Saturday, October 1, 2011

Anthropology in Public and Anthropologists Coming Together: Two Reflections on Purpose

I went yesterday to a lecture by Meredith Minkler, a national leader in community-based participatory research and public health. I also turned in a grant for new research on stress and resilience. And this morning I write this public piece.

Anthropology for me is applied, academic, and public. There is no necessary separation between the different strands; indeed, I only see the potential for synergy and for advances. I see an anthropology that makes a difference in ideas, in people’s lives, and in how we understand prominent issues and problems of our time.

Anthropology in Public: The Online Revolution Is Just Getting Started

Last December saw the blow-up over the excising of the word “science” from the American Anthropological Association’s long-range plan. The AAA made a mistake, and compounded it with a slow-footed response. But it was how that mistake reverberated that mattered to me. Journalists and scientists alike took it as the chance to revisit the science wars of the 1980s, to go back to that old saw and use it to open new wounds. But it just wasn’t what happened in this case, or a fair reflection of what has happened in anthropology over the past twenty years. That was public defamation, and it required quick response, better information, and a more accurate framing.

But I was also deeply concerned about how the “science” controversy raised the potential for new divisions and splits within anthropology. I have staked my career on a synthetic approach, on bringing together cultural and biological anthropology. I took that threat personally but expressed it publicly, on the Neuroanthropology blog. It was the only place to really do it, since the blog posts and newspaper articles selling the other story were also online. Without a voice for synthesis online, students and professors alike might find a mistaken view of what the debate meant.

The reality is that anthropology has moved far beyond the stark dichotomies of the past. The field has not moved quite far enough where such a synthesis has become a core dynamic driving the field, but nonetheless such a possibility is real and within reach. As that happens, the old dualities are inevitably going to rise up, often subtly, but occasionally in dramatic fashion. We must face these divisions squarely rather than retreating to whatever side makes us feel safe. Anthropology is a calling, a radical awakening, and we need to walk that path forward. 

That calling is more apparent than ever online. Before, during and after the “science” controversy, a great fluorescence was happening in anthropology expressed publicly on the internet. Anthropologists writing and working online make the field widely accessible beyond the university and peer-reviewed journals. If anything, the science controversy seemed to spur this along. At the end of this post, I offer a sampling, a recent demonstration of what can be found in this new and expansive public domain.  

Academic and Applied Anthropology Together 

A year ago I joined the University of South Florida’s Department of Anthropology, the United States’ first graduate program in applied anthropology. Besides my excitement at finally having graduate students and interacting with new colleagues, I found two remarkable things. First, I was delighted to discover so many anthropologists working in the local community. The local Veterans Administration has several in their office, the regional drug prevention coordination program is headed by an anthropologist, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County features an anthropologist in a senior position – and all of them graduates of USF. The applied impact of these anthropologists doing professional work was impressive. Here was a program seeding change in its local community through the people it trained.

That change is largely invisible in the academic world; it doesn’t garner another peer-reviewed program or more grant dollars for the university. But it is real and it works over the long-term. The American Anthropological Association is fond of saying that over 50% of people who graduate with anthropology PhDs end up working in non-academic positions. As we strive to make anthropology more popular, with greater impact inside and outside of academia, more people will come into the field. And with over 50% going into non-academic jobs, that means more people working out there in the real world. Graduate training needs to reflect that.

The second thing that has impacted me is how much theory is part of everything done in my new department. Theory matters as much here as in any other department; in many ways, it matters more. We recognize that theory, our ideas, can impact people directly. Indeed, having an applied side gives even more purpose to theory. Moreover, my new colleagues recognize how research, our ideas in action, flourishes through interaction with communities and stakeholders and policy makers. This is not top-down academics in action, but a rich middle ground of ideas.

Of course I want more. I see in this integration an emerging purpose for anthropology. Anthropologists, after some false starts, have been notably reluctant to put our ideas into action, to test if our ideas actually do make a difference. It’s much easier to stay at the level of the critique. But critique alone will not build a body of knowledge about which of our ideas work best when, where, and how. We have many ideas about how anthropology might make a difference – if only they did this or that, I hear in conversations with students, colleagues, on blogs, and at conferences. We need to try our ideas out. Failure is as good a teacher as any success, and we will learn what works through such a process.

