Public Anthropology and the Paradoxes of Participation: Participatory Action Research and Critical Ethnography in Provincial Russia

By Hemment, Julie | Human Organization, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Public Anthropology and the Paradoxes of Participation: Participatory Action Research and Critical Ethnography in Provincial Russia


Hemment, Julie, Human Organization


This article contributes to discussions of a public anthropology by bringing participatory action research (PAR) into dialogue with anthropology. PAR appears uniquely compatible with the goals of critical ethnography. Deeply concerned with global/structural inequality, it is also attentive to the power relations inherent within the research encounter; its point of departure is the kind of collaboration that the new (critical) ethnography proposes. However, despite these obvious affinities, few anthropologists have engaged PAR. At a time when more and more anthropologists are advocating forms of collaborative research practice, I argue that these two approaches to research can offer each other a great deal and that juxtaposing them is productive. Tracing the stages of her own fieldwork in post-Soviet Russia, the author argues that PAR offers the ethnographer a stance, or a framework to affect public anthropological engagement in the field. Further, it offers a means by which we can bring critical anthropological insights to collaborative projects for social change.

Key words: participatory action research, post-Soviet Russia, power, critical ethnography

Introduction

Tver', Russia, 17 May 1998

Valentina, Oktiabrina, Lena, and Lydia, four members of the women's group Zhenskii Svet (Women's Light) sat in my rented apartment, armed with flip charts and marker pens. At my request, the women had formed pairs and sat on the small sofa beds at opposite ends of the tiny one-room apartment, debating eagerly. We had gathered together that day to undertake a process of group reflection. This was a participatory workshop, the first step in a collaborative research process that we had planned for some time. Our discussion was structured around three broad questions designed to assist the group in clarifying its goals and aims; where did we come from? (the group's history); where do we want to go? (the ideal); how to get there? (the action plan).

As the women spoke, interrupting each other in excitement, I struggled to jot down all that they said. The four made interesting pairs: Valentina, founder of the group and feminist historian, worked with Oktiabrina, a doctor committed to issues of women's health. Lena, an English language teacher, worked with Lydia, a sociologist and researcher who had recently been laid off.

I had called the meeting with Valentina's blessing now because the group was at a crossroad. Until this point, their strong concern with independence had led them to avoid entering into collaborations either with local state officials, or international donor agencies. Early excitement about the potential of partnership with foundations such as Ford and the Open Society Institute had given way to concern at the changes the women saw taking place: the creation of new hierarchies and shifting priorities as mandates were set in Washington or Geneva. But times were hard in the Russian provinces; these teachers, engineers, and doctors who were secure during the Soviet period now struggled to make ends meet as wages were withheld and prices skyrocketed. Some of the Zhenskii Svet women wanted to formalize their activities and locate sources of financial support; they were beginning to make tentative moves toward formal collaboration with external agents and they had competing ideas of how to go about this. At a time of tumultuous social and political change, the group was unraveling and the women had begun to rethink their activism.

I conceptualized the seminar as a place where members of the group could clarify their personal goals and investment in it. Indeed, I wanted to clarify my own role and commitment; 10 months into my ethnographic research, I felt I had something concrete to offer: insight into international donor priorities and acquaintance with both donor agency representatives and other Russian provincial groups.

By the end of that day, we had a shared and enriched perspective of the history of the group and had reached a broad consensus: the women agreed it was time to formalize the activities of Zhenskii Svet in some way and to set up a women's center. …

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