Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What will be your Legacy to Anthropology

What will your or mine legacy be for future anthropology students and the profession? As a member of the 4th generation (1960s - 1980s) of  American anthropology now transitioning into retirement, I ponder these questions:
  • What do I do with my files and data accumulated over 50 years of academic and applied work?  
  • Should I just throw it all away or should I donate it to some archive for "lost" or "gray" anthropology? And where will that be?
  • Is there any "auto-ethnographic" value in these files that might contribute to the present or future development of anthropology and the profession? 
 Why ask such questions, you might ask? As a graduate student I ran across a copy of a dissertation written by Panchanan Mitra, a student of Clark Wissler at Yale in the 1920s, who later became an early founder of Indian (the country) anthropology. He observed as far back as1933 that anthropology is a sub-culture of Western culture. As he states:   
Anthropology ... is the science of man, but it is also a trait of European civilization and its point of the view is that of the European observing the rest of mankind. So the growth of the science is intimately bound to the knowledge and outlook of Europe (1933:1)

  American anthropology is a sub-set of that tradition. As Mitra (1933) stated:

Our regional study of science in America has shown the rise of anthropology here from the science of the America Indian, beginning with the discovery of the New World in 1492, and the theological speculation arising there from. Thus it has been eminently objective and regional from its very start. Philology, Geology, Prehistoric Archaeology and still later evolutionary Biology only modified its outlook. Its museum methods, its German geographical lead, and its close association with the remarkable development of Experimental Psychology and Social Science, mark America Anthropology by the history of its experience as distinct from the anthropology of Europe. (Mitra 1933: 211)

One can conclude that anthropology, like every other scholarly or scientific discipline produced by Western Civilization, is worthy of study in itself. Further, it can be subjected to the same anthropological treatment one might apply to any other intellectual or cultural tradition. As such, anthropology must become reflexive, and the anthropologist must include him or herself  as actors as well as observers in their studies. This applies to all anthropologists, but especially to the ethnographer. As a participant in the society one studies, the ethnographer comes an accomplice to the event she/he reports in the ethnographic context. It is the subjective role which provides both a depth of emotional response to the event and a narrower focus on its meaning than one obtains from the observer role.

In recent years, one new research avenue in ethnographic research is auto-ethnography. This is a reflexive approach which raises some very interesting and challenging issue for the discipline of anthropology and the ethnographer. Auto-ethnography is a process that formalizes the process of including the field worker as “an accomplice” to the events taking place in the society and culture at the time and place being studied. Chang (2009) in her AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AS METHOD Developing Qualitative Inquiry  includes a range of techniques and products from journaling and diaries, to personal essays and presentations as methods for recording one's reflections on one’s experience in the field, both as the observer and as the participant. These sources can then be used to study the role of the professional anthropologist in context and evaluate their impact on anthropology and the profession. It is here where the anthropologist describes and reflects candidly upon the role of Self (the ethnographer's individual Self) in their role as observer as the witness to and the recording instrument for the social and cultural behavior of the Other.

Over the last 50 years, there has emerged a split in American anthropology between those who pursue the traditional academic teacher and sometimes researcher roles, and the social activist/practitioner and sometimes policy researcher roles. The former has adopted the institutional incentive system of the academy which rewards those who pursue the academic career of research, teaching and service, They are expected to contribute to the academic, or basic research literature, through an institutional structure designed to promote research and publication. At the same time, it punishes the latter who opt for the practitioner role which is based on a reward system of client service, policy research and evaluation and consulting.

As a result of the institutional structure, academic anthropology has become nothing more than another academic discipline, limiting itself to the fads and fashion of the academy and research funding communities. Its institutional focus on basic research and publication has created an elitism reflecting the structure of the American post-secondary system as a whole of which it is a part. In the process, it condemns thousands of students and graduates to a professional caste system.Through this internal status system, an informal, mandated path to professional acceptance and recognition has evolved. Those who fail to follow the path are shuts out of the opportunity to do meaningful research and/or to publish it. Here the clientele for the academic product is the disciplinary elite who through a peer review process impose standards designed to defend the prevailing theoretical paradigm(s). The system of academic hierarchy prevents many from ever making a meaningful contribution to the discipline through the traditional hierarchy of affiliation (e.g. Hurlbert, Beverley McElligott  1976,   Rogge, 1976, Roose, Kenneth D., and C.J. Anderson   1970 )

This situation was made worse for those who choose to apply their insights drawn from anthropology to the development of policy solutions to social problems or to actively seek out and find innovative products that are solutions to a need in the marketplace. Here the incentive system is oriented toward the production of practical applications for a non-academic clientele. The rewards are not based on publications nor academic status, but rather on career advancement within the institutional structure, increased income and one's reputation as a problem solver and effective administrator of people and programs. Often what is produced is the proprietary product of the client, and not the practitioner. The lessons learned and made available to future generations from these experiences are rarely available to the discipline and fall into the category of the discipline’s gray literature,

Gray literature, in anthropology, is that vast body of information and observation made by anthropologically trained individuals that has been produced to achieve a specific, often limited or proprietary purpose, for a non-academic public, private client or specific audience. Such materials are often time sensitive, contextually limited, problem specific, and politically or subjectively biased to reflect the employer's interests. Yet, they also can provide an insightful glimpse into our understanding of the institutions that produced them.(e.g. Nader, Laura 1972)

In the tradition of anthropology, these materials are as valuable as the oral histories collected by the 19th and early 20th century ethnographers. Those oral histories attempted to “salvage” what was left of the “native” or “indigenous” cultures that were undergoing rapid acculturation, assimilation and/or extinction brought on by Western cultural expansion and imperialism. Today, these records are a valuable resource for the ethnohistorian and our understanding of cultural change.

