The Professionalization of an Anthropologist

I did a lot of traveling this summer. We’re in the middle of a project that requires us to visit Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sites across the country to understand rurality and rural health initiatives from local perspectives. We fly in one day, fly out the next, stay in hotels and talk to people in suits and scrubs. I sleep in a lot of king size beds and am suddenly collecting frequent flier miles. I’m beginning to feel like a traveling businessperson, but I’m an anthropologist! And for some reason, to me those two personas still seem antithetical to one another.


Photo courtesy Kenda Stewart

I’d like to think I’m fresh out of graduate school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to conquer injustice with my anthropologist tools of cultural relativism, holistic perspective, and ability to talk to strangers. I’m only 18 months out from my dissertation defense, and my fieldwork time in Israel is not a distant memory. I loved fieldwork. Although it’s no longer in vogue to admit, I loved the adventure, the travel, the food, and the challenges of doing fieldwork far away from home. I loved the moment that Israel became home to me. Most of all, I realized that gathering data in the form of people’s stories and then trying to make sense of it all is what I could and wanted to offer. Anthropologists’ greatest gift is the ability to recognize, revel in, and report on the complexity of everyday life in a way that speaks to larger questions about what it means to be human and live together in a volatile and confusing world.

And to some extent this is what I do at the VA. I am a qualitative analyst, which means that I conduct interviews and analyze data for other investigators’ projects. It’s anthropology, but anthropology conducted in a completely different environment than conventionally associated with anthropological research. Informants are study participants and most of my work is done in a cubicle rather than in the field. Participant observation involves a site visit and my fieldnotes are filled with action items. I work on multiple projects about a variety of subjects (e.g., smoking cessation, rural health, patient-centered care) instead of focusing on one. Instead of Birkenstocks and jeans, I wear Danskos and dresses. I ride in a car pool instead of hitchhiking.

On many days it feels like the romance of anthropology is gone. I’ve become . . .a professional. I do my job. I go home. I collect a paycheck. And yet, over the last few months of travel I’ve come to realize that this is an oversimplification of my role in VA. As VA researchers, we are expected to perform a level of professional decorum, which involves close-toed shoes, ID badges, coming to work on time, maintaining a set schedule, sending e-mail, attending meetings, and making PowerPoint slides. And yet, under the bureaucratic veneer and office politics, the VA is filled with people who share a common purpose: to serve the Veteran.

During this last round of site visits to Oregon, Colorado, and North Carolina, I met with VA employees from the level of Veterans Integrated Service Network Director to a clerk in a rural clinic. We all share government-issued ID badges, tours-of-duty (work hours), and e-mail addresses, but what surprised me were the passion and vision shared by these multi-level government bureaucrats. When VA is discussed in popular media, it is not to celebrate what I’ve seen— the entrepreneurship, dedication, and inspiration that exist in spite of the bureaucratic red tape.

In Colorado, RNs, MDs, social workers, program coordinators, technicians and others are imagining new systems to deliver health care to their regions’ most rural Veterans. I had the opportunity to watch a provider in Pueblo, CO use a digital stethoscope to listen to the heart of a Veteran sitting in a telehealth clinic located 100 miles away. VA employees made this happen by envisioning a way of delivering care that transcends geographic boundaries. Implementing telehealth across institutional boundaries (e.g., from facility to facility) required creative thinking and fortitude. In Alaska, VA employees are traveling by boat, by plane, and by car to reach out to Veterans who live nowhere near a road much less a VA clinic. They are innovating ways to bring the care to the veteran and the veteran to the care and benefits to which they are entitled

Thinking outside the box has become cliché in some circles and maybe even contrary to the image of the government bureaucrat. During my graduate school training the academic setting and its pursuits were held up as a place where one could be surrounded by people with ideas and a place where one could pursue their intellectual curiosity and continually learn. A professional life meant working in a setting with both literal and metaphorical boxes: cubicles and hierarchical organizational charts. In popular culture, the office job is portrayed similarly. As in Office Space, creative thinking is discouraged; conformity is the rule. Every day is the same, and to break free, you have to lose your mind.

In this context, being around government employees who think outside one of the biggest boxes in the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs, is actually really inspiring. They haven’t lost their minds, and what keeps them grounded is their common purpose and maybe even the bureaucratic system that often seems too intractable to change. As an anthropologist who has moved out of the field and into the office, I’ve found that I am immersed in a complex system portrayed as mundane but filled with people who are anything but.

Full disclosure: I still wear my Birkenstocks, and I mostly wear jeans on Fridays.

The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not represent the US government or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Kenda Stewart is a cultural anthropologist and qualitative data analyst with the Comprehensive Access and Delivery Research and Evaluation Center (CADRE), the Veterans’ Rural Health Resource Center-Central Region (VRHRC-CR), and the Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) Demonstration Lab at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A newly-minted Ph.D., she has found that working on research teams with other anthropologists has been a refreshing change from the isolation of dissertation writing. Dr. Stewart lives in Iowa with her dog Cowboy and cat Iggy where they all enjoy “working with” yarn.

Sarah Ono, Heather Schacht Reisinger and Samantha L Solimeo are contributing editors of Anthropology in the Public Sector.

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