Divisions in Anthropology

Just like in any large family, members in the wide discipline of anthropology quibble. Theoretical anthropologists snub their noses at applied anthropologists. Applied anthropologists flaunt their professionalism at the ivory tower. Public anthropologists try to straddle both worlds. Debates center around the purpose of anthropology intertwined with issues of power and ethics. What no one wants to talk about, but cannot ignore, is that there is a dearth of jobs. Period. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue. If there were an abundance of money and jobs flowing into our discipline, fighting would be diminished. What might seem like ideological battles are really stakes in resource and financial control. Since all anthropologists share the cumbersome task of trying to legitimate *what* we do and the usefulness of our profession, we would be better off dialoguing and collaborating with each other rather than undermining the strengths of each niche.

Elizabeth Eddy and William Partridge (1987) contextualize the rise of applied anthropology in the post-war era. After World War II, America experienced prosperous growth and along with that, Americans were optimistic about solving domestic and international social problems. During this period, the discipline expanded and anthropologists were in high demand working for the government. It is important to note that British anthropologists trained under Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown considered themselves applied anthropologists who were also trained in theory. For example Lucy Mair who conducted research on social problems in Uganda argued against the distinction between theoretical and applied anthropology because they were concerned with issues of addressing problems with colonialism, land tenure, urbanization and labor. Some African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta trained with Malinowski. Thus, to reduce British anthropology to the “handmaiden” of colonialism is quite inaccurate and neglects history.

In the US, as higher education expanded, anthropologists were in demand in the academy and turned to what Margaret Mead called more abstract problems. Although the studies of modern peoples increased, fewer anthropologists sought practical uses for their knowledge. The most salient factor in the turn from applied to more “abstract” approaches is the high level of job and financial security within the academy at the time. Interesting fact — in 1947-48, anthropology bachelors masters and phds numbered 139, 26 and 24. In 1975-76, the numbers rose to 6008, 1078 and 445. In current times, funding for higher education has been cut to unprecedented levels. Academic jobs are difficult to find. Those within academia have to supplement their meager incomes with outside consulting jobs in order to send their children to school. Those who cannot find jobs in academia end up working where they are needed — NGOs, government, and military.

Why the quibbling? Of course there are substantive ethical issues. Project Camelot, Human Terrain project, and the use of data collected by anthropologists for unintended purposes are called into question. However, the real issue at stake, I believe, is the lack of demand for anthropologists. We continually have to legitimate ourselves as a useful discipline. What is it that anthropologists do that economists don’t? Is it the fieldwork approach? Sociologists like Michael Burawoy do long-term fieldwork. Is it our concern with social issues? The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an ethnography dealing with a significant social issue done by a journalist. It seems pointless for anthropology as a discipline to be so divided when we’re constrained by the same economic forces. Whether we like it or not, we have to be flexible with the job market and apply our skills that extend beyond the academy. Today, I received an email discussing an attempt by Republicans to cut funding for NPR and PBS. This is just the beginning…the survival of our discipline remains out of our control. However, what we can do is, as anthropologists, we can begin to productively dialogue with each other about the constraints we face and how to address them.


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