In the academic debate between the proponents of scientific vs. humanistic anthropology, history has played and does play a crucial role. A historical dimension is a necessary condition in the development of an anthropological theory of cultural dynamics. Unlike most other subject that mankind seeks to understand, human events are always unique on the individual human level. Such events happen once and only once. They can’t be replicated in the experimental sense that physics, chemistry, or biology can repeat events.  Human cultural events can only be recorded by witnesses to the event at the time and place of the event. 

In the Western tradition, ethically, morally and legally, the researcher should not and cannot experiment on another human being without that the subject’s permission. This does not mean that humans do not use other human beings as guinea pigs. Such research must respect the limitations that the rule of “informed consent” imposes upon the researcher. Another way such research can take place is when the researcher and authorities dehumanize their subjects, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments using American Blacks or the Nazi WWII experiments on Jews as subjects, so that the subject’s humanity is passively ignored or formally denied.

Ethnography is even more restrictive regarding experimentation on moral, philosophical, and practical grounds. The ethnographer is ethically bound by the profession to leave the subject community in a state that would, as much as reasonably possible, not prejudice a future researcher's chances of coming back and be welcomed to study the same group. On a practical basis, this ethic makes the reflections and recordings of the field ethnographer’s personal experience even more valuable to the interpretation of the field data he/she has gathered and for preparation of others to go into the field. 

The field experience can be treated as the observation of a natural experiment. The ethnographer’s observations become the record of the natural experiment that takes place when the Stranger (the ethnographer) comes to live and study the Other  (the subject). The auto-ethnography is the record of the context in which the Stranger is transformed from the status of Stranger to the status of “not quite One of US” as seen from the Other’s point of view.

The challenge as a practitioner is that we are defined initially by the Other’s status structure. We are hired or engaged for a position in an established status network. That network exists in the institution(s) that our client controls and interacts with. This is a reversal of the tradition observer/participant role of the academic researcher. 

The academic researcher starts from the position of observer. Beginning by studying the literature on the topic, the culture, and context of the proposed research, the researcher arrives at the site as the Outsider/ Observer and Stranger. He or she becomes, to the extent permitted by the subject, a participant in the society and experiences the culture only after being accepted by the Other. The ethnographer experiences this acceptance from the point of view of the status position assigned to him/her by the Other. In order to better observe the natural experiment that is his/her focus of study the ethnographer must play the role expected of one assigned to that status. Mead’s study of adolescent girls in Micronesia reflect the interaction between the Observer and the Participant status and role as seen from the researcher and subject points of view

On the other hand, the practitioner becomes the participant first by taking a job (a status) with an employer or client. He or she must do so if they wish to apply their anthropological insight to the job in order to become a better and more effective observer in the institution. Before he/she can become the observer, the practitioner must begin by demonstrating the skills called for in the job. One’s success as a practitioner anthropologist begins with his/her technical skills and are expanded by how these are informed by a holistic integration of these with the observations and understanding of system in which the job is a part.  The observer role is a means for establishing the legitimacy for an observer or advisory status within the client social network.

As an anthropologically trained observer, the practitioner is prepared to evaluate his/her role in a holistic sense. He or she is able to reflect more deeply on the meaning of his/her place in the institution as well as the institution’s mission. Such reflections when recorded and documented become part of the gray literature that constitutes the corpus of autoethnography. Unlike the literature search done by the academic prior to entering the field, the auto-ethnographic process begins when one enters in the field and is completed only after leaving the field, if done at all. It is the personalized 'administrative" record of the field work prepared by the field worker.

As a product of the participant role, these internal observations by the practitioner can be incorporated into the preparation of future anthropologists working with the Other. They can form a basis for the later literature review by the academic before going into the field. The gray literature can also be treated as part of the data used in evaluating the natural experiments that are used as the basis of a scientific anthropology. 

The problem we face today is that much of this data is being lost to the discipline. It is being lost because there is no formal organized structure for acquiring, evaluating, archiving and retrieving these data. The proliferation of the practitioner role has opened up tremendous opportunities for anthropology. But these opportunities exist only as theoretical and pedagogical potentials. Unless the profession recognizes and addresses that potential in time, these data will lost forever. 

So the question facing both the profession and the practitioners is, 

What will be your legacy?”


Hurlbert, Beverley McElligott  1976  "Status and Exchange in the Profession of Anthropology"  American Anthropologist Vol 78, no.2 p. 272 - 284

Mitra, Panchanan  1933  A History of American Anthropology. Calcutta, University of Calcutta

Nader, Laura  1972  "Up the Anthropologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up" In: Dell H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York, Pantheon Books, 1972. p. 284-311

Rogge, A. E, 1976 "A Look at Academic Anthropology: Through a Graph Darkly" American Anthropologist, Volume 78. Issue 4. December (Pages 829 - 843)

Roose, Kenneth D., and C.J. Anderson   1970 A Rating of Graduate Programs. Washington: American Council Education

1 comment:

José Bastos said...

There is here an hegemonic bias for 'participant' 'descriptive' ethnography as a narrativeistic 'one man show' (a colonial heritage), obliterating comparative research using instruments of research that allows the production of transcultural scientific models based on the test of questions and statistical conclusions. In that hegemonic setting, you are 'forgetting' works as Child training and personality: a cross-cultural study (J. Whittig & I. Child, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1953), Social Character in a Mexican Village (Erich Fromm & Michael Maccoby, Englewood Cliffs; Prentice Hall, 1970), Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind (Geert Hofstedde, London: McGraw-Hill, 1991) or Towards an Anthropology of Identity Processes (J. Bastos, Lisbon: Colibri & FCSH-CRIA, 2013.