Foundations and Social Change

Adrienne Pine, is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University (Washington), and author of the book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (University of California Press 2008). She regularly blogs at This interview was undertaken by email last year in August 2010.

Michael Barker (MB):  You completed your Ph.D. in 2004 at the University of California, Berkeley; could you please explain how you chose your research topic and could you also talk a little about the positive and/or negatives highlights of your studies?

Adrienne Pine (AP):  In my book I describe at length the process through which I went to select my main topic of study during grad school. I had originally been interested in understanding better the labor dynamics of the maquiladora industry. This was after the Kathie Lee Gifford scandal had opened a small window into the production process of most of our U.S. clothing, and what United Statesians saw was underage girls being mistreated and paid miserable wages so that we could enjoy cheap, disposable brand clothing. Over several years I focused on this topic, living with and interviewing assembly workers and mid-management, getting to know their employers, trying to understand the historical context. But it was only when a couple friends came from the U.S. for a few weeks to assist me with my research in 2000 that I realized that I was missing the bigger story, the story that was more important to Hondurans: violence. Nearly every conversation I had in those years (1997-2003) touched on violence, usually street/gang violence. But since I’d been so focused on the topic of maquiladoras, which weren’t generally seen as being as violent as the streets (and which in fact were often portrayed as their exact opposite), I hadn’t paid attention to this obsession. It took translating everyday conversations to my friends, and trying to explain why it was that my Honduran friends never seemed to talk about anything other than violence, for me to realize that violence within the maquiladora industry was only a small part of the overall picture. From there on (2000), I widened my focus to try to better understand how different forms of violence — structural, everyday, and intimate — intersected, and how they related to both the recent history of Honduras and to the particular neoliberal moment, as well as to U.S. economic and military imperialism.

MB:  Could you explain what you see as the main differences between hard and soft power?

AP:  To me this distinction seems like a false dichotomy. What has recently entered our lexicon as “soft power” looks very similar to what I’ve always understood to be a central component of “hard” power. We’re talking about two sides of the same silver U.S. dollar. And exercising power as it is euphemized in the soft/hard power discourse would be more accurately described as exercising violence. So-called “soft” negotiations between agents of governments, finance capital, and various industries on the one hand, and people who have historically been on the receiving end of violent power on the other, are necessarily an unequal endeavor. Few are the compromises reached through a vast power imbalance that are beneficial to the less powerful party; even fewer are those that are respected by the more powerful party. The idea that the neoliberal monster that has become known as “civil society” — accompanying the war machine serving the same neoliberal capital — is somehow “soft” in its ultimate effects, is laughable.

MB:  I tend to think that most writers have neglected emphasizing the importance of soft power, most specifically that of philanthropy, in legitimizing and extending capitalist relations: what are you  thoughts on this matter?

AP:  Corporate philanthropy is money laundering, pure and simple. It is an institution that serves to legitimate ill-gotten gains, and to hide the fact that were it not for our system of regressive taxation, people could hypothetically exercise some sort of democratic control over money stolen from workers and cheated out of debtors and consumers (and most of us are all of those things, before we are citizens).

MB:  As a result of publishing your own work, what sort of opposition or support have you received from elite knowledge producing networks?