That leads to my next area of purpose. Fields like psychology and economics and political science have active practitioner arms, and have developed theory about practice and change. These theories generally guide their policy recommendations, their social interventions, their work with particular individuals or communities. Anthropology needs to continue developing our own theories of practice and change.

Take stress as an example. The main psychobiological model is used in many fields, and guides interventions and policies at many levels. Anthropologists have incorporated this psychobiological model into our own research, and highlighted specific cultural and biological variations (our critical additions, as it were) into much of our work. We haven’t built our own model for stress, even though we have the biological and social background to do so. We still rely on the basic individual model – of flight or fight physiological reactivity, cognitive appraisals of threat, and stressors as environmental events – when we know that evolution and culture do not work in such simple ways. We need to build a better mouse trap, an anthropology of stress on anthropologies’ terms. That will position us to then move more actively into making recommendations on policy and helping to design programs and interventions that might mitigate the human costs and consequences of stress.

One final appeal, or vision of the future. Intellectual work has grown increasingly complex and inter-related. Other disciplines have been effective at creating teams of researchers that work together on problems. This work is increasingly what is published in high-end journals of all types. Anthropology, simply to compete, needs to do more of this team work. This team work will also position us to engage in the broad holism that is such a hallmark of anthropology. In teams, we can build that holism together and then have actual data to back our ideas up. These sorts of team projects, built over the long-term and with strong data and coherent intellectual approaches, will position us to better argue for the importance of anthropology.

Exploring Anthropology Online – Recent Highlights 

Just a quick set of links to work online that might get readers excited. It does me! Barbara King is writing on people and primates on National Public Radio’s 13.7 science blog.

The Context and Variation and Anthropology in Practice blogs joined the new Scientific American initiative.

With their blogs, Jason Antrosio and Patrick Clarkin embrace our complex biocultural being and the moral implications of anthropology in today’s world.  

Michael Smith aims to push archaeology and anthropology forward. 

This Anthropologies initiative spearheaded by Ryan Anderson is now up to its seventh special issue. Ryan also handily linked to the wide-ranging posts across many blogs on Open Access and Academic Publishing in Anthropology

Many anthropologists wrote love letters to the field last spring.  

Anthropology Now continues its online initiative, mixing journalism, blogging, and academic interests pieces.

Anthropology and Publicity stands as a landmark initiative to combine an academic conference with an online initiative.

The Medical Anthropology Wiki has already received 60,000 visits.

Finally, over on Neuroanthropology, Greg wrote a piece on Branding Anthropology, which really deserves a re-read, and I penned A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow

And of course, just to name a few big, consistent blogs: Savage Minds, John Hawks, Somatosphere

Daniel H. Lende


Greg Downey said...

Daniel, I think you're right about the role of on-line anthropology in nurturing a boundary-bending, synthetic anthropology. And the response to the AAA Statement controversy online was a great example of this -- I wonder what the next moment will be, when the swirling, rise-up-in-an-instant power of online debate will again shape our field. It's inevitable, but still surprising.

I still worry, however, that much of this foment is not touching the centre of our field (if this even exists anymore). Perhaps because of my own recent issues, I haven't been writing online of late, and I miss it, but I also realise that it's all but invisible to my colleagues.

I feel like we need a stronger, more coherent presence -- something like what Ryan, Sarah and Veronica are doing here, something like a virtual 'edited volume' of ongoing online writing, or 'collections' bundled for easy reading on a tablet of fast-emerging debates.

The kind of applied, engaged, synthetic anthropology that you are talking about should be featured more in our field. How much healthier our discipline would be if we assigned work about the application of anthropology in our university classes?

Thanks for posting this.

Simon B said...

Back in the 1990s I used to read 'Anthropology in Action', a journal produced in London and sent out from SOAS. And from 2001-2004 I was assistant Prof at U of Arizona, where the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology operated - it had plenty of masters and PhD students, even though ultimately their degrees were issued by the Department of Anthropology. These days, BARA has been incorporated into the Department but I really wonder if South Florida was really first!