…But I think it comes down to a division of labor. And if there is enough division of labor, people who do critical academic work can perform a valuable service to people living in poverty. But the answer to the question of “what is to be done” is not always to write a new book.
SW: There seems to be a core of optimism in your writing, which seems rare to find among scholars working in deprived locations. Where does that come from?
PF: “Pessimism of the intellect is appropriate but optimism of the spirit is necessary.” I don’t remember who coined that phrase, but I’ve always liked it.
But part of my optimism comes from working collectively. A lot of academics don’t get to do that. They work by themselves. If you put your energy in a collective movement, say, labor rights in Norway, or racial equality in the 1960s, or fighting against unjust wars – and if you stick with it long enough, and you believe that the arc of history is fundamentally bending towards justice – then it doesn’t seem to be optimism to the point of not understanding realistic and sound analysis.
So, there are several sources of optimism. Getting out there with others is important. That’s what doctors do, not so much academics.
SW: Getting out of the ivory tower.
PF: Yes, and think of all the ways in which we have ivory towers! Gated communities, monasteries, those are good places to think and write. And at times it is useful to lock yourself in, to think that your ideas are the most important thing on earth, to cut off the rest the world. It is by creating a bubble that you can get deep thinking and writing done.
But I’ve seen a lot of people become in love with their own ideas at the end of that process. And then spend their careers repeating their ideas, and feeling in the end that their ideas are products not to be molded, and shaped and improved but to be maintained. And I don’t recommend that to my students because it’s a trap. And luckily, ethnographers can get out of that by just going out to a new place.
paul farmer on ethnography