Stuart Kirsch began his career as an anthropologist doing research on myth, magic, and sorcery in the rain forest of New Guinea. His first book, Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations (2006), examines how indigenous peoples draw on their cultural resources to make sense of their incorporation into a modern state and the global economy. His second book, Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and their Critics (2014), examines how mining companies respond to political opposition from NGOs and indigenous movements. He is one of very few anthropologists to have conducted research at both the bottom and the top of the global economy, with both indigenous peoples and corporations.
But Kirsch is best known for his work as an engaged anthropologist, which frames both of these texts. He was actively involved in the struggle of the people living downstream from the Ok Tedi copper-and-gold mine in Papua New Guinea against its Australian owners, including their landmark lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Victoria. He conducted research in the Marshall Islands for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal on behalf of the people from Rongelap Atoll, and he assisted landowners in Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, in their case against the Gold Ridge mine. He has also worked with indigenous peoples in Suriname and Guyana on their efforts to secure their land rights, as well as with people opposed to the El Dorado mine in El Salvador.
I caught up with Stuart to talk about his most recent book, Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text (2018), in which he writes about these experiences and the value of doing research that has the potential to contribute to political change.
Christopher Loperena (CL): Stuart, thank you for talking to me today about the interface between scholarly research and political engagement, which is the focus of your recent book.
In Engaged Anthropology, you present examples of interventions that build on long-term research, as well as other circumstances in which you were asked to intervene in different kinds of political and legal conflicts in places where you didn’t have extensive knowledge of the ethnographic context.
Can you talk about your decision to participate in those cases involving places where you hadn’t worked previously? How were you able to support the different claimants you were working with in their political struggles despite the lack of long-term research experience on which anthropologists usually rely?
Stuart Kirsch (SK): Thanks, Chris, it’s great to talk to you. As you know, the ideal for an anthropologist is always long-term engagement with the community under study: staying at least a year, learning the local language, finding out how people are related to each other, and so forth. But sometimes anthropologists are asked to provide information in a much shorter time frame, which precludes extended fieldwork.
To be honest, I doubt I could do my engaged work had I not started my career by spending two years conducting ethnographic research in one place. That original fieldwork provides me with a valuable comparative perspective, which helps me to see the similarities across places—for example, between people living in the rain forests of New Guinea and in the Amazon—while also recognizing the important differences.
While I don’t think the results from short- and long-term research are comparable, it is nonetheless possible to produce something of value in a relatively short period of time, especially when the community has invited you to conduct research that will benefit them in some way, such as helping them obtain recognition of their land rights. In long-term ethnography, there’s a lot of waiting around for the right people to agree to talk with you, and even of learning who to talk with in the first place. But in projects where the community members have an interest in the successful completion of your research, the work can move forward a lot more expeditiously.
In contrast to the view that anthropologists only produce knowledge of value after we’ve become deeply embedded in a particular place, we also have a complementary skill set that tends to be overlooked and undervalued, our ability to produce short-term assessments of a situation.