Amazing, Inspiring, Challenging to Think About

I wonder how many of us have seen the YouTube video  The Rural Women Solar Engineers of Africa. I find it inspiring in all sorts of ways, as a demonstration of how ordinary people can make a huge difference in their local communities and of how smart thinking can explode conventional ideas about how to run projects aimed at alleviating poverty. As an anthropologist interested in theory and method and possible applications of ethnographic research, I also like the way it challenges a lot of conventional assumptions that we are likely to make.


Consider the following scenarios.


1. Engineers employed by a development agency arrive in a rural village and install a solar power system supplied by a donor country or NGO. Everyone is delighted, but then the engineers leave. Nobody in the village knows how to maintain the system or obtain the necessary parts or has the foresight to save enough to buy them if they knew. Predictable outcome: The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


2. The development agency not only installs the system, it provides training for young villagers, turning them into certified solar power system maintenance engineers. Predictable outcome: The young engineers migrate to cities in search of jobs that offer a brighter future than staying in the village. The system wears out, breaks down, and, unless the development agency has engineers and spare parts on permanent call to make repairs, the village is left in the dark again.


3. Someone has a crazy idea: Train grandmothers to install and maintain the system and make the villagers pay for the system—not much, about what they would spend on kerosene or firewood if they didn't have the system.

  • Grandmothers?Yes, illiterate (sometimes  semiliterate) older women with children and grandchildren in the village. They won't be leaving for the city. 
  • Certificates? No.They won't need them to find a new job.
  • Ensure that people own the system? Yes. It's not a gift. It's something they pay for, in which they have a serious stake.
  • Formal education in electrical engineering? No. Design a totally non-verbal approach to learning system installation and maintenance that requires nothing more than learning what to do with color-coded parts. The training takes six months instead of the years required to achieve literacy and technical certification.

This last point is particularly challenging to me, an intellectual, who has invested a lot of his life in obtaining an advanced degree. This program demonstrates that people don't have to know a lot to do a lot of good. Having a stake in the doing and in the people you're helping and being there to keep things going, not disappearing to take on another project or find a new job, are much more important. 

And what about the technology? The grandmothers' could never invent or produce it. Now, however, their children or grandchildren might learn enough to invent something even better; I think, for example, of another amazing, inspiring story, the one about the Malawian teenager who transformed his village by building elect....  

For this project, however, it suffices that while Arthur C. Clarke was right, "Any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic to those who don't understand it," the technology can work, as magic sometimes does, without people understanding why. 


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Comment by John McCreery on April 22, 2011 at 1:08pm

Huon, you are simply wrong—it has nothing to do with our relative ages. How could you read, "When I think of scholars who were born as I was leaving academia, many of course much later, I don't have a clue really what their lives have been like," and think that I am unaware that my younger colleagues often know a lot that I don't? I learned that raising the daughter I mentioned, whose life growing up female in Japan, the only child of two ex-academic, left-liberal parents, going to an international school, then the U.S. Naval Academy, flying helicopters and pulling people out of the water, marrying a jet fighter pilot, having our two grandchildren, shortly to graduate from the Kennedy School at Harvard, having done a master's project on what people in charge of security at nuclear power plants can learn from those who handle security at casinos and pharmaceutical companies has been so radically different from my own, growing up one of two sons of a shipyard machinist and a nurse in a fiercely conservative, pietistic Lutheran family, rebelling and going off to study philosophy, then anthropology at schools chosen for the looseness (basically hypermarket approach) to curriculum they offered, wrote a dissertation of the symbolism of Daoist magic and stumbled into a career in advertising. My life has been one long lesson that I continually encounter people who have, regardless of our relative ages, done things, read things, and know a lot that I don't. I immensely enjoy learning from them, which is one of the reasons I enjoy OAC so much. 

Re your questions: On reflection, the crack about George E. Moore and Derrida is crap. What I learned reading Moore wasn't deconstruction but destruction. A silly game actually. Someone utters a sentence. Pick a word or phrase, say that you don't understand and ask them to explain. To answer, they must utter new sentences. Repeat until they give up in disgust. Declare yourself the winner.


