Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Is applied anthropology an essential tool for conducting culturally competent work, or a potentially problematic profession?
What is applied anthropology?
During my undergrad, a mentor who would prove to be a life long friend and associate introduced applied anthropology as an answer to "so what?"
What did it matter that anthropologists were researching and writing year after year?
At a certain point most disciplines had communicated to society some use or tangible value of their research. Mathematicians helped to engineer bridges, navigate, and even understand musical chord progressions; scholars of medicine mended bones, cured illness, and performed complex surgeries; and psychologists claimed to be able to untangle the hidden mysteries of our inner world--but what about anthropologists? In class we were told that part of why "doing" or using anthropology wasn't discussed more was because things had gone wrong on more than one occasion.
The invisibility of the modern anthropologist
It is not that anthropology has not communicated its potential in the past to be applied to real life issues. The problem has often been that what it has been applied for has been problematic. One of several blemishes on anthropology is their complicitness in the eugenics movement.
Eugenics has now been thoroughly disavowed by anthropology and condemned by scientists and leaders around the world, however, in the late 19th through the early part of the 20th century such ideologies were quite mainstream. Anthropologists like W. H. Holmes were staunch supporters of applying scholarship steeped in constructs of biological race and social Darwinism to public health and government policy (Patterson 2001, 56). The body of anthropological and ethnological research and literature found itself weaponized against non-white and non-Western bodies. Popular literature from the 19th and 20th century such as H. P. Lovecraft (Fry 2006), and Edgar Rice Burroughs Sir Edgar Rice Burroughs is rife with off handed associations between heredity and phrenology (the study of cranial morphology) as determinants of temperament and intelligence. When eugenics lost favor in the United States in the 1950s, anthropologists retreated to the shadows of academia and perpetuated a myth of scholarly non-interference.
The anthropologists in academia romanticized themselves as being mostly harmless, often awkward guests for the summer or sometimes longer, who would come, live and listen, laugh and work, and then disappear back to the University to write things and become recognized experts in “their” little piece of the world. And while an anthropologist builds their career through the relationships they develop with research communities, how often does this relationship genuinely prove reciprocal?
In defense of doing
Defending doing, for me exists on two fronts. First there is the question of whether academic research is actually completely neutral or “safe”, and second, what could contemporary applied anthropology look like? Academically focused anthropology, ethically is rooted at the point in which the history of past transgressions in testing on human subjects has led us to. The institutional review board (I.R.B.) works hard to protect research participants, but even today, it draws current conventions on risk, research, and dignity. These standards mark an improvement from the past, but only a stepping off point for where we should be.
A a graduate student, I was encouraged to see the IRB compliance as the basic level of consideration, but to try to position my conception of ethical work as much in the forefront of the conversations about ethics in research as possible—see the AAAs for example.
Participant observation, one of our central field methods places us in places and social contexts that are generally reserved for family and close friends. Just being present creates change and results in consequences. As a researcher, you show up as an agent of social, economic and cultural leverage or domination. Within certain social contexts, talking to you as a representative of a Western colonial institution can be levered as an aﬃrmation of a person’s status or an impetus for stigma. Indeed, it may not even matter what a person does or doesn’t say to you, because simply being associated with you can negatively —or positively— impact their social reality long after you leave.
Through watching my mentors and contemporaries in the field, I have seen that there is a potential for the anthropologist to be an invited and effective part of a community driven project. By utilizing the toolkit of the anthropologist to conduct ground truthing and provide an insightful view into life at a particular time and in a particular place. At its best, I feel that contributing this to a project can help all parties involved avoid unintentional harm, insult, or exclusion.
Government and non-government organizations need consultants and will hire someone to help them understand values and decision-making processes which inform attitudes, behaviors that are likely to make or break a proposed program. And an applied anthropologist’ commitment to holism and on-the-ground reality makes them a valuable addition to any team.
The final bit of advice that I received and will share now is that the more closely who you work for is in alignment with the communities that we are working in and with, the better chance you will have to avoid burnout. And while applied work such as this might take a different form than purely research centered work, I believe that such work compliments the discipline instead of dilutes it.
Dumont, Clayton W. 2003 "The Politics of Scientific Objections to Repatriation." Wicazo Sa Review 18, no. 1: 109-28.
Frye, Mitch. (2006). "The Refinement of “Crude Allegory”: Eugenic Themes and Genotypic Horror in the Weird Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 17, no. 3 (67): 237-54.
Patterson, Thomas C. 2001. A Social History of Anthropology in the United States / Thomas C. Patterson. Oxford ; New York: Berg,
Ervin, Alexander M. 2005. Applied Anthropology : Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary Practice / Alexander M. Ervin. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon
Pelto, Pertti J. 2013. Applied Ethnography : Guidelines for Field Research / Pertti Pelto. Developing Qualitative Inquiry ; v. 12.
Tuck, Eve. 2009."Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities." Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3: 409-28.
White, Michael G. 2020. “Why Human Subjects Research Protection Is Important.” Ochsner Journal 20 (1): 16–33. https://doi.org/10.31486/toj.20.5012.
Lucor Jordan (he/him)
Cultural Anthropologist & Director of Operations at Slightly Problematic
Lucor Jordan is an applied cultural anthropologist who brings a background in environmental anthropology, collaborative research, organizational impact assessment, asset-based community development, building cooperative capacity, and culinary anthropology. Applied anthropology at its heart carries a commitment to relevant and ethical work that bridges engaged scholarship with pressing social issues, and this is particularly aligned with the mission of Slightly Problematic. It is with humility and excitement that he joins this inspired community of practice.