The Wenner-Gren Foundation is pleased to announce the 2016 Institutional Development Grant Recipient, Bhutan’s Royan Thimphu College! We interviewed the grant’s administrator, Dr. Ritu Verma, to learn more about the institution and the challenges facing the discipline in her country.
First can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in anthropology?
Anthropology was always been a subject area that fascinated me, even though I didn’t begin my career as an anthropologist. I actually started my career as a civil engineer, but was a fan of popular anthropological works such as the film “Ring of Fire: an Indonesian Odyssey” by anthropologists and filmmakers Lawrence and Lorne Blair. During my tenure as a professional engineer, I worked on international development infrastructure projects around the world, and was deeply concerned about the social, cultural and environmental impacts of such projects on people, their communities and environments, but didn’t have the knowledge or skills to address them. My engineering degree didn’t provide the tools or the conceptual foundation to systematically analyze the impacts, socio-political relations and resistance to such projects.
This interest drew me to pursue a Masters Degree in International Relations/International Development at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Canada, which was supported by a NPSIA scholarship and the Norma Walmsley Award. Making the transition from the biophysical sciences to the social sciences was one of the most challenging, yet academically exciting times of my life. During that first year of transition, I was exposed to new engaging fields of study such as anthropology and flourished intellectually. I was attracted to the idea of ethnography, and spending extended periods of time on the ground with people who are most affected by development and scientific interventions not of their choosing. My Masters degree provided me the opportunity to learn and engage in anthropological debates (including the deepening and problematization of earlier popular anthropological representations of the so-called “third world”), and to carry out my thesis, my first body of ethnographic research on agriculture, soil fertility and natural resource management in Western Kenya, which received distinction and was published by IDRC in 2001.
From this intellectual awakening, I applied and was accepted to doctoral programmes in anthropology in the USA, UK and the Netherlands. I chose to carry out my Ph.D. at the Department of Anthropology at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and was awarded the SOAS Research Student Fellowship, the Overseas Research Scholarship, the ASA/Radcliffe Brown Trust Fund Award and the Canadian Centennial Women’s Scholarship. My doctoral research on the disconnects between the socio-cultural and working worlds of development practitioners and those of Betsileo farmers in the Central Highlands of Madagascar, indicated how development shapes the lives of so many actors. My subsequent research with international development research institutions in East and Southern Africa and the Himalayas, deepened my interest in development alternatives that value culture and spirituality. Thus, from popular representations, to critical academic and applied perspectives, anthropology has been a strong guiding force in my career that eventually led me to Bhutan.
Who have been the anthropologists that have most influential in your own personal formation and why?
During my Masters degree, I was inspired by and received enormous support from anthropologists such as Dr. Villia Jefremovas, Dr. Joachim Voss, and a critical geographer greatly dedicated to ethnography, Dr. Fiona Mackenzie, author of “Selective Silence”. Seminal works in the anthropology of development such as “the Anti-Politics Machine” by Dr. James Ferguson, “False Forest History” by Dr. James Fairhead”, “Negotiating Local Knowledge” by Johan Pottier, “Laboratory Life” by Dr. Bruno Latour, “Cultivating Development” by Dr. David Mosse, and “Battlefields of Knowledge” by Dr. Norman Long, fundamentally influenced my own thinking about development. Having worked in the development industry, as an engineer and anthropologist – I felt they profoundly captured the socio-cultural, political-economic and ecological effects of development projects on people and their environments. Given that much of development is dominated by the bio-physical sciences, these works illustrated the way scientific facts are socially constructed and power-laden, how power and socio-cultural networks shape the deployment of development, and the way local cultural-spiritual understanding and managing natural environments are marginalized within dominant forms of development. These anthropologists would later play important roles in my academic and professional career. For instance, I received tremendous support, encouragement and invaluable intellectual guidance during my Ph.D. from Dr. James Fairhead, Dr. Johan Pottier and Dr. Christopher Davis. The above themes were at the heart of my Ph.D. thesis about the disconnects within development, and social and cultural relations that shape the development machine. With the mentoring of influential anthropologists and first-hand experience about the failures of conventional development approaches, I have recently been exploring conceptual and policy innovations, as well as gaps in ethnography, of Bhutan’s alternative development path of Gross National Happiness. In turn, sharing knowledge and experiences about the complexities of development and culture with budding Bhutanese anthropologists, in the same wonderful anthropological tradition I have been privileged to be part of, provides great motivation and sense of continuity.
Can you tell us a little about anthropology in Bhutan? What are the pressing questions and concerns for the discipline there?
