Finding the Field: Notes on the Ethnography of NGOs

By Markowitz, Lisa | Human Organization, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Finding the Field: Notes on the Ethnography of NGOs


Markowitz, Lisa, Human Organization


Studying globalization challenges disciplinary traditions that implicitly privilege a geographically demarcated field and classic models of ethnographic fieldwork. Understanding transnational processes calls for innovative, multilocal research strategies that both capture people's perceptions of change and analyze the interconnecting systems. Although the study of large, "southern" NGOs that link international donors and community-based groups offers one such strategy, it also generates a series of methodological complications associated with discerning the contours of the ethnographic field itself and the researcher's position in the volatile NGO sector. These issues are addressed in relation to the author's current fieldwork in Andean southern Peru.

Key words: NGOs, development, ethnography, transnational research, Peru

The proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the global South since the 1980s, both in number and scope of involvement, has been well documented (e.g. Drabek 1987; Fisher 1993; Salamon 1994; Simmons 1998). Reputed to be flexible innovators, able to promote local participation and reach the poor, NGOs have received favorable attention and support from mainstream donors, which have, in turn, fostered an expanded range of engagement and receipt of international development aid (Edwards and Hulme 1996a; Riddell and Robinson 1995; Valderrama 1995). Greater visibility has drawn greater scrutiny of these new roles in such matters as accountability (Edwards and Hulme 1996b; Smillie 1995), effectiveness (Meyer 1995; Riddell and Robinson 1995), and the discursive practices of development (Fisher 1997; Grillo and Stirrat 1997). Researchers have also charted the emergence of NGOs as important players in relation to popular social movements (e.g., Alvarez 1998; Arellano-Lopez and Petras 1994; Gill 1997; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Lehmann 1990), civil society (Ballon 1996; Tvedt 1998), and local and national governments (Bebbington and Farrington 1993; Clarke 1998; Fisher 1998; Hulme and Edwards 1996; Reilly 1995).

What is curious is that relatively few of the contributors to this conversation are anthropologists (Fisher 1996). Much of the writing on NGOs has come from development practitioners, often themselves NGO activists or social scientists closely tied to donor agencies (Clarke 1998). This absence is surprising, given how many anthropologists work with or for NGOs,1 and that many of us even without some sort of formal affiliation, have shared beers with, bummed rides from, and borrowed documents from NGO personnel. Beyond the fact that fieldwork in southern countries is conducive to making friends with NGO staffers, attention to NGOs represents a natural continuation of several strands of anthropological inquiry and practice that pertain to both development anthropology and the anthropology of development.2 These include interests in the wide variety of associational life, the local-- level impacts of development and macrolevel economic forces and policies, and varying (class, national, gender-based) perceptions and understanding of social change. It does indeed seem that studying NGOs ought to be our bailiwick, particularly since anthropological holism provides us with a "comparative advantage"3 when it comes to analyzing how organizations connect with other aspects of the society-the state, municipalities, families, production and exchange systems, and cultural institutions.

Ethnographic methods are well suited for assessing these interrelations and the real or potential coincidence of interests that motivate individual involvement. In this respect, the study of NGOs also offers a way to respond to critiques of hegemonic development discourses (Escobar 1995; Sachs 1992) by presenting the points of view of actors with different relations to the goals and activities nested within programs and projects. NGO research speaks directly to longstanding anthropological concern with dominance and dependency in the global political economy, as well as to contemporary work on transnational processes. …

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