Development Expert Knowledge vs. Anthropologists

Posted on May 31, 2012 by


Mosse, David.  “Politics and Ethics:  Ethnographies of Expert Knowledge and Professional Identities” in Shore, Cris, Susan Wright, and Davide Però. 2011. Policy Worlds: Anthropology and Analysis of Contemporary Power. Berghahn Books.  Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas.

David Mosse’s piece “Ethnographies of Expert Knowledge” highlights the tension between Anthropological research findings and development expertise. While development professionals objected to his findings, other fieldworkers endorsed his accounts.  He attempts to answer the question of “why ethnographic description is considered threatening to development professionals.”  From his point of view, there are two sources of tensions:  1)  that ethnographic methods might be a natural source of tension for development intervention because of their differing goals and 2) professionals have to maintain an identity, a professionalism which sometimes obfuscates the realities or actualities of events.

Mosse did his fieldwork with an “international development intervention” and attempted to present his findings in a manner consistent with Holmes and Marcus’ (2005) concept of “collaborative ethnography”, in which expert subjects stood as counterparts in his research. He found this difficult to execute in practice.  In practice, these expert subjects objected to his research because they claimed that the study would produce for them harm to their professional reputations.  For example, Mosse made mention of informal practices that staff members had to facilitate: from courtesy calls, to foreigner visits to gifts to cards.  Critics took his mention of these practices as questions to their professionalism.  For critics, the descriptions of them felt like they were being judged.  Any mention of these development employees doing something for a client in their own self-interest was seen as a threat to their professionalism.

Mosse suggests that the methods of ethnography has tensions with professionalism because ethnography can point to failures.  The field of professional development is built on rules, models, and universals (54). This field allows little room for description of contexts, and relations.  In contrast, he describes “ethnographic description” as  “composed precisely of those things that are professionally discounted and of meanings unruled by policy interpretations.” In taking things that discounted, ethnography can highlight stories of failure.

In the interest of protecting personal and professional reputation, stories of failure are typically painted as unplanned:  event-rich and point to individual person, contingent, arbitrary, accidental, unintended, exceptional.  In contrast, stories of success speak to the greatness of planning and the execution of a theory.  This buries individual actions or events and emphasize policy, expert ideas, the system, and professionalism.  Professionalism refuses significance to the event, or individual action in favor of rules, principles, and expert models.  Failures have the potential to unravel identities based on this professionalism, undoing the work of expertise, licensing expression of doubt, informal processes.  Though one might think failure should be eliminated from all discourses, the demarcation of failure serves a purpose:  to protect the universality of ideas and therefore the certainty and staying logic of ideas.  Failure is a means to affirming the salience of ruling policy ideas by assigning causes to contingent factors, individual error, and cultural factors.  This distributes events between intended and contingent, and helps protect professionals and instantiate frameworks of proper interpretation.

Mosse also explores the pressures that professionals themselves face and contextualizes where ethnographic description fits.  There is a vulnerability to the professional development expert.  Professionals are faced with the pressures of negotiating their identities, genders, age, race, nationalities, personal security, family relations, while making sure their personal motivations look pious and self-sacrificing.  In a drive to present an illusion of certainty in their methods to secure trust and subsequently funding from donors, Posse suggests that the tight-knit, closed networks of global experts may be weapons against suggestion of failure (57).  The closed networks function to minimalize the constant negotiation and pressure to technicalize.

In a reflexive tone, Mosse suggests that ethnography can have its failures as well, mostly in terms of representing subjects and also have their work questioned as well.  He suggests that ethnographers’ representing professional knowledge as “local” threatens professional identity and that “failing to take professionals on their own terms can be a source of tension.  He brings up his own experience of how professionals sought to put him back into the relations, thus preventing “ethnographic exit” and thereby disallowing the text to become “real” or taken as an ethnographic account.  In the end, Mosse suggests that Anthropologists can interact with professionals beyond consensus and before engaging in fieldwork, acknowledge that there are tensions.