Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introduction: Development and other stories

I recently drove the entire length of the Baja California peninsula in two days. The main highway, which was completed in the early 1970s, is like an incredibly complicated, sometimes tragic, and sometimes beautiful plot line that weaves its way through numerous stories of “development.” Starting in Tijuana, and ending up in a place like Cabo San Lucas, well, there’s a lot happening in between those two positions on the geographic map. A lot of money, a lot of conflict, and a lot of different ideas about what development is supposed to mean.  Memories, histories, hopes, desires.  All branching out along this one, long, asphalt medium of ideas and actions.  Development efforts--from the worst laid plans of Donald Trump to the ecotourism projects all around the peninsula--are deeply connected with this one road.  Development runs a wide gamut, and it means many things.

What are we supposed to do, after all, with a term that can refer to anything from conservation and supposed “sustainable development” all the way to the creation of an insane water sucking desert city like Las Vegas? I have read my fair share of anthropological theory about development, but I will still admit that I find the whole concept quite elusive, if not outright confusing. It means everything—and of course that translates to it meaning almost nothing at all. Some people want development because it promises things like jobs, new roads, better water management, better communication systems—a whole range of possibilities. But then, some people want development because they are in a good position to make a quick buck, peso, Euro or two. Nothing wrong with that on the surface—it all depends.

That’s why the study of development is such a massive and seemingly impossible endeavor. Although some people find it easy to line up on either the “pro-development” or the “anti-development” or even the “beyond development” front, I don’t see any clear territorial position to really hold on to. As anthropologists such as Keith Hart make pretty clear, there are people all around the world who are actively seeking many of the benefits that come along with that ubiquitous process known as development. In my own fieldwork, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, people have some pretty complex views about development. It's not just some simple for or against proposition. Some of the same people who are fighting hard for certain conservation movements will also readily tell you that they do indeed want jobs and opportunities. They want development, but a particular kind. Mostly, they want a say in how everything plays out.

Many people have asked me about my research, and one of the first questions is whether or not I am for or against development. I think this is an impossible question—if not a complete red herring. What I am interested in—whether we are talking about impending development in my home town, Mexico, or anywhere else in the world—is learning about the specific stories of the people who are dealing with these changes, and how their desires, rights, and hopes are being affected by the those massive social, political, economic, and cultural networks we like to subsume under the seemingly simple moniker, “development."  Anthropology, it turns out, is pretty well placed to just that.  We just have to get to it--and then communicate what we learn broadly, effectively, and creatively.  Because none of it matters if nobody every hears what we have to say.  Another obscure article in another BIG IMPORTANT JOURNAL locked behind a ridiculous paywall isn't going to get us anywhere.  You know where I'm going with this.  Communication and dialog matter.

This issue takes on the complex beast that is development through another selection of unique essays. We have contributions from Hsain Ilahiane & John Sherry, Chad Huddleston, Agustin Diz, Fred Radenbach & Sabina Rossignoli, Jason Roberts, and Eric Nost. We are also grateful to have a selection of photographs from photographer Elizabeth Moreno, who I want to thank for letting us share her work on anthropologies. Another great issue. Thanks everyone for taking part—and thanks to all the anthropologies editors for putting up with all my emails, questions, and updates. As ever, don’t be shy about commenting, sharing links, or even sending us an email if you’re interested in taking part in future issues. We are open to ideas and suggestions. Thanks!


PS: Next’s month’s edition is going to be a double issue that takes on the behemoth of the Occupy movements/protests AND the whole fiasco over open access and publishing that’s going down with SOPA, PIPA, and the RWA. Considering the American Anthropological Association’s latest statement about these matters, well, I’m hoping next month’s issue will spark some interest. If you want to take part, send me an email: anthropologiesproject [at] gmail DOT com. Over and out.

1 comment:

MKrebs said...

Gutsy topic for an intriguing journal. Thanks for designing this series and pushing this forward.