AP:  I’ve actually had quite a positive reaction to my various writing and political endeavors within the academy. This is both because of and despite the fact that I write, to a certain extent, dangerously — at least according to many of my senior colleagues in field who repeatedly and with the best of intentions warn me to wait until I have tenure to act and write as I have. So-called “knowledge-producing networks” are as much of a product of neoliberal labor exploitation as are clothing producing maquiladoras. Many in my position (tenure-track assistant professor) self-censor — some reluctantly, some enthusiastically — in the interest of attaining that holy grail of job security. With tenure, academics can supposedly speak their minds freely. But neoliberal labor processes habituate us so fully into neoliberal knowledge production that many academics fail to recognize their complicity in the structural violence of neoliberal capitalism, and in fact work to uphold it. In failing to recognize our complicity, or in capitulating the to tyranny of tenure (after all, it has taken us decades of study to approach that poorly paid, tenuous prize), we lose the opportunity to make a difference in the present. And I have found that the more outspoken I am, the more openly I confront the architects and beneficiaries of state and imperial violence in my blog, in articles, in my book, and through actions like co-writing and co-sponsoring the American Anthropological Association resolution opposing the June 28th military coup in Honduras and supporting the Honduran resistance movement, the more invitations I have received to publish, to guest lecture at universities and conferences, to be interviewed on radio, television, and in print. In other words, doing the exact opposite of what I’ve been advised, speaking out with indignation as my motive (as Laura Nader advocates in her famous article “Up the Anthropologist”) has actually been great for my career. I am also particularly lucky to be part of an anthropology department with wonderful and similarly-engaged colleagues and students, at a school (American University) that has been very supportive of my activities. But I think many academics, even those with less-supportive environments, tend to self-censor (including selecting “safe” research topics from the start) more than necessary to retain their jobs.

It’s important to mention the caveat that even with the pressures of tenure, I have much more leeway to speak out than many of my over-qualified colleagues in non-tenure-track year-long positions, who are burdened with heavy teaching loads, as private and public academic institutions submit to the same industrial restructuring models that have “flexibilized” so many workers around the world out of house, home and health.

The opposition I have received, at least publicly, has so far only helped. For instance, the fact that a handful of establishment Honduran coup-supporting anthropologists organized to oppose the American Anthropological Association resolution meant first of all that we were able to achieve the quorum necessary to hold the vote; secondly, it meant that something that would otherwise have been merely a symbolic gesture, became a heated and controversial topic of debate both within the American Anthropological Association and in Honduras (where numerous articles were published about it). Because of the opposition, which included a call for an ethics investigation of myself (see below link), our resolution was able to play an important delegitimizing role vis-a-vis the June 28th, 2009 military coup.

MB:  When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What was your initial reactions to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former “big three,” the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

AP:  I think the best writing on this topic is the collection called The Revolution Will Not be Funded, edited by the INCITE! Women of Color collective. It’s written in language that is appropriate for graduate classes, non-profit workers, and anti-capitalist activists, and provides a broad picture of the dangers of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex in the United States and in numerous other places around the world. I first started thinking about and writing on the topic in a class I took on public anthropology (it was called “Anthropology for the World”) with Nancy Scheper-Hughes and former (future?) governor Jerry Brown at Berkeley in 1997. I did my research project based on volunteer work I’d been doing with the Spanish-Speaking Unity Council in Fruitvale. I had realized that the concept of “community” used in the organization, which depended largely on philanthropic grants that almost fully shaped its “unity” agenda, derived much more from corporate power than from the grassroots. At the time, I was drawing from a variety of authors, not necessarily anthropologists, who had written on intersecting but not entirely overlapping topics. I was particularly interested in Raymond Williams’ Keywords (“Community,” in this case) in trying to sort out my analysis of the uses of corporate philanthropic power against democratic and grassroots processes, and Ivan Illich’s call for deschooling society as a means to radicalize education.

MB:  Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

AP:  I think that such criticisms are few because of our long process of pedagogical and labor subjectivation, which forms an academic habitus that is generally liberal and anti-revolutionary, through an embodied process rewarding those who engage in the symbolic violence of legitimating violent structures of power (soft or hard). Or, see above discussion of tenure.

MB:  How would you describe the general impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of research within universities and on intellectuals more generally?

