Photo by Anna Klepikova.

Intervention is a troublesome word, particularly for anyone trained in anthropology. So much depends on the qualifying adjective that comes before it, whether voiced or implied. Are we talking about a theoretical intervention, for example, or a military one? It only gets worse when thinking about colonialism, or working on issues related to humanitarianism or medicine. Like other once carefree words, intervention has narrowed in its usages due to charged associations (consider the twentieth-century atrophy of intercourse into a purely sexual reference). Links to domains such as military action, surgery, public health, and psychiatry have left a powerful mark. The word thus carries a heavy burden, at least for some speakers in and around the American academy.

Indeed, after canvassing a lunch table and spending a few quality moments with Google, I suggest that anthropologists are split on the valence of the term. For some, it recalls theoretical and political engagement, particularly evident in the French cognate, the engagé intellectual rushing to the editorial pages or the barricades. Many, however, approach the word with a hermeneutics of suspicion, quickly tying it to machinations of power and structural forces: Whose intervention? To what end? And, the inevitable subtext, is the Empire striking back? In topics related to health or disaster, the perspective grows more mixed. There are interventions we can like—even demand—when properly situated and framed by conditions of desire and need. The real exception, at least according to a preliminary Internet search, is at the activist and visual ends of the discipline, where intervention describes not a plot by nefarious others but the hoped-for contribution of the work itself.

The contestation grows even clearer when “design” is substituted for anthropology. For many designers, intervention is itself subject to design. The title of a Wall Street Journal report on a 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review brings this perspective into sharp focus: “Intervention Design: Overcoming Resistance to Disruptive Innovation.” Even if the goal shifted from “overcoming resistance” to increasing critical friction, the distinction would remain. Design accepts intervention as a constitutive element of its practice. Put bluntly, any effort to design is itself an act of intervening, if by nothing else than bringing potential futures into view.

The definition of intervention at play here appears as 1a in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The action of intervening, ‘stepping in’, or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue.” Designers readily step in, hoping to interfere. However, many ethnographers, especially in anthropology, remain wary of such action, conscious of our inherited suspicion of missionaries and development planners. The overlapping vocabularies between design and anthropology as well as the emergence of a shared ethos—collaboration, desire for egalitarian relations (partnerships! cocreation!), emphasis on the experience of others—have failed to erase such differences in orientation, differences that linger in critical questions of defining roles and selecting projects in the first place.

Given the multiple sensibilities regarding intervention, we might fruitfully examine the field of disturbance around it. Here I follow the lead of Lucy Suchman, herself following J. K. Gibson-Graham, in searching “the disjuncture between the singularity of figures and their enacted multiplicities” for what might be at stake in the critical role of qualifying adjectives in this case. Perhaps we need to attend to the minor interventions in and around the major, capitalized variety. Perhaps even the most imperial actions become less threatening when viewed through their inconsistencies, uncertainties, and breakdowns. Part of what stabilizes them, after all, is the perception that affirms their conceptual coherence by assuming it in the first place; thus, Innovation and Capitalism endure in some measure through their very figuration. The same might be said of most large-scale interventions, such as launching an army into a field—without endless attention to detail, the unit can lose coherence and disintegrate at any moment. Certainly this is the case with humanitarian aid, so often a chaotic “adhocracy,” to use Elizabeth Dunn’s (2012) felicitous framing.

Paying attention to the fog as much as the war could reveal the stakes of qualifying intervention. I suspect two large monsters might lumber out of the mist, both creatures of imagination made terrifyingly real through aspiration. The first is the liberal subject, that siren of personal sovereignty, autonomy, individual genius, and artistic authorship. The second is the Westphalian state, the muscular expression of political integrity and self-determination long wedded to nationally defined populations. Neither may be as certain as once assumed, following transformations in lifeworlds and waves of intellectual critique. But they nonetheless display ferocious tenacity, holding tight onto the dreams of even many critical academics in their personal lives, not to mention the political id of voters in liberal democracies. Whose intervention? To what end? The point is not to stop asking for such clarification; rather, it is to recognize that the answers we find may not always offer certainty. One might have to query again and again, adjusting and readjusting with circumstance, adapting to a world of many interventions, many agonistic struggles, and many shifting ends. At times it might appear wise to intervene, at others to “exhibit thoughtful restraint.”

Taking a more relational view of being in the world, then, might hold special virtue for considering this troubled term. When are we not connected? When are we not all acting and reacting? If intervention names landmark peaks in a terrain of interaction, then focus can shift to the quality of relations, rather than simple tests of sovereignty or even categories of approach like anthropology and design. Life is always an intervention; the continuing question is what kind.


Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2012. “The Chaos of Humanitarianism: Adhocracy in the Republic of Georgia.” Humanity 3, no. 1: 1–23.