The “Applied” Regrets of Conrad Arensberg

At the end of his 1980 AAA presidential address,  Arensberg paused to lament bequeathing the term “applied anthropology” to the Society for Applied Anthropology, which he and Eliot Chapple helped found in 1941:

“In Ireland, for peasants in their demography and their farm inheritances on the one hand, and in America for people in industries and slums and reservations on the other, the generation of the New Deal years – as my friends and I were – moved on to follow such personal involvements in the fates that overcame our subjects in formal and informal organization under institutional pressures and in political and economic trends. We misnamed this move “applied anthropology” because it was a new turn to contemporary scenes. It was no longer concerned only with tradition. This misnomer, too late corrected to Human Organization, our journal’s name, lost for us the understanding of the profession that the new broadened, personalized ethnography fed back into theory and still does. It was the same move that led through later community studies and through worldwide peasant studies into the ecological strategies and network analyses of the later postwar decades down to the present.”

There is  a subtle, but powerful, critique in the paragraph above.  40 years prior to giving his presidential address, Arensberg missed a chance to infuse anthropology with a new perspective gained from work undertaken in venues which – at that time – were outside the purview of anthropology. Instead of a productive new avenue of research joining with the mainline of anthropology to improve the whole, a divide would form between the new “applied” (then practicing, public, and now design)  anthropologists and an “academic “anthropology.

At this moment in anthropology, it is worth reflecting a moment on Arensberg’s regrets. For one thing, it puts the lie (yet again) to the notion that theory is only developed in an academic context.  Secondly, he puts his finger directly on the strange centrifugal force in anthropology that always threatens to pull the center apart, or at least set it adrift.  Today there is a veritable army of anthropologists working in NGOs and corporations who are busy infusing their anthropological practice with ideas from development, design and other disciplines. Much like Chapple and Arensberg in 1941 they are potentially opening new areas of inquiry for anthropology. However, unlike 1941, the possibility now exists that the mainline of anthropological thought will shift over the next 10-20 years from the professoriate to the practitioner, and that the profession of anthropology will come to resemble engineering, medicine, business and law with anthropologists moving easily between professing and practicing.


Arensberg, C. (1981). Cultural Holism Through Interactional Systems. American Anthropologist, 83(3), 562–581.