In Praise of Who We Are and What We Do

Farewell Message

I use the opportunity of this column, my last as your AAA president, to reflect on the Association and offer my wish for it in the time to come. There is no surprise when I say this has been a most intense period for us and for the world, given the material and political conditions of life in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. In an article published twelve years ago, I wrote, “We are at the dawn of a new century that seems to promise as much violence as occurred in the twentieth century.  People are afraid of annihilation and desire protection.  Instead of providing protection, our world leaders are manipulating deeply felt fears, distorting these emotions for other ends. At this time, I fear to imagine the future.” Little did I know how bad it would get.

No matter what their focus or specialty, anthropologists always work in the context of local and global worlds that seem shaped by grand, impersonal forces (though we know these conditions are fashioned out of decisions made by people who have the power and resources to make and implement them) and amidst the many actions, reactions, innovations, relationships, thoughts, ideas, dreams and potentialities that people all over the world have had or have made and continue to have and to make. As long as there are people on this earth, there will be need for anthropologists to make sense of how those specific conditions came to be and of the human roles in them. Even so, the discipline is not guaranteed survival in institutionalized form, not least because much of the information and insights it generates raises questions about established narratives.

AAA plays an essential role in ensuring the institutionalized sustainability of anthropology. It also enables us to come together as a cooperative of anthropologists who in their day-to-day work are busy studying the multiple, complex aspects of humankind. AAA is a destination association with an infrastructure that allows anthropologists to test out and share knowledge, hold conversations, find collaborators, get credit for what they do, learn about policies and practices that affect the discipline, and offer a public voice on some of the most pressing issues of our times. On the basis of participant observation over seven years of my volunteer Executive Board service, I can say with great confidence that ours is a pretty amazing “co-op” that delivers very well on its short-term goals and long-term objectives, which you can read about on the AAA website, in Anthropology News, and in various reports issued by the president and executive director.  It does so because of the dedicated and thoughtful attention it gets from staff and the many volunteers that together with members make up the whole that is the American Anthropological Association.

Of course, the Association is imperfect, like all humans and the discipline itself. Perfection is not my criteria for a job well done; for me, the measure is intent, motivation, and effort. On this score, AAA gets an A+.

The 2017 Annual Meeting on “Anthropology Matters!” in Washington, DC, is an occasion that brings us together for dialogue, learning, friendship and activity. The program is chock-full with papers, panels, special events, workshops, meetings, an incredible opening night ceremony, and the presidential lecture I will deliver on Saturday evening (hope you will be there!). At the close of that event, I will hand the gavel to our new president, Alex W. Barker.

My greatest wish for the Association in the coming years is that we find ever better ways to work together cooperatively—not antagonistically—to identify common goals amidst competing ones, and to design and develop the best methods to reach them. We need to work through inevitable differences of perspective and experience by communicating often, questioning thoughtfully, and trusting one another’s good will. Given that anthropology is a relatively small discipline with potential for big impact, divisiveness leaves all of anthropology and anthropologists vulnerable. In contrast, solidarity gives us strength, which as a starting point means appreciating that the Association is nothing if it is not “us”—that is, all members, all volunteers, and all staff—people with different roles and functions that make up this remarkable community of 10,000 people.

Cite as: Waterston, Alisse. 2017. “In Praise of Who We Are and What We Do.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.599

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Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.