Melanje, Angola © Inge Tvedten

Applying Anthropology: Glimpses from Bergen. Past and Current Relevance

An experience involving Fredrik Barth (who established the anthropology department at the University of Bergen in 1963) was for several years seen as indicative of the official attitude to anthropology in Norway, according to Signe Howell (2010). When the Norwegian government embarked on their first aid project in 1952 through a fisheries project in Kerala, Barth, who was 25 at the time, offered his services, along with Professor Guttorm Gjessing at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Oslo. They were both turned down, but Barth was offered a clerical position where he could “collect anthropological material in the evenings and week-ends” (Kjerland 1999: 322). He declined.

This event has been part of a narrative about the relationship between anthropology and Norwegian aid, more prevalent, I believe, in Oslo than in Bergen. It deals with our struggle to be heard and used; about the uneasy relationship between aid and anthropology, in many ways about our marginality.

According to Howell, anthropologists came to be “among the most critical of Norwegian development policy and the implementation of projects” (Howell 2010: 270). In Oslo, Arne Martin Klausen wrote his PhD thesis on the Kerala project and remained, as the senior professor in the department, a critic of Norwegian aid. The gist of his criticism (and that of several colleagues) was that proper account was not taken of local and social institutions and cultural values.

In Bergen, Fredrik Barth also wrote and spoke about how societies must be understood on their own terms (Barth 1968, 1972). Then, in the early 1970s, he convinced Norad (the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) to employ Georg Henriksen, later to become a professor in the department, to do research among the Turkana pastoralists in Kenya who were subject to massive Norwegian aid efforts including attempts to make them into fishermen. They did not like what he wrote (Henriksen 1974), about the failure to build development efforts on the human resources of this large region characterized by pastoralism.

However, from about the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, there was a new emphasis on popular participation and empowerment, integrated rural development programs and the idea that “small is beautiful”. It provided a window of opportunity for anthropologists (as well as NGOs). Several Bergen anthropologists received modest funds from Norad’s research office (including students and researchers going to Turkana and southern Sudan) or were hired as consultants in different countries both for baseline studies and monitoring of projects. I myself got a telefax message from Norad when I was teaching at the University of Khartoum, asking me to join a Norad delegation on Lake Nasser in Egypt. This was in early 1977 and Knut Frydenlund who was our Foreign Minister at the time, wanted to provide aid to the Egyptians as a gratitude for signing the Camp David Agreement with Israel; and what was more natural for Norwegians to do than fisheries assistance behind the Aswan Dam?

Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), which had established a development research program in 1965, based on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and with close ties to Harvard University, hired its first anthropologist in 1974 (Gunnar Haaland). For several years, starting in 1976, Haaland was also Senior Social Scientist at the International Livestock Center in Africa (Addis Ababa), joined by Johan Helland of the CMI, and later on the board of that center, Fredrik Barth and then myself.

The University of Bergen established a Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in 1986, (when the Brundtland Commission was about to complete its report on environment and development), based upon a memo from the department, and most of its research staff were anthropologists including myself as director. CDS carried out a number of assignments funded by Norad or the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including evaluations of Norwegian aid to Tanzania and Sri Lanka and a review of how the socio-cultural dimension was taken account of in development projects.

Several Norwegian anthropologists (Melhuus, Stølen, Bleie, Ask) were also in the forefront when it came to promoting the role of women in development. It resulted in Norad drafting an Action Plan and funding a special research program on “women and development”.

These types of engagement formed the basis for a second narrative about aid and academia, less concerned with our struggle to be heard and used, but more about the methodological and other challenges involved in applying anthropology to practical problems.

I was reminded about this a few months ago when I attended the birthday party of Norad’s former Director of Communications, Halle Jørn Hansen. He turned 80 and introduced all his guests around the table. When he came to me, he said he first met me when I gave a talk in Oslo on “generative planning”. He was so impressed by this that he tried for several years to push the idea in Norad – without much success, I believe.

This second narrative does not assume a priori that the world would have been a better place if we were listened to. Rather, as Barth wrote in 1981, applying anthropology to social affairs is challenging and may often reveal that our scholarship is “incomplete and unworkable” (Barth 1981).

It was Ottar Brox who first wrote a paper on generative planning in Norwegian, in 1971. This was the age of “stensiler”, papers that had been handwritten, given to a secretary to type, presented at conferences or seminars, then not published further but circulated by individuals, each getting a hard copy from friends and colleagues. In Oslo, there was a well-known “stensil” by Jorunn Solheim that was critical of Barth’s writings (about Barth standing on the shoulders of Radcliffe-Brown and Firth). In Bergen, there was the paper by Brox and then an influential paper by Barth with a rather boring title: “Sociological aspects of integrated surveys for river basin development’ (a lecture given at a UNESCO seminar in 1970). Some of us still have now yellowish copies.

