Clothes of Pride

By announcing himself as the English Opium-Eater, De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening. It was a Byronic double game: baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion while delighting the elite with the invention of a new vice. *

There’s a lot of it about: how can we that have so much pretend to understand or assist those who have so little? How can those who live the high life reconcile that with their commitment to improving the lives of the poorest. It is maybe a legitimate concern. The most recent iteration comes from Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University:

My specific proposal, therefore, is that each poverty professional should engage in an “exposure” to poverty (also known as “immersions”) every 12 to 18 months. I do not mean by this rural sector missions for aid agency officials, nor the running of training workshops by NGO staff. What I mean is well captured by Eyben (2004); these are exercises that “are designed for visitors to stay for a period of several days, living with their hosts as participants, as well as observers, in their daily lives. They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum….”

This seemed to touch people, and was enthusiastically picked up. See here, here, here, and right here at least. Closer to home, at the recent TEDxDar, Rakesh Rajani reported on an “immersion” undertaken by Twaweza staff.

But just how empathic can these immersions be? Rakesh’s immersions had a whiff of De Quincey about them. It was more of a provocation to confused poverty professionals at home (“baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion”) than any any attempt to get high on the poor life. By couching his supposedly new insights in the language and framework of the great power (“you wouldn’t get a selection of watches like that in Times Square!”), the elite were well and truly delighted. Post colonial identities – whether Irish or East African – are able to tease in such ways, to speak to different audiences simultaneously. It’s how we were brought up. In the metropole, you needed to get high to do so.

As for most well meaning immersionistas, if they lack the imagination and have such circumscribed lives that they are unable to understand life, then I suggest they reconsider. And if they still want to go ahead, I’ll take them seriously if they would consider letting one of those ‘poor’ people immersing themselves in their house, SUV and gym for a week. Or two.

* from Mike Jay’s review of Robert Morrisson’s The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, in the London Review of Books recently.

Music from The Stars of Heaven. “We made a promise and I kept my side. But you were just giving me a line.”


6 responses to “Clothes of Pride

  1. Mh. This puts me in mind of the debates on ethnography that microsociologists and anthropologists put themselves through to try and keep themselves honest. Natch, there is an academic rigor to these methods that activist ‘immersionists’ must avoid so as not to occlude their agendas. An interesting gauntlet you throw there on flipping the script by immersing the traditional subject- Travel Channel’s ‘Meet the Natives’ attempts that. Revealing exercise. No drugs needed.

  2. I find these immersion visits troubling as well. I think they can be very useful, (along with the extended version that is volunteering experiences through Peace Corps, etc.) but I see them more as a symptom that things are very wrong in the existing order of things. If we were doing our jobs properly, driven by community demand rather than by the latest trend in development fashion, connected into the networks of the poor rather than the Development Partner Groups and Thematic Working Groups, then such visits would not be necessary.

    But re-surfacing a pothole is much cheaper and simpler than relaying a whole road. Immersion visits may fill a gap that shouldn’t be there, but we can’t deny that the gap is there. So I think they have a useful role to play.

    On a different note I would agree that the Twaweza immersion visits were actually a form of extractive qualitative research, designed with the future audience of the research in mind more than the experience of the researchers / immersers learning more of rural community life. Otherwise, why so many presentations, reports, etc. coming out of the visits? But seen as a piece of research, I can also support it: qualitative, responsive and reflective studies of this kind are extremely rare in Tanzania, and very valuable.

  3. Thanks Ben and Elsie for very useful comments. While I agree that the crucial test of efforts such as Twaweza’s immersion will be whether so-called “immersees” accept their hosts to stay with them in their homes, gyms , shopping trips and “meet the teacher” sessions – I think it’s just far too easy to take cheap shots at such efforts and in so doing to further crystallise the gaps between “development practitioners” and those they work with. While I think you are spot on, Elsie, to link the idea of immersions with ethnography, ethnography did not develop as a method to keep micro-sociologists and anthropologists “honest”. In order not to trivialise it, it is more of an epistemology than a methodology, about grappling with complex social phenomena in holistic and contextualised ways which involve reflexivity rather than the easy aggregations with their implied assumptions, that much social science research is about. Unfortunately, as with so much of the traffic in social media, the ‘hype’ rather than the substance is what gets picked up and carried forward. So Kanbur’s piece and the “here” and the “here” and the “here” of it picks up on the confessional aspect of such efforts, rather than the epistemological aspects, which are about where does knowledge come from, how does it get codified and how does it circulate across the many domains with which we are all forced to engage. Unfortunately, it’s now 1.05am, and I’ve had to spend the past hour following up on links “here” and “here” and “here” rather than completing the final report on the very, let’s call it field trip, rather than immersion, in question…..

  4. Cathy, “trivialising… cheap shots….. hype”. I’m sorry about that, and god forbid that I would take a cheap shot at twaweza!

    So thanks for your comment.

    Otherwise, I’m confused, because I think there is actually a lot of common ground between us.

    If you read what I wrote again you’ll see, I hope, that I was lauding twaweza for the clever way in which it was generating and presenting knowledge.

    It has some value, though I disagree with Ben and, based on seeing one presentation of it on Saturday, wouldn’t consider it as a piece of ‘research ‘ per se but rather a tool for generating some discussion. Though the final report may be very different.

    You see the distinctions just as I do between what Twaweza did and what Kabur is proposing.

    Otherwise I was deliberately hard on the immersion idea as presented by Kabur. I find it patronising and de-humanising and was disappointed that Kabur’s proposal was so widely and positively accepted.

    Where we may go our separate ways is that I see Twz’s use of the term ‘immersion’ and the presentation of the ‘findings’ as being much more instrumental than maybe you would like.

  5. Your point is a valid one Cathy- I certainly do not trivialize ethnography. Will write the comment better next time. So, ditto on the importance of this epistemologically-sound methodology that’s holistic, reflexive, contextual and indeed avoids many of the pitfalls that reductivist aggregative methods fall into…(Wikipedia is a godsend 😉

  6. Don’t really understand the post but great choice of song, Mr Street

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