Anthropology, Participatory Research and Development Cooperation: A Necessary Dialogue
Directorate of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico
Submission: June 04, 2019; Published:July 01, 2019
*Corresponding author: Strauss DFM, School of Philosophy, Northwest University, South Africa
How to cite this article:Giovanna Gasparello. Anthropology, Participatory Research and Development Cooperation: A Necessary Dialogue. Glob J Arch
& Anthropol. 2019; 10(1): 555778. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2019.09.555775
Le domande sul “perché e per chi” if it generates conoscenza  sono da tempo a chiave per anthropological discipline. At the present time, it is always the case that it is important for the dissemination of the risultati, poiché il sapere prodotto in such a way that it can be used positively in the realta study. This line of thought is directed towards the end of the rifle and the gli obiettivi of the progetti of cooperation to the sviluppo, in particolare i micro-progetti.
The text presents some concrete cases in which, as an anthropologist, I directed cooperation projects and community formation processes in indigenous areas of Mexico. These experiences reveal the need for integrating anthropological research and cooperation activities, in which the researcher’s work has facilitated the identification of key issues for the intervention and the relationship with the community that hosted it. Secondly, the necessary complementarity of knowledge for the integral interpretation of reality and the consequent design of cooperation projects became evident. Thirdly, the enhancement of local organizational structures guarantees the strength and durability of the results obtained through cooperation activities.
Keywords: Participatory research; Development cooperation; Anthropology; Mexico
“We do not ask for your help, rather we want you to come and share our cause and our struggle.” This is what Juan told me, representing a Zapatista indigenous village in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, during my first research trip for the realization of my thesis in Ethnology. An irrefutable ethical statement that should accompany every research or cooperation project, both too often marked by welfarist or ethnocentric legacies
At the age of twenty, I found a way to reach the south-east of Mexico by participating in a project of “cooperation from below” directed by a small Italian NGO: for a month, I found myself with other volunteers doing masonry work for the construction of a turbine that equipped the village with electricity. In the twenty years that followed, anthropological research turned into my life project, always intertwined with projects of cooperation and community formation in indigenous areas of Mexico. Juan’s words have turned into the ethical compass that, both in research and in cooperation, has always sought the joint construction of projects and results with the stakeholders. The experiences realized also reveal the need for the integration of anthropological research and cooperation activities, in which the researcher’s work facilitated the identification of key issues
for the intervention and the relationship with the community that hosted it.
First of all, I stress the obvious parallelism between anthropology, as a social science, and development cooperation, which have in common a colonial or neo-colonial root. The anthropological discipline developed, historically, with the declared objective of producing knowledge on the Others, indigenous and native populations, object of the colonial domination. Also, in Mexico, the exceptional development of the discipline since the thirties is part of the same process, expression of the nationalist policies of state strengthening, assimilation and control of cultural diversity, defined by González Casanova as internal colonialism.
Secondly, “development cooperation” also bears the colonial mark defined by the controversial term “development”. The criticisms of the concept are manifold; among the many authors, I would like to mention here only [3-5] which from distinctperspectives have shown how development implies the action of
transforming subjects and directing them to change towards an
objective defined elsewhere: “progress”, often to the detriment
of the way of life, the relationship with the environment and the
cosmovision of the “subjects / objects” of development itself. The
limits and potential of cooperation have long been highlighted
by the current anthropology of development or anthropology of
Starting from the identification of the common colonial
and neo-colonial brand, the reflections on the relevance and
purpose of the research or of the cooperative intervention are
also common; on the recipients and producers of the knowledge
produced or shared, on the ways in which these are produced.
Finally, the question concerning the “why and for whom” social
sciences create knowledge, formulated by Robert Lynd since
1939, continues to be central to the anthropological discipline.
The construction of knowledge, infrastructure or training are
processes that have in common the objective of transforming
existing reality, and as such require the active participation of
both the local population as well as researchers and cooperators.
If anthropology is understood as a political practice, and
therefore with a relevant theoretical substrate, a complex
ethnography and a political commitment, it can therefore have
a real impact in cooperation policies and projects: it would be
the passage from an anthropology of development to a postdevelopment
With the intention of subverting the neocolonial heritage,
research approaches have been developed since the 1960s
that favor the participation of those who previously were
considered only “objects of study” and, subsequently, objects
of the intervention of public policies and processes of building
ethnically hierarchical societies. It is in this age that, in different
countries, the enhancement of “local” or “popular” knowledge
is growing and the proposal of participatory action research
(IAP) promoted by Fals-Borda in the Seventies is born. The
centrality of research as a tool for the transformation of society
also characterizes the approaches marked by the reflection
on the intrinsic colonial brand or coloniality of power and
knowledge , or those focused on methodological reflection,
such as activist or militant anthropology . With increasing
frequency, research projects are developed in which the “subjects
of study” actively participate, from the definition of the themes
or co-licensing  to the dissemination of the results, since the
knowledge produced in this way can be used for affect positively
in the studied reality.
