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In Praise of Complexity: Higher Education and the Real World

Universities produce complex and critical knowledge in a global world otherwise littered with thin, generic descriptions. What follows is the full text of a keynote on the importance of this role for the university, given by Vigdis Broch-Due, our candidate for Pro-Rector of Research, at the SANORD conference at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa,  7-9 December, 2009.

First of all let me say what a pleasure it is to be here on this morning of summer in South Africa surrounded by so many distinguished colleagues.  And before I say anything else I would like to thank the conference organisers and Rhodes University for your kind invitation and this wonderful opportunity to finally visit your beautiful country. As a Scandinavian, an Africanist and a social anthropologist who has worked for many years with nomadic pastoralists in some of the remoter hinterlands of East Africa, it is a rare privilege to come to one of the great cosmopolitan hubs of 21st century Africa, a country which so many Africans and others see as a beacon on the horizon, a place that has come to embody their hopes and dreams for what Africa could become.  One reason for that is that contemporary South Africa represents a particular model of social and political complexity that so many want to see succeed. Which brings me to my theme today.

My address to you today takes the form of a plea for what I like to call an ethics of complexity in academic scholarship and in higher education.  At one level this is a straight-forward stand against the seductions of simple-mindedness, against the simple formulations – philosophical, political or otherwise – which seem to organize a dense reality into an easily graspable totality, the broad-stroke ideas beloved by the public, by bureaucrats and by policy makers because they seem to shed clear light on obscure issues.  The problem, however, is that ideas shape the world. Time and time again, when put into practice, these simple formulations, whether dreamed up in the halls of academia, or the World Bank, or finance ministries, fail in the face of an unyielding reality – a reality so complex that it always challenges our efforts to grasp it. The world is stubbornly complex.

The problem is: how can we understand it and act in it without betraying that complexity.  This is the problem which I believe only an ethics of complexity can cope with.

In our academic world, an ethics of complexity would have to embrace many things. Perhaps the most obvious is the recruitment to the academic community itself – an ethics of complexity can only be produced by a community of scholars that itself reflects the diversity of the society at large in terms of gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity and so on. A recruitment policy that mirrors social complexity is not only crucial for the production of equality, social mobility, redistribution of resources and a more prosperous economy, but also for the formation of an informed public. In other words, an ethics of complexity is the engine of modern democracies. I know from the programme that you will discuss these components in some detail across the panels.

So in this talk I have chosen to highlight how an ethics of complexity should be at the core of the production and dissemination of knowledge – which after all is the essence of scholarship, and should be the goal of higher education. As I will explore throughout this talk, an ethics of complexity runs counter to the current domination of the blueprints, templates and other “thin descriptions” at the heart of neo-liberal polices, as well as much specialised scholarship in economics, finance, planning and management. From my own research, I am particularly familiar with some of the simple templates that claim to shed light on warfare and poverty in Africa. I shall use these as my examples.

In many ways the philosophical questions at stake here go back to the eighteenth century Germanic thinker, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His question was: How do we know the world? And his answer was that we can only know the world by filtering it. Knowing is a creative process in which our minds and senses must work to organize, and to some extent simplify, an overwhelmingly complex reality. To know the world is to create a world that is accessible to knowledge.

The question, of course is how much simplification is necessary?  The question is vexed enough in the purely abstract philosophical or cognitive terms in which Kant was thinking. When we turn to the problem of society as an object of knowledge, some thing that Kant would never have done, the problems multiply.  Faced with the teeming complexities of social worlds, how much can we reduce them to graspable formulations and still claim to know them?

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz most eloquently addressed this problem when he talked about the tension between what he called “thick” and “thin” descriptions. He noted that there was an ever-present drive towards “thin” description – in part because it was just easier, and in part because of the social conditions of the production of knowledge.

The increasing commoditisation of research, the demand that the knowledge produced by universities should be applied rather than basic – the trend that a fast turnover of profit is simultaneously a fast turn over of knowledge, is what drives thin descriptions. I believe that an ethics of complexity would try to negotiate the divide between diversity and simplicity by finding new ways of inserting the “thick” into the “thin” – so to speak.

