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University of California Press
Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text / Edition 1

Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text / Edition 1

by Stuart KirschStuart Kirsch


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Does anthropology have more to offer than just its texts? In this timely and remarkable book, Stuart Kirsch shows how anthropology can—and why it should—become more engaged with the problems of the world. Engaged Anthropology draws on the author’s experiences working with indigenous peoples fighting for their environment, land rights, and political sovereignty. Including both short interventions and collaborations spanning decades, it recounts interactions with lawyers and courts, nongovernmental organizations, scientific experts, and transnational corporations. This unflinchingly honest account addresses the unexamined “backstage” of engaged anthropology. Coming at a time when some question the viability of the discipline, the message of this powerful and original work is especially welcome, as it not only promotes a new way of doing anthropology, but also compellingly articulates a new rationale for why anthropology matters.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520297951
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/23/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stuart Kirsch is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and author of Mining Capitalism and Reverse Anthropology

Read an Excerpt


How Political Commitments Influence Research


A CONVERSATION ABOUT RESORTING to violence in the dispute over the Ok Tedi mine still wakes me up at night. It was 1995, and the legal proceedings were moving very slowly. I was in the town of Kiunga, meeting with the leaders of the campaign against the mine, most of whom I had known for several years. Out of frustration, one of the men suggested that they blockade the Fly River, stopping the ships that supply the mine and deliver its ore to international markets. Others expressed support for the idea. However, I reminded them of their decision to take the mining company to court rather than trying to achieve their goals by force. We also discussed the human toll of the civil war in Bougainville, which was precipitated by conflict over the Panguna copper mine, and the likelihood of comparable violence and loss of life if they blockaded the river. Support for taking matters into their own hands gradually dissipated.

Since the late 1980s, I have participated in the political campaign and legal proceedings that sought to limit the destructive environmental impact of the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. This work followed two years of ethnographic research with the Yonggom people living downstream from the mine. In local media and scholarly publications, I sought to call attention to the environmental problems caused by pollution from the mine. I contributed to a social and environmental impact study of the communities along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers that was sponsored by the mining company. I subsequently advised the lawyers representing the affected communities in legal proceedings against Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), the majority shareholder and managing partner of the mine. I also collaborated with nongovernmental organizations critical of the mining industry in Australia, Europe, and the United States and wrote regular updates on the situation for NGO publications, including Cultural Survival Quarterly (Kirsch 1993, 2002b, 2004a). I prepared expert reports on the Ok Tedi case and participated in forums on the extractive industries and indigenous peoples sponsored by the United Nations (Kirsch 2003) and the World Bank (see Kirsch 2014, 202–4).

My work as an engaged anthropologist also provided both the data and the motivation for scholarly publications in journals and books. My participation in these events shaped my arguments and conclusions. Rather than claim to be neutral and objective about the Ok Tedi conflict, I acknowledged my political commitments. I was sympathetic to the concerns of the people whose lives and livelihoods were being affected by pollution. I was openly critical of the mining company for its reckless disregard of its environmental impacts and, to a lesser extent, the state for its failure to regulate the mining industry. I occasionally clashed with colleagues whose opinions on these issues differed from my own. Although I did my best to account for the complexity of the events I was writing about, inevitably there were gaps and blind spots in my analyses.

To illustrate these dynamics, I consider how my involvement in the campaign against the Ok Tedi mine has influenced my research and writing. In addressing these issues, I hope to demonstrate the value of paying closer attention to what happens "backstage" in engaged research projects. I begin by considering how politics affects the way anthropologists frame their arguments. I do so by examining debates with other scholars about whether the conflict over the Ok Tedi mine is better understood in economic or environmental terms. I then turn to the question of ethnographic refusal (Ortner 1995), in which anthropologists produce romanticized accounts of political resistance by withholding evidence of internal conflict. Here I explain why I previously refrained from writing about several conversations that occurred at pivotal moments of the campaign against the Ok Tedi mine, including the discussion about blockading the Fly River in 1995, and why I am comfortable doing so now.

I also describe my interactions with the primary actors in the Ok Tedi case, including the mining company, lawyers, NGOs, and the people living downstream from the mine. These relationships have influenced my research and writing in a variety of ways. When other social scientists offered competing interpretations of the conflict, I felt compelled to respond. The mining company tried to control all of the available expertise about the region and silence its critics, including me. My participation in the legal proceedings made demands on my work that might be considered incompatible with contemporary recognition of ethnographic knowledge as partial and situated. Despite our overlapping political commitments, collaboration with NGOs was contingent on negotiating the differences in our perspectives and priorities. Similarly, my participation in the campaign and lawsuit against the mining company affected my relationships with people who were also potential informants — for example, by limiting my ability to accurately convey the opinions of people who opted out of the legal proceedings. My goal is to encourage engaged anthropologists to be more forthcoming in how they address comparable dilemmas and navigate similar challenges in their own work. This discussion also introduces key ideas used in analyzing the other examples of engaged anthropology described in this book.


