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How can anthropologists effectively collaborate across academic and government, business, and nonprofit sectors to communicate to the world what we do and get our repository of knowledge into the popular sphere?

“Silos,” an agricultural analogy referencing self-contained grain storage units, is frequently applied to groups, organizations, disciplinary knowledge, and institutional types to reflect differences in association or affiliation with accompanying differences (perceived or actual) in perspectives and behavior. Within anthropology, for example:

  • one group of anthropologists works in practice while their colleagues work in the academy;
  • another group enjoys tenure while lecturers and adjuncts are on yearly or semester contracts;
  • a group of graduate students from an ivy league university considers itself to be distinct from their peers at a state university;
  • another group of graduate students is being trained in the “scientific method” while others are trained in more humanistic paradigms.

Siloing is problematic. Typically, those associated with a particular silo do not necessarily know or appreciate persons outside their silo. There may be limited or no opportunities to engage with “other” anthropologists, they might work in different specialties or they might work fully inside or outside of the academy. The differences set up a status and power dynamic in which one group perceives itself as more important or influential than the other, while another may carry a chip on its shoulder from perceived or real slights.

Siloing makes collaboration challenging, yet we are all anthropologists.

At the joint 2019 American Anthropological Association and Canadian Anthropology Society/La société canadienne d’anthropologie Annual Meeting, a Presidential Session titled “Breaking Down Silos” explored this situation. The session is now available via streaming video (based on session PowerPoint presentations) on the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) website.

Typically, those associated with a particular silo do not necessarily know or appreciate persons outside their silo.

Below are brief summaries of session presentations. We invite you to visit the page, view presentations of interest, then log your thoughts and suggestions in the discussion forum.

Daniel Ginsberg (AAA): “The Past, Present, and Future of Practitioners in the AAA”

The AAA has taken a number of steps to welcome practitioners, including the introduction of an Executive Board seat for practitioner members in the 1990s, and creating a standing Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology (CoPAPIA). These and other efforts highlight the diversity of anthropological practice, but more remains to be done. Looking forward, one potential area of engagement is systematic and enhanced mentoring. A new student-led effort to catalog mentoring programs across all sections should appeal to those seeking to learn more about professional, nonacademic options.

Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts (University of Maryland College Park): “Theory, Practice, and Knowledge, Oh My!”

Anthropology has engaged in the intellectual bad habit of thinking of itself primarily as a research discipline, and has dismissed or forgotten the integral part of science that is practice. Contemporary anthropology’s re-engagement with human struggles needs theoretically sound research and practice, and research- and practice-based knowledge. We must view ourselves as one discipline comprising scholarship and practice, working on behalf of the human population as well as our home planet.

Mary Odell Butler (University of Maryland College Park): “De-Siloing Practice: Towards a More Visible Anthropology”

Anthropology must demonstrate its value in illuminating the serious problems facing government, the public sector agencies, businesses, economic institutions—everyone who must navigate culture effectively. Practicing anthropology has historically been siloed into academia and practice, which must be broken down for effective practice. Projects bringing together academics and practitioners will lead to a higher public profile for the discipline, support linkages with organizations and communities, and strengthen the discipline.

Elizabeth K. Briody (Cultural Keys, LLC) and Robert J. Morais (Columbia Business School): “Business Anthropology on the Road! Driving Practice onto Campus”

This presentation describes Business Anthropology on the Road, a new COPAA initiative designed to assist anthropology departments with no dedicated business anthropology courses or limited ability to provide career guidance. It offers students professional development skills through a variety of workshops over a two-day period and helps to broaden the knowledge and usefulness of business anthropology scholarship and employment to faculty and staff.

Breaking down silos can help to strengthen anthropology, particularly in these fraught times.

Terry Redding (Independent consultant): “Early Connections: Creating Space within Service to Engage Students and New Anthropologists”

The NAPA Communications Committee serves to engage and involve both students and new anthropologists in their first steps in voluntary service to the profession. This service provides engagement as well as awareness of and exposure to career opportunities outside the academy. The committee’s launch, development, and management structure and tools can serve as a replicable model in recruiting, training, and maintaining anthropologists in a meaningful and beneficial structure to connect the discipline through service to it.

Sherylyn Briller (Purdue University) and Zoe Nyssa (Purdue University): “A Space for Practice: Building Collaborative Networks of Learners and Practitioners”

Communities of practice are a well-established model for bringing people together around exploration, skill-building, learning, and shared goals, and offer opportunities for creating new and better interchanges between academic and practitioner communities in anthropology. The Space for Practice functions as a live and virtual community of practice in conjunction with Purdue’s “Anthropology of Tomorrow” initiative. This Space for Practice was conceived as an innovative teaching and learning collaboration and is an exemplar of a different type of productive academic and practice interface. Anthropologists can replicate this model or use it as a starting point for designing inventive synergies linking academic and practice realms.

Discussant: Gillian Tett (Financial Times)

Through anthropology, we observe other people, but we also use their lenses to look back upon ourselves. This perspective is reflected in three current opportunities for anthropologists to make a positive difference in the world: the financial and related fields, the technology sector, and the larger corporate “rethink” reflected in the environment, society, and government (ESG) movement. But anthropologists need to communicate to the world what we actually do, adjust our research habits as needed, and engage in creative ways to get our repository of knowledge into the popular sphere.

Breaking down silos can help to strengthen anthropology, particularly in these fraught times. Add your relevant comments, ideas, and suggestions to the session’s discussion forum. Then, check the box for alerts when others post comments. You can contribute to making this dialogue a starting point, not just an end in itself.

Terry Redding is an independent evaluation research consultant.

Elizabeth K. Briody is founder and principal of Cultural Keys LLC, helping organizations transform their culture.

To submit contributions to NAPA’s section news column, please contact contributing editor Toni Copeland ([email protected]).

Cite as: Redding, Terry and Elizabeth K. Briody. 2020. “Breaking Down Silos in Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, September 16, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1499