Anthropology is generally described as “the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans”. It is distinguished from other social sciences (such as sociology) by its emphasis on cultural relativity (the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture), its in-depth examination of context (the social and physical conditions under which these people live) and a focus on cross-cultural comparison (in short, the comparing of one culture to another).

The sub-field of development anthropology has for some time had a key role to play in the third world development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Many academics (and practitioners, come to that) have believed for some time that anthropology should be a key component of the development process, and some of the more respected academic institutions teach a combination of the two. It is now recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is being seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the ICT sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel and Nokia are two such examples.

kiwanja and anthropology

kiwanja’s focus is heavily human-centred, based in part on a strong belief in an anthropological approach to, or the need for an anthropological element within, ICT development projects at all levels (this includes the corporate, governmental and NGO sectors). Presentations on this approach have already been made at a number of conferences and within a number of organisations and academic institutions, and a recent interview for Nokia’s “New Horizons” magazine focussed entirely on kiwanja’s approach (described as something new and exciting for the magazine).

kiwanja’s first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy for students to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one such choice, and it looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French. During the course of three years, key ideas and opinions were formed based on central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology in conservation. The end result three years later was a ‘first’ in social anthropology, and an ‘upper second class’ in development studies.

Cementing the anthropological approach

It was not until three or four years later that the importance – and relevance – of anthropology became apparent. It has emerged as a central pillar, and is interestingly the area which raises the most eyebrows among delegates at conferences. But it’s not just been about the degree – many ideas, values and opinions were cemented during numerous spells living and working in developing countries over an 18 year period. Hospital and school building projects in Uganda and Zambia, biodiversity survey work in Uganda, primate conservation in Nigeria and Cameroon, civil society work in Zimbabwe and spells of ICT-related research in South Africa and Mozambique have all combined to enable us to base our work on a personal sense of the reality on the ground for many people living in the developing world.

Further information on the contribution of anthropologists to the ICT4D world are discussed in one of kiwanja’s PC World Articles – “Anthropology’s Technology-driven Renaissance” – available here and in this National Geographic interview from September 2010.