Academic language versus political advocacy


Academic language versus political  advocacy

I wanted to start a group that discusses the difference between academic writing and political advocacy. I would like to have people share ethnographically informed examples of how these discourses articulate with one another.

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Comment by Michael Francis on November 15, 2010 at 9:37pm
I had made some comments about the organisation Survival International in another forum on semantics and it was pointed out to me that I was unfair to Survival International in a private email. I had accused SI of using racialised imagery for their campaigns and that these are the same images that were used to justify colonialism and dispossession (even Genocide for some of the Bushmen groups in Southern Africa).

And I do think that much political advocacy around Indigenous peoples uses images that do often reflect the idea of a 'noble savage'. This can be seen in images of people in head-dress and feathers from campaigns all over the world. However true it may be that the images were used to justify colonialism by showing the world the 'exotic other' sometimes the images are fairly decent representations of people in some form of traditional or ceremonial garb.

So how does one unpack such use of images and ideas? Do we decry racism when we see pictures of Bushmen in skins with a bow and arrow? Or can we acknowledge that while no people live in that manner the image is a fair representation of a recent past? To show an image of a Bushmen today must we only show them in Western garb because that is what they most often wear?

I am a little torn on the image issue because as an academic I know that most often the image is not a fair representation of how people live yet the image can be powerful when advocating on their behalf. I do have concerns over representations and ideas that imply or even state that the Bushmen live in a different world or live isolated from the world around them. But if that image allows some political autonomy and enables people to gather financial support for local causes is that a bad thing? How does one balance out academic discourse from political without deriding the political for inaccuracy and potentially undermining a campaign that you may agree with in principle?

And the other issue I have trouble with in this area comes from a fieldsite in the Southern Kalahari. I work with people who settled permanently in the 1980s and still hunt and gather for part of their subsistence. Part of me is sad that the old way of life has passed and my favourite times in the field are often out on the hunting grounds or discussing that way of life. So one feels torn and wishes there was means to have these people continue that way of life, but also feel it is wrong to lament changes that they often seek themselves. The community is happy to see a school being built and hope for a more secure economic future within a cash economy. So I worry that my own nostalgia and romantic imagery also suggest that noble savage image so powerful in Western countries. It is also that romantic ideal that impels anthropologists into the field on the first place.

I do have concerns when political language enters academic language and truth claims are made that are not supported by empirical fieldwork. I do like when scholarship informs politics but how does one strike a balance in advocacy when some images are so moving and powerful?

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