Anthropology as Identity or Practice?

Last week I presented a paper at an anthropology department in another university in the UK. It was a department where many of the staff had either worked in development, or were working on development as the subject of their inquiry. This was good, because my paper was about development and about the participation of anthropologists in development policy making. Based on recent experience of working as policy maker within the UK government’s aid agency, I argued that anthropologists rarely got involved in policy making as anthropologists, although people who had been anthropologists quite often ended up working as policy makers. Why was this?

I suggested that anthropology and policy making rely on similar conceptual and writing practices, in particular the use of categorical representations. Indeed, both anthropology and policy making are in important ways modes of social ordering, presenting the social representationally. But there are also fundamental differences between them which mean that they can also be seen as the opposite of one another. Whereas anthropology dissembles social ordering through deconstruction, policy making reconstitutes, reconstructs and reorders with a view to bringing into being modified social realities. This has implications for the extent that the practices of anthropology and policy making are compatible. Indeed, when working in the policy field I have experienced what I was doing as practically and conceptually quite distinct from what I have done as an anthropologist.

Engaging in policy making as an anthropologist is difficult. One has to move beyond critique into the kind of reordering which anthropology is more comfortable describing than engaging in. This discomfort, and the general theoretical unease around government across the social sciences more widely, I suggested, accounts for at least some of the anthropological distance from policy processes and from government. As a discipline, certainly in the UK, we have been happier to unpack, critique, comment, translate, explain and witness than to involve ourselves in making policy and in re-envisioning the social.

For an audience committed to understanding anthropology as essentially an identity my suggestion that anthropology was a particular kind of practice was untenable. To maintain that anthropology could be reconsidered as practice, rather than an identity, seemed to imply that one somehow lost one’s anthropological being or status when one engaged in other kinds of practices. The debate then turned to questions of definition and categorisation: who could say that someone was or was not an anthropologist? Were there certain kinds of practices which were not anthropological?

Obviously, to some extent practices and identities go together and what one feels about being an anthropologist as opposed to doing anthropology is highly subjective. Moreover, our identities as anthropologists, whether honed in factory or studio, are deeply felt . Its what makes this a community of Minds and Minds readers. But, having had some seven days to consider the distinction I rashly proposed, I can see some value in maintaining the separation, at least analytically.

Separating out what we do as anthropologists, the special kinds of anthropological practices around ethnography and interpretation (apologies to other fields ) which are largely determined by the institutional contexts which create anthropology as a discipline and profession, from our identity as people who have received this kind of training enables us to perceive more clearly the terms on which we are well placed to engage with the world beyond the University, that is to address what other commentators have called the problem of engagement.

I think some of the problems in dealing with the world outside stem from our adherence to rather narrow anthropological ways of representing knowledge and modes of disciplinary practice , what I have called doing anthropology, which are central to the constitution of the discipline we have built (and which are really interesting and fun and complicated and all the things we as anthropologists love about anthropology). But they are also the same things which make anthropology inaccessible for outsiders and difficult to apply to the kinds of processes in which we claim we would like to be engaged. If we choose to view anthropology as an identity maybe we are less constrained. Anthropology as an identity which encompasses competence in anthropological practices should not preclude our gaining competence in other practices more suited to the engagement we seek. There is much to learn from the outside.


Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester.

17 thoughts on “Anthropology as Identity or Practice?

  1. Welcome Maia! I have been thinking about the distinction you have so perceptively described in this post, and I wonder how anthropology as an “identity” would be different than “artist” or “writer” as an “identity”: that is, something that has most of its resonance at the level of self-presentation. To wit: that guy who is always at the cafe with his laptop isn’t out of work, he’s a writer! Or that woman with outre fashion sense and a service-sector job isn’t a barista, she’s an artist!

    I’m not at all unsympathetic to these kinds of self-fashioning (unkind & excessively easy parodies aside), but they do seem to do the work of distancing individuals from the real contexts of their lives. A self-identified anthropologist who works in development might be able to put scare quotes around his/her gainful employment: ‘I may be an “NGO employee” by day, but REALLY I’m an anthropologist in my heart at night’ — but what’s that worth to anybody but him/her?

    Obviously people’s commitment to this kind of self-fashioning keeps the hearth fires of alternative value systems kindled in individual hearts. And two thumbs up for that. ON the other hand, how much does this kind of protective self-fashioning along rebellious/alternative lines slow people down from taking on what they *don’t* like about the systems of value in which they are forced to participate, or the values which are ascribed to them to the extent they actually do occupy their more demonstrable social role (unemployed guy, barista, NGO functionary)?

