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Seminar on Social Interaction in the Production and Circulation of Knowledge

Brown university, Providence 20-25 March, 2001
Organised by the IUSSP Committee on Anthropological Demography


Papers Presented

using Operations Research for producing and communicating knowledge about Reproductive Health Services in sub-Saharan Africa

CARTER Anthony T.
Legitimate Tangential Participation: Toward an Ethnography of Family Planning Counseling

COAST Ernestina
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'What's a boiling kettle got to do with a baby?' Obscure euphemisms and the reluctance to spread information about sex and birth control in Britain 1920-1950

Induced Abortion and the Formation of Population Policy

Lesson Plans and Family Planning: Schools and the Globalization of Reproductive Practice

'The Real Meaning of Depo is This': Rumours, Suspicion and Travelling Talk in an African Family Planning Programme

MADHAVAN Sangeetha, COLLINSON Mark and TOWNSEND Nicholas
The Production and Circulation of Population Knowledge through Demographic Surveillance Systems: A Case Study of the Agincourt Health and Population Programme

The Contingent Power of Experts in the Market-Place of Knowledge

RENNE Elisha
Producing Population Knowledge in Nigeria: School Essay Competitions, the Department of Population Activities, and the State

Global Knowledge/Local Bodies: Family Planning Service Providers'Interpretations of Contraceptive Knowledge(s)

ROSSIER Clementine, PICTET Gabriel and OuEDRAOGO Christine
Is Modern Contraception the Same as Induced Abortion? Discourses on Different Forms of Birth Control and Visions of Reproduction in Rural Burkina Faso

The circulation of Reproductive health knowledge in medical circles: A study of Egyptian medical encounters

SHORT Susan, ZENG Yi, and WHITE Michael J.
Representing China's Fertility: Local, National, and International Dimensions

'Feedback loops' in the production and circulation of population knowledge: observations of a practitioner

STARK Laura and KOHLER H.-P.
Measuring Fertility in the Media

This impetus for this workshop came from a series of questions about the design, implementation and evaluation of population based programmes and from a linked set of questions concerning the role of social processes in fertility change. Papers presented approached the social processes involved in the production and circulation of population knowledge from two directions. On the one hand, participants were interested in describing the flows of scientific and policy knowledge from global actors through national programmes to local consumers and the flow of local knowledge to global actors. At the same time, as anthropologists, the participants were interested in examining these flows in the context of recent theories of globalisation, culture and social interaction.

Policy Questions

Much of the scientific and policy knowledge deployed in population programmes -- knowledge concerning the determinants of fertility and mortality transitions, the design of family planning programmes, AIDS, etc. -- is formulated in global agencies. On the basis of this knowledge, recommendations regarding individual behaviour are formulated : e.g. couples will be better off with smaller families, condoms should be used in extramarital relations. Much effort and expense has been invested in disseminating these recommendations to men and women in developing countries. Yet the dissemination is not direct, from the producer of the knowledge and recommendations to the individuals for whom it is meant. Rather, the knowledge flows through various levels: first national governments and NGOs and then to local clinics before finally reaching the intended audience. The workshop raised three sets of questions about this process.

The first set of questions concerned the production of scientific and policy knowledge related to population and its formulation in "best practice" and programme standards. Much of this work is carried out in or supported by agencies that have a global mandate such as the uN, the WHO and the World Bank and/or national agencies that have a global reach such as uSAID. Some of this knowledge comes from natural scientists : e.g. the development of modern contraceptives and attempts to develop AIDS vaccines. Some comes from social scientists: e.g. efforts to measure the demand for family planning methods or condoms or to explain why women in a high fertility population use modern family planning in ways very different from those expected by the population movement. And some comes from policy debates such as the 1994 uN Conference on Population and Development. It is clear that the choices made in the design and dissemination of such research -- to concentrate on the development of female rather than male contraceptives, for example, or to implement family planning programmes that largely ignored males -- have enormous consequences. In the past, too little attention has been given to the social process by which such choices are debated and ultimately made.

