Home          Index by subject          Blog          Editorial board          Publishing norms          About us          Contact us         


Being experts at not-generalizing

Some reflections on the role of anthropologists in the light of the difficulty to understand the impacts of historical development projects in two industrial towns. 

By Rafael Lasevitz

Volta Redonda is an industrial town about two hours away by bus from Rio, in Brazil. Counting today something around 150.000 inhabitants, its social and economic life revolves significantly around its major 10.000 employee steel company, CSN, a huge industrial complex installed in the middle of the town, next to one of its main avenues.

Malartic, on its hand, is a small 3.000 inhabitants mining town in the northwest of the Canadian province of Quebec. Situated in the middle of a long copper-and-gold-rich belt, any visitor will easily notice the great wall of sand and grass next to its main avenue that separates it from a giant open pit gold mine that’s been driving the local politics and economy in the past decade or so.

Having done fieldwork in both towns, the similarities they share have actually become quite clear to me with time. To start with, both of them were born out of massive development plans, Volta Redonda in the 1940s and Malartic in the 1920s, and both development agendas consisted in a problematic mix of some gigantism, land colonization, Eldorado-like advertising, but also, of a hard to make negotiation between several actors, including national governments, small and big corporations, the country’s economies and the settlers themselves.

Maybe most of all though, both share a history of narratives of controlled development, that is, a history of having major development actors systematically describing (or advertising if you will) their plans and projects essentially in terms of the goals that it would most definitely fulfill. Rarely, if ever, were the many different stages of local development plans presented in any other way than one that would stress exclusively the quantifiable positive outcomes they would inevitably have for everyone involved.

Now, my original goal with both towns was essentially to understand how both development agendas had an impact in the local population’s life trajectories across time. And what I found, eventually, was that if on the one hand we had several people who got to work for or were benefited by those major mining or steel companies in one way or another at some point of their lives, there were also countless other ways that such projects were impacting people’s lives that were never “predicted” or announced in their official narratives.

The main example in that sense is probably the economic instability and uncertainty that has been brought along with them and that seems to make an intrinsic part of such projects. With local economies depending almost exclusively on a single company’s success, commodity price instability around the world has been harsh on both towns throughout their history. In Volta Redonda, it has come to mean several waves of layoffs across generations while in Malartic and its neighboring town of Rouyn-Noranda, it has manifested itself in the shape of a persisting rollercoaster of mines opening and shutting down according to how money was flowing around the planet.

And yet, what have startled me the most were rather the less visible impacts, those that are usually seen as collateral damage, or residual effects, if they are ever mentioned or detected at all.

Cases like Nelio’s, for instance. Nelio worked for Volta Redonda’s steel company for several years. At some point, he was given an inspection role within the town’s massive steel plant. His job was amongst other things to time every work-related activity from most of the plant’s thousands of steel workers. It could be the time a worker took to transport a charge of, say, steel bars from one sector to the other. It could also be the time a worker would spend using the bathroom every day. He would then have to discipline workers to increase productivity where it was felt less time consumption was possible. Nelio says that years doing that job eventually got him to be labeled as a kind of bad guy amongst his coworkers. Yet, since working in such domains can be quite consuming, we very often depend on them to actually have social lives. Nelio’s social life, he felt, has been ruined since.

It’s interesting to see how these complex development systems “capture” people’s trajectories in ways that make people have little control over their own identities or labels. Or personal projects, as it was with David, whose life working for the mining sector in Quebec got him doing “fly-in fly-outs” for most of his life. As many mines were situated on the far-north of Quebec, fly-in fly-outs, where one has to work for 7 days in a row, or 14, or 21, or even 42 in extreme cases, and them fly back “home” for a long weekend, are considered common. Some people have trouble keeping a marriage having those kinds of shifts, while others feel rather happy about them. In David’s case, he feels with regret that it was the main reason why he has never been able to actually constitute a family for himself.

