ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Inside or outside? Locating the boundaries of anthropological practice

Convenor: Tomlinson

Panel abstract

Anthropologists and the anthropological method have long been situated in broader fields than conventional academic departments. As professional consultants, social anthropologists are working in many fields that require a theoretical and practical understanding of human cultural behaviour. Insights generated by anthropologists working, for example in business management, advertising or health care, are generally lost to the discipline, and their contributions to anthropology’s theoretical and methodological developments have been limited. This panel forms one of a number of developments giving voice to anthropologists who locate themselves on the boundaries of anthropology and believe that it is possible to develop special anthropological approaches to practical problem solving that can contribute to the health of the discipline as a whole.

A substantial but relatively silent body of anthropologists lecture and research in university departments other than anthropology or are funded on pretexts that require applied research outputs. This positioning can provide creative opportunities for cross-disciplinary research, but also risks falling outside of a narrower definition of ‘anthropology’. Anthropology faculty members who undertake ‘applied’ work often find it cannot contribute to RAE submissions. At the other end of the spectrum, anthropologists employed as researchers in non-academic arenas presently have little opportunity to interact with the discipline, either with students, academics, or with each other. What are the discipline’s responsibilities to such anthropologists, why have previous attempts to promote integration of academic and applied work had limited success and what hinders greater contribution on their part to the discipline’s development?

Papers may address some of the following questions:

  • What are the creative opportunities provided by working in academic departments other than anthropology? Or by being unattached to academia?
  • What challenges are faced by those do those who try to bridge the boundary between academia and application? How are these challenges negotiated?
  • How are such anthropologists perceived by the discipline, by themselves, by those with whom they work and by those inside academic departments?
  • What impact do or could these anthropologists have on the development of university-based anthropology?
  • What are the implications of work in such contexts for the anthropological concepts of the ‘field’ and ‘fieldwork’?
  • What is a professional anthropologist? What is or should be the role of the professional associations in supporting all those trained in anthropology?

This panel builds on the insights from the recent seminar series, Applications of Anthropology. It draws inspiration from the long-standing ambivalent engagement between those inside and outside the discipline, epitomised by the rise and more recent faltering of GAPP and Anthropology in Action. The panel also provides the occasion for the launch of a new ASA Network supporting links between practitioners, academics and students.

Anthropologists crossing boundaries of anthropology

Dr Jean Sébastien Marcoux, HEC Montréal

This paper discusses the increasing use of anthropology in Business Schools; a context that has traditionally not been part of the applied anthropology enterprise. Despite a historically strong pragmatic orientation and numerous links with business practitioners, Business Schools aimed at forming managers are increasingly adopting a liberal approach to teaching and researching which leaves room for anthropology and anthropologists. Indeed, in the last 20 years, anthropology has come to exert certain ‘charms’ in marketing departments traditionally monopolized by economists and psychologists. Similarly, ethnography has increasingly been conceded a certain ‘niche’ as testified by recent developments of market research practices favouring a more sensitive approach to the study of consumption.

It would be naïve for anthropologists to believe that they will deflect Business Schools from their corporate mission. It would also be myopic not to face ethnical dilemmas surrounding, for instance, Business Schools limited access or the methodological problems relating to ethnography’s new chic. Having said that, Business School are at the forefront of consumer society development, which justifies the need for anthropologists to have a voice in there. More importantly, anthropologists’ migration in the field of Business studies raises important issues regarding career opportunities for students, the changing boundaries of academic disciplines, and, perhaps, the transformation of anthropology itself.

This paper is based on personal experience. It draws upon my own migration between anthropology and the field of Business studies. It extends a reflection undertaken during the 2002 EASA conference in Copenhagen.

Applying anthropology in Melanesia: academic enterprise cultures and mining in Papua New Guinea?

