Book Reviews

At Home in the World:

Globalization and the Peace Corps in Nepal

James F. Fisher

2013, 218 pp., 21 b & w illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, index, 22 x 14 cm., softcover.

ISBN-13: 978-974-524-157-2 $25.00

The Nepal Experience

Book review by Chaitanya Mishra
Professor of Sociology at Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Nepal

(The Kathmandu Post, Saturday November 23rd, 2013)

James F Fisher’s At Home in the World: Globalization and the Peace Corps in Nepal seeks to establish the American Peace Corps as a distinctive constituent of the long-running world-historical structure and process of globalisation. The book frontally links up the structure and process of globalisation with the Peace Corps I—the first, 1962 batch—in Nepal, of which Fisher was a member. But there is a larger ambition in the book, certainly a broad hint there that the Peace Corps was a forerunner in, and further fed, the process of globalisation. One can, thus, see that the book etches a much larger story of globalisation and is not limited to the Peace Corps I. It may be recalled that globalisation has to do not only with commodities, finances, and services, but also with the nature of structures, institutions, values and norms, and human minds.
   As an anthropologist, Fisher links up globalization to two divergent intellectual excursions in Anthropology. The first type seeks to comprehend human groups, e.g. village groups, ‘tribes,’ caste groups, ethnic groups, in contrived and blissful isolation. This type inevitably leads to a compartmentalized and ‘separatist’ view of the world and the peoples it studies. The second type, on the other hand, seeks to comprehend human groups as constituents within an encompassing whole actively and incessantly reshaping itself—as well as the whole—in the process of interaction within the whole as well as with an ever more encompassing wholes. As I shall show later, Fisher has been a proponent of the second type of Anthropology. In this sense he is a worthy successor, among others, to Eric Wolf and Frederik Barth. I might note that anthropologists in Nepal have been far too familiar and mimicking of the first, rather archaic, mode of doing Anthropology. Anthropology of Nepal could become much richer by learning from Fisher and other anthropologists who valorize history, change and encompassing structure.
   In the book, globalization is shown to have two sides which operate simultaneously. Globalization is not, Fisher tells us, the coming of the West to the rest (of the world), which is how it has often been conveyed. Globalization, instead, implies the West in the rest and the rest in the West. One of the carriers, one among many carriers of this double-movement—the West to rest and the rest to West—is the Peace Corps. Two of Fisher’s chapters deal with what was exchanged between the Peace Corps—the West on the one hand, and Nepalis and Nepal on the other. He essentially asks what mutual learning was exchanged between the two sides. I must say Fisher is somewhat miserly with what the Peace Corps ‘gave’ Nepal and the Nepalis. It is possible that Fisher is miserly because, as in any impact analysis, there can be only a few empirically establishable aftereffects and impacts. The aim of Fisher’s book, in addition, is not to go after the impacts in any systematic way. But, if one were to look deeper, there will surely be many more impacts, some which are eminently establishable with some additional efforts, some which can be hinted at but which cannot be fully established, as well as very many others which are relatively unknowable.
   Fisher’s book, on the other hand, provides numerous instances of what Peace Corps I and its members learned from Nepal and the Nepalis. As is shown in the book, most of what Peace Corps I and its members learned from Nepal remains embodied in the persons and lives of 70 members of the team. Almost all of the 70, most of whom come to life in the book, emphasize that the two years of ‘Nepal experience’ changed their lives. Men and women, blacks and whites, Ivy Leaguers and the rest, teenagers and elderly—whose age ranged from 18 to 61, northeasterners and southerners, almost all emphasize that the ‘Nepal experience’ was, in various ways, of key importance in their lives. It is certain also—although this is less much documented in the book—that the ‘Nepal experience’ radiated from members of Peace Corps I to their families, neighbors, colleagues, universities and other places of work, and the like. The rest clearly penetrated into the West.
   Fisher also recounts several hilarious moments in the book. There is one in which an FBI officer, charged to investigate the background of the one of the applicants to Nepal I, goes to the candidate’s neighborhood and begins asking questions to a resident there. When the Q and A session comes to a close the FBI officer asks the name of the respondent. It turns out that candidate the FBI officer was inquiring about was none other than the respondent!
   Finally, I should explain why I earlier said that Fisher was a worthy successor to Eric Wolf and Frederick Barth—and also the world-system theorists in Sociology and several other disciplines. Fisher, who has been working as an anthropologist in Nepal for 42 years and who has several books to his credit, I think, had been subconsciously building up for something like the present book right since his doctoral thesis on the historical changes people in Dolpo had been undergoing when he interacted with them during the late 1960s. I think that trajectory continued with Fisher’s book on the Sherpas, and on Tanka Prasad and Rewanta Kumari Acharya. The essence of this intellectual trajectory is this: Fisher, in the manner of C Wright Mills, a sociologist I very much like, prefers to comprehend a subject or a problem by putting it in a larger historical and structural context of which it is a constituent. While isolationist and ‘separatist’ anthropologists would have investigated Dolpo as an island unto itself, Fisher realized early on that it would be impossible to comprehend Dolpo and its residents without excavating the history of their trade linkages with Tibet and North India. So also with the Sherpas. One could draw in mythologies, genealogies, kinship and marital systems, etc., of Sherpas in order to understand their lives. But, for Fisher, their lives could not be understood without the global mountaineering and trekking connection which has been fundamentally reshaping their social and personal lives at this juncture in world, national and local history. Tanka Prasad and Rewanta Kumari’s household could be comprehended, for Fisher, only within the encompassing historical—and global, political, economic, cultural, etc. contexts in which Nepal found itself in at the time. Then on to Fisher’s present book, which seeks to examine Peace Corps I and its members—as well as the lives and institutions they touched—as moments, sites, and agents of global, national, individual, etc. plays of history. We hope there is much more to come forth from Fisher’s fertile, well disciplined and cosmopolitan mind.

[Read a review from the Asian Highland Perspective] [Read a review from the Friends of Nepal] [Read a review from the Peace Corps Volunteers] [More Orchid Press Reviews]