Time to back an association for the rest of us

It is clear to me that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is rapidly becoming (already has become?) irrelevant to and un-supportive of the needs of anthropologists working in corporate, military, and other contexts where the methods are used as part of a deep, day-to-day hands-on practice. But the rift between applied and academia is an old one. I think its time to seek other options, namely to back an association independent of the AAA. It’s not to reject the AAA, it has its place, but the control of a vocal minority to press an ideological and political agenda over one of science, methods, professional practice, scholarship and open-hearted exploration has made the AAA incompatible with the professional realties of many in the practicing community. There are certainly many precedents. For example, the American Board of Forensic Anthropology: Not part of the AAA, it actually offers professional certification of its members. I know a number of archaeologists that don’t belong or go to the AAA meetings, because they have a national organization that meets their needs more closely.

I have in the past belonged to the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists (NAPA), a sub group of the AAA. Should NAPA spin out as its own organization? A very good alternative is  EPIC, which is rapidly becoming the conference of choice for anthropologists who do a wide breadth of work in applied work in corporate settings. I have never been a member of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA), so I can’t speak to their activities or attitudes of inclusiveness with regards to the contexts of practicing anthropology.  Perhaps SFAA presents a viable alternative.

My thinking, however,  is that EPIC should be the epicenter of this new association.  It understands the needs of corporate work, for example, that many of us work under non-disclosure agreements. The conference also recognizes that anthropology is not the only place to get insight and inspiration. It welcomes papers and presentations from professionals in a wide range of allied fields from design to engineering and art. It is also an atmosphere that I suspect would welcome those in the military and intelligence communities based on an interest in uniqueness of the work, not the ideology of it.

What do you think? I can’t be a member of the AAA anymore if the voice vote making secret and proprietary research unethical passes (since I don’t think I or my colleagues are unethical for working for large companies). It’s really time for an alternative. I had a friend who used to tell me that there is little point in trying to date someone who doesn’t want to date you —  it leads to restraining orders at best. Let’s quit trying to change the AAA and recognize that evolution exists, even in professional organizations. We are a different profession, have different needs, and need a different code of ethics.

Choices, choices!

5 thoughts on “Time to back an association for the rest of us

  1. It seems to me that a wide range of practices are encompassed under the general label of “applied anthropology.” Some of these, I think, such as employment at various kinds of think-tanks and NGO’s have quite a bit in common with “academic” anthropology (in terms of methods, theories, and products). These people, I would wager, identify as anthropologists first, and with their organization of employment second.

    In other cases, however, for example in many corporate settings, these individuals identify with other areas – such as design, or marketing, or research & development first, and anthropology second. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is, as Mark implies, a different identity (or profession) with different needs in a professional organization.

    I don’t think these two are mutually exclusive, obviously – let’s take a potentially parallel example – you can’t do engineering without studying math, but industrial engineers don’t do the same thing as mathematicians. Industrial ethnographers do not do the same thing as anthropologists, even though, clearly, the concept of culture and the method of participant observation are the algorithms of their practice.

  2. That makes sense to me! I believe that having a separate organization like you describe will also be beneficial in that it would be able to better explain, encourage, and inspire future generations of applied anthropologists who are interested in business or design anthropology. Currently it seems like there is no strong outlet for students to research this field except for EPIC. When I first read the 2006 EPIC proceedings and became interested in this type of research, I could not find further information beyond that. Having a supportive organization for this type of anthropological research would be helpful in uniting those who do this research in order to share ideas, and also in sharing with others why our research is valuable. Even if the AAA decided to support this group of applied anthropologists, having an organization dedicated to this type of research would probably still be a more effective avenue of support and vehicle to sharing ideas and experience. I do not have experience with the other organizations that you mentioned, but EPIC as the epicenter certainly seems fitting to me.

