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Three anthropologists share insights on the challenges of crossover careers and how to have an impact in the real world.

There is considerable scope for crossover between political and legal anthropology and the worlds of business, government, nongovernmental organizations, advocacy, activism, development, journalism, and finance. Many anthropologists working on political and legal topics came to anthropology through practitioner experiences. Several of us seek to use our research to have an impact beyond the academy, while maintaining academic posts. Others have left academic positions to work in other sectors, where our anthropological knowledge can serve the world differently.

Gwen Burnyeat and Missy Maceyko asked three anthropologists to share their experiences of crossing between these different sectors. Their answers to our questions, organized by three focus areas (tensions, gender, overall perspectives), explore the differences between the fast-paced worlds of policy, politics, and journalism and the slow depth of academic research, and the fertility and discomforts of moving between the two.

Winifred Tate is associate professor and chair of Anthropology at Colby College and has worked as both activist and practitioner with NGOs and think tanks on human rights and drug policy in the United States and Latin America. Erin McFee is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the London School of Economics Latin America and Caribbean Centre and does consulting for international organizations on issues such as reintegration of former combatants and reconciliation. Gillian Tett became a journalist after doing a PhD in Social Anthropology, and today is the chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large in the United States for the Financial Times, and author of Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology can Explain Business and Life.

We hope their insights will serve as inspiration to those aspiring to build a “crossover” career that straddles academia and practice to bring political anthropology to bear on the political problems of our time.

On tensions

When asked about the tensions that exist in moving between academic and practitioner worlds, Tett, Tate, and McFee discussed the competing expectations that can force trade-offs in research focus and final work products.

Winifred Tate: In my experience, advocacy and academic anthropology have very different logics. Advocacy is about establishing expertise and attempting to convince people of the need for particular outcomes. Anthropological research on policy is about analyzing the histories of particular policy positions, understanding the larger systems of meaning and practice and interrogating how expertise is constructed and performed.

Erin McFee: The most common tension I have found as an academic working as a consultant with NGOs and international agencies is between short-term project deadlines and restricted budgets, and the need to produce robust qualitative research, analysis, and recommendations. Trade-offs in research quality are difficult to justify to oneself as a scholar. I do the best I can with the resources available to me.

Gillian Tett: Academic anthropology takes a purist view of research: it sees life in multiple shades of grey, is humble about its conclusions, tries to study people slowly and patiently, and writes with great precision. Journalism operates rapidly, and often has to communicate ideas in black and white, and grab attention in ways that are anything but subtle. Moreover, journalism is often about hustling—which is anathema to many anthropologists. However, I find that my training in anthropology acts as a “check and balance”—forcing me to challenge my assumptions and those in the journalism world, to constantly ask what I am missing, and to recognize that life is more complex than it is usually presented. Life outside academia forces professionals to make compromises, and the media is no exception; I think these are worth making, but others might not always agree.

Tate and McFee also focussed the legibility of anthropological expertise among practitioner realms, and the value ascribed to practitioner work by anthropologists. While McFee felt that practitioners generally valued academic knowledge, Tate suggested that anthropology was still an outsider in the policy realm, compared to disciplines like political science and economics. Both felt that “purist” academic anthropologists often look down on crossover work, which is clearly something the discipline needs to revise.

Winifred Tate: Political science and other disciplines are often more legible to policymakers than anthropology. Often, my qualitative ethnographic research doesn’t translate into “evidence” for “evidence-based policymaking” unless I use numbers to produce something recognizable to them as data. In drug policy advocacy, ethnographic narratives and the testimony of people speaking from their lived experience constitute distinct but intersecting forms of expert knowledge. On the other hand, academic anthropology often views applied policy work and advocacy as politically suspect and intellectually unsophisticated.

Erin McFee: I have found that I do not have to push terribly hard to convince practitioners of the value of academic research. I have experienced more resistance from anthropologists on the value—or even moral rectitude—of engaging in applied domains. Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that such engagement is possible. There seems to be a more welcoming space in academia for activist anthropologists, but that’s not quite the same as what I do.

On gender

When asked about how their gender identity affected their crossover work, our contributors all discussed access and expertise, revealing how gender dynamics remain a consideration for moving between academic and practitioner spheres.

Winifred Tate: Expertise is always gendered, in academia and advocacy spaces. When I was a human rights researcher doing advocacy in Washington, being a woman (and a civilian) was an obvious issue, simply because expertise about war and violence was seen as the legitimate purview of military men, particularly members of the Defense Department establishment. Advocacy at the Maine legislature, where I’m currently engaged in research and lobbying on drug policy, is on a different scale—Maine is a small town—and my presence there is constituted along multiple identity axes, as a local resident, a mother, a professor and researcher.

Erin McFee: The greatest challenges I experience are in fieldwork since most of my work is in strongly patriarchal cultures. The somewhat predictable challenges around substantive engagement and access sometimes frustrate my efforts to get a better sense of things. This is certainly exacerbated by the short timelines in my consultancy work that undermine the formation of long-term trusting relationships that might ameliorate these dynamics.

