Monday, December 26, 2011

Going Public or Sitting in the Opium Den?

The challenge many graduates of anthropology programs face, whether choosing an academic or non-academic career, is publication: The how, why, and wherefores of the process.

I find it interesting that both the AAA and SfAA make publication an ethical principle that they "impose" upon anthropologists. Yet, they set no specific standards for such publication beyond their own monopolistic journals. This has lead to a double standard in what is "anthropological" literature. Meanwhile, the organizations and their academic members attack you (if your lucky,but more often ignore you)for works prepared for a wider, more public, audience. They claim such works are unprofessional,unworthy of professional recognition, since they have not stood the test of an IRB or peer review process.

Recently, Dona Barry, a graduate student and a member of the American Anthropological Association LinkedIn site commented,
I have often wondered as a graduate student when I am done with college, what I would do or be legally obligated to do ethically (outside the AAA) where institutionally I am required to obtain IRB approvals.

Margaret Mead faced the same problem when she "went public." She and Rhoda Metraux wrote a column for Redbook magazine commenting of issues of the day from an anthropological perspective but in plain language. These were later collected and appear in their 1970 book, A Way of Seeing. These writings are not generally considered as part of their anthropological legacy. Yet, as Dr. Jeremy Sabloff discussed in his 2010 AAA Distinguished Lecture: "The Circulation of Ideas: Anthropology and Public Outreach", noted, Anthropology needs another Margaret Mead.

Academically inclined anthropologists love and hunger for the comfort of the academic press, or "the Opium Den of theoretical dreams and professional allusion." It seems to me that if we are to bringing about a change in this double standard toward publication, those of us who are dedicated to both the discipline of anthropology and to the application of the anthropological perspective to "real" public issues, can not rely on the opium den to change. We must take the lead.

To start, we must stop seeking the approval of the academic parent. They are like parents who punish the child by disowning them because they do not want to go, or can not fit, into the family business. These parents are trapped in a tradition and allusion of isolation of their own creation. They do not realize that there is a bigger world out here. It is a world with existential problems that cry out for solutions that anthropology could offer. It is up to us, the practitioners to make these solutions known to the world. We can do that by establishing our own publication standards directed toward solutions and take responsibility for them.

We, in the non-academic domain, need to take responsibility for our own destiny. And in the process, drag the academy out of its opium den and into the fresh air of the real world. Just as the second generation must bring the family business into today's market, we need to reach across generations and take the best of the past, combine it with the most exciting practical challenges of the present and create a new relevant anthropology.

This is critical for all of us, if we are to have a future. If the Scott Walkers of the world have their way, they would lock the doors to the metaphorical opium dens known as anthropology departments to "save tax payer" money for more practical purposes. Our academic colleagues may whine about the unfairness of it all when they find they have nowhere else to go to enjoy their theoretical dreams. But they will have no one to blame but themselves.

It will fall upon us, the practitioners, to justify the rationale for our anthropological training. Individually, by managing our own personal careers, we can profit from our training. We can do this by going public with our best anthropological insights and solutions to real problems wrapped in the language and media that the public understands. But institutionally, our own success will not necessarily benefit the profession if our academic institutions are not willing to recognize, accept and support our efforts.

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