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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Traditional, applied and practicing anthropology

Lately I’ve been invited into conversations about what “practicing” anthropology is. Whatever it is, it’s clearly in the wind, with recent articles in the New York Times and Harvard Business Review. The internet is alive with the sound of young anthro bloggers who work in real world organizations.

This flow of anthros into the world took off in the 1970s when production of academic PhDs outran the demand for them. As Valery wrote, "the wind is rising …we must attempt to live." I just caught the tail end of the old empire in the late 1960s. You went to grad school with a geographical specially, most definitely not the United States unless it was an Indian reservation. You went to the national meetings where no one listened to papers but rather schmoozed in public spaces. A couple of universities offered you a job as an assistant professor. And off you went for a few laps on the tenure track where you taught, attended pointless meetings, and published as much as you could in the right journals.

There was something called “applied anthropology” before the new practitioner wave, organized after World War II when it turned out that anthropology had helped in ways that the peer reviewers and tenure committees had never imagined. Back then, though, applied “didn’t get no respect," so it veered off into its own society with its own journal. For the most part, it was still academically based, though. A good indicator even today was a special issue of a journal on applied anthropology for the 21st century published in 2004. All of the authors were academically based, except me, and though I had left the university, I was working half time on a research grant from NIH, a pretty academic thing to do. Applied built on the usual kind of research anthropologists had always done, the difference being that it was “applied” to problems that other people cared about. Two prominent areas were, and still are, medicine and education. There are many others now.

So “applied” meant doing anthropology but doing it in ways that weren’t “normal,” normal being a (usually) Anglo anthropologist from the U.S. or Europe going off to a small isolated community in what we then called “the third world,” spending a year or so learning how they lived, then taking a particular angle on that life in a dissertation or book written after returning home. When I worked for two years in a treatment center for narcotics addicts in the late 1960s, or with a drug agency in New York in the 1970s, I did anthropological research. But it was “applied” since it wasn’t “normal.” The U.S.? Heroin addicts? In a treatment center? No way back then. It must be applied.

So there was “applied,” and there was “academic,” or the more general term, “basic research.” There is much to deconstruct in that two-ingredient lexical soup, but this is a blog, not a book. For now, the important thing is that there were differences in the context of the work, but not so much in how you did it. The important difference was, and is, this: You, the anthropologist, no longer controlled the “discourse,” meaning the way people in that applied domain talked and thought. And people didn't talk and think like anthropologists. You weren't in Kansas anymore, or at least for sure not at the national anthropology meetings. For example, when I entered the drug field, I quickly learned that I was in a world shaped by a long history of conflict between the docs and the cops. The field spoke in a creole of medical and legal discourse. I love the academic term “semiotic hegemony.” I don’t know why, maybe the rhythm of it. It just means the dominant (hegemony) way of interpreting and thinking and talking about the world (semiotics). It’s why applied anthropology is stigmatized by the academics. Applied means you adapt to a different discourse in the domain in which you work.

So principle number one: “Applied” means doing the same kind of anthropological research as the academics, often from an academic base or in a research institution. But, it also means adapting to the semiotic hegemony of fields that are most definitely not anthropology. I wish I had a nickel for all the times academics moaned and bitched about how another field used concepts like “ethnography” or “culture.” Sometimes the m&b was right on target. More often than not though it was more like outrage thatt academic anthropology's semiotic hegemony had been nuked. It was an ugly war is what it was and underground shelters were in order.

“Practice” departs from “normal” anthropology even more. Normal anthropology is about research, a certain kind of research that has proved notoriously defiant in the face of efforts to articulate it in a detailed and coherent way. I’m not complaining. I’ve had an interesting time and made a living in that gap, and even in my post-academic life I often do short term research consulting to help people translate from anthropology into a research project in another domain. But other things I’ve done aren’t like that at all. Those other things always involve “research” in the general sense of the term—learning as part of an activity—but they aren’t “normal” anthropology. Not by a long shot. A few days in an organization has no resemblance to a year in a distant isolated village. For one thing the hotel I stay in is way more comfortable than the hut I lived in in South India when I did “real” anthropology.

Traditional applied anthropologists at least worked in recognizable ways, even if they did commit the sin of “traduttori, traditori,” the Italian saying beloved of translators, "to translate is to betray,” even as academics bemoaned the fact that no one paid attention to anthropology. But the practitioners, good lord, what they’re doing didn’t even look like normal anthropology. But it does look like something else. There are many concepts that can help with this difference, William James' pragmatism, Glibert Ryle’s knowing how versus knowing that, artificial intelligence’s declarative versus procedural knowledge. I need to write something about this one day.

I’ll use "practical" versus "theoretical" reason here. Normal anthropology uses reason to settle matters of fact and their explanation—data and theory in other words. For example, when I was a kid working in South India, the caste system was a hot topic, as were dietary prohibitions like the famous sacred cow, as was the kind of kinship system that recommended cousin marriage. The semiotic hegemony of academic anthropology guided you to the facts that were important and the explanations that needed to be challenged—theoretical reason in action.

During my time in the village, I tried to help the village get a well with government support, where the village provided the labor and the government provided materials. I met with government officials, did the documents, helped organize work schedules, and so on. That was practical reason, the use of reason to get something done. There was a problem that reason helped understand and a task that reason helped design to resolve it. I didn’t even think of this well-building project as part of my anthropological research. Practical reason had not relationship to my official “fieldwork.” I just wanted to do something useful to repay the villagers for their willingness to sit around with me and discuss just exactly what karma meant.

Practice is even weirder than applied from a traditional academic point of view. With practice you not only get a shift from the semiotic hegemony of anthropology to that of a very different domain to which you have to adapt. You also get a shift from theoretical to practical reason. In fact, this difference also explains a difference in ethics. The academic version obsesses over research effects on the people who are research subjects. For practitioners that matters, too. But the biggest question in my experience is the responsibility to figure out if I can do the job the client asks me to do within the given time and budget and then say no if I can't.

But wait. Don't theoretical and practical reason have something to do with each other? Don't they feed into each other? Yes. And isn't fitting different hegemonic semiotic systems together part of anthropology's long tradition of jazz-like mixes of disciplines? Yes.

In fact, those questions lead into how practicing and applied and traditional anthropology connect in ways that they haven’t taken advantage of. I’ll continue with that theme in another blog in a month or so.
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