On the list we keep of AN columns for the coming year this one says: AAA. Easy enough, right? Report on the VA anthropologists and public sector presence at the annual meeting. This piece comes easily, aided by the fact that each year we have seen the number of related presentations increase and taken to heart the feedback that the work we are producing is relevant. This year continued the trend with public sectors anthropologists being well represented at the recent AAA meetings in San Francisco, CA. There was a well attended panel entitled, Responding to trauma: Voices of Veterans and Providers of Veteran Care, with participants: Ann M Cheney, Karen Besterman-Dahan, Karen L. Drummond, Alison B. Hamilton, and Kevin C. Heslin presenting recent work pertaining to mental healthcare in the VA; a volunteered paper on telehealth delivery of HIV specialty care to rural areas by Jane Moeckli and Sarah Ono; a poster on the VA’s national medical home implementation by Samantha Solimeo and Sarah Ono; and a poster on the differences among staff and patients regarding priorities for patient-centered spinal cord injury care by Jason Lind. In addition, many of these presenters and colleagues worked to staff a VA table for the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology’s Career Expo. In that venue we fielded questions concerning: possible collaborations; curiosity about working for the government; whether we were “real anthropologists”; what exactly we do for VA; whether we were hiring and what training is required; our career paths; and our job satisfaction.
In a sense it is the kinds of questions that we fielded at the Career Expo that remind us of both how far we’ve come in our own understanding of what it means to be “public sector anthropologists” and how far many anthropologists need to move in order for our field to recognize the vibrant, relevant work of anthropologists employed outside of university or other educational settings. We use the word relevant here purposefully: Public anthropologists working in the public sector are accountable to the organizations in which we are embedded as well as to taxpayers, study participants, and the disciplinary and professional organizations from which we derive recognition and licensure. In light of this broadly scaled accountability, when we attend professional meetings such as the AAA, it is often with a dual purpose of presenting our research and gathering new insights, contacts, or ideas to bring home with us to our research centers and colleagues.
This relationship with the annual meetings and expectations about what we should/can/hope to get out of the events shifts when we attend wearing our VA anthropologist hat. Every year we get a little better at navigating our own expectations. We also get better at finding the events that have the greatest relevance to both the work we are doing and our ongoing effort to identify the best fit for each of us when it comes to our personalize version of: self as an anthropologist. This year, a panel that provided connection, while also raising questions, was one that thoughtfully considered business anthropology, Anthropology of versus anthropology for business: exploring the borders and crossovers between an anthropology of business and anthropological consultancy, sponsored by NAPA. Drawing on Marietta Baba’s talk that kicked off this session, “Anthropology and Business: Negotiating Boundaries In An Institutional Field”, we’d argue that public sector anthropologists are neither anthropologists of business, nor anthropologists for business, but anthropologists with the public sector. While the distinction may seem subtle, we have come to understand that it is a very relevant distinction for the work we are doing. We can relate to the categories “of” and “for,” but also recognize that neither captures what it is we do or our unique position of being “with”.
One last thing on relevance and this year’s AAA meetings, the AN columnists and contributing editors got together to discuss the move of the newsletter to an online format that will then populate the print editions based on relevance of individual contributions. As you should anticipate, it is much more complex (details I am sure are being addressed elsewhere) than we are presenting here. In short, the evaluation of relevance is being assessed based on a set of social media-based metrics, things like: re-Tweets, Facebook likes, email shares, and good old fashioned comments. The idea being that if people are circulating information, it must have a value for them – relevance. With this at hand, we invite you to engage the ideas we present here through the comments section and we will do our very best to respond. While there were valid concerns expressed about the format changes taking place, our position is that in the long-run, these modifications will keep our work relevant and ideally communicate to a larger audience.
On the whole it was a productive meeting by all accounts and fueled our editorial group with a renewed enthusiasm for this column and the work that we hope to disseminate to the broader anthropological community. In the coming year we will undoubtedly continue thinking about the idea of relevance, both of public sector work to the Association and of the wider discourse of anthropology to the applied work we are doing. We thank the individuals who contributed columns in 2012 and look forward to those we have lined up for 2013. Happy holidays and all the best in the New Year!
**The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the United States government.
Sarah Ono, Heather Schacht Reisinger, and Samantha L. Solimeo are contributing editors of Anthropology in the Public Sector.