Applications of anthropology seminar 1
Professional anthropology in the twenty-first century
©Sarah Pink, s.pink(AT)lboro.ac.uk
The first seminar on 'Professional anthropology in the C21' was a two-day conference with speakers drawing on their own experiences to discuss the history and current use of applied anthropology in Britain . Themes included anthropology in industry, anthropology and development, anthropology in the public sector and anthropology and film. The presentations raised a series of issues that provided a background for the two subsequent seminars. They are summarised here.
How do anthropologists define themselves?
The history of applied anthropology in Britain has been characterised by the opposition of 'The Academy'. In the past applied anthropologists have not only felt invisible, as many continue to feel to day, but it was made clear to them in no uncertain terms that leading academics of the day had little sympathy with their project to use anthropology to solve problems in the real word. However present day anthropologists who undertake applied work, whether anthropologists in academic posts, working freelance, or within organisations continue to insist on their anthropological identities and the anthropological nature of their work. Indeed their work as individuals has contributed greatly to the process by which anthropology is becoming increasingly established as a discipline that can respond to practical questions and provide unique insights. To understand their work as being part of anthropology we should not essentialise anthropology and what anthropologists do as being only one thing. Rather the discipline needs to accept that there are in fact many different ways one can be/or call yourself an anthropologist in and out of 'pure' academic contexts.
Anthropology has always been hard to define. Indeed the authors of leading introductory anthropology text books have found it difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition for undergraduates - often skirting around the issue by describing what anthropologists do (i.e. long-term fieldwork) rather than what anthropology is (e.g. Hendry 1999, Eriksen 1995). This is even more unsatisfactory if we want to extend the definition of anthropology to include the work of applied anthropology. The work of applied anthropologists is often undertaken in new contexts, it involves researching new topics, asking different questions and requires innovative methodologies. As such this means a shift from the idea that anthropology might be defined by its method - of long-term participant observation - to defining anthropology as a type of approach, paradigm or a set of ideas that inform our understandings. The contributors to this book demonstrate that doing anthropology might take a variety of different forms that include both doing ethnographic research, doing anthropologically informed research, or making policy or managerial decisions that are informed by anthropological understandings or an anthropological approach. They show how one aspect of being an anthropologist is about having particular way of constructing and analysing a problem, producing and critically reviewing 'evidence' and reflecting on the wider social and cultural contexts that impinge on this. Maybe this can serve as working definition of what anthropological practice might be for contemporary applied anthropologists, and how it differs from current academic definitions of anthropological practice.
Added to this, the new contexts anthropologists work in require new forms of representation to communicate anthropological understandings to colleagues and clients. Contemporary anthropologists might be writing business reports, making policy recommendations to DFID or the NHS, running seminars for senior MoD staff or presenting their knowledge on TV or in the law courts. This might mean learning the appropriate terminologies and vocabularies, using pictorial representations or material forms, communicating verbally, and delivering information in a two-hour stretch or in sets of five bullet points over a longer period. Learning to operate in this way often means not simply doing an anthropological study of a particular problem or question. Rather in the absence of existing manuals or guides to how to operate in these institutional or organisational cultures, it means applying ones anthropological eye to the institutions for whom one might work or carry out consultancies in order to inform our own actions and practices of representation within them.
Ethics, rights and responsibilities
New working contexts, methodologies and research sponsors all have implications for ethics in anthropological research and representation. When one does applied work one is confronted with a series of ethical choices. First one can decide whom to work for. Some anthropologists would feel uncomfortable working for the Ministry of Defence, for multinational companies that are unashamedly promoting global capitalism or for organisations involved with fox hunting. The speakers at seminar 1 made it clear that questions about the morality anthropologists working for such organisations are inevitably more complex that they first appear. Applied anthropology inevitably constitutes a social intervention, in whatever context one is working in, be it commercial, public sector or for another independent organisation. Ethical questions do not only apply to the choice of who to work with/for, but also to the question of to whom one is responsible when involved in an applied project. A PhD anthropologist may feel her or his main responsibility is to her or his informants. But how does this change when one is employed by a university to carry out a consultancy for another organisation, but doing research with a set of informants with whose lives ones own becomes intertwined. As such applied anthropologists can become tied up in complex series of loyalties and moral responsibilities. To whom, and under what circumstances, are anthropologists responsible - to the consumers, to the institution, to the film production company, to their own university or to the company doing the consultancy for? Similar issues arise over question of consent and informed consent and the ownership and control over research materials.
For applied anthropologists ethnography remains a key anthropological method. Nevertheless the new contexts and questions applied anthropologists research also invite a re-thinking of what we mean by ethnography. Is the research done in business research (and other areas) really ethnography? Some would say it is not. It is not long term fieldwork in a so-called community context, but is more likely to be multi-sited and/or multi-researcher and we can even now find out much of what we need to know on-line - either on the Internet or by e-mail. Such ethnography is likely to involve much shorter periods of participant observation than the typical 1-2 years of the traditional doctorate in anthropology. But does this necessarily render it less anthropological? The contributors to this volume argue that it does not. First because such work is still equally informed by anthropological theory and interpretation (even if this theory is not explicit in one's final report to a client), the knowledge it produces and scrutinises is still subjected to anthropological critique. Second, because once an anthropologist has been doing applied work in the same area for some time it becomes her or his field. One might have less time for participant-observation but past ethnographic work informs ones current anthropologically informed research with shorter periods of participant -observation. Finally such methodological developments might also be understood in terms of changing approaches to methodology in academic anthropology - the ideas of multi-sited work (Marcus 1995), ethnography on-line and the anthropology of home (Miller 2001) all approach ethnography in new ways that have particular relevance for practitioners of applied anthropology.
