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Exploring the Relationship between Practitioners and Academic Departments

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Bill McKinney
Keri Vacanti Brondo
Mary Odell Butler
Kyle Simpson


For the past 18 months the Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology (CoPAPIA) has been engaged in a project that explores the kinds of relationships that practitioners have with academic institutions and the exchanges that result from these relationships.

This project aligns with many of the core missions of the committee which include strengthening the relationships between non-academic based anthropologists and the AAA, as well as improving training for students who will be working outside of the academy.  After completing initial rounds of interviews, the committee organized a session, “Towards an Increased Understanding of Relationships, Value and Forms of Compensation between Practitioners and Academic Departments,” for the 2014 Society for Applied Anthropology meetings, held in Albuquerque, NM. The goal was to share some of the initial project findings and facilitate a discussion with practitioners on the issues being explored within the study.

Past studies of practicing and applied anthropologists have shown that many practitioners are deeply engaged with academic departments, even if they are not employed in tenure-stream positions within universities.  While we are aware that there are a variety of roles and relationships that practicing and professional anthropologists have vis-à-vis academic departments, we know little about the logistics of these partnerships or the forms of compensation that make these partnerships worthwhile for all parties.  The roundtable we organized focused on fleshing out the range of current relationships, the advantages and disadvantages for partners, and models of compensation and exchange. The current and former CoPAPIA chairs, Mary Odell Butler and Keri Vacanti Brondo, had the pleasure of facilitating a roundtable of invited participants: Lenora Bohren, Elizabeth K. Briody, Shirley Fiske, Heather Schacht-Reisinger, Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts, and Susan Squires.

As an introduction to the roundtable we shared demographic information of the study participants as well as some of the initial findings from their interviews.  A total of seventeen individuals have been interviewed, 14 of whom were women and 3 were men.  The majority (82%) of respondents held PhDs (n=14); 3 held MA degrees (18%).  Participants ranged significantly in the amount of years since attaining their highest degree, from 3 to 40 years.  The average time out of graduate school was 15.3 years and the medium was 11.5 years. Session participants shared similar themes to what we had been finding during our interviews, such as pay remaining stagnant; a sense that teaching or other work is under valued; practitioners are often compensated less than traditional academics; universities benefit more from relationships then practitioners do; and the use of practitioners by academic departments may limit employment opportunities for other job seekers.  There have also been several positive findings in regards to these relationships including: helping to stay current within the discipline; library access; access to and training of students; as well as significant positives for departments such as student exposure to practicing anthropology and research networks.

After sharing background information on the project we asked each participant to introduce themselves as well as their career trajectory, and then to consider and discuss five questions.

  • What concrete benefits do you get from academic relations?
  • What additional benefits do you receive from academic relationships?
  • What issues affect the quality of services that you can provide to academic institutions?
  • Do you feel that you are adequately compensated for services that you provide to academic institutions?
  • What can the AAA do to improve relationships between practitioners and academic institutions?

The discussion was lively and the comments were insightful. We found that many of the responses were in line with what we had been hearing from study participants to that point.  One difference was that many of the session participants were at a later point in their career trajectory, and they acknowledged that the situation was probably harder for younger practitioners without full time jobs. There was a desire for better avenues of engagement with departments, especially for practitioners with full-time day jobs. For example, seminars and other activities held during the day are difficult for practitioners to attend, given their other employment obligations. As one panelist said, “Geography is my enemy” and departments need to create times when people who are working can attend.  As with the study participants, panelists stated that pay for adjunct faculty is minimal or none, depending on the activity.  Speakers also noted that anthropology is often not held in high regard and because of this, businesses may be reluctant to partner with academic institutions.  Others pointed out that it was not only outsiders who undervalued anthropology; often, it was other anthropologists within academia underpaying part-time or practitioner-colleagues with the knowledge that they can do this unquestioned.  In addition, the types of relationships that exist within a particular department are often chair-dependent and can change as leadership changes.  A suggestion was made that we should also be encouraging universities to develop clinical professorships, which would value practitioners in many ways that are currently lacking.

The session was another step towards gaining a better understanding of the current situation regarding practitioner relationships with academia.  The committee is currently analyzing the data from the interviews, while also integrating findings from other studies currently being conducted by other AAA committees and taskforces that focus on labor and employment issues for anthropologists. We intend to complete a preliminary report within the next few months along with a series of suggestions to help improve relationships and conditions for practitioners, universities and students of anthropology.

Bill McKinney (CoPAPIA) is Director of Research and Evaluation for The Food Trust and Director of Ethnomatters Research. Keri Vacanti Brondo is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Kyle Simpson is an MA candidate at the University of Memphis. Mary Odell Butler (CoPAPIA) is at the University of Maryland.

Barbara Rylko-Bauer is contributing editor of Anthropology Works, the column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied, and Public Interest Anthropology.

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