Studying up in critical NGO studies today: reflections on critique and the distribution of interpretive labour
Drawing on work with a human rights NGO in Malawi, this article considers the politics of anthropological knowledge production in Africa in the wake of Laura Nader’s classic essay. First, I briefly elaborate on the role of scalar metaphors (namely ‘studying up’) in the anthropologist’s toolkit, with special focus on how such metaphors might stabilize a normative mode of critique as negative orientation to objects of study. I then analyse two vignettes drawn from my collaboration with an NGO to show how activists and peer educators interpret and analyse their circumstances – studying ‘up, down, and sideways’ – to navigate local landscapes through which increasingly diverse resources, people, and ideas circulate. Throughout, I analyse my dual role as critic and participant in the apparatus, and conclude by suggesting that the enduring power of ‘studying up’ lies in its invitation to view social problems – in Africa or elsewhere – from various angles, and to learn from our interlocutors how individuals and communities make life more liveable. Reflection on the changing circumstances of ‘studying up’ in Africa today from the perspective of an anthropologist of and in NGOs highlights the division of interpretive labour among diverse actors and destabilizes normative definitions of scholarly critique.
Biruk, Crystal. 2016. “Studying up in Critical NGO Studies Today: Reflections on Critique and the Distribution of Interpretive Labor.” Critical African Studies 8(3): 291-305.
Taylor & Francis
Critical African Studies