists draw on the idea of cultural relativism. This is in contrast to ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own culture, cultural values, and societal organization are true, right, and proper and that others’ are erroneous to some degree. Cultural relativism posits that cultural practices and ideas must be understood within their contexts.

    In the past, some anthropologists participated in the “development” activities of colonial governments, and individual anthropologists and the discipline as a whole were rightly criticized for their roles in the injustices that resulted. While working in Afghanistan in 2013, I encountered anthropologists who were engaged in activities in the name of “development” that could be defined as neo-colonial in that they supported militaries by analyzing cultural communities with the goal of finding ways to weaken them and foster unequal and unfair relationships (cultural imperialism). Anthropological engagement is not always benevolent or neutral. As a result, anthropologists are encouraged to engage in self-reflection—to examine their roles, engagements, practices, and objectives critically, known as reflexivity.

    Varying degrees of criticism of the nature, objectives, and embedded assumptions of international development continue. Some have called on international development practitioners to significantly reform their activities to make them more effective, while others have expressed more radical criticisms, including the view that provision of aid causes greater impoverishment and should end.3 It is essential when deconstructing development, as a concept and an activity, to ask why, when, how, and for whom the development is intended and who it excludes. It also requires identifying the power dynamics and motivations involved. Anthropological tools and ways of seeing are important means by which to answer these questions.4


    My interaction with the project discussed in this chapter was limited in duration and I had specific tasks related to program evaluation and impact assessment. I interacted with management staff based in the international head office as well as the national head office, who provided me with background information about the region and clarified expectations before visiting the project area. The project itself was not primarily geared toward ending “harmful traditional practices,” but included a component related to addressing gender inequality and practices that negatively impact women. Reflecting back on those discussions, it appears that staff and donors who were located furthest from the area of the project had the greatest interest in these “harmful traditional practices.” Based on their emphasis, it is clear that foreign and exotic practices had an appeal that basic and shared needs did not. For example, those who were more distanced from the people the project sought to support were particularly interested in “female genital mutilation,” exchange marriages, and seemingly irrational and bizarre food taboos.

    On the other hand, within almost every community in the project area, both men and women were primarily concerned about the lack of clean drinking water and healthcare options. Unfortunately, these concerns attracted little attention from outsiders.5 In fact, many governmental agencies funding international development have explicitly restricted their funding such that water infrastructure is not an allowable project expense, including the governmental donor for the project in which I was involved. The reason for this is rarely explicitly stated, however informal discussions with development agency personnel cite high costs and sustainability as concerns. Abu-Lughod’s (2013) research on western perceptions of Muslim women, and broadly on conceptualizing “others” and their needs, provides insight into how prioritization of needs often takes place based upon assumptions, not reality.

    “Harmful traditional practices” are an odd collection of practices that range from tattooing and scarification to exchange marriages, forced marriages and marriages wherein a woman who is widowed becomes the wife of her deceased husband’s brother. “Harmful traditional practices” also include acts typically considered criminal activity throughout much of the world, such as abduction and unlawful confinement. A national committee in Ethiopia, for example, listed 162 “harmful traditional practices.”6 While many of these practices are illegal and generally agreed to be abuses of human rights, some have parallel practices that are legal in the countries in which international organizations are based, such as tattooing and scarification. Numerous examples of “bad for them, okay for us” could be made. Each practice, its context, laws, and discourse requires contextualization beyond the scope of this chapter. However, useful examples of deconstructions of one frequently discussed practice, female genital mutilation, have been made by Russell-Robinson (1997), James (1998), Obermeyer (1999), Ahmadu and Shweder (2009) and Londono (2009).

    The project staff identified a number of “harmful traditional practices” they believed ought to be stopped; however, I will only explore one of them: a collection of food taboos that were believed to negatively affect the nutrition of women. In particular, there was a focus on one specific food taboo: the restriction of women from eating eggs, which was the only food taboo mentioned in every report provided by the organization.

    I learned from the project proposal that there were “cultural taboos” forbidding women from eating eggs and milk.7 To address this, the project would improve their access and provide training on the nutritional value of these products. An initial assessment report stated that this taboo was not only about prohibiting the consumption of eggs, but also poultry. However, it later became clear that the restriction was only on eating eggs and meat from a specific breed of chicken that was raised in a woman’s own home or in the home of her in-laws. The organization advocated that this practice was negatively affecting women and infants because sources of already limited nutrition were being restricted, particularly an important source of vitamin A, which is a common micronutrient deficiency amongst the population. While eggs were a primary focus, other internal organizational reports provided different information: women and children also did not eat goat meat, animals that had been hunted, or any dairy products.

    The consumption of these products was believed to cause illness and bring about the death of an in-law, hence the prohibition. Several years into the project it was reported that a significant change in child nutrition had occurred and the report suggested that training and education programs discouraging food taboos were the reason for this shift. A detailed gender report, conducted halfway through the project, suggested that women and girls were still not generally allowed to eat chicken meat and eggs, but provided some case studies of positive change. This particular report pointed to the mother-in-law as the person who instituted the prohibition of chicken meat and eggs, while most reports simply said the prohibition was “cultural” amongst this ethnic group or due to community misconceptions. After five years of work, the project continued to actively engage in activities aiming at addressing the “misconceptions” and “traditional practices” of not eating eggs or drinking milk.

    One report, finalized a few years into the project, mentioned significant resistance to project activities encouraging the consumption of eggs and chicken meat. The “harmful traditional practice” was described as a “serious taboo,” and a “deeply rooted belief.” This report referenced another organization that was working to “prove the taboo is wrong” and had fostered remarkable change. Meeting with management staff in the national head office, I heard the same general story: there are cultural taboos forbidding women and girls from eating some foods, and specifically eggs. Staff permanently based in the project area repeated this information.

    However, throughout the years of the project very little was understood about this particular practice. The food taboo was identified and a few potential, sometimes conflicting, reasons were given. No one appeared to have taken the time to understand why these food taboos existed. When I later explored this question, a staff member who had lived and worked within the region for almost two decades remarked, “I have not had a chance to know about this.” This is one of the challenges anthropologists face in working within non-governmental organizations: often the difficulties communities face are assumed to be a result of ignorance and the “solution” is presented as a straightforward, often technical, activity such as education. I believe the lack of understanding of these practices was not due to insurmountable barriers, but a lack of inquiry into the “why,” “how,” “when,” and other questions that make cultural practices understandable. The ability to ask these kinds of questions, I argue, is a skill built into the anthropological way of seeing. For those familiar with “schemes to improve the human condition,” as Scott put it, the lack of interest in asking questions would not be surprising. Organizations tend to identify a problem, propose a solution, and plan evidence-based activities to achieve an objective. For many in the international development sector, finding out why these taboos exist is not particularly important. Rather they believe it is most important to stop those practices deemed (by them) to be harmful.