That to know the world is to contribute to its creation is of course as true when the knowing is superficial, biased and in the hands of a privileged few, as when the knowing is comprehensive. For the end result of policies and interventions based on thin, superficial knowing is a host of unintended consequences that nevertheless contribute to reshaping the world, often for the worse.

Let me conjure up a bit of the complexity surrounding the contemporary scenario of violence and poverty typical for many Africa settings. Its spreading effects can be viewed as the bitter fruit of simple prescriptions for progress and poverty alleviation implemented during the last decades.

Based on the observation that many post-colonial African States, whether through corruption or incapacity, struggled to provide basic welfare, security or prosperity for their citizens, a series of aid and development initiatives were implemented that effectively sought to by-pass the local state apparatuses. This coincided with the rise in the West of neo-liberal economic theories that saw the private sector as the long-term solution to the problems of poverty.

The unintended consequence of this was the further breakdown of the redistributive function of the state and its ability to provide welfare, education, health and service to its citizens. This was not simply a quantitative shift, a decrease in the resources flowing from the state to its citizens but, more significantly, a qualitative shift. Many of the vital obligations the state traditionally had towards it citizenry have been erased, some taken over by NGOs and private institutions while others are simply left in the hands of the citizens themselves.

Stripped of most statecraft functions but for their sovereignty, contemporary African states are increasingly in the hands of business corporations, NGOs, and international aid bureaucratises. These translocal organisations have usurped many state functions without, it is important to remember, having received any legitimacy from the African constituencies where their plans are intended to take effect. Under the banner of  “economic liberalism” and “market freedoms” a consortia of private and public capital have pushed through the implementation of devastating “structural adjustment” polices engineered by the IMF and World Bank to speed up the flows of capital, goods and labour, with the simple belief that this of itself will bring progress and prosperity.  It hasn’t. This new, celebrated ‘connectivity’ has been very selective in who it finds promising and profitable enough to connect. Most ordinary Africans have experienced that the flow of capital and concern has passed them by to settle on the elite.  The simple diagnoses for the causes of poverty and prescriptions for its alleviation have somehow led to its intensification.

Flying in the face of the connectivity trumpeted by enthusiasts of globalisation, urban Kenyans I know share with many other Africans the experience of disconnection and exclusion. The anthropologist James Ferguson has written powerfully about this downhill drive for the Zambian Copper belt. Where they once felt included in an imagined modern world and its ‘progress’, they now feel utterly excluded. When, on a recent trip, educated Kenyans likewise talked to me about their material poverty they spoke of having lost not only the measure of material prosperity they once possessed, but expressed their sense of exclusion from the world ‘out there’. They too were not simply lamenting a lack of connection, but articulating a specific experience of  “disconnection”. Thus the African ‘middleclass-in-the-(un)making’ share an experience of their new found poverty not simply as a lack, but as a loss. The African rich are getting richer, the African poor are getting poorer, while the middle strata is simply disintegrating.

I was reminded of this as I recently drove along the dusty highway from Nairobi to Lodwar in Kenya’s far north. I was amazed by the almost total absence of traffic, a total contrast to the situation 25 years ago when this road had been recently tarmaced and was a busy main road to the Sudan. Now it was potholed and fallen into pieces traversed only by herds of livestock on their migration through the vast, empty landscape. The area was deserted; a striking contrast to the busy state of affairs three decades ago. The mid-eighties were the heydays of high-spending by NORAD  – a time when Lodwar even got a roundabout and the town was permanently veiled in the fumes and noises of Lorries and Landrovers. This boom in town-life and ‘development’ corresponded with a bust in livestock holdings and a loss of pastoralist control of their pasture land.

By the mid-nineties, the situation had completely turned around. NORAD had been forced to close down all activities and stop all funding of projects in the wake of the breakdown in diplomatic relations between Kenya and Norway. Other donors had left Lodwar too, rushing up north to the border with the Sudan. Here a tiny Turkana village had been turned into the headquarters for the huge UN co-operation called ‘operation life-line’. This corresponded not just to the seriousness of the civil war in the Sudan, but also to the changing fashion in development philosophy in which the figure of ‘the pastoralist’ had been replaced with the figure of ‘the refugee’ as the prime recipient of aid and concern.

