Putting Anthropology to Work

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Rachel Wright

From the discipline’s inception anthropologists have studied where, how, and under what conditions people make a living. Past research examines both the social relations of the workplace and the interconnectedness between work and the other facets of daily life. In many instances, the labor process co-opts broader ideologies about race, religion, and gender, producing outcomes that range from reinforcing power to catalyzing collective action.

Also since the beginning, anthropologists have worked at all levels of jobs outside academia: in private industry, public service, and the nonprofit sector. Given the rich literature on anthropology of work and the widening network of practicing anthropologists, I suggest strengthening the relationship between these two types of anthropological inquiry. For practicing anthropologists, how can ‘lessons learned’ in other settings elucidate injustices in our own workplaces? For anthropologists who teach, how can we use anthropology of work heuristically in undergraduate and graduate classrooms to encourage ethical labor practices among emerging practitioners?

I offer an example from my own research, which focuses on a common type of employment for practicing anthropologists: nonprofit organizations. Often cast as havens for selfless and resilient employees, nonprofits presumably give employees unique rewards – a sense of fulfillment, the gratification of making a difference, a flexible work schedule – that buffer the stresses of the work. These presumed rewards are offset by salaries below the median income, limited opportunities for career advancement, and a paucity of benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. Stridently enforced anti-discrimination policies and procedures that protect employees and promote equality on the job can be absent in the nonprofit setting.

With this tension in mind, my project drew a stratified sample of employees from a handful of social service nonprofits in Memphis, Tennessee. I discovered familiar-sounding discourses about unequal pay and opportunities for advancement on the basis of race, gender, and class. Though employees felt and articulated such injustices, they usually encountered counteractive forces that reduced their willingness to take oppositional action. Some feared that taking action would harm the clientele rather than the intended targets, which collapsed their tactical options for resistance. For others, the opacity of power and governance prevented them from identifying and confronting the source of their grievance.

Most often, employees saw quitting as their only viable recourse. Nonprofits’ struggle with employee retention is widely recognized, but the roots of employee dissatisfaction lay relatively unexamined. Many simply gloss high rates of turnover as unoperationalized ‘employee burnout’ or the sector’s inability to compete with for-profit salaries. My findings challenge such limited interpretations of these phenomena and suggest that failure to retain talented workers might also reside in the prevailing training and management models. By more closely knitting the relationship between practicing anthropology and anthropology of work, new perspectives and solutions might emerge for the nonprofit sector and other places where anthropologists work.

I see three potential benefits for such intra-disciplinary inquiry:

1) With the growth of advanced degrees in anthropology, anthropologists often move directly into supervisory or ‘management’ roles through which they exert control over lower-ranking employees. Granted these environments may appear egalitarian or have a ‘laid back’ culture, but camaraderie and open communication are not the same as policies and procedures that structurally address discrimination and promote equality. We have the opportunity to train students as both ethical practitioners of anthropology and ethical managers of employees.

2) Organized labor in the U.S. faces declining membership, reduced ability to negotiate and enforce contracts, and increasing inability to adequately mobilize opposition within the confines of state and national legislation. We can arm students who enter the uncertain and unstable job market as ‘workers’ with examples of labor’s battles won and lost and the tools for self-advocacy, should they need them.

3) Employee happiness can correlate to quality of work, clients benefit from a better understanding of worker satisfaction. This is especially salient for organizations where staff turnover has serious consequences, such as nonprofits, which provide key services to vulnerable populations like the elderly, low-income families, and the mentally ill. Though the type of inquiry I am suggesting may be uncomfortable, the potential is great, and the need is imminent.

Rachel Wright is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Syracuse University. Her research interests include the anthropology of work and labor, nonprofits, the interaction of race, gender, and class in urban environments, practicing anthropology, and the United States.

Wendy D Bartlo and Antonio Chavarria are contributing editors of Anthropology Works, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology.


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