Gillian Tett: Being a woman in financial journalism in the early 1990s was tough—there were very few senior women role models, and it was a male-dominated world. But that has changed dramatically in the last few years and now it is almost an advantage—you stand out and people want to talk to you. The reality is that, even today, as a woman, you tend to automatically be an insider-outsider in many organizations—which is what being an anthropologist is all about! You can use the training to look at the ecosystem more objectively.

On the crossover experience

Our three respondents all positioned their crossover experiences as an ongoing dialogue between academic and practitioner realms. Both McFee and Tate have moved back and forth between the two worlds, using their experiences in one to enrich the other.

Erin McFee: The frustrations with working in the private sector drove me to academia, as the all-consuming day-to-day work of putting out fires and managing egos prevented me from doing the technical work I wanted to do. Politics are inevitable in any organizational environment, but they are dramatically muted in (well-led) academic spaces. I experienced my seven-year graduate program as a swing to the other extreme. But my prior exposure to the “applied” realm made me think that studying and writing about the problems of our age and leaving it at that was inconsistent with how I desired to live my life. That realization drove me to look for side doors into practitioner and policy worlds, especially international agencies, that are friendly to a social scientist’s sensibilities. It’s been a dialogue, rather than a linear process, and it is one that is ongoing.

Winifred Tate: I have always used academic research and writing to make sense of what I do as a practitioner. Initially I was a human rights researcher, and this led me to write a book about the history of activism in Colombia. Then I worked in Washington advocating for human rights policy and wrote a book about policymaking. More recently I’ve done research on life histories of women who use drugs and are in recovery in Maine, and when COVID hit I did observations of online meetings of speciality courts known as drug courts. Based in part on that work, I lobby for drug policy reform at the Maine legislature, and have written a report on the harms of drug criminalization with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and I am now starting a book on drug policy in Maine. Moving back and forth between advocacy work and research is complicated but rewarding, providing depth and history to the analysis and bringing these efforts to a broader public.

Ultimately, academic anthropological training and tools can be broadly impactful in practitioner spheres, as Tett described:

Gillian Tett: Anthropology—like journalism—teaches its adherents to be curious (or nosy!). It tries to look at the mess of information around us, in the world, and see patterns and communicate these; or, if you like, to tell people about other people. It trains you to listen and to lay aside your own assumptions, and to look at “social silences,” or what people do not willingly talk about or volunteer. All this is crucial for journalism. And while journalism operates rapidly and reaches a wide audience—unlike anthropology—the latter is a great training for the former.

Nevertheless, there are discomforts and practical restrictions to be found in crossover careers. McFee described the challenges of navigating the competing priorities of academic and practitioner worlds and adapting work habits to meet; and Tate pointed out how funding demands shape and restrict both kinds of work.

Erin McFee: I experience this movement between academic work and practitioner work as cognitively jarring: they involve different ways of writing, thinking, and presenting; different audiences and purposes; and different priorities. I would recommend that those thinking about doing this kind of bridging work be very intentional about how they organize their time, experimenting with approaches to work design until they find one that suits their work habits and styles.

Winifred Tate: Both the policy and academic worlds I work in are subject to institutional and funding demands. The advocacy priorities of nongovernmental organizations are driven partly by donors. Being lucky enough to be in a tenure-track position, I could focus on the topics that interested me—but couldn’t choose my geographic location (in Maine, far from Washington and Bogotá) and had to focus on academic publications to get tenure. I am grateful that I have the institutional support to build relationships with the drug policy advocacy community where I live.

There is clearly a need to improve ease of movement between academic and practitioner realms for political and legal anthropologists, yet many of us are doing this crossover work, with benefit both to our scholarship and the different causes we champion. The experiences and insights of our conversation participants reinforce the fact that more dialogue about crossover work is needed, to have a substantial impact beyond the academy and to destabilize the unhelpful separation between the two realms.


Winifred Tate

Winifred Tate is associate professor and chair of anthropology, and director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Erin McFee

Erin McFee is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre and an IWI Fellow, with a PhD in comparative human development from the University of Chicago.

Gillian Tett

Gillian Tett is chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large, US of the Financial Times, with a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge. In 2014, she was named Columnist of the Year in the British Press Awards and was the first recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute Marsh Award. She has also received the American Anthropological Association President's Medal.

Gwen Burnyeat

Gwen Burnyeat is a junior research fellow in anthropology at Merton College, University of Oxford, author of Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia (2018), producer of award-winning ethnographic documentary Chocolate of Peace (2016), and member of the peacebuilding organization Embrace Dialogue.

Melissa Maceyko

Melissa Maceyko is a faculty member at California State University, Long Beach in the Departments of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. She teaches and writes on gender, democracy, politics, language, and the United States, recently publishing a piece on campaign volunteerism. She is an APLA contributing editor.

Cite as

Tate, Winifred, Erin McFee, Gillian Tett, Gwen Burnyeat, and Melissa Maceyko. 2022. “Moving Between Academic Anthropology and Practitioner Work.” Anthropology News website, August 31, 2022.

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