Dr. Robin Wilson, University of Durham

This paper focuses on attempts by anthropologists to bridge the divide between application and academia at the Ok Tedi Copper Mine to facilitate an equitable approach to use of knowledge, power and practice by the company within the Western province of Papua New Guinea.  By tracing the emergence of international concern over the environmental and social policies of the Ok Tedi Mining Company since 1984, the paper examines the approaches taken by anthropologists in both academic and applied guises to attempts to “develop” the local Min society.  

Of particular relevance to practicing anthropology in PNG are the parallel perceptions constituting the global/scientific/applied and the local/humanistic/ academic. While applied consultant anthropologists linked to corporate institutions initially appear attractive and powerful to the company and independent academic anthropologists appear threatening and reactionary, such framings should not be taken for granted.  The particular forms of knowledge that each approach generates need not be seen as distinct nor incompatible the multiple representations embedded in the views of different interest groups and actor-networks.

Thus, the challenges facing academic anthropologists working in applied settings in Melanesia relate to the perceptions of what anthropology is about and what it can provide to whom.  In practice, anthropologists have found themselves in possession of secret knowledge, about which, ways must be found to talk in terms of that offer useful explanations.  The ambiguity of applied academic anthropology introduced by financial imperatives is a diluting effect on kin and social relations and what the anthropologist can say.

Doing anthropology v. Being an anthropologist: an essential or dangerous distinction?

Dr Simon Roberts, Ideas Bazaar

This paper reflects on the practice of anthropology and the identity of anthropologists. It challenges the apparent bias of institutional anthropology that one has to do a certain sort of anthropology to be an anthropologist. Once stable ideas of what anthropologists do and what qualifies as an anthropologist are under attack both from within the academy, and from outside it. Within, job roles, remits and responsibilities are undermining previously accepted notions about what anthropologists do (Gibb 2003). From without, new exciting opportunities and enthusiastic audiences for anthropology and anthropologists present alternative ways of being and doing. With this come methodological challenges and opportunities.

This paper seeks to re-imagine what doing and being can be about for academic and applied anthropologists, and attempts to find a space for fruitful dialogue between the two. I examine the variety of practices that now characterise the doing of anthropology and the range of contexts in which it is practiced. I report on the experiences and reflections of applied anthropologists in settings as varied as government, health, design and consultancy.

Being more liberal in our interpretation and evaluation of what anthropologists can do and what constitutes an anthropologist does not entail a denial of the essence of the discipline and what makes it different and valuable, either methodologically or epistemologically. Instead, I argue that it helps us see the value of anthropology, as seen by others, and focus on its essence. In an era of changing employment prospects this essence should guide the development of the discipline institutionally. Moreover, it should also nurture dialogue between anthropological missionaries and mandarins (Mills 2003), the different groups who describe themselves as anthropologists and what they do as anthropology.

Interdisciplinary boundaries and the process of reciprocity: attempts to bridge the divide between academia and application

Dr Alexandra Charnock Greene, University of St Andrews

This paper compares two cultures of audit in Scotland. The first explores the experiences of academics inside a university preparing for another Research and Audit Exercise (RAE). The second draws on an action research project and the experiences of health professionals who are adjusting to the new culture of appraisal in medicine. Using a qualitative approach normally reserved for fieldwork outside the university this study takes a look ‘inside’ academia, and draws on the meanings associated with the benefits and hazards of audit, and the long-term affects this has on collegiate relationships and organisational systems. In particular, the tensions that arise between trying to improve student outcomes and making courses more client friendly.

Drawing on these experiences the study reveals worrying similarities with health professionals undertaking their first appraisal of services for young people with diabetes. While clinical standards are welcomed, these professionals appear perplexed by the dilemmas they face when trying to implement the General Medical Council’s recommendations for governance, improved outcomes and ‘patient-centred practice’. Similarly, how the combination of evaluation and standards appears to stifle the creative side of client-centred care.

