I am so grateful for this chance to confess to you active social scientists about my applied anthropology career crisis, and explore with you potential ways to weather and even prevent such a crisis for me, perhaps for you someday, and maybe even for the discipline.
Many people study anthropology and we embrace it as part of our identity. In fact, per the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Educational Sciences, an estimated 400,000 people in the United States have anthropology degrees, including about 20,000 PhDs and 50,000 masters, presumably many in applied anthropology. Further, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) boasts over 10,000 members and the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) about 2,500.
Of AAA members, 75% are employed in higher education or students of anthropology, and it’s safe to assume that these folks practice anthropology daily. What about those who aren’t in academia? What do they do? Just about anything and nearly everything, with more or less success at incorporating our anthropology learnings in a sustained way. Those of us not in academia work for governments, development agencies, NGOs, tribal and ethnic associations, advocacy groups, social-service, health, and educational agencies, and businesses. These organizations often have a different set of values, methods, and priorities that compete with our applied anthropology tenets. And this culture clash sets us dyed-in-the-wool anthropologists up for conflict.
Take, for example… me! I was an applied medical anthropologist before I even heard of the term. I came of age on the Navajo Reservation, hearing stories from my step-mom, an Indian Health Service doctor. As a high school student, I pondered ways to prevent kids from being bounced out of pick-up truck beds. I envisioned policy to enable my friends preparing for military deployment to both take peyote in their protection ceremony and pass their pre-deployment drug test. I devised a group prescription system that would allow my high school girlfriends to obtain and take birth control pills together as a community, a way that would prevent more pregnancy than each of us playing roulette by taking turns popping out pills from a single, shared pill pack.
I gave my high school graduation speech in Navajo and went to Stanford, where I kicked off my years of formal social science education under anthropologist George Collier, and later a PhD in applied medical anthropology from the University of Arizona under Mark Nichter. Equipped with my social science degrees, I plunged into the world bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the intention – the quest – of using my applied social science training to promote health and well-being, in Paul Farmer’s words, “to repair the world.”
And I did. I practiced applied medical anthropology in Chiapas, Mexico for a decade, with loads of anthropology built into my work and everyday interaction, and reflected in numerous publications, presentations, and conversations (visit www.HealthandCulture.org if you are interested). My work shed light on how lay perceptions of risk during pregnancy differ from clinical criteria for risk in an area of high maternal mortality. I engaged doctors and community leaders in addressing the factors contributing to elder health and care in a setting where women are outlived by men. Then I decided I would apply anthropology to impact public health from within the US system. I accepted a job managing health planning and evaluation for the thirty programs comprising a cutting-edge local public health department.
There, I paid others (!) to explore unintended pregnancy among Latino/as. I coordinated the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, spending hours – indeed days – checking the statistics that the Scantron spit out. I led hospitals, motivated by IRS requirements under the ACA, through community health needs assessment, only to have hospital leaders select individual clinical interventions over preventive population health strategies. I built the best damn public health planning team one could imagine in the best damn public health department you could ask for, and then spent my days approving timecards, lobbying for appropriate salaries, tiptoeing around regulatory requirements, and oohing and aahing over accreditation standards.
One morning, eight years later, I awoke in a cold sweat, seized by a guilty panic. Far from applying anthropology to solve global enigmas and saving the world with social science, I spend much of my time bean-counting; feeding bureaucracy; and managing people, dollars, meeting time, photocopies. The closest I get to studying primates has been analyzing SurveyMonkey stats. The time and thought required to truly do applied anthropology were eroded by competing hard science disciplines and politics. Despite my best intentions, had my applied anthropology levels dropped to a perilous low? Was my applied anthropologist identity at risk? Was it too late to re-engage?
ResearchGate still sends me weekly alerts about how many people have cited my anthropology work, LinkedIn lets me know what my co-authors are up to, and my alma maters nudge me to report in and donate, but there is no app for calculating anthropology blood levels, measuring social science integrity, or tracking applied brain atrophy. So I created a quick 4-item diagnostic test for folks who aren’t sure or who are in denial of our anthro-less or anthro-lite career.
You have an anthro-lite career if:
- You introduce yourself as anything but an anthropologist or social scientist. By the way, none of this session’s presenters, myself included, described themselves first and foremost as “applied anthropologists.”
