Taking Stock with ASAP Leadership

We are in the midst of new developments in the Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP). And, as the times demand, we are thinking anew about how we share our work and meet one another as a section. Last fall, at the 2020 American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting in Vancouver we focused our sights on a retrospective look at ASAP’s intellectual history, its future directions, and on the influence of scholars such as critical geographer Jamie Peck and cultural studies theorist John Clarke who have provided new ways to think about policy. In recent months, we have begun to implement new initiatives—an online dissertation writing group, a survey of our membership about the 2020 AAA Annual Meeting, and plans for virtual gatherings for members.

The upheavals brought about by this new pandemic and the changed world that is emerging provide us with a chance to take stock.

ASAP is a global organization, with members spread across every continent. Almost one quarter of ASAP’s membership does not reside in the United States, and we strive to avoid US-centrism in our policies, practices, programs, and approaches. We also place a high priority on emerging scholars, including graduate students, seeking new ways to mentor and support their research and careers.

During this era of limited travel, health considerations, and changes in university budgets we foresee the necessity of shifting our attention. Nudging us forward, the pandemic that will continue to engulf us in the months ahead has stimulated our section leadership to innovate and focus. We are a leadership group of about 15 individuals that include elected officers and our most dedicated members. We have about 350 members and an email list of about 2,000 colleagues, many nonanthropologists, with whom we communicate.   

We would like to share some of our history and new initiatives here. ASAP began as a AAA interest group around 2005. Policy anthropology scholars from the United States, New Zealand, and Canada—Janine Wedel, Cris Shore, Greg Feldman, and Stacy Lathrop—published “Toward an Anthropology of Policy” in The Annals – AAPSS, distinguishing this new field from advocacy policy and “devoted to research into policy issues and processes and the critical analysis of these assumptions.” The field draws on Laura Nader’s earlier work in the 1970s calling for “studying up” in powerful institutions, and from Cris Shore and Susan Wright’s 1997 edited volume, The Anthropology of Policy. 

During this period, anthropology witnessed an explosion of fieldwork and research in a wider range of societies that brought scholars face-to-face with the policies and bureaucracies of powerful institutions. Since then anthropologists have found themselves confronting policy environments, with a focus on how policies themselves are formed and implemented. This in turn spawned experimentation with ethnographic methods and a deliberate focus on policy itself, including policy texts, as an object of critical analysis. Recent work has explored the tensions between politics, policy, and technocracy; revisiting theories of the state and citizenship in crisis times; and transnational and global policy mobilities.     

This is a time that begs for our attention as we think about public policy, the state, life as a citizen and scholar, and the salience of our communities.

For 15 years we have gathered at the AAA Annual Meeting, shared our papers and insights on how to study policy and power, and mentored new scholars in innovative and exciting research projects. Many attend our panels and join our email list because they are searching for a framework to analyze the policy dimensions of their research and seek guidance that takes them beyond a one-dimensional or linear approach to understanding policy. We have offered mentoring programs that have paired experienced and emergent scholars to discuss methodological dilemmas, fieldwork challenges, ethical issues, and publishing.

On the publishing front, a new edited volume by Cris Shore and Susan Wright, Policy Worlds (2011) has appeared, and a successful book series with Stanford University Press that now numbers eight volumes marks the intellectual development of the field. The series’s newest volume, Tess Lea’s Wild Policy: Indigeneity and the Unruly Logics of Intervention, published in July. Our at recent Annual Meetings have focused on the use of anthropology in public policy schools, new theoretical directions, and have featured papers that analyze policies on immigration, health, social welfare, urban policy, and the environment from field sites in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are in a position now, after nearly 15 years, to assess this field of policy anthropology and take it in new methodological and theoretical directions

The upheavals brought about by this new pandemic and the changed world that is emerging provide us with a chance to take stock. We have many opportunities: new forms of professional sharing and communications; new research questions and methodological strategies; and a chance to examine the policy world in a period of global stress and crisis. ASAP leadership has already begun to plan for this future. We have initiated two working groups to address the virtual possibilities for conferencing among a widely distributed membership. Our aim is to innovate rather than reproduce traditional online conference formats. A second working group continues to focus the spotlight on graduate students and emergent scholars who are in the most vulnerable position right now as they finish dissertations, face new university demands for teaching, and navigate research in a world of social distancing and income loss. We expect recommendations from these two groups in early September. It is important that ASAP steps forward, enabling us to communicate with each other in new ways, strengthening our support for emergent scholars, and encouraging the global scholarship that can help navigate this new, unfamiliar world.   

We also work in a time of political and economic uncertainty. The 2020 election in the United States, global dislocations caused by the pandemic, and the evolving disorganization affecting anthropologists in universities and government offices, will all create opportunities for reflection and new structures to communicate, as well as new threats to inclusion of all. This is a time that begs for our attention as we think about public policy, the state, life as a citizen and scholar, and the salience of our communities. We hope to put ASAP in the position to serve our most precarious members as they navigate their careers, enable the continued sharing of intellectual work when we cannot meet in person, and provide a platform for new research and thought during this time of upheaval.

Carol A. MacLennan is a professor of anthropology at Michigan Technological University and co-president of the Association for the Anthropology of Policy.

Paul Stubbs is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Economics at the University of Zagreb and co-president of the Association for the Anthropology of Policy.

If you would like to contribute to ASAP’s section news column, please contact the contributing editor, Theodore Powers at [email protected].

Cite as: MacLennan, Carol A., and Paul Stubbs. 2020. “Taking Stock with ASAP Leadership.” Anthropology News website, September 11, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1493

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