This paper therefore, argues for a model of reciprocity between the boundaries of academia and fieldwork practice. Anthropologists working between these environments are in a prime position to contribute to a greater understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of audit. In particular, how appraisal tends towards formulaic approaches to knowledge; often at odds with people’s experience of the creative enterprise of academia and application. Moreover, how the powerful rhetoric of assessment often lacks a practical knowledge base to guide action. Interaction between the different parts of anthropology will provide a valuable opportunity to combine theoretical and practical insights, and in this way to become a force for organisational change to smooth the way between policy and practice.

The Government anthropologist: concepts, consultancy & research in policy and application

Dr Mils Hills, Cabinet office

The majority of retail, service, consultancy and government organisations recognise the fundamental need to take account of what some used to call "the human factor". Initially rooted in the creative industries, all sectors of the economy and administration seek to invest, develop, enhance the experiences of or support their employees, consumers, stakeholders or citizens. Consequently, the fields that anthropology could now have access to have never been larger.

From deeply techie IT work through targeted and rapid research to the formulation and testing of policy and plans, new territory has been charted for anthropological input. This is, at present, almost wholly separate from the curricula of anthropology departments, which prepare people (often only after a fashion) for field-work, but not for careers. Departments are selling their alumni short (impeding not empowering) - and it isn’t fair.

This presentation will observe that in the somewhat more meritocratic and open conditions that prevail now, anthropologists can play varied, authoritative, surprising and interesting roles in supporting the delivery of the competitive edge of any organisation. But you’d never know the variety of applications open to anthropology if you looked only at academic curricula. In asking who'll get into debt for a discipline that appears to offer only three career outcomes (teaching in an anthropology department; 'development' work or entirely sublimating the vast majority of their training in a vocational or alternative post,- e.g. accountancy), I suggest that everyone rapidly consider the implications.

Taking a somewhat radical stand, this presentation briefly notes some of the work that the author has been involved in as a defence researcher, project manager, capability group leader, policy wonk and Cabinet Office secondee. Although I often brief, present and am represented as an anthropologist, my contention will be that although our discipline's visibility to recruiters and those devising skill-sets for recruitment has never been higher, the key for any graduate, post-graduate or job-changer will be that of personal differentiation. Anthropology's unique selling point may be that it is a discipline that permits people to 'be themselves' more than many other allegedly professionalised ones (e.g. psychology!). This can, of course, be either a threat or an opportunity depending on the quality of the individual's work. That's a truly meritocratic state of affairs.

From doing fieldwork to working in diverse fields: differing conditions of engagement with the raw material of new anthropological knowledge

Dr Simon Pulman-Jones, Independent researcher

For anthropologists continuing their career as anthropologists outside the academy concepts of 'the field' and 'fieldwork' remain central to their work. Drawing on the author¹s experience of maintaining his identity as a professional anthropologist through a career in business strategy and design, this paper looks at the role of fieldwork outside the academy, from fetishised source of professional authority and differentiation to continuing source of anthropological inspiration.

If spending time in 'the field' is a primary goal of anthropologists, those working outside the academy enjoy abundant, but mixed blessings compared to their academic colleagues. Their work may require them to be frequently in the field for research, but those field experiences may be severely constrained by highly compressed timelines for both planning and execution, and by prescribed and limited objectives. Nonetheless, the cumulative experience of regular work in the field provides many practicing anthropologists with access to and knowledge of areas that are of interest to anthropology, and which might otherwise be difficult to reach.

For anthropologists working outside the academy concepts of 'the field' and 'fieldwork' are frequently at the core of their own attempts, and those of others, to define and control the work that they do, and the authority and agency of the contributions that they can make. Many anthropologists are now employed not for local area expertise gained during doctoral fieldwork, as might be the case in development anthropology, but for the forensic and explanatory potential of anthropological methods and knowledge themselves. Consequently many anthropologists working outside the academy are as engaged in thinking about the nature of anthropological evidence and the status of anthropological knowledge, as their academic colleagues, albeit in very different circumstances and to different ends.

This paper will consider the different conditions from which anthropologists working outside the academy engage with both the practical realities and the conceptual significance of 'the field' and 'fieldwork', and will argue that the discipline should embrace the field experience of those working outside as well as inside the academy.