The second set of questions concerned what happens to the scientific and policy knowledge related to population programmes as it is disseminated first, to national governments and NGOs and then to local programmes and their clients. At the national level, it is evident that national governments and NGOs respond to suggestions concerning "best practice" and programme standards in a variety of ways. For example, although virtually all countries signed on to the Cairo Programme of Action, the depth of the commitment of some signatories can be questioned. Some have attempted to implement a wide variety of Cairo recommendations, whereas others have accepted a few recommendations but ignored others. Which recommendations have been accepted and which rejected, and why? If national governments and NGOs prefer to follow Cairo on STD/HIV prevention and on family planning but to ignore Cairo's recommendations to curb domestic violence, why is this the case? What pressures are then brought to bear by donors to implement Cairo, and are these unevenly focused on some aspects of Cairo as well? In another area, why does the national AIDS programme in Kenya emphasize interventions aimed at prostitutes and truck-drivers, rather than ordinary husbands and wives in areas where seroprevalence rates among pregnant women are high? Similarly, at the local level, clinic staff nurses may adopt some of the Ministry of Health's recommendations but reject others. In general, how is scientific and policy knowledge winnowed and recast as it moves from the sites where it is produced to those where it is expected to be used? Are the changes, if any, a consequence of translation or are they also due to other social processes such as appropriation, collusion or resistance? Is resistance overt or is it simply a matter of failing to implement recommendations that are embarrassing or difficult to implement? How much power do national governments, NGOs, local programme staff and clients have in resisting the recommendations of donors? And on what grounds do they resist?

The third set of questions concerned the production of population knowledge in national and local sites and its circulation to global actors. Here work on the production and circulation of knowledge in translocal relations intersects work on social processes and fertility change in local settings. Against economic theories of fertility change that abstract representative individuals or couples from their social settings or that treat communities and nations as responding only to what takes place inside their borders, this work seeks to take account of the ways in which individuals and social groups are embedded in social systems. Persons and groups are tied together by "channels of social interaction" -- local, national and global; horizontal as well as vertical -- "through which information and ideas, evaluation, and social influence flow." Learning is social as well as individual. Together these lines of research suggest questions such as the following. How is knowledge produced by members of local communities ? How are global recommendations to be chaste or to always use condoms discussed by the men and women involved in transmitting HIV/AIDS? How can social scientists who come from the capital or abroad learn about these discussions? If national governments claim that there is no domestic violence in their country, or that the IuD is unacceptable to their people, do the global actors listen? Is there feedback that modifies the recommendations about "best practice" and programme standards?

Globalization, Culture, and Social Interaction

The production and circulation of population knowledge are aspects of the production of global culture or globalization. Defined roughly as the movement, transmission, or serial reproduction of meaningful social forms -- musical genres, consumer goods, financial instruments, scientific and policy knowledge, etc. -- through different sites in translocal structures, globalization has attracted considerable attention in recent years.

Modernization theorists of the 1960s and 1970s expected that eventually there would be a homogeneous global culture. This expectation was consistent with the more general concept of culture as a corpus of shared beliefs, usually closely confined to the boundaries of a particular territory or a particular group. In addition to enshrining a problematic distinction between knowledge and belief, this view fails to appreciate the extent to which new information is continually produced and circulated to groups far away, the variability in production and circulation across and between communities and the interactions through which social boundaries are defined, exercised and crossed. Currently, the notion of a trend toward a homogeneous global culture is being replaced by the idea that all culture, local as well as global, is an "organization of diversity." Reggae is popular in Malawi, Vaclav Havel admired Frank Zappa, and South African acapella groups are popular in the U.S. as the result of Paul Simon's work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Capital circles the globe in less than 24 hours. Depo-Provera is readily available in The Gambia. Coca Cola is everywhere. But we have to ask how these things are transformed as they move from one context to another.

All knowledge is produced in social interactions that are in some sense localized and all localities produce knowledge. In the contemporary world, the circulation of knowledge is rapid and pervasive. Some knowledge acquires a global character, moving from one locality to another or others through institutions with a global reach. The workshop asked how the global and the local are defined in relation to each other and what happens to knowledge as it circulates from local to global sites and back.

