Fluidity, Multiplicity, Contingency: The Shifting Sands of Knowledge Work

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

In this discussion by and about anthropologists working at the boundaries of academia, a reasonable place to start is with a statement of academic situatedness.  But in academia today—and especially on its sidelines—talking about situatedness can be tricky business.  In the traditional U.S. academic trajectory with a tenured academic position as the ultimate goal, a simple name, rank, and affiliation answer was sufficient and expected. Moreover, that small piece of information could offer a good amount of information about one’s intellectual pedigree and leanings, relative degree of success, and likely fields of expertise. For so many today, though,  both within academia in contingent positions and those working outside of academia, describing one’s institutional situadedness requires qualifiying language of  temporality, multiplicity, and fluidity. These qualifications we make, offered apologetically or not, stem, I believe, from the gap between the reality of academic careers in the U.S. today and the ideal(ized) traditional tenure-track career trajectory, which we still hold as the norm.  This despite the fact that those with tenure and on the tenure-track comprise a distinct minority of faculty in U.S. colleges and universities. Recent statistics and studies indicate that somewhere between 65% and 75% of all faculty in U.S. colleges and universities are in part-time or adjunct positions while only 25%-30% are tenured or on the tenure track. And these numbers do not account for those who went into academe aspring to careers that looked like those of their own professors and mentors, but who now work fully or partly outside of academia. The next few weeks will take up these issues as they pertain to the field of anthropology and the practice of ethnography, and in doing so will offer ideas about centers and margins, success and failure, and tradition and innovation.

First, though, a quick look to my academic and professional trajectory, offered as a kind of case study.  After getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology (with a big dose of dance thrown in), I decided to work for a year or two before going for my doctorate in anthropology.  At the encouragement of an esteemed professor, I applied to work in the Dance Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), attracted by the possibility of immersion in a completely different world. Months went by with no word from the NEA. I took that as a sign that I’d better get on with the grad school plan without the detours,  so I applied to doctoral programs in anthropology.  Mere days before replies were to go out from graduate programs and almost a year after applying to the NEA, I was called down to Washington, D.C. for a job interview.  I was offered and accepted the job, deferred my acceptance into Rice University’s Cultural Anthropology Ph.D. program, and stayed at the NEA for a year and a half. It was the right move—not only did I learn about arts funding, concert dance in the U.S., and how to work outside of an academic environment, I also gathered information for my eventual doctoral disseration, a multi-site ethnography on contemporary dance in the U.S. which included the NEA as one of the field sites.  (The other field sites were dance organizations and communities of dancers in New York City, where I moved to do fieldwork  in 1997 and have never left.)

So, finally, my qualified, contingent answer about professional situatedness: right now, I’m an adjunct assistant professor at New York University; a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company; a freelance academic editor; and a consultant/collaborator with various choreographers and visual artists.  At other times, I’ve also worked as a market research ethnographer (more on this next week); an adjunct professor at two other New York City colleges; and, for three years, as a post-doctoral teaching fellow at NYU’s John Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought.

With all of these multiple and contingent roles, what and where are the constants? How and where do I (and we all) locate ourselves from moment to moment and from gig to gig? For me, rootedness in a particular place has been one part of the answer, and a clear antidote to vocational precariousness.  To wit, all of these various undertakings took place in the city I moved to over a decade ago to do fieldwork on the professionalization of contemporary U.S. choreographers. In addition to spatial rootedness, my own intellectual training and projects are what orients and guides me, a fact that I would venture holds true for most of us, on the academic sidelines or not.  For me, ethnographic ways of seeing and knowing serve as an internalized intellectual compass. Similarly, ongoing fieldwork with choreographers–including sustained conversations, the questions we ask of one another, and what we learn from one another—serves as a constant (albeit evolving) practice.  These elements—my training and my own work—are what I carry with me on my peregrinations through academic, corporate and non-profit arts worlds, even when I am not hired to do or teach ethnography per se.