Bhutan represents both a relatively unstudied anthropological and ethnographic terrain as well as a country where there is a dearth of anthropological analytical expertise required to support a nation that is facing numerous socio-cultural and development challenges as it negotiates globalized world. It is regarded as the least anthropologically studied belt in the Buddhist Himalayas. The opportunities for anthropologists to carry out research on Gross National Happiness – the country’s guiding philosophy for development that holds culture in equal weight with other domains of development (sustainable and equitable development, environmental conservation, good governance) – are significant. Over the past few decades, tertiary education has evolved and developed in promising ways (with formal national education system and universal education coming into force in the 1950s), albeit with acute under-representation of anthropology. At the beginning of this millennium, anthropology was still in its infancy in Bhutan. Today, Bhutan continues to lag behind in developing the academic discipline of anthropology. There are a handful of qualified anthropologists with Ph.D.s in the country, with new promising scholars about to join its ranks – all obtaining their degrees internationally. Although anthropological research on the impacts of rapid socio-cultural and political-economic change requires urgent attention, the knowledge and capacity available to carry out and analyze such research, train doctoral scholars, and to advise on policy-relevant questions remains a critical gap within the country. As anthropologist Dorji Penjore notes, “if the Bhutanese education planners had exercised their foresights, anthropology, not sociology, should have been a more useful course to study Bhutan, a nation of villages and farmers… If anthropology is the study of human culture and the hallmark of Bhutan’s nation is founded on the national goal of preserving and promoting its unique cultural identity, how paradoxical it is that the anthropology is neither taught at the Bhutanese colleges nor is there a formal anthropological study of Bhutan”. Currently, there exists no doctoral program in anthropology in Bhutan. Within such a context, ethnographic research is extremely rare and the discipline is exceptionally under-represented while facing highly limited resources for its development. At the same time, this gap also represents an important and timely opportunity to develop a doctoral program in anthropology in Bhutan. This is especially pertinent at a time when the demand for a doctoral program in anthropology is increasing with a small critical mass of senior anthropologists who can support such a vision.
Is anthropology a subject that attracts students in the Bhutan?
This is very much the case. Given the unique importance that Bhutan places on culture, and especially cultural resilience and promotion, as enshrined in the conceptual framework of Gross National Happiness, the attraction to anthropology is strong. Also, given the incredible influence of Vajrayana Buddhism in the country, where spiritual and cultural beliefs intermingle in profound ways, anthropology holds a special place. Students who are exposed to concepts and methodologies of anthropology are captured by its history, its ability to represent indigenous voices, and the analytical depth of lived experience captured by ethnography. Through anthropology, they are exposed to different cultural practices, norms and beliefs from around the world. In a country that was isolated from the world until 1959, tuned into television and internet in 1999, and became the world’s newest democracy in 2008, this provides an incredible treasure-house of knowledge and engagement with the world. Although Bhutan values an alternative and middle path to development that challenges GDP, materialism and environmental degradation so often associated with conventional understanding of ‘progress’, this recent paradoxical exposure to the outside world, has also resulted in rapid socio-cultural changes. Anthropology provides a valuable field of knowledge and methodology to view, document, attribute meaning to and protect important cultural practices in the face of globalization. While unemployment rates in Bhutan are not high compared to other countries, when combined with rural-urban migration, rapidly changing cultural identities and economic changes, these issues are of growing concern, and finding jobs is something that increasingly concerns students. The few anthropologists who have obtained Ph.D.s, have gone on to hold important leadership, policy-making, research and tertiary educational positions in the country, thereby making important contributions to nation-building and shaping the country in significant ways.
Can you tell us about your department, its specialties and how the award will help your department as it moves forward?
Royal Thimphu College is Bhutan’s first private college, and as such, it strives to do things differently and innovatively. It takes a student-centred approach to teaching and learning, which has yielded important results, including RTC graduates taking all the top positions in the highly valued Civil Service examination in 2014 and 2015. RTC’s faculty and student body is diverse, with lecturers and visiting fellows spanning the globe, and representing many disciplines, including anthropology. The student has slightly more women than men, and is composed of a mix of private tuition, those with scholarships from the Royal Government of Bhutan based on academic excellence and needs-basis, and sports scholarships supported jointly by RTC and the Bhutan Olympic committee. The college was officially inaugurated on July 18, 2009 by Her Majesty, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother of Bhutan. RTC has 4 departments, including the department of Sociology and Political Science. RTC is of one of the only colleges offering anthropology-focused courses in the country. Although presently under the Sociology and Political Science Program, anthropology is envisioned to become part of a new Social Science Program, together with Political Science and Sociology. The department currently has seven faculty, two of whom are senior anthropologists with Ph.D.s, and five who have graduate degrees in anthropology and political science (and two of who are in the process of carrying out their Ph.D.s.). Although RTC does not have a graduate or a doctoral program in anthropology, the need for a doctoral program that supports high quality ethnographic research in Bhutan is urgent. The department regularly receives requests for M.A.s and Ph.D.s in anthropology and has hosted international visiting faculty interested in ethnographic research in Bhutan, including a Fullbright Scholar, albeit on a limited and ad hoc basis. Given the lack of an institutional framework and financial resources to further the field of anthropology, it has not been able to systematically develop this aspect of the college. However, it benefits from the valued support of its Deans and esteemed Board of Governors, and most notably, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is the Chancellor of Royal University of Bhutan, under which RTC is affiliated. With the important support of the award, RTC can now dedicate the expertise of senior anthropologists and resources for important enabling activities, for the development of such a program, given the critical gap that exists in the discipline in the country. The Grant has also enabled the establishment of a significant partnership with esteemed anthropologists at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles (Dr. Akhil Gupta, Dr. Nancy Levine and Dr. Sherry Ortner), whose guidance, academic exchange and intellectual resources for the development of the doctoral program are invaluable.