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[xmca] sounds like the young Dr. Cole?

Op-Ed Contributor

Dreams From His Mother 


Published: August 10, 2009 

New Haven

PRESIDENT OBAMA's late mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, was famous for the good
cheer and optimism that she preserved in the face of a complex and
challenging world. Her personality went hand-in-hand with her career as an
anthropologist in Indonesia and Pakistan, where she studied and worked with
village craftsmen, slum-dwellers and countless others. I knew Dr. Soetoro as
a friend and colleague for many years before her death from cancer in 1995.
Though I only met her son once, briefly at her memorial service, I've
watched him as he's taken on the hardest job in the world, and often found
myself wondering how her worldview might have shaped him.

Dr. Soetoro's most sustained academic effort was her 1,043-page
dissertation, "Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving Against All
Odds," completed in 1992 and based on 14 years of research. This was a
classic, in-depth, on-the-ground anthropological study of a 1,200-year-old
industry. Her principal field site was a cluster of hamlets, containing
several hundred households, on an arid limestone plateau on Java's south
coast. There, village metalworkers produced dozens of different iron blades
and tools for use in farming, carpentry and daily life.

When Dr. Soetoro began her study in 1977, the village could be reached only
by walking a mile and a half from the nearest paved road. The first
battery-powered television set did not arrive in the village until 1978, and
was placed in a window and watched by the village en masse; electricity did
not arrive until a decade later. In her dissertation, Dr. Soetoro called
this village "a wonderful and mysterious place to live." 

Running through Dr. Soetoro's doctoral research, as through all her work,
was a challenge to popular perceptions regarding economically and
politically marginalized groups; she showed that the people at society's
edges were not as different from the rest of us as is often supposed. Dr.
Soetoro was also critical of the pernicious notion that the roots of poverty
lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible
for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West. 

Indeed, Dr. Soetoro found that the villagers she studied in Central Java had
many of the same economic needs, beliefs and aspirations as the most
capitalist of Westerners. Village craftsmen were "keenly interested in
profits," she wrote, and entrepreneurship was "in plentiful supply in rural
Indonesia," having been "part of the traditional culture" there for a

Based on these observations, Dr. Soetoro concluded that underdevelopment in
these communities resulted from a scarcity of capital, the allocation of
which was a matter of politics, not culture. Antipoverty programs that
ignored this reality had the potential, perversely, of exacerbating
inequality because they would only reinforce the power of elites. As she
wrote in her dissertation, "many government programs inadvertently foster
stratification by channeling resources through village officials," who then
used the money to further strengthen their own status.

These same observations also led her to start working with institutions like
the Ford Foundation and the United States Agency for International
Development to devise alternate pathways for reaching and working with the
poor. She helped to pioneer microcredit programs that made small amounts of
capital available to weavers, blacksmiths and other low-income groups -
people who would otherwise have had no access to credit. 

It's worth pointing out that though microenterprise is fairly well-known
today - and Indonesia now has one of the world's largest microcredit
programs - it was pretty radical stuff when Ann Soetoro was doing her work.
But then, she had a habit of swimming against the current. While many
American academics tried to avoid antagonizing the repressive Suharto
government, Ann Soetoro called attention to those the regime had failed to
benefit: the village craftsmen, the plantation workers and urban scavengers,
the underpaid workers in the shoe and clothing factories.

There is a final lesson from her work that is worth remembering: No nation -
even if it is our bitterest enemy - is incomprehensible. Anthropology shows
that people who seem very different from us behave according to systems of
logic, and that these systems can be grasped if we approach them with the
sort of patience and respect that Dr. Soetoro practiced in her work. 

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that "the aim of anthropology is
the enlargement of the universe of human discourse." This was clearly a
central goal of Dr. Soetoro's work and life. From an admittedly great
distance, I can see those same values in her son. 

Michael R. Dove is a professor of social ecology and anthropology at Yale.


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