Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make A Difference

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

(2) Develop basic knowledge of problems. Rather than keeping to analysis, embrace our role as being able to speak directly about the causes and consequences of significant problems.

(3) Investigation. Take critique and go after something that matters to the public, whether that’s a community or the effects of a misguided policy.

(4) Advocacy. Use our understanding and our position as scholars to help advocate for change, to both represent the local point of view and to speak from our status as an expert. (Yes, expert – that research you did and the degree you have help grant that in the eyes of others.)

(5) Involve the community in your research. Besides making for better research and applied outcomes, including the community in your work yields direct and indirect benefits, through salaries, skill development, idea exchange and more.

(6) Have concrete community or applied outcomes. Start by making these outcomes a goal from the beginning, along with more traditional outcomes like peer-reviewed articles. Then do community-based research to make sure your applied outcome is relevant.

(7) Focus on developing or changing policy. Yes you can. As anthropologists we know plenty about unintended consequences, we also know a lot about what works locally. Put that to use.

(8) Get the word out. Communicate your work in an effective and popular way. Write an op-ed or a blog post or, gasp, a popular book. Remember that communication can also be informal. As anthropologists we can act as conduits, communicating among different constituencies in the field, different parties at the negotiating or policy table, and even different fields’ perspectives on a problem.

(9) Help develop organizations. Organizations do make a difference. They can bring people together in common cause and provide a framework through which to work. Indeed, organizations can take all the points made here and ramp them up to the next level.

(10) Create interventions or programs. Have a good idea? What about your community partners? Then try it out to see if it might work. Other fields do it. We can too. Do some investigation, get community involvement, and also check on what other fields recommend. And then see if our anthropology ideas make a difference. Remember, it’s always good to evaluate how effective your program is!

12 thoughts on “Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make A Difference

  1. It all sounds very nice — if you agree with the author as to “what needs to be done”. If you don’t share his/her ideals, then applying anthropology gets very tricky. Suppose you think that what needs doing is enforcing religious conformity and respect for God-given authority? Or perhaps abolishing private property and moving the urban population out into the countryside, to live in communes?

    If you plan to act merely as the agent of the group you’re studying, whose agent are you? What if a majority of the group wants those pesky women out of schools and jobs and back into burqas?

  2. Zora asks great questions. In my lifetime anthropology has, in terms of stereotypes, swung between the extremes of running dog of imperialism and cat’s paw of the local authorities. We need to come to terms with the anthropologist’s liminal position, possibly influential but not an insider vis-a-vis any group. Step two is to recognize that, as John Wager once put it on lit-ideas, there are no moral choices to make if everything is black and white. There is no escaping the predicament of having to decide the causes you will support and how you will use your expertise.

  3. Applied Anthropology seems to be such a tricky matter. I’ve been having a hard time thinking about what to do as an anthropologist in the future, because in every problem we never seem to escape our bias and there’s always someone that we end up hurting.

    For example, the work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the illegal trading of organs is remarkable. The trading itself is very dangerous or sticky, and she’s able to expose it. She proposes that it should be regulated. But even though that the trading itself is wrong and should not be encouraged (as Scheper-Hughes also suggest), we also have to look at the side of the people selling these organs. Most of them live in third world countries, and would do anything just to earn money. So even though these sellers won’t have proper medical help, they have no choice since they need the money.

    Another, is something I read from Jezebel recently where parents disowned their child because she was raped. In one point of view, this is an abomination. There would be a lot of psychological implications on the girl as she was raped, disowned and abandoned. But then, we also have to take the perspective of the parents, where everything becomes tricky. They might have a reason (as they are from another culture) for doing what they did.

    The examples weren’t that good, but I hope you get what I mean. I think this is also in connection with Zora’s reply above.

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