Reform AND Revolution: Reasons to not Abandon the Quest

Reform or Revolution?

Update October 2017: Although written in very different political times, Ira Bashkow’s Three Lessons I Learned From Charlottesville touches on issues central to this post and Anna Tsing’s work. Bashkow cautions that calls for “unity” can often be divisive: “The real question is not whether we can come together but rather: How can we help one another while holding to our commitment to live with difference and disunity?” Similarly, Tsing’s work in Friction revealed how resistance could be successful, even in the midst of discord and disagreement.


There is a particularly poignant part of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection when she visits the Museum of the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung. The 1955 Bandung conference inaugurates a vision of the Third World. Tsing reminds us of a long-forgotten vision of “the Third World, here imagined as a nonaligned block of emerging nations whose united presence could stop the Cold War. Their unity would define them as a global force. Their freedom would sponsor global peace. Peace and freedom would work together to remake the globe” (2005:83). Tsing rightly comments, perhaps with understatement: “How many times the world has turned since then! How few today remember the meeting in Bandung” (83). But Tsing also continues: “When we consider the importance of the Bandung dream of peace and freedom, the inadequacy of the bridge seems hardly a good enough reason to have abandoned the quest” (85).




Applying Anthropology

As I exited the 2012 Society for Applied Anthropology meetings, part of me felt like I attended three different conferences. At one extreme papers celebrating straight-up applied anthropology: how anthropologists contribute to development or health by understanding different cultural ideas. At the other extreme, the special track on Alternative and Non-Capitalist Political Ecologies. And then there were the people attempting activist reform, like Josiah McC. Heyman, trying to break into the “black box” of the immigration bureaucracy, or Jane Henrici asking for researchers to pay very close attention to the money.

We live in strange and uncertain times, when people make difficult and painful choices. At what points do we side with powerful states and corporations to encourage development? When do we try to reform, resist, or ameliorate the ongoing marketization of social life? Or is it best to throw our lot toward explicit alternatives? These were all issues confronting me in 2012, with the planned closing of my neighborhood school (see Ain’t it a little late in the game to throw your hand in?).

People asking for development, for reform, or for revolution often end up fighting each other.Click To Tweet
People asking for development, for reform, or for revolution often end up fighting each other. But we really hardly have any idea, in any given locality, which tactic, strategy, or combination is going to be successful, for whom, and the eventual implications. It seems worth an injunction to attempt to dampen or re-consider the usual stereotypes we have about differently-positioned others.

Moral Ambiguity & Fair Trade

A paper by Sarah Lyon, “Growing the Market Town by Town: The Moral Ambiguity of the Fair Trade Towns USA Movement” captured some of the dilemmas. Lyon has been organizing to help her town achieve a Fair Trade designation. Some of these campaigns have not been successful until a “buy local” component is included: Buy Local, Buy Fair. Or to elaborate, “buy local–and if you can’t buy local, buy fair.” It’s a powerful idea, but the practical consequences are ambiguous. In order to get the Fair Trade designation, they may need to include and advertise several mega-corporations, including perhaps even Walmart. Lyon wonders: “Am I being elitist? What kind of community are we building with $5 lattes and $20 entrees of grass-fed beef?”

These are important questions, without easy answers. But on the subject of Walmart, I noted that one commonality across many applied anthropology papers was the new importance of data and mapping–this seemed to potentially provide more analytical power than was once possible. If the data, mapping, and visualizations could be made more widely available, it perhaps augurs different imaginations for projects of development, reform, and revolution. As Frederic Jameson muses about Walmart and planning:

The Walmart celebrated by [Thomas] Friedman becomes the very anticipatory prototype of some new form of socialism for which the reproach of centralization now proves historically misplaced and irrelevant. (Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, 2005:153)

I was especially thinking of this quote–which I came to via my Hartwick College colleague Robert Seguin–as I prepared for a guest lecture in Seguin’s class on the subject of anthropology and utopia. (And see the follow-up Walmart Socialism.)

