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In March 2020, barely four months after I assumed the presidency of the AAA, a global pandemic abruptly upended all of our normal activities. COVID-19 was not the first disruption to the AAA’s activities: wildfires had affected the 2018 Annual Meeting in San Jose. As if to remind us that nobody is safe until everyone in the world is vaccinated, the Delta variant has brought a new round of death, lockdowns, and economic distress globally.

In the months following the recognition of the pandemic, as it became clear relief was not in sight, we made the painful decision to cancel the Annual Meeting for the first time in the Association’s 119-year history. It was a big decision on which we spent tens, if not hundreds of hours, gathering data and opinions from a diverse group of members. The vacuum left by the cancelled conference was filled by a brilliant series of talks and panels called Raising Our Voices, curated by Mayanthi Fernando. The theme of the 2020 meeting, “Truth and Responsibility,” arising from the context of the largest racial justice demonstrations since the Civil Rights Movement, is being reprised this year in Baltimore by the hard work of Bianca Williams and the program committee.

One of the good things that came out of the decision to cancel the 2020 Annual Meeting was establishing a new process of extensive consultation in virtual space. When we depended on face-to-face meetings, such consultations happened once a year during the Annual Meeting; however, Zoom meetings enabled us to multiply points of contact with a diverse range of members, from leaders of sections to regular members. The move to an all-virtual format led to the development of highly successful webinars, organized by Elizabeth Briody and the section the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists, aimed at students who wish to pursue careers in industry, government, and nonprofits, and practicing anthropologists who wanted to change careers or take a refresher course.

Two objectives were especially important to me in how I approached my term as president: explicitly addressing the problem of moving the discipline and the Association in an anti-racist direction, which will be the subject of my presidential lecture at the Annual Meeting; and making the AAA an inclusive space for the many anthropologists who work in nonprofit, government, and business settings, as well as those in academia who do not work in anthropology departments. These objectives are central to an extensive rethinking of virtually all aspects of AAA’s operations and governance in a medium-term plan for action, which was formulated after extensive consultation with a wide variety of members, including multiple town halls with different constituencies. In addition to this Strategic Plan, a series of task forces are re-examining most of the Association’s activities. For example, the task force on conferences will look at ways to reduce the carbon footprint of meetings, better protect existing meetings from climate-related disruptions—wildfires, excess heat, and hurricanes—increase accessibility and inclusion, and come up with different models of bringing people together in real and virtual space. Another task force is looking at how the AAA can better serve the needs and interests of anthropologists employed in nonprofit, government, and business sectors. A third task force is considering the relationship between the AAA and Native Americans. A fourth is thinking about how to reconfigure the nominations process to make it more welcoming of a broader range of members to encourage greater participation, inclusion, and a sense of belonging. Yet another committee is considering an improved process for making public statements. We recognize that the future of scholarly publishing is one in which open access will become more important, and although there are no sustainable models at the present, we are interested in moving more of our titles to open access in the new publishing contract, and the Publishing Futures Committee will be tasked with generating new models of open access so that there are viable options that can be considered in the future.

Very little of this frenetic activity is visible yet to members, but most of these new policies will take effect over the next three years, and all of this rethinking will result in a changed Association. I am hopeful that we will succeed in moving the needle toward making the AAA an anti-racist organization; in better serving the needs of anthropologists who work in nonprofit, government, and business sectors; in addressing the historically fraught relationship between anthropologists and Native and Indigenous communities; in confronting the problems facing the precariously employed; and in coming up with creative models for open access that are sustainable while preserving the publishing portfolio and even enhancing it with new titles. I am confident that your next president, Ramona Perez, and the new president-elect, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, will take the AAA further down these paths. I am deeply grateful to the many members who have spent their time and energy to make the Association better, whether by leading or serving in governing bodies such as the Executive Board, MPAAC, the Publishing Futures Committee, Section Leadership, and the various task forces, or by showing up at town halls to share their thoughts and insights. Together, we can make the Association an organization that serves the changing needs of all our members.


Akhil Gupta

Akhil Gupta is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a joint appointment at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He works on questions of transnational capitalism, infrastructure, and corruption, and is currently finishing a book on call centers in Bengaluru, India. His empirical research interrogates anthropological and social theory from its margins by paying attention to the experience of peasants and other groups of poor people in India. He has written extensively on food and agriculture in India.

Cite as

Gupta, Akhil. 2021. “A Time of Rethinking, a Time for Change.” Anthropology News website, December 20, 2021.