  2. There’s a lot in this post. I think anthropologists are often intimidated (or even scared silly) of actually being put in charge of changing the world they have previously mostly observed. I know that my forays into consultancy and policy making have been very difficult — it is much easier to understand something than to change it. And of course you don’t have to be an anthropologist to be apprehensive when put in a position where you can screw something up and make it worse than it already is.

    On another note, what I find so fascinating about anthropology is that it is eager to embrace political activism (particularly here on SM) to change the world, but becomes remarkably more shy when asked to do policy stuff. Why is that, and how can the previous debates about activism and anthropological identity be understood if transposed into the idiom of policy work?

    That said, I think that (as you probably rcognize) the line between ‘understanding’ and ‘changing’ is a false one, or perhaps represents two different ends of a spectrum — after all, anthropological literature has an effect in policy (although at times it may be a small one). I think that Ozma is on to something about identities (or I might call it ‘boundary maintenance’) — the situation in the world of policy and engagement is one in which anthropologists try to draw clear and bright boundaries around things precisely _because_ their situation (the very fact that they are communicating with policy people) is NOT clearly bounded. Their connection with others, if you will, consists of sharing narratives with them about their nonconnection.

  3. Re: “policy making reconstitutes, reconstructs and reorders with a view to bringing into being modified social realities” I agree very much, and one of my arguments within economics has been that the way the traditional economics article ends with “policy implications” has the effect of normalizing both the reconstitution you refer to and the state that is supposed to be the agent of “policy.” Anyway it sounds like we’ve been reading a lot of the same people and I’d love to see your paper if it’s available in any form.

    Perhaps because I’m committed to interdisciplinary work I’m also sympathetic to the critique of any discipline as an identity, although such identification seems, to me as an outsider, especially self-consciously strong among anthropologists.

    I do think the way forward is not naively to say that we should do policy, or to presume that engagement in the world requires a whole series of normalizations. The other obvious point is that the identity “anthropologist” is itself a product of larger processes (in which “policy” is already implicated), but that’s hardly a new insight.

  4. On a personal note, I would say that “I am an anthropologist” is self-defining in several ways. To me it says that I have taken an unusual path and had extraordinary experiences (especially my fieldwork in Taiwan) that only a handful of others have shared. On a practical note, I have never, since leaving academia, worked as an anthropologist—though as I have told students in my classes on advertising and marketing, I have found my anthropological training superb preparation for the out-of-the-box thinking and holistic grasp of situations that modern business increasingly requires. Analytically speaking, I note that while “economist” and “engineer,” for example, are associated with easily visualized roles outside of academia, “anthropologist” belongs in a different set, with “medievalist” or “art historian,” for example, for which non-academic roles are obscure—no prototypes instantly come to mind.

    So here I am, with a role set that includes anthropologist, adman, activist, member of the league of husbands happily married to very smart women, soon to be grandfather as well as the writer and translator that procure my livelihood. Being an anthropologist is certainly important to me, but in no way is it all of me. I wonder how others here would describe themselves and how heavily “anthropologist” weighs in their self-descriptions.

  5. The question of whether someone is or is not an “anthropologist” is awfully socially constructed.

    An individual with a background in political science who is hired to work political opinion polling because his poli sci expertise is helpful in that field will probably have no trouble identifying himself as a political scientist, and will probably get little disagreement from people who work academic political science.

    But an anthropologist who is hired to work for an NGO because their expertise in anthropology is useful in accomplishing the goals of the NGO seems much less likely to identify themself as an anthropologist, and even if they do, seems very unlikely to get approval from people who clearly work anthropology in academia.

    Maybe the problem is partially that anthropology is rarely discussed as having an applied aspect to it, like political science is. And yet it clearly does have an applied aspect, as evidenced by people who use it to get jobs in the private sector.

  6. The political scientist is an interesting case–but not, I think, because he or she is hired as a political scientist. Like the sociologist or social psychologist or someone with a degree in mass communications, the sociologist is hired as a pollster if his or her skill set includes large scale survey research or, for different types of research, focus groups.

    Like the medievalist or art historian I mentioned, the anthropologist has a particular problem demonstrating relevance to employer or client. The old saw about liberal education being training in critical thinking has become so routine that it has no specific force. From the employer/client side, it amounts to nothing more than “I am trainable” and assumes an employer/client willing to invest in training.

    Recent years have, however, seen a spurt of interest in anthropologists and anthropological research in advertising and marketing. Why? The value of traditional marketing research paradigms based on surveys and focus groups has declined as a result of both product proliferation and the fragmentation of mass markets. Marketers now turn to anthropologists in hope of fresh insights that conventional research paradigms no longer seem to deliver.

