Accepted Paper:

An ethical engagement? Practising between 'truth' and utility  


Sarah Buckler (Robert Gordon University)

Paper short abstract:

Based on fieldwork in West Africa - a research project funded by an INGO and an international bank - I examine the production and uses of a theoretical approach geared towards maintaining and building productive relationships and the ways this drives a search for personal, ethical coherence.

Paper long abstract:

West Africa, July 2013, I am in an office in Accra, in conversation with a colleague discussing the various relationships involved in our project - a complex web we are expected to negotiate to come up with some meaningful findings and recommendations regarding development to ensure best outcomes for farmers.

My main concern is on building and maintaining productive, effective relationships; relationships that will enable us to achieve something. Without those relationships the work won't get done, nothing will change, no greater understandings will be reached - although some greater misunderstandings may be.

It is perhaps not surprising given the recurrent position in my life as an applied anthropologist that I focus on building relationships as these are the pivot on which all of my work turns. I choose theoretical approaches which help me understand the ways these relationships are formed - they fit the way I want to understand my work rather than provide some bedrock of theoretical and methodological surety; hermeneutics, phenomenology, Jungian analysis - they feel right.

But I am haunted by uncertainty… it's an old argument, an old debate - "is anthropology art or science?" No big deal any more, surely. Yet I continue to ask myself what about the ethics of applied practice if we give up on a notion of truth and rest in an exercise of persuasion? How can we judge whether what we do, what we recommend is ethical? Am I Machiavellian and manipulative? How do I judge when judgement becomes a subjective exercise in personal-social aesthetics?

Panel P075
Working in the between: theoretical scholarship and applied practice