A Case for Applied Anthropology: Let’s Get Personal


In honor of the first National Anthropology Day, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and write something anthro-related. Or rather, type something anthro-related that I scribbled down in a tiny notebook nearly 2 years ago. 

Imagine, if you will, that it is spring 2013. I’m headed back from the first of a two-day conference of California Cooperatives. I’m neck-deep in a sustained effort to start a community-owned grocery store. I’ve just landed a dream job working with and for people two generations ahead of me at a local non-profit.

My days of suffering through thankless customer service jobs are over. I’m high on collective action. I’m still livid about my graduate school experiences & failures. All these feeling coalesced in a frenzy of brain-waves. The following are the thoughts I rushed to get on paper every which-way as I metroed back from the church basement in Los Angeles where the conference had holed up, ravenous for the life I was experiencing as well as a proper dinner.
Applied anthropology gets a bad rap. Partly for fair reasons, but I’m here to talk about things we don’t think of when those who have the luxury of working the ivory tower use the term pejoratively.

Full disclosure: I am making this case partly as a way to defend the work I do as a natural and positive way to use my academic training.

I consider the work I do to be applied anthropology. Not this blog, which is armchair anth to a fault, but my real-world work. I have the great fortune of being involved in the following projects:

  • At a local history museum, I’m collecting and curating personal memories as part of a virtual exhibit of community stories. Last year, I re-wrote a docent training manual to make room for those groups discursively erased from dominant historical narratives.
  • I am contributing to the start-up phase of a food co-op.
  • I’m working for a non-profit that creates a support network enabling people to stay in their communities of choice as they age.
One of these projects pays me, but I spend arguably more time on the volunteer projects. All of them are local and community-oriented to some degree. And in everything I do for them, I apply my anthropological lens. My training informs my work.

I use the tools and perspectives of cultural and linguistic anthropology to navigate all of this work. I don’t consider this “selling out,” and while it may be an impure form, I do not see it as a bad thing that I’m using the knowledge I and others (have) produce(d) to do very real things. To effect the type of social change we anthros always seem to be advocating for.

I suppose that makes me an activist anthro–another pejorative term. I’m working with folks to address and solve the social problems that anthropologists are so good at identifying. There may well be harm in this endeavor, but there is also a great deal of good.

For example, I use linguistic anthropology for good, not evil. Yes, I’m referring to marketing, but this is marketing for a better future! I haven’t sold out to a corporation, here (unless you count the food co-op). I’m taking the collective will of the people and packaging it for even more people. “Selling” folks on the very ideas they helped to create.

But that’s not what people mean when they snark at those of us who aren’t masochistic enough to be in a PhD program. I admit that I don’t have the temperament to hack it. I’m not into feeling overwhelmed and mentally inferior. I’d much rather be fulfilled, using my skills to engage with my local community and make it a better place.

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Collective production of paper mache’ floats trafficking in mixed metaphors totally makes the world a better place.

 

All of these are reasons why I like the CCC’s better than the AAA’s. There’s a commitment to putting theory into practice. Turning idealism into action and ideology into reality at a grassroots level. Joining pragmatism with idealism to forge unstoppable forces for good in the world!

Besides, if we sequester ourselves in the ivory tower, if we don’t retain ownership of the knowledge we’ve produced, it has a higher risk of being co-opted and used for evil, rather than the good we intend. There’s nothing shameful in seeing something through, in applying theory to practice.

What’s the point of research if it doesn’t have real-world implications? And who are we if we don’t see the value in implementing those implications of our research?

Instead, let’s embrace the practical applications of our research. Let’s retain ownership–sharing the burden, to be sure, with those who have the experience and power to implement our ideas. Not just handing it off, but sticking around to be active participants. Taking action!

In the two years since this breathless tirade against academia for poo-poo-ing applied anthropology, I’ve mellowed a bit. My involvement in the museum and the co-op has lessened, and my work in the non-profit world, while still rewarding, is definitely work. I’m not quite as bitter about my negative experiences in graduate school, and instead enjoy gazing through nostalgia-tinted glasses at the wonderful undergraduate experiences that drew me to anthropology in the first place.

There is peace. There is still action. The museum endures. The co-op is open, now, thanks to the efforts of many talented people. There is still a case for applied anthropology.

 

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