In the weeks that follow, I’ll say more about working as an anthropologist and ethnographer outside of academic contexts and as a contingent worker within academia, and will offer concrete examples of how ethnography gets shaped and deployed in these contexts.  Next week, I’ll talk about my work as an ethnographic market researcher and examine how ethnography was understood and practiced in this context.  In the third week, I’ll talk more about my original research with contemporary choreographers, focusing on the parallels and divergences in how deprofessionalization occurs in academia and in the experiences of the choreographers I study.  Here I’ll also discuss the neoliberal jargon of flexibility and free agency and suggest ways in which seeing professionals (whether dancers or anthropologists) as “bodies for hire” may affect the nature and quality of the art and knowledge produced. In the final week, I loop back to academia and discuss how  I teach fieldwork methods and workplace anthropology to undergraduates doing unpaid internships in for-profit companies as well as in non-profit and in governmental organizations.  I’ll consider not only how to supply students with ethnographic  tools and methods, but also how to help them orient themselves ethically and intellectually within a work environment.  Finally, I also briefly interrogate the role of the internship in undergraduate study in the U.S. and argue that it is of a piece with the general environment of precarity and deprofessionalization in which knowledge workers exist today.

Laurel George is an adjunct assistant professor in New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Gallatin Division, as well as a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Rice University in 2002.


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

6 thoughts on “Fluidity, Multiplicity, Contingency: The Shifting Sands of Knowledge Work

  1. Hi Laurel! I am excited to read your posts! I currently live on the margins of academia, but I am currently stuck in between a completed Master’s and that elusive acceptance into a doctoral program. I have filled the time working as a college web designer, which surprisingly has folded in quite nicely with my anthropological background, and adjunct-ing, which is more for me than for my pocket book. Yet, that distant idea of a tenure track position is my pie in the sky. I struggle most with feeling connected to other anthropologists and trying not to get lost out here on the edges. Even though I use my anthropology senses at work everyday there is only one other anthropologist employed at the college and she is a online-only instructor in a different sub-discipline. So, I generally feel pretty isolated. Then, of course, the added trouble of trying to get back into the center of things by applying to doctoral applications without losing the really intriguing things I have learned while I was away. Complicated stuffs. I look forward to reading about your experiences and any advise you may have for those of us who are still on the long winding journey. 🙂

  2. Thank you for comment, Angela, and apologies for the delay in responding. I’d like to hear more about how your anthropological training comes into play in your Web design work. I’m intrigued.

    I’m not sure that I (or any of the contributors to this series) have concrete advice about how to face the situations of precarity in which we find ourselves. I do know that we will be telling our stories about how we’ve made our way through various situations as ethnographers. And, for the next few weeks, also talking about how these situations have affected how we understand and practice the craft of ethnography.

  3. Angela, are you aware of the anthrodesign group on Yahoo! ( anthrodesign@yahoogroups.com)? If not, you might want to sign up. There is a ton of information there from people wrestling with how best to combine design and anthropology in profitable as well as intellectually productive ways. For additional inspiration, you might also want to check out the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC) conference (http://epiconference.com/). For a sense of the possible and a possible role model, a woman who has done it all, both professionally and academically, take a look at Marietta Baba’s home page (https://www.msu.edu/~mbaba/index.html).

  4. “Here I’ll also discuss the neoliberal jargon of flexibility and free agency and suggest ways in which seeing professionals (whether dancers or anthropologists) as “bodies for hire” may affect the nature and quality of the art and knowledge produced. ”

    I look forward to hearing more about this. Just a quick question, in any of the various interesting jobs you hold, do you belong to a union? (An as an aside, I would like to know if the bloggers in this series belong to professional associations and why/why not.)

  5. @ Amy: So glad you asked about the union stuff! I am proud to be a member of ACT-UAW Local 7902 (http://www.actuaw.org/), the adjunct union for NYU and The New School. While we have a looong way to go to reach parity with tenure track faculty, NYU adjuncts were able to make some real progress with our last contract (you can click the link to see some of the highlights). In working conditions that can be so isolating and atomizing, and in which the narratives of “success” have failed to keep up with structural change, the symbolic and real solidarity of the union is vital.

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