Plenary Information

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


St. Cajetan’s, Auraria Campus, Metropolitan State University


Vincanne Adams

University of California, San Francisco


Julie Hemment

University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Heather Hindman

University of Texas at Austin


Saida Hodžić

Cornell University


This plenary explores the dual dimensions of this year’s theme, NGO-graphies.

On the one hand the term is a morph on ethnography, “writing culture.” Critical ethnographies of NGOs require deep engagement with particular contexts, asking how NGOs as collective forms of action in specific places—as well as how individual NGOs themselves—come into being, fabricate missions, undertake daily tasks, negotiate public and private sectors, and birth new configurations of political economy. How do we engage in writing NGOs? Building on the self-critique credited to the 1986 Clifford and Marcus volume, we aim to explore the political, moral, and epistemological challenges to an ethnography of NGOs. One key element to this theorizing is what Markowitz (2001) called “finding the field.” What is the field of NGOs, or to put it another way, what constitutes the “center” of a given NGO, and what are its peripheries? Since spaces deemed “local” are central for claims to legitimacy for both the anthropologist/ethnographer and the NGO, what processes serve to delineate the local? What are the “boundaries” between NGOs and other “assemblages” such as social movements?

These concerns with the nature of the field, and its centers and peripheries, connect with the other meaning of the term NGO-graphies, which gestures towards geography. Nuanced geographies of NGOs require attention to landscapes of NGO involvement, how NGOs collaborate and compete with one another, how industries are formed at the intersections of profit and humanitarian aid, and why NGOs are such a lively scholarly and popular topic that compels affective, financial, social, and other kinds of investments. What—if anything—is universal to “the NGO form” (Bernal and Grewal 2014), and what is place-specific? What is similar and what different in disparate NGO contexts? How does the geographic context of an NGO shape its meaning and the kind of work it can undertake?

NGO-graphies calls on us to undertake studies of NGOs with these two lenses in mind. But we also ask for critical reflections on our processes for wedding the two approaches together—spanning micro, meso, and macro; local, regional, and global; ethnographic depth and ethnological breadth; and the ethnographic and the geographic. We must attend to multiple scales; to historical context and contemporary empiricism; as well as to a simultaneous imperative to theorize and practice.

NGO-graphies compels methodological flexibility in how we design our research agendas; undertake collaboration and engage our interlocutors ethically; use writing, images, and other dissemination tools; and ultimately seek to be relevant within this rapidly growing, interdisciplinary and extradisciplinary field. Anthropologists, perhaps more than others, struggle with how to be concurrently critical and supportive of organizations that are seeking to “do good” in the world, recognizing the value of the overall project of NGO-ization while remaining attentive to hegemonic constructions of aid, need, emotion, health, community, and participation. How can we research and write NGO-graphies that can be useful to both our academic and practitioner interlocutors?

This plenary offers a space to explore these questions. It is designed as a discussion, with this prompt distributed to panelists in advance; yet panelists will not be preparing written responses. The plenary moderator will call upon panelists to provide 3-5 minute commentaries that engage the prompt, to which other panelists will be asked to give brief, 1-2 minute responses. Questions and comments from the audience will be first invited in a dynamic “idea board” for the day of the conference on Tuesday. During the session they will also be tweeted, texted or submitted on notecards to a second moderator, and brought to the forum. This format allows for a rich and collaborative discussion that also advances to further questions, engage the audience as participants, and provide opportunities for debate.

Questions from the general CFP that we would like to highlight in this plenary include the following:

  • How do you interpret the concept of NGO-graphies and what are the imperatives being called for through this concept?
  • How do we think beyond a “case-based” approach to conceive of broader geographies of NGO intervention?
  • Where do resources and knowledge originate geographically and how do they travel?
  • Where are the “centers” of international NGOs and how do they interact with the “peripheries”?
  • What are the “boundaries” between NGOs and other “assemblages” such as social movements?
  • In what ways does examining how NGO work unfolds geographically contribute to shifting our perspective from viewing NGOs as entities (“nouns”) to viewing NGOs as processes (“verbs”)?
  • How are the forms of knowledge valued by NGOs (technical knowledge, local knowledge, cultural knowledge, linguistic knowledge) linked to or detached from geographic contexts?
  • How do indicators produced by distinct aid organizations in disparate locations create and reinforce overlapping notions of sociopolitical need, human rights, and value?
  • What perspectives can practitioners and activists bring to academic theorizing regarding how NGO networks operate?


Works Cited

Bernal, Victoria, and Inderpal Grewal. 2014. Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Clifford, James, and George Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of Calfornia Press.

Markowitz, Lisa. 2001. “Finding the Field: Notes on the Ethnography of NGOs.” Human Organization 60 (1):40-46.