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Every Anthropologist Should Read This Book

January 26, 2011

In which the valiant hero describes a vital book and its relation to anthropology.

Maybe everyone needs to read this book.

Entitled Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, it was published in English around 1970. It presented an extremely progressive theory of ‘critical pedagogy’:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Freire posits that traditional education is a tool utilized by the existing power structures to lock the oppressed into a cycle of poverty and exploitation. This is not so much a function of subject matter as it is of the process of educating. He argues that the structure of “banking education”–where the teacher acts upon the students, through the medium of facts–serves the purpose of compelling the students to view history and the world, and themselves, as reactionary objects (in the linguistic sense of subject-object interaction). The idea is that the present is well-behaved, the direct result of an unchangeable past, and the future is predetermined, not dependent on their actions.

The source of the students’ beliefs about their reactive role comes from the way they interact with the teacher. They not only do not, but often cannot take an active role in what they are taught. By determining the curriculum, the subject matter, and the evaluation of students’ learning, the teacher becomes the subject, where the students are the objects.

Thusly, Freire suggests that only through radically changing the student/teacher relationship can true, valuable education be accomplished.

This education fosters critical reflection in students, as well as teachers, and the two groups work together to pursue cooperative enlightenment. His conclusion, which I believe is correct, is that when education is used to promote critical thinking, people take the time to review their role in society. It allows them to reflect upon the social and environmental factors that contribute to their daily lives. This includes pressures from the oppressive classes.

Freire’s educational theories took hold in the middle of the 20th century, and education as a means of social change was especially apparent at that time in Brazil (his native country). At the time, in order to vote, citizens had to be literate.

In 1961, Freire was given the chance to apply his theories. He taught some 300 farmers to read and write in 45 days. While initially met with praise, Brazil experienced a coup, and the new government quickly imprisoned Freire as a traitor. He spent a long time in political exile.

How does this apply to anthropology?

One of Freire’s great attributes was his dedication to collaboration. The book is written very straightforwardly, and draws some key points from linguistics. This makes sense, as Freire studied law, philosophy, phenomenology, and psychology of language.

He stresses collaboration in every facet of the educational process, and organizes the educators and students into what he calls circles. Essentially the point of such a circle is to draw into the group cultural consultants, volunteers from the society of interest, and proceed investigating in a very anthropological way, the society from a holistic perspective.

I was reminded of the process of RARE: Rapid Assessment, Response, and Evaluation, as detailed by Dr. Trotter from Northern Arizona University. The intention of the educator-group is described by Freire as a process, rather than a goal, where the initial motivation–say eliminating illiteracy–provides merely a starting point. Upon selecting a population, researchers begin the process of getting to know the group, and having them provide suggestions for things they like to change. Instead of just giving classes on language-learning, the educators act more as moderators of group discussion, posing problems to the students, and facilitating their critical thinking about solutions.

In western society, there has been a long and strong tradition of “othering”, where interacting cultures have been divided based on all kinds of things, such as perceived race, language, or economic value. This is especially apparent in the colonial social sciences. Anthropology, having evolved out of the pursuits of wealthy academicians tends to view the interaction of cultures in a polarized way, as seen in emic vs etic perspectives, participant observation vs purely academic research.

The underlying theme in the book is the contrived nature of the duality of oppressor/oppressed.

When the oppressed are unable to own their labor, the oppressors attempt to reduce them to things, reduce their humanity. But through oppression, Freire claims, the oppressors limit their own humanity.

Only through cooperation can the two groups reconcile so as to work together to elevate their humanity.

The way this relates to applied anthropology specifically is the relationship between researcher (educator) and subject. In field work, the anthropologist can be in the community for anywhere from six months to three years, or more. But the academic nature of their fieldwork limits their true involvement in the community. The people with whom the anthropologist works lack the safety net that an academic professional has. If the anthropologist fails to bring about the necessary changes to the living environment of the people, he or she just goes back to the “real world” and writes up their experiences in a report.

This could very-well be the most difficult part of anthropology

Having to honestly and completely adopt the struggles of the community of research as your own. It is possible, but it involves a potentially life-long commitment to the community.

Oh, and for all you non-applied ethnographers:

When a word is deprived of its dimension of action…it becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is not transformation without action.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Next Up:

In which the author will do his best to answer Colleen’s inquiry as to the theory of Anarchism!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 28, 2011 7:44 pm

    The WAblog returns from its long hiatus in great form. Starting to read Pedagogy, I remembered how much fun it is to read this sort of stuff. I like the bit in the intro when Freire’s collaborator, when asked by a friend and colleague why they had to use so much Marxist jargon, said that just because it’s Marxist doesn’t mean it’s jargon, and that that particular language style is the only one equipped to deal with the ideas contained within.

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