AP:  Both foundations and unfiltered corporate moneys have a very dangerous effect on research. Whether or not one defines one’s research as “scientific,” principles like accessibility, critical (“free”) inquiry, rigorous methodological standards and other ethical responsibilities of the scholar are difficult to uphold when continued funding depends (explicitly or implicitly) on the attainment of certain types of results. This dilemma is not at all new, but with the current neoliberal moment of educational privatization, in which physics buildings are named for gas companies, biology departments are named for pharmaceutical corporations, and “business anthropology” is a burgeoning sub-field within my discipline, it is time to look anew at Sartre’s definition of an intellectual. Academics working for (or taking significant amounts of money from) large market-based corporations or the foundations through which their excesses of undertaxed assets are sometimes filtered are very unlikely to be “radicalized companion[s] of the masses.” To counteract corporate influence in the university, we must fight for universal free education of liberation (a la Freire), and against the individualizing, depoliticizing debt-driven and test-based educational system we now have, designed to produce Taylorized workers — not intellectuals — from the factory to the university classroom.

MB:  Can you describe how liberal foundations and/or individual liberal philanthropists have influenced your own work?

AP:  I’ve received grants, and they have indeed had an impact on the direction of my research. I would probably not have studied alcohol, for example, if I hadn’t gotten a generous predoctoral grant from the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley (funded through the National Institutes of Health). And I’m glad I studied it; the topic is fascinating. Although a certain ideological bent is hegemonic in all NIH-funded alcohol programs, which are deeply influenced by Alcoholics Anonymous ideology (itself an offshoot of evangelical Christianity), I believe I was able to maintain a critical distance from that, for which I thank my critical medical anthropological training and my graduate advisor, Stanley Brandes.

At one point during grad school I received a RAND small grant for demographic research in Central America. Although I shudder at what I know now of that funding source, I was blissfully unaware of the organization’s politics at the time. I think that’s actually the case for so many researchers, who are excited to “get into the field” and do the work, not thinking about where the money is coming from, or believing they can outsmart the dark forces of military/philanthropic imperialism. And I do believe that in some cases, they can. Although I’m pretty sure that in the end I didn’t provide anything of much use to RAND in their efforts (except for perhaps providing a left-legitimating ethical cleanse for their extreme right-wing projects in Central America), the real key to being able to usurp dirty money for more noble ends is to engage in continuous critical self-reflection, constantly evaluating the scope, direction and conclusions of one’s research in relation to funds received. These days I am prone to pursue very small grants only, both since grant-writing is such an incredibly cumbersome process, and since it shapes research in ways that diverge too much from the questions I am interested in answering. My guidelines for using liberal money are similar to guidelines I’ve heard given for the use of revolutionary violence, which I don’t recall precisely but would paraphrase as:

1. only as a last resort
2. minimize harm to human beings
3. never in revenge

So, on the first point, if there is a way to do your research without corporate money, that’s always preferable. Since my research is always simultaneously some sort of solidarity work, I have the pleasure of doing it with other people, people I usually like a lot, and who are creative in their own use of resources. There are times when you need money, and that’s okay, but I believe other resources should be exhausted first. The research goals should determine the type and amount of funding, and not vice-versa. Never accept money that places limits upon your conclusions or prevents their release in part or whole, or enter into a research project just because it’s well-funded.

Minimize harm: well, this is true no matter what, but it is particularly true when you’re a pawn in a corporate chess-game that you might not fully recognize. Research the agenda of your funding organization; think about the unintended harmful ways your research may be used, and resist such agendas at all cost.

And “never in revenge”…okay, this one might not apply so clearly here, but I think a better way to draw a parallel between uses of revolutionary violence and justifiable uses of corporate funding might be “never for tenure.” If your main goal is job security, you are unlikely to be prioritizing radical solidarity with your so-called “human subjects.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t want tenure. I do. But tenure should never come before your ethical duty as an intellectual.

MB:  Do you think anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding to develop an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

AP:  I think such a strategy can be feasible, but very risky (see above). It is very difficult to oppose a structure that funds you, and once you create a structure that depends on ongoing corporate funding — once the movement becomes a job — you’ve lost. The Non-Profit Industrial Complex is part and parcel of the neoliberal model we must defeat, if we want to achieve social change for the better, and if we are not challenging that model as a whole, we are merely reinforcing it.

Michael Barker can be reached at:


Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).