2013 Conference: The Future of NGO Studies

Last fall, over 150 anthropologists from seventeen different countries descended upon Chicago to convene The Future of NGO Studies, the first conference on NGO scholarship in anthropology. The conference took place November 19-20, 2013 and was hosted by the Erwin W Steans Center for Community Based Service Learning at DePaul University and the Center for NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University. The Interest Group (IG) on NGOs and Nonprofits is now the largest AAA IG. Several active members organized the conference in response to growing desires for more intensive discussion and collaboration.

Together we sought to address epistemological, methodological, and ethical issues surrounding our increased engagement with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the growing importance of NGOs for the societies in which we participate. Over two days, we held fourteen panels, a plenary session, mentoring meetings, and working groups to discuss and debate the following core questions:

  • What analytical questions are raised about the category ‘NGO’ when its diverse manifestations and meanings are examined?
  • What can the discipline of anthropology bring to the study of NGOs? What can NGO studies bring to the discipline of anthropology?
  • How should anthropologists negotiate issues of participation and distance in working with NGOs?
  • How does—or should—academic research connect with various NGO constituencies
  • What are the advantages and pitfalls of formalizing NGO Studies as a distinct field of anthropological inquiry?

During the two days, conference participants charted lines of inquiry germane to these broad questions and made plans to further satisfy the clear demand for continuing conversation.

One prominent meeting theme traced the complexity of ‘NGO’ as an object of analysis. Over the past two decades, anthropologists have largely embraced the heterogeneity of organizations and have worked toward richly situated and complex accounts of diverse nongovernmental/nonprofit worlds—from humanitarianism, to environmentalism, to women’s advocacy. Conference participants appreciated our collective avoidance of imposed classifications in pursuit of grounded perspectives on expert knowledge, religion, morality, and militarization, among other topics of study. Yet, grappling with the fluidity of the NGO category remains difficult given how much we have destabilized it ethnographically. Many participants are dissatisfied with a topic-driven approach and they are pressing for ethnographically grounded, bottom-up theory building. People began to envision moves that will let scholars explore particular regional genealogies of NGO formation or broad cultural patterns connecting diverse NGO worlds without underestimating the inherent messiness of the undertaking. Some commentators argued that our inability to articulate general theory keeps anthropologists in an intellectual ghetto, marginalized in official discourses, and less relevant to NGO practitioners.

Methodological issues surrounding working for NGOs in the field, within NGOs as fieldsites themselves, or through NGOs to gain access to fieldsites, were also the subject of much discussion, sometimes even tension. Some sessions were organized specifically around dilemmas of NGOs as fieldsites, and around the ethics and politics of “NGO-dependent” ethnography. We not only assembled a picture of common problems and strategies, we also pushed ourselves to identify which dilemmas were truly new and could thereby offer new perspectives on the craft. We also interrogated our roles as anthropologists, asking specifically what we can bring to the multidisciplinary and politically valued study of NGOs. On the one hand, we heard a consistent plea in sessions, plenaries, and work sessions to engage NGO practitioners and validate the knowledge they bring to the discipline. How to engage the various publics – and who these are – became a question with some urgency. In addition to calls for greater inclusion in academic spaces there were also calls for greater access, including open source publication and publication in native languages of the communities we study. On the other hand, many participants asked what it is about studying NGOs that fosters this sort of expectation of inclusion of practitioners in scholarly conversation. They noted that venues for discussion of applied anthropology already exist, and it is worth asking what anthropologists bring to this discussion that is distinct from practitioner knowledges.

Among newer sources of theory that inspired conference-goers, one that resonated in more than a few panels was Didier Fassin’s work on moral economies of suffering. His critical engagement with humanitarianism, as well as Erica Bornstein and Peter Redfield’s attention to the ethics and politics of compassion, seem to be illuminating new lines of inquiry. The political theorist Giorgio Agamben has also inspired critical discussion within humanitarianism; his notion of ‘bare life’ infused many conference discussions. Generally speaking morality – and the different meanings associated with it – surfaced as a major trope in papers or laid beneath the surface to be brought out in the discussions.

Many discussions built on existing Gramscian and Foucaultian approaches to examine and reconceptualize power and politics, particularly as they relates to ethics. One roundtable grappled with the meaning of nongovernmental politics. It explored how the missions, stakeholders, and constituencies of NGOs connect them to political parties, political movements, and agents of capital—even as they may strive to be anti-political.

Another session highlighted the quiet substitution of morality for politics in scholarly as well as official organizational discourses. Participants explored distinctions between “non-political,” “anti-political,” “post-political,” and “apolitical.” They also entertained the virtues and pitfalls of conceptualizing NGOs as political actors, spaces, or spheres.

While there was some discussion of relationships between NGOs and the state, through ethnographic interrogation both categories were destabilized. Some participants wondered whether it is possible to speak of an “NGO effect” in parallel to Abrams’ discussion of a “state effect.”

By the conclusion of the conference, people agreed that conversations had just begun. Indeed, through the AAA meeting that followed on the heels of our gathering, we continued substantive discussion and began planning new collaborations. Publications drawn from the conference are under development and SIG members are working on a new website. An archive of all session abstracts, and many papers, podcasts and transcripts can be found on the conference website at http://www.niu.edu/ngold/conference/index.shtml.