Dams, Cows, and Vulnerable People: Anthropological Contributions to Sustainable Development (The Distinguishedl Lecture)

Publication Year : 1995

It is with considerable trepidation that I agreed to address so distinguished a gathering of development economists, theoreticians, and practitioners. I was enormously honoured when Professor Naqvi invited me to make this presentation, and at the same time impressed with my own temerity at having accepted. I am not an economist; at best, I contribute to the emerging discipline of economic anthropology, that subfield of anthropology that some have baptised as the “dismal science of the 20th century.” I locate my research within a subfield of that subfield, in a specifically development anthropology, making the claim that is still received in some quarters with only partial tolerance, that anthropologists–those curious people identified in the popular mind with the recovery and study of isolated people, bones, and potsherds–have also something useful to add to both the theory and praxis of development. As a self-conscious field of inquiry, development anthropology dates only from the last 20-25 years, though its roots can be found in the late 19th century, when scientists working for the United States Bureau of American Ethnology tried to understand the Ghost Dance, a great messianic movement that spread rapidly among subjugated Native Americans who were forced on to reservations by the government and in very large part deprived of the means of social and economic reproduction [Mooney (1965)]. Especially in Britain, a policy-relevant anthropology emerged in conjunction with its colonial service [Asad (1973)], and during the 1940s, some of the most prominent American anthropologists–including Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Gorer, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Alexander Leighton, and Conrad Arensberg–tried to apply an anthropology that had traditionally focused on tribal and peasant populations to the understanding of our Russian allies and our German and Japanese adversaries during the Second World War.