Ottar Brox had his basic training in rural sociology and was a Research Fellow (stipendiat) at the Department when I joined as a student in 1968. He was almost the same age as Barth, already famous for his book on Northern Norway (1966), and later joined the new University in Tromsø in the early 1970s as Professor. For some years, he was also a member of the Norwegian Parliament, for the Socialist Left Party.

While not being an anthropologist himself, Brox has always said that his entire tool box came from anthropology as it was practiced and taught during the 1960s in Bergen. In a book he published entitled “Practical Social Science” (in Norwegian), there are seven references to Fredrik Barth’s works.

Barth never worked for Norad, but UNESCO and FAO were among his first employers, in Iran and Sudan, and he ended his career by doing consultancies for UNICEF in Bhutan and the World Bank in China. In fact, his excellent monograph on the Basseri nomads in southern Iran (Barth 1961: Nomads in South Persia) and his most quoted publication (Barth 1969: Ethnic Groups and Boundaries), came out of his engagement in applied anthropology, the first directly, the latter indirectly.

In Iran, he was asked by UNESCO to give advice on how to settle nomads. He ended up writing a report advising very much against it, praising the freedom and living conditions of the Basseri, which he deemed superior to those of most settled people in the adjoining rural areas.

In 1963-64, he served as UNESCO Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. During his stay there, he was asked by FAO to make an inventory and analysis of human resources in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur as a basis for formulating a development plan. Darfur was then a rather unknown place, much later (2003/4) to come into the international spotlight because of an enormous humanitarian crisis, serious conflicts, accusations of genocide and the subsequent indictment of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir by the International Criminal Court. Out of this work, focused on livelihoods, came a report submitted to FAO, Human Resources in Darfur (Barth 1967a), and a much quoted paper, Economic Spheres in Darfur (Barth 1967b).

All anthropology students in Bergen knew about Darfur, also because of a paper by Gunnar Haaland on changing ethnic identities (he was Barth’s research assistant) which inspired Barth towards the pioneering work on Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, one of the most quoted books in the social sciences, not just in anthropology.


What was the message?

First, one message was that in order for social science to be “applicable”, not necessarily “applied” (which happened rarely), it has to be decision-oriented, not just conclusion-oriented. In the words of Brox, applicable social science must explain conditions in society with the help of categories that contain possibilities for action. If you are paid by the county of Finnmark to find out how they can be better at keeping their youth from migrating southwards, you have to search for variables that they can do something about and influence. You may of course find that there is not much you can do about it, for example that those with the best grades in school leave Finnmark, but that is an empirical question.

This means that in order to be applicable, we have to construct models where we try to trace unintended consequences of alternative interventions (which should be a main task), we have to make explicit statements on the interrelationships between (a) interventions and (b) the decisions and behavior of identified actors. This calls for conceptual models that allow for the formulation of conditional hypotheses, that is, we need models that allow us to deduce what behavioral responses are likely to follow from specific empirical conditions. As Barth wrote: the more the anthropologist’s methodology takes the form of simulation models, the more adequate will be the analysis (Barth 1970).

Barth also wrote that it is unrealistic to hope that we can build an analytic model that includes all the relevant factors and provides a firm basis for evaluation of alternative interventions: “We must be satisfied with something much more pragmatic: the accumulation of data that provide a basis for improvement and correction of policy” (Barth 1970). Or, as Gunnar Haaland wrote a few years later: Our main contribution is to limit the margin of error in project formulation, to state what we cannot or should not do (Haaland 1982). In the same vein, Brox, inspired by Karl Popper, stated that we cannot construct happiness but we can recognize and identify the opposite, that is, misery or unhappiness, or what should be avoided, eliminated or reduced (Brox 2013). Similarly, Barth wrote, how can we identify and support trends that move in the right direction and help undermine trends that move in a negative direction? (Barth 1970).


Is all this still relevant?

The first narrative will tell us that the current aid paradigm gives a very limited role for anthropologists. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, “getting politics right” and a concern with democracy, human rights and good governance gave an important role to political scientists, a position which has largely been maintained as foreign and development policies increasingly merge, seen today in the preoccupation with security, fragile states and peacebuilding. In addition, small is not so beautiful any longer.

