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24 September 2010

What Does Academic Anthropology Do?

The other night, I was at a bar in Philadelphia and I received two somewhat disparaging remarks about my plans to go on to get my Doctorate in anthropology.  The first person said (commenting on my choice to get a doctorate) that he had come to a point where he had to make the choice between staying in academia and doing non-academic work (not in anthropology) and had chosen to do non-academic work, because he "wanted to do work that other people write about instead of writing about other people's work."  In the second instance, I mentioned that I was going to get my doctorate, and two ladies booed me.  Then one of them asked what one does with a doctorate in anthropology besides making more anthropologists.  It being a bar, I said something simplistic about changing the world, and she asked how my research would do so - I explained about my professor's research helping local communities communicate with scientists and policy makers.  She seemed okay with that explanation, but I just want to post a few more thoughts. 

Let me just say that I took these comments for what they were - random bar talk and casual jibing - so I'm not offended by them, but I do think they speak to a deeper misunderstanding of academia and how it relates to the "real world."  Now I'm as critical of academia as anyone (maybe not as critical as Max Forte, but certainly more critical than many of the other students in my program), but I don't think it deserves the kind of dismissal that these two comments offer.  They suggest, essentially, that academic anthropologists don't actually do anything meaningful in the world.  That they are isolated and self-indulgent - writing about what other people do or doing research that merely interests themselves. 

Do Anthropologists merely replicate anthropologists?
Yes, that is part of what they do.  Except I would say that they replicate anthropological thinking, which, in my opinion is very valuable.  Nobody complains about academic economists replicating economic thinking or academic engineers replicating engineering thinking.  That's because these two modes of thought are generally accepted to be valuable - they have "real world" applications.  Whereas anthropology is seen as merely academic.  But anthropology does have real world applications, and it does interact with and move within the "real world." Anthropological thought is valuable because it forces us to see beyond our limited cultural and historical frame, it forces us to consider the possibility that the world could be other than what it is (to borrow from Ghassan Hage).  Economics, engineering, political science, even sociology in some cases - these tend to replicate the world as it is, while anthropology offers a look into a world that is possible.  I think more anthropological thinking is a good thing, and we need to replicate it now more than ever. 

Does academic anthropological research actually do anything? 
Yes, it does.  Even aside from all of the "applied" work that's done.  Anthropologists - whether academic or otherwise - live in the world and act in the world.  Their actions cannot help but have an effect.  The question is how much of an effect and what kind of effect.  Certainly, a great many dissertations are shelved after they've been defended and never see the light of day again.  Also, many articles published in journals are never read beyond a handful of other academics.  But that's not to say that these things don't have an effect, it's just that the effect is small.  And we have to look not only at the effects of the text that is produced, but also at the effects of the actual research process itself, for the researcher for the consultants and for the community as a whole.  How did the research change the situation - even if very slightly?
It's like throwing a stone into a pond - you can't help but make some ripples.  Sometimes the effects will be counter to the researcher's original intent, and this is why I argue for a politically conscious, and deeply reflexive anthropological practice rather than trying to construct a space of objectivity.  But looking around, I see a lot of anthropologists, particularly those in the academy, working on social issues, and trying to make the world just a little bit better.  Some clearly don't, and some actually try to make the world worse (though, I suspect they think they're making the world better in some deluded, sado-masochistic way).  So I don't think academic anthropology can simply be written off as a waste of time.


Anonymous said...


The person who doesn't believe that everyone can make a differenc in this world has never had a life changing experience....too bad.
The indigenous people of this world believe that they make a difference every day in some small way. so...who's to say that an academic anthropologist won't make a difference.
Peoples are always moving. It doesn't matter whether it's forward sideways or backwards. People of science are moving....someone was able to articulate the value of eastern medicine and look where it's taking us.....
So go out there and experience the world whatever is the best way for you to do it.....

Michelle Lou said...

What are the main differences between the methods of business anthropologists and old fashioned anthropology?

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