    The most successful anthropologists/market researchers are people like Paco Underhill or, in a very different style, Grant McCracken, who have aggressively seized this opportunity to sell the way in which they do anthropologoy as a source of the insights their clients want. This window of opportunity is, however, becoming increasingly crowded as others leap in, positioning themselves as ethnographers/trend trackers/cool hunters, etc., with or without formal anthropological training.

    This is the material context in which current our current disciplinary emphasis on political correctness and endless repetition of jaded old/new-left critique leaves too many anthropologists looking absolutely clueless when they look for non-academic jobs. (And no, I am not writing from a “capitalism, love it or leave it” standpoint. Just applying a bit of that old-fashioned look-at-the-relations-of-production first attitude I learned from my Marx-influenced teachers.)

  7. “The question of whether someone is or is not an “anthropologist” is awfully socially constructed.”

    As opposed to all those other questions that _aren’t_ socially constructed? 😛

  8. In what situations do you all find yourselves saying “I am an anthropologist” or “as an anthropologist …” or like phrases?

  9. Mostly when meeting people for the first time, in casual encounters where labeling myself an anthropologist adds spice to the conversation. Ditto for advertising and marketing seminars, in introducing myself to students. Never in business, unless there is some specific reason why the label might add value to the proposition I’m presenting. That, alas, is rarely the case.

  10. “Never in business”: One more sometimes situation.

    Saying “I am an anthropologist” never works as the opening remark in a presentation, nor for that matter in any situation where it would be a claim to authority. It can, however, be useful when stated as “I was trained as an anthropologist” or “I did my Ph.D. in anthropology” in the informal stage of building a business relationship. There it shows that I have an unexpected depth, something that differentiates me from straight business people and makes me a bit more interesting.

    Why? Because many executives spend much of their time looking for people who can add unexpected value to planning or negotiations or are simply delighted to find someone to whom they can comfortably reveal, for example, a tour in the Peace Corps or an interest in another culture that goes beyond the usual expat club bromides.

    Think of it this way: As an employeer I’m looking for someone who offers competence (useful skills), relevance (knows my business), and, if possible, something more. Anthropology can sometimes be that icing on the cake.

  11. “If we choose to view anthropology as an identity maybe we are less constrained. Anthropology as an identity which encompasses competence in anthropological practices should not preclude our gaining competence in other practices more suited to the engagement we seek. There is much to learn from the outside.”

    “Maybe the problem is partially that anthropology is rarely discussed as having an applied aspect to it, like political science is. And yet it clearly does have an applied aspect, as evidenced by people who use it to get jobs in the private sector.”

    Perhaps applied praxis is best suited for engagement in public policy issues. But the applied sector is often marginalized by the larger anthropological community. Saying “I am an anthropologist” receives a different reaction than “I am an applied anthropologist.” However it is the applied section that is most engaged with the private sector.

    The public’s understanding [or lack] of what anthropology is and does contributes greatly to its perception. Just adding “anthropology” to a resume doesn’t do much. Since the public is not aware, a practical introduction that includes applied-oriented benefits of an anthropological perspect is also needed.

  12. “.. it is much easier to understand something than to change it.”

    True. Past posts on morality and Anthropology by Dustin (again) come back to mind here.

    “..fascinating about anthropology is that it is eager to embrace political activism (particularly here on SM) to change the world, but becomes remarkably more shy when asked to do policy stuff. Why is that… ?”

    Perhaps because anthropologists loose some of their anthropologist reputation when explicitly engaging in “policy stuff”? Perhaps because other sociocultural approaches that programmatically are engaged in politics have adopted anthropology’s genuine tool of ethnography? Perhaps because not engaging in “policy stuff” is one of the few distinctions from other disciplines that leaves to anthropology?

  13. I’m always a bit surprised when I read comments here about the dispute over the existence of “applied anthropology” or disputes over its relevance, usefulness or position within anthropology. In Canada, it seems to go without saying that applied anthropology not only exists but is necessary. Perhaps it’s because so much of Canadian anthro is involved with Native rights . . .

    As for the identity issue . . . I think that’s a largely personal thing and has to do with the extent to which a person wants to incorporate this into their self-concept. This, in turn, has a lot to do with a person’s relationship with their discipline: is it a profession or a way of life? Is it a stream of academic knowledge or a worldview (for the individual in question). To what extent does an anthropological perspective shape that person’s life in terms of choosing a way of life, making important decisions, influencing their own belief system and resulting actions, etc.

    None of these are better or worse than the others – each individual needs to clarify that for themselves.