Participatory action research is at the same time a research
methodology and a social transformation project, since it
involves the active participation of the population, which goes
from being an object to the subject of research aimed at social
change . The question of Lynd on why, for whom and how
to do research is equally fitting if transposed to the theme of
international cooperation. The emphasis on participation in
all phases of social transformation is key in the decolonization
process, both in anthropology and in cooperation. Both pass both
for a democratization of projects and activities (research and
development cooperation), which in order to acquire cognitive
and social effectiveness and relevance must be forcibly shared
and consensual with the subjects. The active participation of the
collective subjects involved in the project is fundamental, from
the identification of the problem, to its analysis (object of the
participatory research) up to the elaboration of the intervention
project, its planning and the realization of the activities (objective
of the projects of cooperation). In this sense, there is a necessary
relationship of continuity between anthropological research and
participatory and bottom-up cooperation projects  a field of
action studied and theorized by the current anthropology for
development  or development anthropology .
The experience of one of the various cooperation projects
in indigenous regions of Mexico in which I participated allows
me to exemplify some further reflections. This is the Community
Communication Project promoted by the Coordinadora Regional
de Autoridades Comunitarias, in the Costa Chica and Montaña
regions of the state of Guerrero. Between 2005 and 2014 I
carried out research activities in the area, and in particular
on the activities of the organization mentioned, which brings
together different indigenous peoples. The relationship of trust
built with the organization and with the inhabitants of the
villages, thanks to a method of participatory research, meant
that I was shared a need that had been identified for some time:
the impulse to one’s own, direct means of communication to
facilitate the exchange of information both within the region and
externally .The collective discussion led to the definition
of two main instruments: a network of community radios that
spoke the indigenous languages of the region and gave space to
local problems, and a web page that spread the activities of the
Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias.
The first requested contribution was in the participated
elaboration of the project, and subsequently in the funding
research. Cooperation agencies outside the region did not
intervene in this case, but in a collaborative way (through
assemblies in which the region’s indigenous authorities
participated, and then village by village) a shared project was
drawn up, and then they looked for the sources of financing.
In this case, considering the micro character of the project, we
turned to funding sources that did not require a high level of
formality in the project (The German Umverteilen foundation;
the cooperation sector of the Italian Region Trentino-Alto Adige
through the mediation of an Italian NGO). In this context, the
voluntary cooperation of the villages concerned with materials
for the construction of radio studios, labor or money was
fundamental. My role was, after the identification of the need and
the participation in the elaboration of the project, substantially that of mediator between the indigenous organization and the
requests for funding, and the coordination of the activities that
required the presence of subjects external to the region (training
of young speakers and editors, installation of radios).
The role of the anthropologist can therefore provide different
contributions to the world of cooperation. First of all, from the
anthropological research work needs can emerge which are then
channeled to the development of cooperation projects, favoring
a real relevance of the projects. Secondly, anthropological
knowledge, which consists of a profound knowledge of the
cultures on which one acts, can provide a multiplicity of visions
that guide cooperation and help it to define its interventions in
a culturally appropriate way. According to Antonino Colajanni,
an anthropologist who has worked on these issues for decades,
the first thing to check for a future project is its “socio-cultural
sustainability” that can be ascertained with a survey on local
capacities to generate resources, with skills, knowledge,
interests and vision of the future. The best idea is to ensure that
the next intervention does not create dependence but stimulates
local capacities . An anthropologist does this by profession:
he observes, questions, tries to understand, listens, feels, sees,
understands the links between people and has a technical
knowledge that allows him to collect this “forgotten dimension
of development”, the cultural one
Collaborative anthropology, and truly such cooperation,
have in common the enhancement of local skills and knowledge.
In training activities on the subjects of popular communication,
community journalism and radio communication aimed at the
young operators and operators of indigenous radios installed in
Guerrero, we have indeed invited external experts, but we have
also and above all involved those subjects present in the territory
(masters, lawyers, but also seniors, students and peasants)
whose skills have been valued within the training activities. In
this way the territorial rooting of the project is strengthened,
and the knowledge that is conveyed is culturally appropriate;
there is no need for a “translation” of the cooperation objectives
because the project is acted by the subjects themselves.”Solo
entre todos sabemos todo”, explained a wixárica indigenous
essay. The phrase highlights the necessary complementarity of
local, cultured, popular, traditional and innovative knowledge
for the integral interpretation of reality and the consequent
design of cooperation projects. We are in the sphere defined by
Sousa Santos as “ecology of knowledge”, where “the credibility of
a cognitive construction is measured by the type of intervention
in the way it allows or prevents” .
Following the discussion of the Community Communication
Project in the assemblies inside each village, these collectively
chose the people who would participate in the training activities
(mostly young people) and consequently they would then be in
charge of the community radio operation. In this way the project
was legitimized and appropriated within the local society and
culture. The leaders of each of the three radios were then elected
in the Regional Assembly (attended by all the representatives of
the villages in the region). In this way that of “radio manager”
becomes a public office, recognized and included in the
traditional indigenous organizational structure; this guaranteed
the durability of the results, since the vigilance on the good
technical and organizational functioning of the radios was
immediately assumed by the local communities.
The experience I told is of micro-cooperation, and obviously
the cooperation on a larger scale, which implies a higher
technological specialization and greater economic investment,
faces more complex problems. In any case, I believe that
the emphasis on sharing, participation and the substantial
democratization of cooperation, as well as the production of
knowledge that should accompany it, must be key elements
to be privileged in activities at every scale, micro and macro.
The anthropological sensitivity, attentive to cultural nuances
and to complex social transformations, is also characterized
by the continuous movement on the micro and macro scales of
knowledge, and in this, I believe, its fundamental contribution to
the world of cooperation should be enhanced and strengthened.
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