Friday, July 6, 2012

Where is the theory in applied anthropology?

People ask “How does academic anthropological theory, and  training in ethnography have so little use to the applied anthropologist?" The question this raises is, “Where is the theory in applied anthropology?" This is an old question and one that I have dealt with for the past 40 years. Here is what I have learned.

First, the simple answer. It not the job of academic anthropologist to do so. Academic anthropology is based on the university’s paradigm of professionalism and not that of the external world of the applied anthropologist.

This paradigm (using Kuhn’s definition) is part of the larger institutional culture of free and open dialogue and sharing of information directed toward finding “Truth.” The research subsystems of scholarship and science promote the search for truth by limiting the questions to be addressed to those arising from the dominate paradigm(s) of the discipline at the time — regardless of the policy questions facing society or its members.

The applied anthropologist's world is very different. The applied anthropologist's role is that of a technician who works in the real world outside of the academic department. He/she is hired by a client to provide answers (not to ask academic questions) that will help the client to make a “practical” decision that serves the client’s self interest.

The applied anthropologist must understand the client and the purpose they have in mind when they hire the anthropologist as a consultant or adviser. He or she is asked to play the role of an expert who applies ethnographic knowledge to get practical answers, not as the collector of academic data and to prepare a pragmatic report.

The client is expecting the “bullet points” in the executive summary. They will judge the value of the information based on its applicability to their problem and its solution. Even if the anthropologist writes a detailed report, the client will not read it, her staff might. The details only serve later to justify the consultant's conclusions after the fact, especially in the event that the decision is questioned.

Another question often asked, is, “How can academics create theories that speaks to the applied fields and industry?” This is the wrong question. The theory already exists in the broad sweep of behavioral and social sciences.

The real question is “How do you package the proven theory into a user friendly mode that will be meaningful to the client?” The academic community should not be asking, "What theoretical training do we our students need to pursue an applied career?" Rather, they should be asking, "What skills does take to prepare an anthropological trained student to compete in the real world of solving social problems?"

One of the most important skill areas is communications. The academic writes for other academics. The applied anthropologist is a culture broker who write for a non academic audience. They bridge the academic and real world cultures of their particular “people" by learning their language and using it. To bridge this gap and, before they are hired, to teach and prepare students for an applied career, the academic applied anthropologist should have had a real applied experience as an anthropologists.

Finally, when I've been asked the question, I often draw an analogy to the legal profession. There are law school professors who research, write and teach about jurisprudence. There are others who have had experience in private practice and teach students how to practice their craft in the real world. These law professors train their students to apply their legal training to help clients avoid problems; or as trial lawyers to help their clients defend or advocate their interests.

 Applied anthropology lives in this real world. The student applied anthropologist needs the training and support from his/her profession in the proven theory and skills to apply that theory to real problems that enable her to survive and prosper there. This will be good for the student and a real contribution to the discipline.

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