Anthropologists inside organisations: South Asian case studies
Article first published online: 3 AUG 2010
© 2010 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2010 Public Health Association of Australia
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
Volume 34, Issue 4, page 438, August 2010
How to Cite
(2010), Anthropologists inside organisations: South Asian case studies. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 34: 438. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-6405.2009.00585.x
- Issue published online: 3 AUG 2010
- Article first published online: 3 AUG 2010
Editor DeviSridhar . Sage Publications , London . 182 pages with index . ISBN 978-81-7829-886-3 . Price: £33.25
Reviewed by Priscilla Robinson
La Trobe University, Victoria
This intriguing little book is an anthology of the experiences of a group of students using ethnographic methods to understand how the organisations they are studying actually work, and how the transfer of ethnographic methods from one kind of group (a society, say) to an organisation (such as a religious NGO) actually works in practice. This book is a follow-up to a previous book about anthropological experiences inside organisations, and builds on the specific problems of studying these, in particular the issues in access in the first place. Key to the book, the ‘insider/outsider relationship’, generally described as ‘fluid'.
This book documents various aspects of fieldwork, thoughts, insights and experiences of seven students. The projects they are engaged in involved very different organisations and therefore, unsurprisingly, they experience very different problems. They are not necessarily members of the organisations they are studying, and the insights they provide are of course dependant on this membership. It is good to see that some personal reflections are included, so that whilst embedded membership provides some pre-existing context for both study and for interpretation, there is an explicit understanding that interpretation might not be as objective as it would be from an outsider's perspective; and as membership cannot be ignored, remembering and trying to take account if it better than pretending objectivity.
Five of the case studies are from public health and two from education fields; and most of the studies are set on the Indian subcontinent (the exception is based in a Muslim school in southern England. The organisations under study are varied and include NGOs (including faith based), brothels, schools and the World Bank. The research questions underpinning this series of case studies include enquiries about: how NGOs operate and what the role of a religious underpinning makes; safeguarding the sexual health of sex workers working in brothels and based on the streets; gender equity and female infanticide; infant nutrition; and low-fee private education. The common thread running through the studies is that familiarity with ethnographic techniques is no guarantee that there will be an easy transition from studying people to studying organisations, although knowing how to deal with the basic theory and techniques is a good grounding for approaching organisational work. There are also times when the students ask how best ‘be’ in a community (for example, it is not necessary to engage in sex work to study sex workers). It is therefore important to consider which aspects of behaviours are necessarily imitative to provide some certainly that the research is authentic.
In universities we have many students aiming to undertake project work, fieldwork and paid employment in other countries. This book goes some way to illustrating the kinds of problems which could be expected to be encountered, along with some strategies the particular students in this book have found effective in overcoming them. These won't necessarily be the specific solution for every other person's similar problem but it does provide a starting point, and in any case nothing substitutes for experience, which brings with it a set of solutions which become a personal modus operandi over time.
As a colleague of mine who has worked for many years in health promotion programs in the Indian sub-continent said recently, “I know how to do a program in India now …”. This unusual and useful book provides some important pointers to potential pitfalls and problems in international sensitive settings, and will be providing useful information for my students for some time to come.
Another important part of the book is an interwoven consideration of ethical issues. In this context, it would be well worth reading prior to putting in an HREC application for research to be conducted in an international or sensitive setting.
It is a good thing to have such a book available to us, and I think it is useful beyond the field of anthropological study.