    In between grad school and the time I actually got a job teaching anthro, I felt fairly comfortable identifying as such. However, I’ve had visceral reactions in the past to people calling themselves “anthros” without having a clear idea of what an anthro is – just romanticised ideas about the lone ethnographer or the adventurous archaeologist.

    This leads me to another thought: is there a distinction between one’s identity as an anthropologist and one’s identity as a professor/teacher? Is one an anthropologist who professes or teaches or a professor/teacher who teaches anthropology (in the case, of course, of people trained in anthropology who are teaching or professing it).

  14. In Canada, it seems to go without saying that applied anthropology not only exists but is necessary. Perhaps it’s because so much of Canadian anthro is involved with Native rights . . .

    Based on my own, rather different, experience, I am always surprised when discussions of applied anthropology shift, as they so often do, to portraying the applied anthropologist as playing the role of defense attorney in the court of public opinion.

  15. RE: Rex’s question about activism vs. policy making:

    Most activist anthropologists I know of are profoundly suspicious of top-down efforts at social change. Books like Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” and Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” come to mind. There is a certain anarchist bent to much contemporary leftist social theory. This (anti-policy) position has been best articulated in Piven and Cloward’s book: “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail.”

    This is not to say I agree with all this. I’m not an anarchist. But I do think it explains why so many activist anthropologists are unwilling or uninterested in engaging in policy making.

    Personally, I think we need a healthy mix of grassroots movements and policy makers. I find it strange that so many of the anarchist-leaning anthropologists I know quote both Foucault and Gramsci at length, considering how seriously both of those two scholars took policy debates.

    Another answer might come from Bourdieu. It seems to me that many anthropologists would loose their political capital as people who speak for the marginalized if they suddenly had to speak for the state as well.

  16. Kerim’s put his finger exactly on my sense of what the core of this issue is: the tension between serving a group of people with whom one studies and a group of people who make policy for the people with whom one studies. This is a central problem in my own research on Sol Tax’s action anthropology. Now, Tax was in no way opposed to having a say in policy — he was an Indian affairs advisor to President Johnson — but he had serious qualms about doing so *as an anthropologist*. His students involved in both the Fox Project with the Meskwaki and the Fort Berthold Indian relocation project had run up against serious difficulties in mediating their relationships with the Indian Service. In both cases, policy dictated changes that were resisted — and rightfully so, in retrospect — by the Meskwaki and the Three Affiliated Tribes, respectively, and in both cases helping to apply policy became a hindrance to research. This is true of applied anthro efforts dating back to the early industrial anthro of the ’30s, and is especially evident in the Indian New Deal and Japanese Internment efforts — in just about every case, anthros are forced to choose sides, explicitly or implicitly, and regardless of the moral issues involved, it is the anthropology — the *research* — that suffers.

    That doesn’t mean that anthro is necessarily opposed to policy; theoretically, an ideal situation can be created in which such tensions are resolved. Tax’s action anthropology was one attempt to create just such a situation; whether it was successful or not is unclear. It was *modest*, though, and for it’s modest aims it seems to have achieved modest successes; on the scale of, say, third-world development, it’s hard to say whether it mightn’t have collapsed into the same old story — siding with policy-makers or with anthropological subjects.

  17. Could part of the problem also be that activist anthropologists tend to frame what they do as speaking for the marginalized in opposition to the state—ignoring the good that good government can do and, implicitly at least, adopting the same view of “the state” as hyperindividualist market fundamentalists?

    Consider, as an alternative model, a case I read about in, I’m not kidding, Harvard Business Review. The researchers in question were looking for ways to improve nutrition for kids in impoverished rural villages in Vietnam. For several years the region in question had been the target of big, top-down aid efforts that had not been able to address this problem effectively.

    Then someone noticed that in every village studied, while most children were malnourished some were plainly not, despite the fact that there was no significant difference in the economic status of their parents. Closer investigation revealed that the mothers of the better nourished children had discovered and were exploiting local resources of which other mothers were unaware. One example was snails that grow in rice paddies that turned out to be a good source of protein.

    The program that worked took advantage of this local knowledge by identifying these mothers and the resources they had discovered, promoting the mothers as local heroes and paying them to teach what they had learned to others. One complication was, of course, the danger of overexploiting and destroying the resources in question (wiping out all the snails would eliminate that source of protein, for example). But this turned out to be a problem that other villagers could recognize and work together to resolve.

    The moral of this tale is, of course, that speaking on behalf of the marginalized had nothing to do with this success. Careful attention to local models and local knowledge and providing programmatic support, in particular making it worthwhile for local innovators to share what they had discovered—that’s what did the trick.

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