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Accepted Paper:

The will to … what?  
Brendan Whitty (University of St Andrews) Ben Eyre (University of East Anglia)

Paper short abstract:

How can anthropologists position themselves, if distancing themselves from the 'will to improve’ risks irrelevance? After reviewing a number of alternative research programmes, we turn attention to aid workers’ and ethnographers’ differing engagements with the will to improve.

Paper long abstract:

Tania Li’s (2007) rejection of the ‘will to improve’ is emblematic of much of contemporary anthropology of development: it affords a position from which to critically reflect as a detached observer, allowing the ethnographer to reveal what is hidden and debunk development discourses and the power relations on which they are founded. Yet if applied anthropology implicates the ethnographer in the exercise of power - which anthropologists are well situated to challenge - then a purely critical ethnography that stands outside these power relations risks irrelevance. How tenable is this approach for anthropologists faced with exploding inequality and impending environmental apocalypse? Surely few would advocate for an anthropology with no consequences!

Starting from this provocation, the presentation tackles the future of ‘aid ethnographies’ and the kinds of influence ethnography might have. Drawing on alternative research programmes – including critical performativity, collaborative anthropology, and pragmatic sociologies of critique – we turn attention to aid workers’ and ethnographers’ differing engagements with the will to improve and the practical and personal compromises entailed by these engagements. As two researchers who have long worked within development institutions of differing kinds we reflect on our own changing positionalities. We draw on the way that ethnographic subjects (and ethnographers) think, model, and plan the consequences of their career, opening up spaces for a willingness to improve.


Li, T.M. (2007) The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press

Panel P44b
Futurology: anthropological containment and delivery
  Session 1 Friday 10 June, 2022, -