  3. Mark,
    You raise good questions. I have been trying to write of my frustrations with the American Sociological Association for some years, but have yet to figure out how to do it. I have been a member for maybe 7 of the last 10 years, mainly it seems because that is what sociologists are supposed to do. For $150 I get a lot of junk mail, an interesting quarterly newsletter (but which is also on-line), and a rather dry academic journal. Oh yes and I get to attend an annual meeting where I spend more money.
    The meetings are frustrating to me, even as an academic. It has always struck me that the largest number of attendees are nervous graduate students whose mentors have somehow convinced them that the only way to get noticed academically is to attend these things. A smaller but more prominent group are the old sociological lions. They run the show, and mill about in the hotel foyer just enough, recreating the disciplinary pecking order. In between they run plenary sessions to roomfuls of graduate students. These sessions often have a political axe to grind which is sometimes interesting for me, and sometimes not. Usually, it is something along the lines of “if policy makers would just listen to sociologists, the world would be a wonderful place.”
    Oh yes, then there are people who are unhappy with their current job, and who are “networking” to find out where the next stepping-stone might be. They can often be found milling with the lions, as well (wannabe lions?).

    As for me, I usually hang out at the book show, which is often excellent. The highlights are bumping into old classmates from grad school, or wherever. Then there is the getting nervous for presenting my paper which it turns out only three people want to see (more graduate students again).

    At the end of it all, my research account is usually about $1000 lighter, I am exhausted from a cross-country flight and hotel rooms, and about a week behind on class preps and paper grading. I also wonder if my time would have been better spent in the library reading, grading papers, or perhaps typing away on a new paper or ethnography.com blog.

    In my flights of fancy I can imagine a vigorous conference that would be a little less stale. But this is a tall order. I admire your willingness to get out there and tilt against this windmill in Anthro. Perhaps in a few days the muse will strike me a little more forcefully, and I will think up a blog to post here about how it might occur in sociology as well!

  4. I was directed to your exchange by a colleague who thought that I might be able to inform a part of the dialogue and thus permit your discussions to move forward more productively.

    I am the Executive Director of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA). I was trained in Medical Sociology and Medical History and have retired from an academic position.

    The origins (and current direction) of the SfAA provide a reasonable answer to some of your interests. The Society was founded in 1941 by a group of people who were interested primarily in moving the social/behavioral sciences outside of the university in order to address and solve contemporary issues. The group crossed disciplinary boundaries – William F. Whyte (former president of the ASA), Conrad Arensberg (anthropologist), Charles Loomis (rural sociologist), Fred L. W. Richardson (social geographer), and so forth. The group held in common the commitment to ‘application’ and problem definition/resolution.

    The Society has retained it’s separate corporate status since 1941. From the mid-1970s until 1984, the Society had a management contract with the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to provide a comprehensive package of administrative/management services. This contract was terminated in 1985 because the Internal Revenue Service found that the AAA was in potential violation of regulations governing not-for-profit organizations (annual revenue in excess of 18% was generated from activities not essential to the mission of the organization). The Society was invited to dissolve its corporate status and become a part of the AAA. The membership rejected the offer through a formal ballot. Following that action, the AAA formed the section, National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA).

    The Society welcomes your interest and your comments. We perceive ourselves to be a “house for many people”. We believe that we can learn through dialogue with individuals from all of the social sciences.

    Our 68th Annual Meeting in Memphis, TN, in late March, will feature sessions that deal with the Human Terrain System, participation in Department of Defense activities, and related topics. Please visit our web site to view the Preliminary Program. By implication, we suggest that it is more productive and indeed respectful to engage actively these topics and subsequently, to urge individuals to find their own ethical compass.

    We would welcome your inquiries. We are at http://www.sfaa.net.

    A minor note. I am a bit too old to be an active blogger. Could you please copy comments that touch directly on the above statement, or the Society in general to my e-mail address which follows – tom@sfaa.net

    Thanks for the opportunity.

    Tom May

  5. Hello Tom

    Thank you for your comments, is it an interesting part of the conversation. I will be sure to forward comments to you.

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