Anthropologists are often affected by and contribute to the framing of political debates (see Bateson 1972; Goffman 1974). After completing my dissertation research with the Yonggom in 1989, I gave a presentation at the University of Papua New Guinea on the impact of pollution on the people living beside the Ok Tedi River, published an op-ed on the subject in the Times of Papua New Guinea (Kirsch 1989a), and addressed these issues on a national radio show in Port Moresby. The prevailing view in the capital at the time was that excessive demands for compensation were impeding economic progress in Papua New Guinea (see Toft 1997). Complaints about the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi mine were readily subsumed into this larger national narrative. The failure to distinguish between the legitimate grievances of the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers and other demands for resource rents delegitimized protests against the environmental impact of the mine.

Whereas my work framed the conflict downstream from the Ok Tedi mine in environmental terms, other social scientists writing about these issues emphasized conflicts associated with the distribution of economic benefits. In his influential "social time bomb" explanation of the uprising against the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, Colin Filer (1990) argues that mining projects initiate a downward spiral of social disintegration. Compensation payments to communities living in the vicinity of mining projects fail to meet expectations as people move from local resource production and traditional modes of exchange to participation in the capitalist economy of accumulation. Sons inherit deals their fathers made with the mining company and find them wanting. The cycle of dissatisfaction and renegotiation repeats with increasing frequency until no credible leaders remain and no deal with the mine will do. At that point, approximately fifteen years into the life span of the average mining project in Papua New Guinea, the social time bomb explodes.

Rolf Gerritsen and Martha Macintyre (1991) also focus on the distribution of economic benefits from mining companies to local communities. They argue that the dynamics of investment and development, which they refer to as the "capital logic of mining," dictate a pattern of expenditure that frustrates and ultimately infuriates local communities. Like Melanesian big men managing their lesser allies, mining companies hold their constituents at arm's length, spending to solve problems as they arise. The process generates an asymptotic curve of dissatisfaction that peaks just below the line separating conflict from calm. Yet maintaining this delicate balance is inherently risky, for events need only nudge the curve slightly to provoke a crisis. In addition, Gerritsen and Macintyre (1991) observe that Papua New Guinea's economic dependence on the mining industry leads the state to view rural communities as rivals for their share of mining revenues.

Both of these arguments frame mining conflicts in economic terms. Filer (1990, 70) notes that the key factor uniting the people living on the island of Bougainville was "nothing less than the hole in the middle of it," and that the rift in the body politic paralleled the underlying transformation of the landscape. He subsequently observed that the uneven "spatial distribution" of environmental impacts and benefits from compensation contributed to social and economic divisions in Bougainville (Filer 1997a, 104). He argued that compensation payments exacerbate fault lines in communities already predisposed to fragmentation (Filer 1997a). Gerritsen and Macintyre (1991) similarly point to unfulfilled expectations for compensation and development as the primary sources of strife.

These arguments had political consequences, because they diverted attention from environmental impacts by suggesting that mining conflicts are driven primarily by economic motives. The mining industry readily embraced this view. For example, Gavin Murray and Ian Williams of Placer Pacific, which operated the Porgera gold mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea during the late 1980s, claimed that the central issue in the Ok Tedi case was "stakeholder identification and consultation," referring to the economic interests of the people living downstream, rather than environmental degradation (Murray and Williams 1997, 200). Similarly, Ok Tedi Mining criticized conservation organizations for focusing on the mine's environmental record while ignoring the economic benefits provided by the project, including jobs, taxes, and foreign exchange earnings (Kirsch 2014, 77). As Roy A. Rappaport (1993, 299) warns, however, monetization operates according to "a logic that reduces all qualitative distinctions to mere quantitative differences, a logic that, as it were, attempts to 'bottom line' the world." While there may well be people in Papua New Guinea willing to trade a few feet of mud in their gardens and a few acres of dead trees for a winning lottery ticket, it hardly relieves mining companies of their responsibility to limit their environmental impacts, nor can the most toxic effects of mining on the environment and human health ever be made good with monetary compensation.

In contrast, ethnographic research with the communities downstream from the Ok Tedi mine led me to emphasize the consequences of environmental degradation for people whose lives and livelihoods depend on subsistence production. Pollution from the mine has affected the gardens where they grow bananas and other crops, sago stands that produce the starch that is the mainstay of their diets, and the fish, crayfish, turtles, and other riverine animals that were previously an important source of protein in their diets. The operation of the mine has also resulted in widespread deforestation along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, affecting more than two thousand square kilometers of rain forest. Many of the birds and other animals that once lived along these rivers have migrated elsewhere. This led me to describe how the impact of pollution from the Ok Tedi mine has been so catastrophic for the Yonggom and their neighbors that "much of what they once took for granted about their natural environment no longer holds true" (Kirsch 1997b, 153).