"Naive"? It wasn't a comment on, as you put it, taking what is presented at face value. It was a comment on the absurdity of expecting self-criticism in what is, on the face of it, a government-sponsored PR video. Was I miffed when I wrote "naive"? Damned straight I was. To bring up that red herring at that point in the discussion struck me as one of the cheapest of academic cheap shots—right on a par with that silly game I learned by reading George E. Moore. 


That said, why "amazed" and "inspired"? Here we have people on the one side, not only with the imagination to conceive a totally new scheme for bringing electric power to African villages but the guts and determination to make it happen. On the other we have the grandmothers, who travel to places where they know not a word of the languages spoken, who study and work together, and go home to make a serious difference to the villages from which they're recruited. I stand in awe of the courage, the persistence, the effort to actually do good, instead of just talk about it, that these people represent. 



Comment by Keith Hart on April 22, 2011 at 12:08pm
Huon, I don't know where the animus behind your repeated claim comes from. But I have not suggested that old people know better than their juniors nor that there is a line or plan that the latter should follow. On the contrary I have expressed a postion that you know well: it is futile for the old to expect the young to follow them, far better to follow the young, by making alliances with them and acknowledging their greater capacity for innovation. I did observe that this thread attracts less attention from our younger members than discussion of French philosophers and wondered why. It may be that you feel beleagured on this thread by confronting the two of us alone, but I am engaged with it on at least two other fronts, in Facebook and in private correspondence with a group of young postdocs in South Africa. I have imported some of that discussion here, but never I think in the spirit of knowing better that you impute. I feel that I have been a victim here of a class action suit of some longevity. But then perhaps the issue is a war of generations after all.
Comment by Huon Wardle on April 22, 2011 at 11:30am
I would be interested to hear more about how Moore got 'there' before Derrida (wherever 'there' is - you could also say 'Bradley got 'there' before Moore and so on), but we seem to have meandered a long way off the original topic and I wonder if that isn't indicative. A question might be 'why should we expect people to be 'inspired' and 'amazed' when at the same time they are told that it is 'naive' to take what they are presented with at face value? I am interested that the main value claim circulating in this discussion is that people who are older perhaps know more or better - but why would anyone believe that in a multipolar world?
Comment by John McCreery on April 22, 2011 at 1:59am
Huon, what you say about your students is encouraging. It also awakens in me the realization that when I think or write about "young people" or "the younger generation," my prototype is my daughter, who will be thirty-five this year. I recall a moment of enlightenment a few weeks ago, when I found myself at a bar talking with a U.S. Navy ensign. I noticed his Naval Academy ring and asked what year he graduated. When he said 2010, I was stunned. I was still thinking of daughter Kate as a recent graduate, but she is class of 1998. Were she still in the Navy, she would be a Lt. Commander with more than a decade of experience in the fleet and in line for serious command responsibility.

But, returning to our discussion, when you write that there can be a phase in a scholar's development when he or she is in thrall to some exemplary theorist, I think I can honestly say that this never happened to me. Yes, I do continually mention a handful of names Fromm the past, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Claude Levi-Strauss;but I wouldn't describe any of them has having an all-encompassing power.In the intellectual ferment of the late sixties and early seventies in which my academic habitus was formed, there were multiple new agendas on the table. My job, as I saw it, was never to pick one and imitate the founder. It was to assemble a set of possibly useful ideas that would, through fieldwork and writing up, be filtered and combined to form my own approach that would, if I were any good, add something important to what I had been taught.

In retrospect I can imagine a lot of reasons for that attitude. An Oedipal rejection of any totalizing authority, starting with my dad but extended to my teachers? Yes, quite a bit of that. An American veneration for declarations of independence and setting out for new worlds? Yes, quite a bit of that, too. Undergraduate training in analytical philosophy that equipped me to deconstruct in a usually highly destructive manner any idea put before me (sorry Derrida, George E. Moore got there first)? Yes, that, too was part of the mix. Add that the whole business was baked in the oven of flower power, the Civil Rights and the Anti-Vietnam War movements,the chances of my being in thrall to some one particular guru were small in the extreme.

