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Book Review: Applied Anthropology, Part I

November 4, 2010

Yes, another book review.




John van Willigen’s work Applied Anthropology: An Introduction is simply that:  a very strong introduction into the world of applied anthropology.  Applied Anthropology, according to Willigen, is “anthropology put in use” (7) but to be more explicit, applied anthropology has as its primary goals, “changes in human behavior believed to ameliorate contemporary social, economic, and technological problems, rather than the development of social and cultural theory” (9).  Because applied anthropology is the “practical” and applicable side of cultural change, understanding it will prove helpful for Christian ministers—especially missionaries to other cultures.

Significant Issues

The nature of Applied Anthropology makes it difficult to track down the most significant issues in the book.  As an introduction, its goal is to cover all major facets of the field, and thus, in certain respects, each chapter is highly significant for those studying it.  With this in mind, any choice of what I consider to be most significant will be highly subjective.  Therefore, I will frame this section within the context of how applied anthropology is significant for Christian ministry and mission work.  In doing this, I see the chapter of Ethics (Chapter 3), the overview of “participatory development” (Chapter 4), and the specific developmental approach of “Cultural Action” (Chapter 6) with an emphasis on Paulo’s Freire’s theory of pedagogy as highly important issues for further inquiry.

Ethics in Applied Anthropology

For the reason that applied anthropologists are engaged in the business of “culture change” it is crucial for those engaged in such work to have an ethical framework to work within.  Willigen explains that, “because we may have change as a goal as well as scientific understanding, we must be especially concerned about the impact of our efforts on the populations with whom we work” (47).  What anthropologists do will indelibly leave a mark on the cultures they work with.  Again the words of Willigen are helpful here:  “We are inextricably linked to the communities we work with, and thereby, our actions can be continually ramified and may have serious unanticipated affects” (48).  As applied anthropologists research and work within their contexts, it is important that they honor issues of privacy, consent, and that their information not be used as a means of coercion by others (i.e. “knowledge is power”).  In the end, applied anthropologists must be committed to ethical statements that ensure they approach their research and implementation with the highest regard for those who will be affected.

This chapter, though dealing with ethics in the realm of applied anthropology, speaks strongly to Christian ministers and missionaries to be aware that they are agents of change in cultures and are, therefore, responsible for such change.

Participatory Development

“Participatory development,” according to Willigen, “is a process in which the individuals and groups of a community work together on problems that they see as important in order to benefit their lives in some way” (65).  In the fourth chapter, Willigen gives an overview of the idea of development generally, beginning with a discussion of the critique of development.  Though development is seen as a good thing by many, it is often that case that development has unanticipated negative results (66).   For instance, economic growth is great for the people that benefit from it, but a whole other group of people may become more impoverished as a result.  Unanticipated results often happen because the needs of “local” peoples are not fully considered.  In the theory of development, it is not considered highly important for “full participation” from the local people in developmental projects (68).  Three main issues become important when considering participatory development.  First, there is local knowledge.  This is the idea that the knowledge of the local people in a given culture is actually quite sophisticated and should be utilized, rather than trusting solely in outside, “expert” knowledge.  Second, there is the idea of participation itself.  True participation of local people gives a necessary measure of self-determination.  Third, this leads to “empowerment.”  Locals should not just be acted upon, but have control over the outcomes of development.

This chapter is highly significant for mission work in that it establishes the need for missionaries and mission organizations to seriously consider and work with local peoples in their mission.  With this participatory element, local cultures are acted upon by outside forces and this often has unanticipated, destructive results.  The history of missions proves this time and time again.

Cultural Action

In Chapter six, Willgen discusses the process of “changing the relationships between poor people and power elite,” a process known as cultural action (91).  More specifically, this chapter focuses on the approach of Paulo Freire known as the “Freirean method.”  Briefly, Freire followed the Liberation philsophy’s proposition that the world consists of “dominating power elites and the people they oppress” (93).  The only way to destroy the dominating powers is through the concept of humanization—one becomes “truly free and authentically human” (93).  This can only happen when the distinction between “oppressor” and “oppressed” is eliminated.  Freire’s method deconstructs (as Liberation philosophy does so well) the “freedom” that the power elites often claim to have; because they oppress others, they deny their own authentic humanity, and are thus not free themselves.  This background is important to establish Freire’s teaching method as a result of such ideas.  Because teaching is often seen as top-down, where the “authority” teacher disseminates information to the student, in turn, the student inevitably becomes entrapped in the status-quo.  However, when this hierarchical approach is torn down and the student is valued in his or her own right, a dialogue of “equals” may now take place.  In other words, “the student moves beyond the dehumanizing system in which knowledge is defined and controlled by the elite” (94).  This method, and cultural action in general, seeks to minimize the discrepancy between the rich/poor, teacher/student, missionary/missionee, so that all people may embrace their inherent worth and dignity as human beings.


One Comment leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 1:32

    Just wanted to let you know that I visited your site, expecting to read a new blog and… I get a book review… and you told me I could skip those, so… see you next post!!

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