Global Development Institute Blog

By Judith Krauss

What is politics? A loaded question which might draw any number of diverse and partly conflicting answers. Yet if you were indeed going to open this particular can of worms, it would be extremely helpful to have Tania Murray Li available to offer her perspective.

The Global Development Institute (GDI) did just that this week, inviting the Professor of Anthropology from the University of Toronto to give a Masterclass on ‘What is politics?’ and a public lecture on ‘Commodification, capitalism and counter-movements’. The high level of interest from staff, students and the general public in Tania Li’s visit evidences the breadth and depth of her contributions.

Two of her best-known ideas include ‘rendering technical’, which means framing problems and their solutions in a way that lends itself to technical fixes without addressing root causes, and the ‘will to improve’ capturing a host of social development aspirations. Her reflections, drawing particularly on ethnographic research in Southeast Asia, resonate with scholars and practitioners in anthropology, geography, political economy, development studies and beyond.

Given her diverse work, the Masterclass brought together postgraduate researchers and staff from GDI and beyond whose research interests are just as multi-faceted as the person they had come to exchange with, ranging from mining and CSR to youth activism in Ethiopia. It was the second Masterclass organised by the Rory and Elizabeth Brooks Doctoral College, following a previous exchange with Branko Milanovic on inequality and its links to migration.

Given GDI’s focus on communicating research to stakeholders, Tania Li’s thoughts on the interface between researchers and practitioners, outlined in a 2013 paper in ‘Anthropologie et développement’, proved of particular interest. She identified three types of engagement between anthropological research and development practitioners, ranging from research in the service of big D development programming via an outright critique of such programmes, to an in-depth engagement with small d development, historically specific conjunctures and political struggles. The conversation raised questions such as whether pressures to ‘render technical’ may limit a priori the types of problems and potential solutions considered, the matter of framing research in the language of or delineation to certain stakeholders, and also yielded a wider engagement with issues of researcher positionality.

This question of researchers’ role and the politics of research proved another key interest for the early-career and postgraduate researchers assembled, with questions arising on insider-outsider relationships between researchers and stakeholders and managing expectations. Tania Li drew on her diverse experience in interacting with a broad range of stakeholders to emphasise the difference between critical engagement and passing judgement, highlighting the importance of contextualising stakeholder situations and thus engaging in critical, but non-judgemental analysis. A second key insight she raised, drawing also on David Mosse’s work, was the need to remember that taking a step back to write analytically about stakeholder behaviour is inherent in the research process and in scholars’ function of thinking critically. Howeverit also creates a distance which neither researchers nor interlocutors may have anticipated.

Tania Li’s public lecture, drawing especially on her latest book Land’s End , emphasised the need for critical reflection especially on all assumptions habitually associated with commodification, capitalism and counter-movements. Illustrated vividly through examples from two decades of ethnographic research in Sulawesi, Indonesia, she challenged the audience to engage critically with what commodification, capitalism and counter-movements actually mean and to what degree they constitute new phenomena. For instance, she emphasised that commodification, the purchase and sale of e.g. products, land or labour, is not at all a recent invention.

However, the difficulty arises when such exchanges are no longer voluntary transactions from a position of autonomy, but become compulsory for survival in the absence of any alternative. This distinction, drawing partly on Wood and Brenner, is highly relevant in differentiating commodification from involuntary forces often inherent in capitalist relations.

She vividly supported this distinction using her ethnographic research in communities living in mountainous areas in Sulawesi. Over a 20-year period, as land resources grew scarcer and pressure increased to make the most of existing plots, she witnessed first an increasing shift from food production to cash-crop cocoa cultivation and then a process of land concentration in the hands of the most capable farmers, leaving many now landless families struggling to find alternative livelihoods. Finally, she highlighted that bottom-up counter-movements against land commodification would be predicated on the presence of social organisational structures which are unlikely to exist everywhere:. actual  counter-movements tend to be top-down to accommodate privileged land access vested elite or colonial interests.

Tania Li’s inspiring Masterclass and public lecture doubled as imperatives never to stop engaging critically and questioning one’s own and others’ assumptions, a call worthy of application throughout academic life and beyond.


The next Global Development Seminar is Wednesday 20 April,  on ‘Understanding youth poverty in Arusha, Tanzania: Capturing economic, social and psychological dimensions’ with Dr. Nicola Banks and you can also see a full listing of our events.