An Association for All Anthropologists

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When I became president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in November, several people asked me, “What’s your agenda?” My answer was and is that there are four issues that concern me most and I hope we can address: (1) making the AAA inclusive of all anthropologists, including those who have chosen to work outside academic settings; (2) vastly stepping up our efforts to engender diversity, equity, and inclusion in anthropology and spaces in which anthropologists work; (3) addressing issues of precarious labor and precarious futures for students and recent graduates in anthropology; and (4) amplifying the voice of anthropology and anthropologists in the public sphere. I want to take up the first topic in this column.

Over the years, a growing number of those who earn an advanced degree in anthropology seek and find jobs in business, government, and nongovernmental sectors. Many doctoral students aspire to a diverse range of career paths beyond the academy. As an association, increasing the involvement of anthropologists in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors is critical to our future. What can we do to ensure that those of us who are working in these settings find in the AAA a professional body relevant and attuned to their working lives, and in which they find a professional identity and purpose?

Many people whose careers take them into business, government, and nonprofit settings report highly negative interactions with their professors and peers. Over time, as these rejections and micro-aggressions multiply, people find other intellectual and professional communities in which they feel welcome, and shed their identity as anthropologists. Drifting (or racing) away from the field is a loss for anthropology, and requires a cultural shift from all of us—one that AAA can and should lead.

If we look at other social science and humanities disciplines, it is clear that where an individual practices their training has little bearing on whether they are identified with the discipline. By way of example, most PhDs in economics are not expected to find academic positions in economics departments, and taking a job in a bank or a government department does not make you less legitimate as an economist. This is also true of geographers and people with doctorates in public policy.

Anthropologists in business, government, and nonprofit settings are responsible for critical interventions—for example, in climate change policy, Ebola response efforts, the relationship between humans and technology—that solve human problems and improve the quality of life for a large range of people. One can be an intellectual in different domains; there are no spaces of moral purity from which to harshly judge others.

If we look at other social science and humanities disciplines, it is clear that where an individual practices their training has little bearing on whether they are identified with the discipline.

We want anthropology to make a difference in the world, so we have to encourage students to aim for careers in professions that impact large numbers of people outside academic institutions. And once they are established in these settings, we have to treat them as exemplars of what a successful career in anthropology is and should be. Anthropologists working in business, government, and nonprofit settings can be models for students and connect those in training with mentors from a variety of career paths. The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology’s (NAPA) mentoring program is one such example. Instead of training students to compete for the few (and increasingly fewer) tenure-track academic jobs, why not encourage them to contribute to other spaces, ones that will also increase the impact and role of anthropology in our society?

We are taking a number of steps to address these issues. At the Annual Meeting in St. Louis this November, one day will be devoted to sessions, events, and workshops addressing anthropology in business, government, and nonprofit contexts. The Association is in the process of putting together a task force of anthropologists that will be charged with researching and producing recommendations on how the Association might become a more welcoming home for anthropologists working in business, government, and nonprofit settings. Watch this space for more details and future initiatives.

Cite as: Gupta, Akhil. 2020. “An Association for All Anthropologists.” Anthropology News website, March 2, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1362

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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.