Workshop participants discussed the variety of relations through which "locality" is constituted relative to regional, state-level and international processes. As anthropologists, their approach necessarily proceeded from a theory of social action more complex than standard rational choice models, in which action is conceived in terms of autonomous individuals making choices in order to maximize their return. On the contrary, participants took the agents of fertility-related conduct to be individuals and groups co-engaged in various kinds of social interaction. This includes gossip and counselling and other face-to-face engagements among co-present agents. It also includes soap operas and other mediated engagements among agents who are separated in time, space or other social dimensions. The relations through which "locality" is constituted are at once conduits through which information and ideas, evaluation, and social influence flow and critical sites at which agents learn and make choices.

If, for example, the village is pivotal for contraceptive choice in Thailand, might not the neighbourhood, the social network, church affiliation, the marketplace or the social movement be pivotal in another society or for another aspect of conduct involved in fertility or mortality? What, in short, are the key social units and factors that help define population-related decisions, strategies and habits? Not only can such factors have a critical impact on population, but they help define "locality." They (or other similar ones) are among the elements to which local social agents orient when making decisions and engaging in actions. Sometimes this orientation is a matter of consciously focusing on social factors in making a decision or in acting. A woman, or a couple or a group (based on co-residence, kinship, network affiliation or other factors) decide on a course of action regarding, say, contraception, proper spacing of births or the treatment of childhood illness -- attending explicitly to the expectations of their peers or to likely economic consequences. Often though, social factors are not explicitly thematized by actors in situ. Instead the social matrix is the taken-for-granted setting in which vital events are lived and evaluated.

In order to properly construct "locality" then, and the actional settings in which population consequent processes occur, the social embedding of action must be examined. This cannot be reduced to a list of "socioeconomic indicators", because statistically coded social or economic indicators never add up to a social context. They never tell us how the field of decision and action is constituted by the actors engaged in it. It is therefore unsurprising that socioeconomic context, when atomized into a collection of indicators, seems to have little impact on population processes. The problem is that such indicators are blind to the systems and values through which action is articulated, whether in the New York City boardroom or the distant rural clinic. One of the challenges of a specifically anthropological contribution to population studies is to retheorize locality. This is part of the larger project of understanding what is meant by "globality," and by extension "global flows," since the global and the local refer not to places or things, but to relations.

Workshop participants examined translocal information flows in terms of several parameters. The agents engaged in making and moving meaning each enter into the process from a certain perspective. All agents occupy a specific, limited segment of the whole formation. They may have access to more or less far reaching information pertaining to the global information network, but they evaluate and encode that information from the viewpoint of their own current position. Access to information and other resources is always positional. Clearly, not all positions provide equal access to, control over or resources for manipulating information. The second feature, therefore, is symmetry and asymmetry of perspectives. It means simply that two or more positional perspectives may provide similar or dissimilar access to information and resources. The third parameter distinguishes expression from reception of information. It is self evident that an agent's access to information produced by others is distinct from its access to the means of producing information itself. Given a field of agents engaged in these ways, we can then ask a set of questions about the forms of information and other values that circulate through the field. Here there are two specific concerns:how information is amplified or depleted as it moves along translocal trajectories, and how information is transformed in the process. We can think of the former as enrichment or impoverishment, and the latter as the alteration.

Participants recommended that further research on the production and circulation of population knowledge and its effects on fertility and mortality change should address the following questions. How can we best describe the fields and social relationships through fertility-relevant decisions and actions are undertaken? What kinds of information are taken into account by agents in situ, and how is that information produced, conveyed and evaluated? What are the modalities and attitudes in which it is framed -- as knowledge, belief, credible fact, news, fear, hope and so forth? Part of the framing of information turns on the evaluation of its sources, and this raises the question of where, why, how and by whom it is produced. As we observe the movement of information through channels linking international organizations to the places in which policy is implemented, what kinds of transformation does information undergo? And what kinds of interactions occur between sites in different sectors of the total network? We do not assume that the total network can be meaningfully described as a fixed core-periphery structure in which all the critical information flows from the Euroamerican core to the hinterlands. On the contrary we are keen to define bidirectional trajectories, as well as the incrementing and altering of information as it is received and reproduced. The local is neither included within the global, nor is it merely a peripheral refraction of the so-called core).

Workshop organisers are preparing a final report of the Workshop, which is anticipated to be available at the end of this year.

Anthony Carter