Views from the ANThill: Humans, Power and Fairness

by douglas c reeser on 7.8.11
During the process of fieldwork, there is always present the innumerable conversations that have little or nothing to do with your actual research focus. Such conversations are in integral part of settling into your research community and building rapport with the people and places in which you are spending your time. During the first month or so here in Belize, I have had many such discussions.
One example occurred with a potential research partner while I was on my way into town for lunch one day. I was walking along, passing the home and business of a couple with whom I hope to work, and the wife yelled out a greeting. I walked over and chatted with her about some work on local food recipes that I offered to help with. Her husband was nearby, working on a large carving with a friend. He too called me over, and as I helped with some sanding, we began to chat about a variety of things.
One topic struck me as especially interesting. My friend asked, “Do you think America is going to come back?” It was a question somewhat out of the blue, as we weren’t talking about the U.S. specifically. I pondered his querry for a moment, and then responded that I wish the country could once again become a “good country. Not a great country, but a good one.” This was well received, and the three of us went on to talk about the possibilities that might exist if the U.S. dispersed its power and worked as partners with others, as opposed to the current track of using its power to control others. We were getting at the difference between the concept of “power with” versus “power over”.
Interestingly, when I returned home later, I stumbled upon an article just published in the New York Times: “Thirst for Fairness May Have Helped Us Survive”. The article discusses a variety of research – including such diverse topics as primate research, human evolution, research with contemporary tribal groups, and even brain scanning studies – all around the idea that humans have developed with strong leanings toward egalitarianism and fairness. In other words, our social norm as a species may be based on equality, trust and mutualism, something akin to the concept of "power with". The article notes:
“Low hierarchy does not mean no hierarchy. Through ethnographic and cross-cultural studies, researchers have concluded that the basic template for human social groups is moderately but not unerringly egalitarian. They have found gradients of wealth and power among even the most nomadic groups, but such gradients tend to be mild.”
In other words, there can be differences between us in terms of wealth and status, just not differences that are too great. What I find especially interesting about these two events – a talk with two Belizeans about the human potential for good and the publishing of an article on the human propensity for fairness – is that they each got at similar concepts in staggeringly different contexts. Such connections while in the field are not entirely uncommon, and they are part of what makes fieldwork so exciting. The potential for working together, for creating a more fair and just world, and for connecting with other human beings is alive and well. Hope remains.
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  1. Anonymous7:53 PM

    Terrific post. It would do everyone well to start focusing on being "good" rather than "great." "Great" has become thoroughly unattractive.

  2. I wanted to share this piece by anthropologist, Paul Stoler, which acts as a nice complement to what I was getting at here:


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