What Comes Next for Practice?

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Mary Odell Butler


Insights from the 2012 CoPAPIA Section Summit

The current state of the US economy and the job market for anthropologists encourages us to embrace the position of practice within anthropology. We need to work together to retain practitioners in anthropology and in the AAA if we are to remain connected to the expanding roles that anthropologists hold in business, health, environment, human rights activism and many other emerging fields. Yet every year a large number of anthropologists disappear from the discipline and from the AAA because they feel that the organization is insensitive to their needs and has little to offer to them as professionals. They may even completely fail to present themselves as anthropologists in public settings, reclassifying themselves as policy analysts, organizational analysts, social science researchers or systems analysts. When this happens, their colleagues and clients never understand that the good things they are doing come, at least in part, from anthropology.

Each year, the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology sponsors a Section Summit (SS) that brings together practicing and academic anthropologists to address issues emerging in training practicing anthropologists and in supporting the careers of anthropologists who work full- or part-time outside the academy. In 2012 we looked at the role of AAA as a professional home for practitioners and steps that AAA might take to retain and attract practitioners as members. On November 17, 2012, 22 anthropologists, representing 14 AAA sections met in San Francisco to brainstorm recommendations for the future of practice in anthropology and in AAA. The panel included eight anthropologists with university affiliations and five full-time practitioners—as well as ten students.

The panel discussed the ways in which it is a problem for anthropology that practitioners leave AAA. Why does this happen? And what can AAA offer to help retain such practitioners? What can practicing and academic anthropologists do to strengthen collaborations with each other in their communities, and in AAA?

There was agreement among participants that AAA needs to retain practitioners as members. With regard to students, their most important role is as co-educators in building substantive skill sets, developing and supervising internships, describing careers in practice, and finding job opportunities. These resources are seldom available in traditional academic departments. Others at the meeting pointed to the tendency to conceptualize practice in narrow terms, ignoring the variation that exists in what applied and practicing anthropologists do. Yet in policy discussions, we assume a universal field of “practice.” There is a need to brainstorm and discuss how we can familiarize students and colleagues with the many options available in practice.

Links among academic anthropologists and practitioners at the community level are not well developed. Strong and productive relationships do exist at the individual level, but these are not the rule. CoPAPIA and AAA may want to consider ways to facilitate the development of such links within specific communities, building on existing LPOs or by working with identified champions in communities that do not have an LPO. One idea is to partner with community colleges to reach the underserved constituency of undergraduates. Such collaborations across communities could meet many student needs on a more ongoing basis than annual meetings.

An effective way to build such collaboration in communities that have academic departments is through the joint development of internship experiences for graduate and undergraduate students. Both academic and practicing anthropologists can benefit from having interns, who in turn gain useful practical experience and training. Internships are a required part of some anthropology curricula, and those offering internships are often very pleased with interns who provide trained labor at a low cost. To be meaningful, however, internships must be part of the overall academic experience. There are few opportunities for academic counselors and intern supervisors to jointly define what kinds of internship experiences are needed, how to evaluate them and define the respective responsibilities of the professor and the employer in a successful internship experience.

There was some discussion concerning perceptions of how friendly the AAA is to practitioners and to providing training opportunities in practice for students. Some participants had negative impressions, while others disagreed, citing actions by AAA and some of its sections that have promoted these kinds of exchanges between students and practitioners. Past experience suggests that it is not easy to improve the “friendliness” of AAA toward practitioners by direct action, perhaps because—as one participant pointed out—the problem is with the membership rather than the administration of AAA. However, opportunities for practitioners and interested students can be developed, demonstrated and incorporated into AAA’s offerings.

Another issue that emerged from the discussion was the tension between scholarly research and practice in the careers of practitioners. Some felt that it was exceptionally difficult to do research in practice settings because of competing demands in policy work, management responsibilities and t and a lack of paid time to publish results. Most practitioners do research—some of it ground-breaking—but the applied nature of results, and the interdisciplinary nature of most practice means that research is defined by a societal need rather than a specific professional interest. Thus assessments of contributions of practitioners as anthropologists cannot be patterned on the academic model of teaching, publication, and research. We need to look at professional participation with new eyes. Those who think the only possible model for anthropology is an academic one are unlikely to change their minds. But for the rest of us, some brainstorming on professional expectations for practice might help AAA more successfully meet practitioner needs and improve their participation in the organization.

Mary Odell Butler is contributing editor of Anthropology Works, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology.

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