- You cannot recall what the debate about objectivity was, the definition of cultural relativism no longer rolls off your tongue, and you mix your emics with your etics.
- All of your deliverables are numbers or inanimate objects.
- There are six degrees… let’s make that two or more degrees of separation between your job and the actual people or community you serve.
Of course I piloted my diagnostic instrument, conducted key informant interviews, and did participant observation with fellow anthropology graduates. My convenience sample – of 2 people – easily related to the sense of having abandoned anthropology and the world we had set out to understand and improve. That leads me to conclude that, at the very least, I am not the sole sufferer, and perhaps there are many more folks with this condition.
The good news is that, once we have a diagnosis, we can move onto a remedy. My first idea was an anthropology booster shot (“ABS”), but I think it’ll take more than one poke in the butt. In fact, I think it’ll take a 12-step Applied Anthropology (“AA”) program. In other words, 12 simple (?) curative steps that disengaged anthropologists can take to re/engage.
The 12 steps of my AA program are:
- Push past the slacker stigma and go to the next AAA meeting or in my case this SfAA meeting.
- It’s time to fall in love again. Connect with your conceptual crushes. Read their recent work and re-read their anthropology bibles. Call them. Visit them. Listen to a lecture. I re-read Margaret Lock and Paul Farmer. I call Mark Nichter and George Collier. I listen to Shankar Vedantam. Tony Iton will soon speak at my office.
- Study whatever you are experiencing right now: Aging parents? Neighborhood gentrification? Cardiac aneurysms? How about IRS form 1040?
- Learn a new language? Probably not. So find one person who speaks the one you did learn way back when and start a conversation. In that language.
- Read your early work. You will be struck by how perceptive you were. And how blind. And how much your experiences since you wrote that paper, that article, that presentation have taught you about anthropology.
- Unearth those artifacts of your previous lifetime as an anthropologist, restore them to museum quality, and publish or display them. Dig up field notes, class projects, photographs, cassette tapes, journals, maps, sketches, samples, and songs, and write about them. To get into character, put on your research outfit – whether it was a huipil and bare feet or a painted chest and flip-flops, a wetsuit or a business suit – put it on and translate evoked memories into sharable words.
- Listen to your current vocabulary and see if there is an archaic “anthropologese” word for any of the terms or concepts. For instance, among the latest greatest buzzwords in public health are “social determinants of health.” In other words, we bright public health folks have discovered that impacting health means paying attention to… culture! What doctors have just discovered is applied medical anthropology.
- Subscribe to a professional journal, such as Human Organization. My personal favorite is Social Science and Medicine. Better yet, volunteer to review articles for that publication.
- Review grant proposals, lesson plans, budgets, calendars, medical records, inventories, cartoons, grocery lists, office memos, textbooks, ads, menus, and iTunes with an eye and ear and taste buds for the impact of culture on these artifacts and their impact on culture.
- Teach and mentor anthropology students. You will be surprised at how much comes back and how much these tykes (how did you get so old?) push you to think, learn, and question.
- Approach your current work as you would fieldwork. Listen. Nurture relationships. Be a participant observer. Take hand-written notes. Read them. Write. Question the process.
- Rather than aspiring to save the world with your applied anthropology degree, focus on understanding one small component of your world. Like your teenagers.
So perhaps this is a 12-step AA program for which you have no need. You are, after all, here at SfAA, a good indication of applied anthropology engagement. That said, perhaps you are nearing that elusive dissertation defense and then the interview that gets you the job that ultimately lures you away from applied anthropology. Maybe being mindful of these steps as preventive measures will ensure that you don’t wake up like I did, years later, with an anthro-less or anthro-lite diagnosis. Or perhaps you are a recovering anthro slacker and have discovered other remedies.
I’d like to open up the session for discussion now, and hope that our presenters and audience alike will join in.
My questions for you are:
- How do you maintain your anthropologist identity and feed your applied hunger?
- Have you ever felt anthro-less or anthro-lite? If yes, how did you re-engage in applied anthropology?
- What can we do to make practicing meaningful, impactful applied anthropology outside academia more feasible?
- Anthro-less or anthro-lite at mid-career:Diagnosis and remedies - June 14, 2017