My attention to environmental degradation and its consequences provided an important corrective to the prevailing focus on economic issues. I felt a responsibility to challenge the emphasis on monetary compensation in national debates that allowed the mining company to continue discharging millions of tons of finely ground tailings and waste rock into local rivers every year as long as they increased compensation payments to the people affected by the project. I also sought to help raise international awareness of the environmental problems downstream from the mine. Yet framing the conflict in environmental terms led me to downplay its economic dimensions rather than recognize the value of both perspectives and examine how they are interrelated.

It was only in 1999, when the mining company belatedly admitted that the environmental impacts of the project were far greater than previously acknowledged, concluding that the operation of the mine was "incompatible with its environmental values" (Barker and Oldfield 1999, 1), that I no longer felt compelled to persuade readers that the Ok Tedi mine was an environmental disaster. Public recognition of the severity of the problem provided me with an opportunity to reassess my earlier work rather than continue to defend claims made while "writing in the eye of a storm" (Bell 2002). Consequently, I acknowledged the ways that indigenous views on mining and the environment are shaped by "the complex longings, dreams and ... choices" of people living on the margins of the global economy (Coumans 2004, 90). I also discussed local desires for economic benefits, as poignantly expressed by an elderly woman who told me she hoped that a successful resolution to the lawsuit would allow her to "taste some sugar before I die" (Kirsch 2006, 26). I explained how damage to the resources on which they depend forced them to purchase alternatives, resulting in their impoverishment. And I described how the Yonggom and their neighbors, like other people living in rural Papua New Guinea, generally aspire to greater participation in the national and global economies (see Gewertz and Errington 1991; Smith 1994).

In contrast to my willingness to revisit my earlier arguments, many of my colleagues writing about these issues elected to double down on their original positions, asserting that reports about the environmental impacts of the Ok Tedi mine were exaggerated. After the initial lawsuit was settled out of court in 1996, the anthropologist Colin Filer (1997c, 90) argued that while logging was more damaging to the environment in Western Province than mining, it received less attention because impacts from the mine were more photogenic. Similarly, the geographer Richard Jackson (1998, 207), a long-term consultant for Ok Tedi Mining, argued that "the destruction of a few square kilometres of swamp forest was a small price ... to pay" for the economic benefits provided by the mining company, even though his estimate of the damage ended up being wrong by a magnitude of a thousand. Filer (1997c, 87) also wrote disparagingly about what he described as an "envelope of environmental paranoia which conflated local perceptions of physical and social change, making it difficult for other stakeholders to distinguish real grievances from imaginary fears," while failing to take into consideration the complexities of risk assessment for the people living downstream from the mine, who lacked access to independent scientific information or prior exposure to industrialized forms of development. Yet pollution from the Ok Tedi mine is expected to last for hundreds of years along parts of the river, and large portions of the landscape will never return to pre-mine conditions (Tingay 2007).

Years later, Filer continued to attribute the conflict over the Ok Tedi mine to the mishandling of public relations rather than the severity of its environmental impacts: "The big mistake was to discount the interests and opinions of foreign journalists, lawyers, academics and scientists who did not count as 'stakeholders' in PNG's national policy framework" (Filer, Banks, and Burton 2008, 185). Anthropologist Martha Macintyre similarly denied that pollution was a contributing factor to mining conflicts in Papua New Guinea, arguing that people living near the Lihir gold mine "embrace the discourses of environmentalism and impending ecological catastrophe primarily to use them as leverage in negotiations with the mining company" (Macintyre and Foale 2004, 249), suggesting that local expressions of concern about the environment are largely strategic.

Although it may seem churlish to criticize colleagues for expressing views they might wish to recant, these were not offhand or idle remarks; they were assertions committed to print without regard to their political consequences or, in hindsight, their accuracy. I have two reasons for including their comments here. First, they illustrate how I had to fight uphill against more senior colleagues who consistently ignored or downplayed the gravity of the environmental problems on the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, undermining the legitimacy of concerns expressed by people affected by the Ok Tedi mine. And second, these examples are meant to challenge the view that my work is compromised because I acknowledge my political commitments, in contrast to scholars who claim their research is neutral or apolitical. All of us have been affected by the politically charged circumstances in which these debates took place. Filer's (1999) primary concern has been to contribute to the rationalization of the state's economic policies in contrast to its ad hoc responses to landowner demands. Jackson's (1998) objection was that the mining industry was being unfairly blamed for the failures of the state. Macintyre and Foale (2004) sought to discredit the claims of NGOs writing about mining in Melanesia. Yet these scholars have been reluctant to examine how their own political projects influence their views on the relationship between mines and communities in Papua New Guinea.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Map of Cases xv

Introduction 1

1 How Political Commitments Influence Research 20

2 When Contributions Are Elusive 50

3 The Search for Alternative Outcomes 82

4 When the Intervention Fails, Does the Research Still Matter? 107

5 How Analysis of Local Contexts Can Have Global Significance 136

6 The Risks of Intervention 165

7 Dilemmas of an Expert Witness 180

Conclusion 223

Notes 231

References 249

Index 283

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