The White 'Helpers': Anthropologists, Development Workers and Local Imaginations

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This article is intended as a response to the question recently launched in AT of how anthropologists may help their informants and the types of exchange this may entail. I will address this through two critical strands. First, I seek to problematize the idea of ‘helping’; ‘helping’ is not a universal, shared and fixed category understood on the same terms or solicited with the same intentionalities between different cultures and different individuals. Second, I argue that if in an ‘ethical’ ethnographic narrative anthropologists ought not expect to extract and take home some concrete thing from people ‘different’ from them in far off exotic places, they therefore should not feel morally obliged to ‘give something back’ in return. The discussion is related specifically to one example: my experience of fieldwork in Guinea Bissau from which I generalize to suggest that it is important to situate our understandings of ‘helping’ informants in terms of local people’s understandings of the roles that (in this case brancus) rich foreigners play in local culture and society – whether they are anthropologists or development workers – and how local people attempt to gain ‘help’ from this category of foreigner. In connection with this, I reflect on the role I played as an anthropologist and ‘helper’ of local people. I situate my involvement with local lives in relation to how the actions of development workers affected the biographies of, and were incorporated in the discourses of, local people. This discussion also has implications for, but does not directly address, the question of what ‘anthropology’ may constitute in contemporary ‘developing’ countries that are swarming with salaried development workers, volunteers and anthropologists, each of whom has his/her own personal agenda and meeting points with local culture.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Best of Anthropology Today
EditorsJonathan Benthall
Place of PublicationLondon, UK
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781315013268
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes

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