In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of NGOs

  • Introduction

Anthropology Anthropology of NGOs
Mark Schuller, David Lewis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0090


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become increasingly important institutional actors in most societies. NGOs are normally characterized as nonstate organizations independent from for-profit business working in international development, humanitarian action, human rights, or environmental areas. Intrinsically diverse and difficult to define with precision, NGOs began attracting attention from researchers and policymakers during the late 1980s. One reason was the post–Cold War rediscovery of ideas about “civil society” by activists, particularly in eastern Europe and Latin America. Another was the shift toward more flexible forms of “good governance” promotion among international development agencies such as the World Bank that favored NGOs as private market-based actors within wider neoliberal restructuring. In domestic North America and Europe the concept of the “third sector” (associated with US sociologist Amitai Etzioni) emerged as a way of situating diverse types of citizen groups operating in the space between state, market, and household. Partly due to tensions around “applied” work within the discipline, and partly due to a preference for engaging with social movements rather than formal organizations, anthropologists’ analytical engagement with NGOs have been relatively slow to emerge. Perhaps another factor has been the uncomfortable similarity between the work that anthropologists and NGOs do. Both are open to the criticism that they move uninvited into communities where they seek to build relationships with people generally less powerful than themselves. NGO studies and anthropology have therefore had an uneasy relationship that is sometimes riddled with productive tensions, and sometimes with silences and disjuncture. The impact of NGO studies on anthropological theory remains limited to the subfield of political anthropology, but the reach of anthropological studies into NGO policy and practice is more widespread. It is still nonetheless small compared to other disciplines and traceable to individual circuits of anthropologists within aid agencies. However, this has begun to change in recent years, as political, organizational, and policy anthropologists have each built on this foundation to begin contributing some distinctive insights. There are differences of emphasis in this work. In Europe, the study of NGOs emerged in the interdisciplinary field of development studies, where there has been both critical and applied work. In North America, research on NGOs has been more strongly influenced by deconstructive critical theoretical traditions that view NGOs primarily as sites for neoliberal governmentality and hegemonic discourse. In India and other areas of the Global South, both activist and postcolonial theoretical perspectives on NGOs have also emerged. In this entry, we can identify three main aspects of a growing engagement between anthropological work and the broad subject of NGOs: the question of how NGOs came to be an object of anthropological inquiry, reflections on the productively unstable category of “NGO,” and the tracing of anthropological engagement with NGOs.

NGOs as Objects of Anthropological Inquiry

Although NGOs were not named as such until the second half of the 20th century, they have long been present in anthropological work. For example, local organizations of a voluntary or associational nature, as well as outposts of international organization such as missionary groups, had long been encountered by anthropologists around the world. Later, as “development” became a subject for anthropological inquiry, it became necessary to study not only states and their activities but also the proliferation of nonstate actors, particularly since from the 1980s onward, many governments began contracting out services. And in the 1990s the corporate social responsibility agendas of business became more visible. As NGOs became more common across societies, they also became part of the landscape through which anthropologists negotiated access to field sites. In line with Laura Nader’s 1969 call for anthropologists to “study up,” some also therefore became interested in NGOs as sites of power.

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