Anthropology and its profile in multi-disciplinary contexts
To those 'purists' who have rejected applied anthropologists as 'lost ' to the discipline, the new contexts and methodologies outlined above might seem contrary to the identity of anthropology as an academic pursuit. But as one of the postgraduates at our seminar pointed out: Are there 'jobs for life' for anthropologists any more? Do we need to be able to be more adaptable? Anthropologists in applied contexts often work in multidisciplinary teams. They need to be open to and to understand, if not be able to practice, other methods and approaches. They might be working with for example, engineers, designers, lawyers, television producers, public health officials or psychologists. Anthropologists are well placed to understand the different 'world views' of other disciplines - we might say that is another strand of the anthropologically informed approach. However situating anthropology in multidisciplinary work also has another implication, we need to be able to define anthropology and its contribution in and to particular working contexts, as well as 'the intellectual contribution that anthropology can make' (Ingold 2003) and moreover to be able to communicate this to others. This adds up to not only finding ways to convince one's immediate colleagues of the value of anthropology, but also (as Sillitoe has stressed in a recent issue of Anthropology Today, 2003) highlights a need for us to work at the public profile of anthropology in Britain. Whereas in Norway anthropologists have a key role as public commentators and in Barcelona, a team of anthropologists are often seen discussing current issues on Catalan television, anthropologists do not seem to provide what British television wants. Some participants found that when they gave business representations, often their audiences did not know what an anthropologist does. Although seminar 1 showed us that professional anthropology is becoming increasingly established as we move into the twenty first century, there is still work to be done to develop anthropology's public profile.
What do we need to do about it
The above raises a series of questions about how we might begin to develop the public profile of anthropology in Britain. In the discussions of seminar 1 several proposals were made:
- If there is a potential role for anthropologists as commentators, what can we comment on? Should there be a think-group of anthropologists who meet every week/month to discuss current issues and produce press releases of anthropological comment on them? Should we beg a column/spot in a newspaper/magazine/TV programme?
- It was suggested we should develop an inventory of what anthropologists have done in applied anthropology outside academia. Starting with a 'where are they now' from the GAPP courses).
- We should create a more extensive web site to serve the needs of applied anthropologist and keep in touch with news etc
The discussions of the seminar also had implications for training for anthropologists.
- In the current context it is hard to get a job of any kind, one student remarked that often students take an MA in anthropology to put off the process of getting a job and to improve their CVs.
- In a context where it is unlikely that there are 'jobs for life' in anthropology any more we need to prepare postgraduates for the reality of the jobs market they will face when completing their doctorates.
- We might provide updating for applied anthropologists based outside academic departments. This would help them to keep them in touch with new work and ideas in anthropology (developing closer relationships between academic and non-academic anthropologists will also help to achieve this)
- Training is needed to provide anthropologists with the vocabularies they need to be able to work outside academia in specific contexts. For example: a particular set of terminology must be used if one serves as an exert witness in legal cases; anthropologists need to know how to communicate in business contexts.
- Media training is needed if anthropologists are to develop a higher public profile in Britain. Appearing on News Night would be terrifying without some kind of training or preparation, however it is precise such appearances that would bring anthropology into the public eye. If anthropologists are to be public commentators then we need to be trained and prepared to make interventions in media.
- Anthropologists who have left academia can feed back into the academy by offering training for academic anthropologist in areas such as those listed above.
- Some companies offer placement schemes for students, we might improve links with such organisations.
Academics and those outside academic departments need to keep in touch. We need hold meetings and events that are accessible to all. Events on Saturdays or weekends are easier for those who need to take time off work to attend events during the week.
A database e-mail group/list would help us to keep in touch.
It will be important for anthropologists who have left the academy to feed back into it as well as maintaining contacts with them. This should help us to achieve the objective that anthropologists outside the academy do not become invisible to academic anthropologists and to anthropological associations. We should ensure they don't 'disappear' once they no longer have an academic post or are no longer registered PhD students. We might partially achieve this by setting up a website they might appear on - in the style of an academic department site?
Eriksen, T. (2001) Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, London: Pluto Press
Hendry, J. (1998) An Introduction to Social Anthropology: Other People's Worlds, London & Basingstoke: Macmillan Press
Ingold, T. (2003) Response to Paul Sillitoe in Anthropology Today 19(2)
Marcus, G. (1995) ' 'The Modernist Sensibility in Recent Ethnographic Writing and the Cinematic Metaphor of Montage' in L. Devereaux and R. Hillman (eds) Fields of Vision Berkeley: University of California Press
Miller, D. (2001) "Behind Closed Doors," in D. Miller (ed) Home Possessions. Oxford: Berg.
Sillitoe, P. (2003) 'Time to be professional?' Guest Editorial in Anthropology Today 19(1)