July 22, 2009

6 Questions: Douglas La Rose

The following is from a email-based interview with Douglas La Rose, a graduate student in anthropology at SDSU:

Ryan Anderson: What brought you to anthropology in the first place?

Douglas La Rose: In so many ways, I was drawn to anthropology for the wrong reasons. But the core reason I decided to become an anthropologist was because I saw it as a converging point for so many different disciplines: literature, the arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and history just to name a few. My early interest in anthropology, however, was certainly anchored in a type of fetishization or re-construction of the exotic. I became interested in primitive art while in community college as a type of pure abstract expressionism. I was interested in the artwork of Paul Klee and tried to draw comparisons between Australian aboriginal art and his work. I was also interested in world religions and especially the cosmovision of Australian aborigines, the Maya, and native American religions as they were described by Carlos Castaneda. There was also a splash of Joseph Campbell in there and Samuel Noah Kramer’s examinations of ancient Sumer and E.A Wallis Budge’s collection of books on ancient Egypt. In summary, the sirens of anthropology that drew me in were a funky and quite lazy cocktail of being indecisive and being an essentialist.

RA: What are you working on now?

DLR: Well, I am working on a plethora of things. I still work as an archaeologist in southern California and recently published a couple of papers on prehistoric environmental economics as well as Spanish-Kumeyaay interactions during the proto-historic/colonial period. But I am primarily an environmental anthropologist and ethnographer. I recently completed a research project with Dr. Matthew Lauer (Anthropology, SDSU) and Luke Campanella (Public Health, SDSU) on post-tsunami environmental adaptations in the Solomon Islands. The scope of the project included how people on the Simbo and Rannonga Islands in the Western provinces coped after the tsunami of April 2007. We are now processing the data from the interviews and mining the qualitative stuff for interesting perceptions on environmental change. I also work in the Volta Region of Ghana and examine the ways that people in the village of Guaman perceive deforestation and environmental change. I am interested in how these perspectives are manifested in their agricultural methods and marketing activities.

RA: What direction do you want to go with your work in this field?

DLR: I am an applied environmental anthropologist. I am personally very tired of academic pontificating and deconstructionism, even though I realize it is part of an important checks-and-balances system. But let’s be honest - there are real problems out there that people are dealing with and that they are inviting anthropologists to help them deal with. If we don’t step out of our ivory tower and work with people than someone else will. Those other people could be corporations, governments, religious organizations, pimps, drug lords, war lords, you name it. We need to humble ourselves and stop thinking about our sole individual interests. Anthropology needs to give back in very substantive ways.

RA: Are you primarily interested in applied or academic work? Both? Why?

DLR: As I stated above, I am an applied anthropologist. But don’t get me wrong, I am interested in and recognize the poignancy of both the academy and the world. Take a theoretical example from environmental anthropology: it is important to recognize that the nature/culture dichotomy has had profound impacts on the way that we interact with the world and that the ways we view ecological knowledge and practice as anthropologists impact our assumptions and expectations. In other words, the fact that different groups throughout the world perceive the relationship between nature and culture differently has huge impacts on how conservation and resource management should be approached. This is an example in which academic theory has a profound relevancy to how applied work should be conducted and how the inner-workings of a group’s worldvision need to be understand on theoretical terms. Theory is important and is the underpinning of applied work, but without applied work endless theorizing is nothing but a privileged indulgence.

RA: What do you see as the strengths of anthropology? Weaknesses?

DLR: My goodness, what a big question. Let’s start with the weaknesses. With the exception of early anthropology’s efforts at deconstructing the pseudo-scientific arguments for racism, I think anthropologists have had a bad record of not getting their stuff out and really trying to have an impact on society. But probably the major weakness in anthropology is its continued colonial tinge. So many anthropologists go and make a name for themselves through some kind of study of post-colonial Cambodian feminism in impoverished coastal cannery communities and then just take off with enough data to write some kind of theoretical treatise and leave the community wondering who they were or where they went. But anthropology still has a unique methodology that requires (theoretically) the anthropologist to immerse herself or himself into the community. That has always been the strongest feature of anthropology, and now it just needs to be coupled with getting that experience out to the general public in a way that doesn’t gloss over or over-simplify the poignancy of another group’s worldview.

RA: To what end should anthropological information be used?

DLR: Well, it certainly shouldn’t be used to harm people or inform militaries where to strike or where not to strike. Anthropology should never be integrated into the military industrial complex, simply because it dissolves the discipline’s credibility and is completely unethical. I think for the most part that anthropology is underutilized and could have immense impacts on the consequences and success rates of “projects.” As an environmental anthropologist, I think the implications are staggering. If you want to successfully implement a conservation strategy, you must have the community’s interests at heart - front and center. Without their knowledge, cooperation, and vigor conservation projects (or agricultural development projects or anything of a political-ecological nature) are bound to be unsuccessful. There is the case study in Uganda where a strict conservation policy was implemented to protect some gorillas in a forest reserve. The plan consisted of closing off access to forest resources, but members of the local community went and killed a majority of the gorillas simply because they believed that if they got rid of the gorillas then the conservationists would leave. So I think that anthropological information can be used to create better informed policy in many different areas.

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