In the space of 20 years, modernity had come and gone in the most surreal and paradoxical way. On the sites of closed-down irrigation and fishing facilities, animals once again wandered but now amongst the rusting machines of the old development projects. Herders where clearly in the process of claiming back the old paths and pastures from which they had been expelled by ‘modernisation’. While contentment and prosperity seemed to have returned to most pastoral camps on the plains, the situation amongst most town people had become one of desperate poverty. Ethnic clashes on a national scale, orchestrated by the rulers, had the effect of ending all external marketing of small-stock, simply because the traders were not willing to take the risk of transporting live animals on trucks through these troubled zones. This loss of a significant source of cash, coming on top of the regular restrictions placed on cattle sales from Turkanaland, had spreading effects that curtailed other types of local trading.

Among those settled in the new towns all this contributed to severe economic depression. While the pastoralists could subsist directly from the nurturing powers of their milk herds, few townspeople had any cash left to spend on food and even less to cover the increased fees for schooling and hospital treatment.

This regional crisis had percolated into the most intimate spheres of personal life and all too often its expression was violent. I noticed it on my first night there, which was a deeply unsettling one. The soundscape of Lodwar, once that of a booming frontier town filled with the noise of engines and raucous entertainment, was now eerily empty, punctuated only by the furious shouting of drunk men and the screams of women as they were beaten or mourned their dead children. It was a tragic reminder of the way the personal becomes a barometer of wider social conditions.

The ways in which the poverty theories and policies pushed by development agents have had such negative effects among these African pastoralists, has influenced my more recent theorizing of poverty in a comparative perspective.  And it returns us to my theme of “thick” versus “thin” description. Browsing through the available literature on the topic in the early nineties, I was initially struck by how ‘thinly’ it was framed. Poverty appeared on the page as a material and totally measurable condition of income, calories and little else. Clearly, income and nutrition are important indices of poverty and yet, based on my own ethnographic experience; this economist’s poverty discourse dominating development research seemed to me a seriously reductive one. It appears to give a simple and revealing categorisation of areas, populations and their needs, but by making income and nutrition the only factors standing for complex social realities, it can just as easily come to conceal and misrepresent important political, social and cultural processes defining and creating poverty.

As I hope was conveyed through my brief ethnographic sketch from contemporary East Africa, the politics of wealth and want are anything but ‘thin’. The condition of poverty – who the ‘poor’ are, why they are poor, and what can be deemed a proper response to them – everywhere brings a whole emotional, ethical and moral universe into play which is very specific to a particular time and place. Far from being a straightforward condition of deprivation and destitution that is easily defined empirically, poverty is a contentious and complex construct, an archetypal ‘thick’ discourse, encapsulating a vast range of social, political and historical struggles and constantly evolving values.

My point here is that only a “thick” discourse of poverty can really understand it, and come up with policies that actually stand some chance of working.  I believe a similar point can be made about the roots of warfare in modern Africa.

While the thin templates that drive global theories of much economics and finance have come under fire during the recent financial collapse, and the standardized blueprints of the global development industry have been roundly critiqued for their lack of tangible results in poverty alleviation; the generic war story, featured in our newspapers and TV screens, seem to fare much better and be more popular that ever in the broader public. Violence, like poverty, has become it own context.

Like the conventional narrative of poverty, there is an ease and confidence about the generic war story of western mass media that violates the complexities and subtleties of real warscapes. In the ‘idiom of blood’ that structures the generic war report, all atrocities seem to be created equal. They read like the same story from everywhere: a tribe in power butchers a disenfranchised tribe, another outbreak of ancient hatreds; the more things change the more they stay the same; and so on. The violence conjured is ‘endemic’, ‘epidemic’, and ‘ethnic’, and the extremities of it erase any appeal to think about the single instance.