There’s also the case of the new gold mine in Malartic that needed to move an entire neighborhood away so as to make place for its giant open pit. In spite of considerable local resistance to the project (presented as a salvation to what was about to become a ghost town in the mid-2000s), its population eventually “said yes” to it (though that yes should be nuanced in many ways). Ten years later, if on one hand a group of mine workers seems to be happy to work for the new mine, many distresses related to the awkward negotiation undertaken by the mining company (with government support) to buy people’s houses, as well as to multiple kinds of environmental pollution and to how the mine terribly affects local commerce with its daily blasting activities created a moral issue that simply had no existence before. Confronted to question of whether or not they should keep supporting this project, the town was split in “yes” and “no” fields since the beginning, when the project was first presented. Until today, cases of close friends and family members who have stopped talking to each other are not hard to be found.

Now, those are not necessarily the most extreme cases, but they are representative of the kind of development project effects that, when mentioned, are often minimized as being too small to be taken into account, or what’s more, too rare to be generalized. Not to mention that they often refer to people’s feelings and emotions and are, therefore, very hardly quantifiable, or even made visible to policy makers and the likes.

Which finally gets me to the point I wanted to get to. It struck me recently as I was reading an article written by Mexican anthropologist Alejandro Sanchíz that, in his experience, anthropologists are often (or usually) asked by policy makers either to generalize their findings or to ditch them entirely. Alejandro Sanchíz goes on to question to what level are anthropologists in a position to generalize anything at all considering their methodologies.

Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion on the potential for generalization that anthropology has, although that can surely be questioned when talking about any social science. On the other hand, in my personal experience as an anthropologist in academia, generalization was never an issue as it was never regarded as something to be sought, but rather, as something to be avoided, which makes me realize that pressure for generalization arrives rather once we start working for/with bureaucratic structures – the generalization-makers by excellence. Which, again, is quite startling considering that anthropologists often make rather great anti-generalists.

Getting back to my fieldwork in Volta Redonda and Malartic: if there is something that I have found was that even though everywhere the stresses were being put on the so-called general impacts of industrial development policies, usually job-related or GDP-related, it was not that difficult to find significant, sometimes life-turning residual effects when talking to the people living in those towns.

More importantly though, residual effects, as one can realize from the examples given before, would vary considerably. Policy making and development agendas being the incredibly complex web of actors and variants that they are, are capable of producing many of their planned results, but also a whole array of unexpected, uncontrolled impacts as well. And yet, I have found that most of the time, their “singularity” would make it quite easy to ditch them into the “exception” box.

My point is that when talking about policy making and development projects, negative impacts will very often be quite heterogeneous, and are denied their correlation as if an impact, to be given importance to, had to be both massive and visible in similar ways everywhere.  I consider this way of assessing impacts to be absolutely misleading. On the contrary, singularity should be in fact expected when assessing negative impacts.

Very interestingly then, anthropologists are in a privileged position to study such complex, singular outcomes of bureaucratic, public-private, development and policy making agendas, not because they are skilled when generalizing their findings, but rather, because they are skilled not to. A serious work is much needed to understand and deal with residual effects in such scenarios and that is exactly the kind of anti-generalist work anthropologists are so well-trained to do.

There is possibly a lot that can be done in the sense of making public and private bureaucrats and even academia itself to actually understand the importance of valuing research paths and methods that do not seek generalization. But it seems to me that the understanding of the impacts of complex institutions and complex projects in different communities urgently needs experts on understanding the diversity of their effects. After all, more often they not and as diverse as they may be, they carry just one same, yet complex, underlying cause.







Bronislaw #01

Rafael Lasevitz

Rafael Lasevitz is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Université de Montréal where he studies the impacts of development projects and policies on two mining towns in northwestern Quebec, as well as in the industrial town of Volta Redonda Brazil. Before that, he has also done research on time and space creation with the Bolivian immigrant community in São Paulo. He is a chief-editor for Bronislaw.




BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

The magazine

Previous editions


Editorial board

Our collaborators

Authors (soon)

Collaborate with Bronislaw

Publishing norms

Contact us