By Barbara van Male – ‘When it came to major issues such as migration, climate crisis, inequality, I often felt a sense of unease. How could I to relate to that? It helped me when someone talked about it from different perspectives, analytically and with empathetic distance … that’s what I was looking for. And that person always turned out to be an anthropologist.’ Phebe Kloos is currently working as an anthropologist at a water authority. ‘I remove the default, ask unusual questions, find multiple voices, bring subjective narratives into a world of technical models and calculations.’
Phebe had been working for eleven years when she decided to change course. She had saved up, quit her job, and registered for the premaster and then the master. ‘One of the first assignments was to look at a tree. What is this?! I thought. Because I expected to learn about relationships between people, between men and women, citizens and politics. Then the penny dropped. Such an assignment is intended to take you out of the anthropocentric gaze. After all, our environment consists of all kinds of actors that influence us, such as water, waste etcetera.’
It took a while before the study material settled into her and everything fell into place. ‘The big thinkers, the assignments, the different perspectives … Everything shifted in me and everywhere I tried to apply the insider-outsider perspective, on the bus, the train, on the street. Taking a step back, removing assumptions, looking at someone else from curiosity. My way of looking and thinking really changed. Also the look at myself: I felt very woman, white and privileged. It was a succession of eye-openers.’
For her fieldwork in the pre-master, she chose a flood protection project on the Maas. ‘I wanted to know why people were against it.’ And in the Master’s she researched the drought and water transition among various dairy farms in the Veluwe. She bought overalls and wellies and in her first week made a dictionary to learn the language of the dairy farmers. She chose instead to do fieldwork in the Netherlands. ‘For me, as a Dutch person, it did not feel right to research a community in Mongolia, for example. And I would like to be of added value here, giving back to the society that made my studies possible.’
Now she is a general board member of the Rijn en IJssel water authority and works in the living environment department of the Vallei en Veluwe water authority. There she can use her anthropological skills and knowledge for (almost) anything. ‘After all, all issues are social issues. Also within the organisation. For example, if a different technical system needs to be implementend, it is always about people and their behavior full of routines and habits. I notice that with unusual questions I can remove the default and put ethics on the agenda. How do you know if people want a dike? What is their idea of a dike? Or: how do you protect a stream? With a fence? Or by keeping the banks open so that people build a loving relationship with the stream?’
And she notices the effect of multivoiced approach in an organisation. ‘With a number of colleagues we are investigating the question: how can we give water a voice? What are our own voices? Then everyone notices that each other gives meaning through their own cultural lens.’
The value of the study and of anthropology at work sees Phebe in the broad spectrum, in the layers investigated: ‘You always question and think: what is behind it? Behind a question, an expectation, a person, a choice, an action, an impact. This makes anthropology as dynamic as water and will always remain relevant.’
Read also Why the world needs anthropologists? Because they make a difference!
Barbara van Male is an independent senior editor. She works at projects that aim for a more just world. Temporarily part of the SCA-staff at the VU.