If it was ever the case, you do not get promoted in the aid bureaucracy today because you know something about the Bemba in Zambia or the Oromo in Ethiopia.

Added to this, it might be argued (as Thomas Hylland Eriksen has said) that people nowadays (including politicians, decision makers, even aid bureaucrats) are simply less curious. For Barth, anthropology was about “watching and wondering” about things. The atmosphere these days seems less receptive to this kind of attitude.

However, the second narrative will say yes, our role has changed but applicability does not depend on being asked or paid to deliver commissioned reports or working in project contexts. If we look at today’s burning issues such as war and peace, climate and environment, or migration, there has never been more need for our knowledge and analysis than at present.

However, in order for us to be applicable, we need to further develop our models. In particular, we have to improve our ability to (a) pursue chains of causation (or ‘entanglements’) that cut across the boundaries of different disciplines, by increasing cooperation with colleagues from other disciplines and, sometimes, becoming historians or political scientists ourselves; and (b) to address issues of scale, that is, to trace trends and processes within and between regions, ecological zones and different sectors of economic and social activities.

In Bergen, we were particularly alert to the issue of scale since Barth’s paper and the book Scale and Social Organization from 1978. The point is that events and developments in places where we do our research must be understood in the context of a number of factors at different scale levels. Our challenge is to integrate different levels of analysis and one way of approaching this is to define the different (micro and macro) contexts that are relevant for understanding real life processes at local levels. This raises the issue of how we most fruitfully define and delimit social, economic and political systems in different local settings. The scale at which an analysis is pitched, will tend to affect the type of explanations given. There is clearly no “correct” scale for an investigation of say conflicts in Darfur, but there may be an appropriate one for answering different questions.

The need to construct chains of causation through what Andrew Vayda (1983) calls “progressive contextualization”, in order to make our models workable, is particularly crucial in applied research assignments. Such assignments will often require that we are able to identify where crucial decisions are made that make a difference to people’s lives. While our instinct and training as anthropologists may easily make us propose enhanced local participation and empowerment, it is often the case that key entry points for interventions that make a positive difference for the lives of local populations, will be found elsewhere, be it in a capital city or even abroad.



Barth, Fredrik (1967b), ‘Economic Spheres in Darfur’, in Raymond Firth (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology. ASA Monographs 6. London: Tavistock, pp. 149-174.

Barth, Fredrik (1968), ‘Muligheter og begrensninger i anvendelsen av sosialantropologi på utviklingsproblemene’. Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning 9(2):311–325.

Barth, Fredrik (ed.) (1969), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1970), ‘Sociological aspects of integrated surveys for river basin development’. Presentation at 4th International Seminar, ITC-UNESCO Centre for Integrated Surveys.

Barth, Fredrik (1972), ‘Et samfunn må forstås ut fra egne forutsetninger: U-landsforskning i sosialantropologisk perspektiv’. Forskningsnytt 17(4):7–11.

Barth Fredrik (ed.) (1978), Scale and Social Organization. Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1981), ‘Introduction’, in Fredrik Barth, Process and form in social life. Selected essays of Fredrik Barth: Volume I. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Brox, Ottar (1966), ‘Hva skjer i Nord-Norge?’. Oslo: Pax.

Brox, Ottar (1991), ‘Praktisk samfunnsvitenskap’. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Brox, Ottar (2013), ‘Fra «anvendt» til anvendelig forskning?’

Barth, Fredrik (1961), Nomads of South Persia’. Oslo University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1967a), ‘Human Resources: Social and Cultural Features of The Jebel Marra Project Area’, Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology 1. Bergen: University of Bergen.

Haaland, Gunnar (1982), ‘Problems of Savannah Development: The Sudan Case’. Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no. 19. Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Henriksen, Georg (1974), ‘Economic Growth and Ecological Balance. Problems of development in Turkana, North-Western Kenya’. Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no.11. Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Howell, Signe (2010), ‘Norwegian Academic Anthropologists in Public Spaces’. Current Anthropology, Vol. 51, No.52, pp. S.269-S277.

Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker (1999), ‘Kampen for å bli hørt og brukt: forholdet mellom antropologene og den norske utviklingshjelpen frem til 1987’. (‘The fight to be heard and used: the relationship between the anthropologists and Norwegian aid until 1987’). Historisk Tidsskrift 3, pp. 322-346.

Vayda, Andrew (1983), ‘Progressive Contextualization: Methods for research in human ecology’. Human Ecology, Vol.11 (3), pp. 265-281.

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