Good Question: Charlie Piot

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Good Question Ethics in and of the University

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A special series addressing issues in higher education to celebrate 20 years of scholarship in ethics.

Special Series: Ethics in and of the University Director: Suzanne Shanahan Communications Manager: Bryan Roth Photography: Betsy Ferney/ Design: David Pickel/

Good Question A series presented by the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University

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hat is ethical development in a globalized world?

Ethical development entails pushing deeper into local understandings, while assuming you might fail, but acknowledging that failure can be productive. If we apply that same insight of respect for the local to globalization, it demands that we develop humility toward the diversity of ways of living in the world. I take that as an ethical attitude that forces you to consider the ways you interact with other people and the decisions you make. To be a global citizen, which is what we want all of our students to be – it’s one of Duke’s foundational principles – I feel that you need to understand difference and see other societies for what they are. But it doesn’t just help you become a better-informed citizen or policy maker, there’s an urgency and necessity to it in today’s world. Diversity and culture are constitutive of the global. Initially it was a surprise, but I came to realize that people in other places are often more



t’s long been anthropology’s mission to give voice to other societies’ ways of being in the world – of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” open and cosmopolitan than we are, by which I mean dealing with difference in a welcoming way. People in the U.S. and Europe can be incredibly close-minded, especially at this historical moment when xenophobia and fear of the ‘Other’ are ascendant. The U.S. is the most powerful country on earth and supposedly the most globalized, and yet many have a hard time imagining other ways of being in the world. Everywhere you look, especially at universities, we see examples of deeply globalized spaces. Duke classrooms are full of students from all over, for example. Or take New York City – it’s the most diverse city in the world. The global is all around us, but we find ourselves in a moment of strong nationalism and fear of the Other, as if our strength as a country hadn’t come from welcoming immigrants and outsiders. In a place like West Africa, people can be the opposite. They have their own fears, but many see

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the advantage of being open to the world, of bringing the outside in. This strikes me as a signature feature of having an orientation to the global. For me, a problem with development is that it’s usually from the outside and not locally generated. Today, it’s mostly Europeans or Americans or the Chinese who come into African countries with certain ideas of what a place needs with ideas generated in boardrooms in Geneva or Washington or Beijing. A smarter way to do development, I believe, is to aim small and go local – whether it’s latrines in a village, or better cooking stoves, or microfinance schemes. Larger projects can be good, but they don’t often take the time to fully understand the complexities of the local or for people that are impacted by globalization. It’s long been anthropology’s mission to give voice to other societies’ ways of being in the world – of making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. In so doing, we come to understand that our culture is not given in nature. Nor is it the only way of organizing the world.

Charles Piot

Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African & African American Studies

Charles Piot’s path to expertise in the political economy and history of rural West Africa started, serendipitously, in his college dorm room at Princeton University. As a sophomore studying religion, a friend of Piot’s casually mentioned that he applied to an exchange program to spend the summer in West Africa. Piot had taken one course on Africa as an undergraduate, but thought the opportunity would be worthwhile. His father was French-Swiss, so he had a little French speaking ability, and Togo was a good fit. He decided to go the summer of his junior year. “There was a group of about 20 of us,” recalled Piot, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African & African American Studies. “They sent us to a village where our job was to make bricks to build a wall around a marketplace to keep animals out. The work was pretty inconsequential, but everything was

interesting and the people were incredibly nice and welcoming.” The experience stuck when he went to the University of Virginia to work toward graduate degrees in religion and philosophy. Again, a fluke occurrence changed his direction. The faculty mentor with which he hoped to study was on leave, so he wound up in an anthropology class to round out his studies. He eventually switched to anthropology full time, earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. For dissertation field work, he went back to Togo. It was there he began to reconsider rural Africa’s place in an increasingly connected world. “It had long been a global place connected through the slave trade, colonialism and then as a nation-state,” Piot said. “I began rethinking the minutiae of everyday life through the global optic.” In his first book, “Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa,” Piot analyzed village life, arguing it was more “modern” than traditional. A second book, “Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa After the Cold War,” carried themes from the first book about the globalized nature of African societies to explore changes in everyday social life in

the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and money from the West disappeared. Piot became interested in economic development. One outcome of this new direction was the 2016 book, “Doing Development in West Africa: A Reader by and for Undergraduates,” in which Piot edited collected essays by Duke students about their experiences in Togo establishing health insurance at a local clinic, building a cyber café, and starting a micro-lending program for teens. The writing was inspired by summer trips to Togo led by Piot, and explored the challenges, successes, and failures that come with small-scale, “Do-ItYourself” development in the Global South. “There’s such a rush of students these days toward policy studies or finance,” Piot said. “I see my role as a teacher as trying to disrupt or complicate the approaches of those disciplines by adding humanistic and social science perspectives to the mix, and teaching the importance of studying difference as a value. What can you do with an anthropology degree? Change lives and peoples’ worldviews.”

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