These templates are built by drawing on the techniques of storytelling. They are equipped with a narrative structure that is comprehensible within the horizons of experience and expectations of their target readerships. Certain templates and blueprints have long been at work in European representations of Africa, not only as technical devices for storytelling, but also as filters selecting certain kind of stories and not others.

There is a profound and understandable desire for simple accounts of these awful situations that identify the victims, the perpetrators and their motives, a cast, if you will, of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. There is something reassuring about simple binary oppositions like: the ‘Tutsi are good’ and ‘Hutu are bad’, men exploit and women are exploited, militarists are wicked and violent, civilians are pure and innocent. There seems to be a powerful urge to distil social complexity into moral simplicity.

As scholars and analysts, I believe we should resist that urge. On the contrary, I am arguing that it is possible, indeed desirable to develop an ethics of complexity, a scholarly project that seeks to grasp how violence and poverty are socially produced, upheld or reduced. This is not simply because, like most anthropologists, I take a particular pleasure in complex and contextualising accounts. It because I firmly believe that to have better and more adequate understandings helps make a grim situation less grim.

The social analysis grounded in an ethics of complexity seeks to take the study of violence and poverty away from an overriding concern with categorizations and definitions (for example, whether we are dealing with ‘ethnic violence’, ‘sexualised violence’ or ‘structural violence’) towards foregrounding the question of social relationship. Violence and poverty imply a relationship. By embedding their dynamics in the wider field of social inequality, we understand their genesis much better and can begin to imagine solutions.

Most profoundly, an ethics of complexity as the heart of higher education seeks to respond ethically to the realities of connectedness. We must take seriously the fact that life in the African locations I have talked about in Kenya but also, I am sure,  in the townships of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elisabeth – entails a set of implicit gestures towards membership in a larger world. These gestures of a relational sort make a claim on us as academics; as subjects often leading privileged lives at a comfortable distance from the troubled locations of our informants. Thus the question of where we belong as social scientists in relation to the topic of violence and poverty clearly engages the ‘ethics’ of theory. Our quest is not for a morality of theory, or a moralizing theory, but precisely a perspective based in ethics.

In order to demonstrate this finer point let us finally revisit the concept of ‘structural violence’. Poverty is a form of structural violence, for instance, whose effects are devastating, but whose agents and evil-doers are very hard to pinpoint. The extreme social inequality, for example, that manifested itself in Lodwar, Northern Kenya, and the new forms of sexual violence that seemed to follow from it, were the end products of complex cultural, political and economic forces.

The hazy nature of structural violence leaves people with a tremendous sense of helplessness in the face of it. For example, when the exchange rates of local currencies fall, emptying local pockets, those affected feel devastated by mysterious forces emanating from afar in the intricate world of international money markets, forever beyond their control. We are less accustomed to view the production of physical violence through the same lenses as those applied to the production of poverty. In contrast to creeping marginalization, violence enacted clearly has immediate actors, perpetrators and victims. The term ‘structural violence’ seems inappropriate to people being cut open with bayonets.

And yet, as I know from my own research, when we listen carefully to the testimonies of victims and perpetrators alike, what comes through is an overwhelming sense of people being sucked into processes of intensification and production of violence in a way that leaves them feeling very much like the victims of poverty feel, that all of this has happened to them for reasons they do not comprehend. It is possible to take seriously these voices declaring a feeling of having been pulled into a maelstrom of violence against their will, without discarding the idea of accountability and responsibility in the hands of the culprits involved in single instances of atrocity.

I would like to emphasise that producing complex and relationship-centred contextual accounts is a matter not only of thick ethnography, but relates powerfully to the ethics of theory. The ethics of theory is centrally about developing further the social sciences as a comparative instrument, allowing us the luxury of “thick” description, but also giving us the capacity to compare distinct situations, and avoid an infinite regression into an ever thickening ethnographic terrain of unique scenarios of violence and poverty. In order to model complexity and comparison better we need increased research collaboration between scholars in the North and South, but also more collaboration between scholars across Africa, Asia and South America.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the complex and contextualized accounts we produce in dialogue with people, even if placed within a larger framework and firmly grounded in comparison and research collaboration, fare badly outside the seminar room. We are simply writing against the grain of widespread yearnings for cosmologies of simplicity, purity and order, which can put violence in its proper place, and replace the many faces of the poor with numbers and measures to lift them “in” and “out” of poverty.