When I think of scholars who were born as I was leaving academia, many of course much later, I don't have a clue really what their lives have been like. I wonder how different they've been.
Comment by Huon Wardle on April 21, 2011 at 6:13pm

Yes, I can appreciate that too. I had in mind the fact that in the development of a person's thinking there can be a phase when some theorist is absolutely exemplary and has an all-encompassing power; I can think of a few names that are thrown around at the OAC. Then, once the ideas have been absorbed through further thinking and experience the theorist dwindles away. I was talking to someone about the novel The Magic Mountain and they said that, yes, that had made a great impression, but (quite dismissively) 'I am too old for that now' which struck me as very grand but at the same time very revealing.


Keith, I would say that the current situation in the Universities is fascinating - speaking for myself. First, we are teaching engaged students who are turning to anthropology to find out how to decipher the current mess. The atmosphere that everything is about getting the degree as a route to some kind of neatly remunerative position in the salariat has gone and people are interested as much in what the alternatives may be. Young people are much more reckless than old people because they aren't worried about falling over.

Comment by John McCreery on April 21, 2011 at 3:32pm

when they do find out then the theory or the theorist will have become redundant.


Not in my experience. Those moments when some bit of theory provides the key to understanding something I would have missed altogether without it are the most memorable of all. The bit of theory in question gets added to the mental toolkit, where it waits until the next time it's needed. 

An old but now fresh example for me is Heinrich Wölfflin's distinction between linear and painterly styles of painting. It impressed me when I first read about it because suddenly I could see differences I had totally missed before. Now that my copy of Georg Simmel's Rembrandt has arrived, and I've had a chance to start reading it, I see Simmer talking about the difference between Rennaissance art in which the portrait portrays the individual as exemplifying an ideal type, an eternal essence, and Rembrandt's portraits, which, Simmel says, if I've go this right, capture the whole of the individual in a particular moment of becoming. I find myself wondering if these two sets of ideas, linear versus painterly and the ideal type vs the whole in a moment of becoming are related. As I ponder this possibility, my mind drifts back to Alfred Schutz's The Phenomenology of the Social World, which, in light of what Simmel says, now looks like a manifesto for ideal typing, the photograph freezing a moment that is taken to be eternal, vs. a series of moments that reveal an evolution that escapes a conceptual frame, a film that leaves us wondering what happens next.

This could all, of course, be babble of no great consequence. But at least it demonstrates that theory which is truly illuminating doesn't disappear in the moment of illumination.

Comment by Huon Wardle on April 21, 2011 at 3:09pm

It is true that my saying that the old folks' plans were already out of date was excessively polemical but fundamentally it is also true that you can't hope simply to change other people's minds - only exemplify some other way of thinking.

Comment by Huon Wardle on April 21, 2011 at 3:01pm
That student talked about how his studies in anthropology had run concurrently with helping a small boy with an autistic condition; how the models for seeing things differently and critiquing what exists had helped him in his relationship with this child and vice versa. As to what the theories are for pragmatically - I expect you will recognise this from your own experience - for the most part they don't know yet: that is what they have to find out: and when they do find out then the theory or the theorist will have become redundant.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 21, 2011 at 2:46pm
It is not a question of signing up for a plan past its sell-buy date, but of imagining how anthropology might be put to making a better world. I agree that the old are in a poor position to attempt such a project in any forward-loking sense, which is why I hang out with younger people who can go to places unimaginable by me alone. But surely, Huon, undergraduates are a different matter from their seniors? The process of acquiring a PhD and working in universities under current labour market conditions would knock the stuffing out of most people. I was not making a blanket accusation of student apathy, but trying to identify something about the societies in which we live now which affect me too in what and how I write, It feels like an uphill struggle and, as CLR James once said of the anti-colonial movement, it seems that the fair wind that once blew behind our back has turned into a headwind. I know that this could once again be interpreted as geriatric nostalgia, so I have tried to distance myself from that angle.
Comment by John McCreery on April 21, 2011 at 2:35pm
Huon, this is most encouraging. Please say more. What did that electrifying undergraduate talk about? And how do those who want to move forward see theory as instrumental for achieving what they want to do?


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