Theories of Change
Hello, and welcome to another edition of slightly problematic. So far I’ve tried to problematize an uncritical approach to field work, and in knowledge creation, and this morning I will attempt talk about the problematic process of directing social Change.
First What Theories of Change
To answer that why are you thinking of conducting research? Is it to add to the body of literature present within anthropology? Or are you hoping to contribute to some kind of positive change?
One way which research can be applied to facilitating social change is through proving damage, this is generally referred to as damage centered research. In this, a social scientist sets out to find a way to measure in some manner, a harm which can be attributed to some cause one classic example of this damage centered research is Mammie and Kenneth Clarks doll test conducted in the 1940s. this test sought to prove that the systemic racism that young black children experienced could be measurably connected to internalized racism and black self hatred. This research eventually was the basis for Thurgood Marshalls argument for desegregation of schools. The research was able to show injury of these young children and reasonably link it to the policies of segregation. Now as Eve Tuck points out,
“This theory of change, testifying to damage so that persecutors will be forced to be held accountable is extremely popular in social science research—so popular that it serves as a default theory of change, so ubiquitous that folks might think that it is entirely what social science is about” (Tuck 2009).
Now there’s little room to doubt that the extant structures of settler colonialism in the United States and the various forms of colonialism at play globally are clearly and measurably culpable the present consequences of systematized agendas of genocide, erasure, racism, and apartheid which continue to be “baked into” colonial social and political systems.
But what is at stake when research is structured around litigation?
The Problems with Damage Centered Research
Not surprisingly this practice of placing expertise and authority in the hands of individuals who more often than not are White, male, and Western educated is quite palatable to the status quo. Damage centered research fits well into colonial power structures because it mirrors the values and structures of colonial society. Most prominently, heteropatriarchy which is normalized through the roles of ward and judge or patriarch which the court room reifies. In litigation, damage is proven through testimony from the victim, argued and justified by experts, and judged dispassionately and objectively.
Now The Problems with Damage Centered Research
Not surprisingly this practice of placing expertise and authority in the hands of individuals who more often than not are White, male, and Western educated is quite palatable to the status quo. Damage centered research fits well into colonial power structures because it mirrors the values and structures of colonial society. Most prominently, heteropatriarchy which is normalized in the court room through the judge as the patriarch and the plaintiff or victim as the ward. And in this way the court room reifies these roles. In litigation, damage is proven through testimony from the victim, argued and justified by experts, and judged dispassionately and objectively.
However, there are several problems with this practice as it stands:
Words and narratives are powerful, and when you craft a persuasive story of a broken or damaged community or people, that narrative becomes a part of how people inside and outside of the community might perceive the community and the people who live there.
It places the expertise and authority as to what is “wrong” and what is needed to “fix” the “problem(s)” within the community with to the etic observer, that is the outsider.
Now linked to this, it runs the risk of becoming an intentional or un-intentional agent of forced acculturation i.e. it was thought that the “problem” with Black and Indigenous societies was the “weakness” of the Patriarch, and the solution was to enforce heteropaternalism and to displace matriarchies structures that were generally present across North America and Africa. Ethnocentrism can be baked wickedly into social ideas of what the “ideal” is or isn’t (however, trying to talk about non-western structures of power sharing through the hetero-binary is problematic conversation for another time...).
Eve Tuck’s Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities introduces an alternative theory of change—Desire based research.
Desire moves away from reliance on an arbiter of harm and reparation, and rather than reifying paternalistic power dynamics it is “documenting not only the painful elements of social realities but also the wisdom and hope” present through survivance. “Such an axiology is intent on de-pathologizing the experiences of dispossessed and disenfranchised communities so that people are seen as more than broken and conquered” (Tuck 2009). To put it into perspective, in this country we have a deeply embedded construct of poverty as being pathological rather than situational, this is why money, housing, or food, are not seen as solutions, where the moral, intellectual, or cultural character which is “actually” the problem.
Desire is operationalized by Tuck by drawing upon discourse by two poststructuralists on the concept of desire. Desire as something which has been
“assembled, crafted over a lifetime through our experiences… is the picking up of distinct bits and that, without losing their specificity, become integrated into a dynamic whole”…”is what accounts for the multiplicity, complexity, and contradiction of desire, how desire reaches for contrasting realities, even simultaneously" (Tuck 2009).
In my opinion the main reason that damage-based research is so hard to let go of because in depicting certain groups as damaged, it aligns very well with the justifications for their disenfranchisement. Where would the Marshal trilogy be without the concept of diminished sovereignty? The institution of African enslavement without attempting to frame the consequences or harm of the middle passage, natal alienation and holocaust of enslavement as just cause for ongoing paternalism? The need to “Americanize” diasporic and immigrants communities to encourage them to let go of their backward ways and become truly American?
Placing the desires of members of disenfranchised and over-studied communities as fundamentally valid and actionable information not only threatens the savior ideologies that cover the most pernicious of settler colonialism’s agendas, but also serves to de-privilege the monopoly on knowledge creation which I touched on in my last video. But you know, things change…
As Eve Tuck mentions, even Margaret Meade would not conduct research like Margaret Meade today. What I’ve tried to share is to me the best and most through provoking of what has been shared with me thus far as how to do better as anthropologists than perhaps we have done before, but hopefully it will be considered outdated and problematic in no time because we will have continued to grow as a discipline and continued to refuse work that perpetuates harm to the communities that we work with and within.
Thank you and be sure to catch the remaining video in this season’s line up as well as this summer’s line up as Slightly Problematic continues to co-create critique and conversation.
Lucor Jordan (he/him)
Cultural Anthropologist and Director of Operations at Slightly Problematic
Lucor Jordan is an applied cultural anthropologist who brings a background in environmental anthropology, collaborative research, organizational impact assessment, asset-based community development, building cooperative capacity, and culinary anthropology. Applied anthropology at its heart carries a commitment to relevant and ethical work that bridges engaged scholarship with pressing social issues, and this is particularly aligned with the mission of Slightly Problematic. It is with humility and excitement that he joins this inspired community of practice.
Ervin, Alexander M. (Alexander MacKay). Applied Anthropology: Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409–427. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15