The problem here is that we cannot dislodge simplistic stories simply by arguing that they are factually ‘wrong’ or in want of the necessary complexity. To dislodge a story we must provide a better story; more convincing and more compelling.

Thus the question of the ethics of theory is in part a question of the pragmatics of how do you tell a better story? In addition to addressing large-scale phenomena, focusing on social relationship, putting back a comparative frame; telling a better story entails a certain self-consciousness about the fact that we are narrators in addition to being researchers. More effective story-telling means capturing the imagination of larger audiences with richer accounts not only of the relations between violence, poverty and globalization but also of their antitheses: true connectedness, wellbeing and wealth.

Replacing simplified generic stories with more compelling and sensitive ones, may sound like a Utopian project, but it is one that can organise useful scholarship. Cultivating the voices of academics for larger audiences is absolutely vital for the formation of an energized public and a viable democracy.  A vital part of this project is the need to ensure that a broad spectrum of experiences and specialized knowledge are included in the institutional fund of academic ideas, theorising and curriculums. This can only be ensured by recruiting and cultivating voices from all walks of life in society. In other words, an ethics of complexity commences with giving every child a chance to early education, proper primary and secondary preparation to open the path to higher education on an equal basis.

It is interesting that an ethics of complexity in terms of knowledge production and dissemination is not necessarily new. It may appear so in the present situation of academia in which each discipline has specialised and refined its technical vocabulary to such an extent that we not only have difficulty communicating with the ordinary people, but also across disciplines within academia itself. In contrast, many of the great scientists of the 19th century, like Charles Darwin, for instance, knew very well how to make their observations readable and entertaining. The Origins of the Species is an excellent example of scientific theorizing made accessible to a wide audience.

The first social scientists, like Henry Mayhew who conducted the first study of poverty in the UK published as London Labour and London Poor, and his contemporary Norwegian counterpart Eilert Sundt, whose writing in vernacular Norwegian has made him less well known, both knew how to draw on the new style of fiction writing and novels as they constructed their accounts.

In fact the novel – with its ability to conjure up a whole social universe with its realistic and naturalistic modes of description – became the template for early scientific monographs – not only in biology but also ethnography. Not only did the influential scholars of the time borrow literary devices from fiction authors, but they themselves would often write and publish in many different genres. Mayhew, for example, published monographs in history and sociology, he wrote for periodicals, newspapers and also published novels. Charles Dickens, whose characters were often taken directly out of Mayhew’s ethnographic descriptions of the poor in London, would also write factual pieces with the same ease as fictional ones.

Indeed all over Europe there was a conceptual traffic between fictional and factual prose to the extent that one can say that Norwegian social science, for example, was as much influenced by the themes conjured in plays and novels of the early realist modernists, like Henrik Ibsen and Amalie Skram, as they were by Eilert Sundt, Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

A plea for an ethic of complexity involves an effort to get back into the scholarly domain the skills of story telling that these influential early thinkers managed to do so well. They were educated more broadly and were acutely aware that narrative forms, which bound together familiar images and metaphors, were an essential part of the process of communication. We are back full circle to Kant and his insight that to know the world is to create a world that is accessible to knowledge. We have to know not only the subject matter we write about, but for whom we write it.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that the key to achieving the ethics of complexity I have outlined here is Higher Education.  Only higher education attunes people to the sort of complex narratives that can adequately represent our world and shape it in constructive ways for the future.  And as I know all of you here today are so well aware – it is not just the content of what is learnt in higher education that is so vital for the future, but also the recruitment policies we put in place to draw people into higher education. It is impossible to divorce knowledge from the community of “knowers”. Only a system of higher education, which faithfully reflects the diversity of our social worlds, can reproduce the quality of knowledge necessary to represent the complexity of the real world, and tell the stories to the wider publics who will shape our futures.

Thank you so much for your attention!


Forfatter: Jill Walker Rettberg

Professor of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen.

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