What to say about anthropology & utopia?

Back to Tsing:

The universal bridge to a global dream space still beckons to us. The bridge might take us out of our imagined isolation into a space of unity and transcendence: the whole world. We find ourselves like a man looking out from his parochial island toward the vast but hazy world of the mainland. The bridge of universal truths promises to take us there. Yet we walk across that bridge, and we find ourselves, not everywhere, but somewhere in particular. Even if our bridge aims toward the most lofty universal truths–the insights of science, the freedom of individual rights, the possibility of wealth for all–we find ourselves hemmed in by the specificity of rules and practices, with their petty prejudices, unreasonable hierarchies, and cruel exclusions. We must make do, enmeshing our desires in the compromise of practical action. We become hardened, or, alternatively, we are overcome with grief and anger. The bridge we stepped off is not the bridge we stepped upon. Yet to cast away the memory of the first bridge denies desire. To pretend it is the same as the second bridge is the baldest lie of power. It is only in maintaining the friction between the two subjectively experienced bridges, the friction between aspiration and practical achievement, that a critical analysis of global connection is possible. (85)
–Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction

Updates and Resources for “Development, Reform, Revolution”


To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Reform and Revolution: Reasons to not Abandon the Quest.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/development-reform-revolution-bridge/. First posted 31 March 2012. Revised 14 October 2017.


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  • Daniel Lende

    Really enjoyed this post, Jason, and glad you had such an invigorating time at the SfAAs. I agree – it does have this feel of many things at once, and hopefully we can create more of a synthesis and movement going forward.

    I wanted to hear more about the analytical power of mapping (Claire Sterk, one of my mentors, gave a great talk on that on Thursday, with research in Atlanta and working with planners, developers, etc.). Not mapping per se, but the analytical move…

    Put differently, I didn’t quite get the line from Jameson, “Walmart… becomes the very anticipatory prototype of some new form of socialism for which the reproach of centralization now proves historically misplaced and irrelevant.” It’s very evocative, but I’m not sure I am reading it right. Are you indicating that some form of centralization is important in our utopias?

  • Jason Antrosio

    Thanks, Daniel, it was great to see you in Baltimore. I hadn’t realized Claire Sterk was one of your mentors. I’ve been using the article version of her Tricking and Tripping: Prostitution in the Era of AIDS in Intro-to-Anthropology for a long time, and just about to read it again.

    To try to answer your question–Jameson is indeed evocative, but I believe by “reproach of centralization” he’s referring more generally to the critique of centralized planning, or at least that’s how I read it. During the early years of socialism, there was a forceful critique that it was simply impossible to plan an economy to the extent the socialists proclaimed. To this critique, the market then provided the best way to capture the thousands of needs and whims as inputs, and those famous supply-and-demand curves were what equilibrated everything with market-determined price mechanisms. (Some anthropologists have made a related critique of government planning in general, although they might deny that it has commonalities with this pro-market critique–see my Anthropology and Government Planning which again uses that same Jameson quote.)

    What Jameson seems to be alluding to is that somehow people at Walmart are running a planned economy. They are delivering the goods, and while surely supply-and-demand play a role, it does not seem to be working like a classic market. Or in other words, Walmart has the data, analysis, and mapping to run a centralized planned economy. So, while I would not say centralization is important for our utopias, there is a potentially larger scope for the analytical power of data and mapping.

  • Daniel Lende

    Thanks, Jason. That’s helpful. That’s how I read it for the most part. Interesting, in that I was thinking about big data/mapping the past few days – alongside Claire’s work on mapping and working with planners, thinking a lot about how bureaucracies work with people, and how we generally have an imperfect centralized “planning” model for some government programs, and wishing that anthros would focus more on proposals on how to do that better rather than just the critique for all the ways it can be wrong. But that’s a different story…

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