Opening a window on “The Closing of American Academia”

It has been difficult over the past few weeks to miss Sarah Kendzior’s article in Al Jazeera and the ensuing rounds of reaction and counterreaction in the anthropological blogosphere. In her article, and in other recent writing about adjuncting, there is more than a passing element of nostalgia for a vanishing class escalator. The argument in brief: Meritocracy has fallen victim in the academe to the larger economic trend of offering serial un- and under paid internships in lieu of the middle class security of tenure, thus ensuring that only those who can afford to work without compensation (read children of the elite) may enter the academic ranks. The argument is cogent, tragic, and impossible to deny on intellectual or moral grounds. But, it also carries an assumption that the mainline of anthropological thought must always flow from academic anthropology departments outward. Perhaps it does, but then again…

There is a veritable army of anthropologists conducting research outside academia. Too many, in fact, not to change the profession in meaningful ways over the next 10-15 years. This isn’t much of a surprise given that think tanks, corporations, and NGOs are knowledge generating institutions which feel their way forward through research. Some of the best anthropology of the last 30 years came from Xerox PARC during a long-term project examining the mundane and uber-modern problem of copier breakdown and repair. Without rehashing the entire project, the PARC unit at Xerox brought anthropologists into a working relationship with computer scientists over the topic of how people use copiers. The internal debate pitted the assumptions of cognitive science and its allied fields in computer science and psychology against the messy realities lived by the firm’s customers and repairmen. The anthropologists helped to rethink the relation of people to complex information machines to Xerox’s benefit, but they also furthered a long standing intellectual debate about the nature of human action in the world. It says something wonderful and hopeful about the kind of knowledge produced by anthropology that anthropologists in “applied” areas are constantly bumping into such basic questions about humans.

Since the Xerox copier study, a number of venues have become available for anthropology produced outside of academia. High quality venues such as the EPIC conference, and new journals such as The Journal of Business Anthropology (though I think it should be named the Anthropology of Business) have emerged as sites where anthropology comes into contact with both allied and oppositional disciplines.

There is theoretical ground being broken (and old ground revisited) in these venues. I particularly like “A Funky-Formal Fashion Collection:  Struggling for a Creative Concept in HUGO BOSS” by Kasper Tang Vangkilde in Business Anthropology. This article is about deliberations at Hugo Boss to create a clothing line which is exactly funky-formal. That is, neither funky, nor formal, yet containing the element of both in a way recognizable as “Hugo Boss.” He hits the innovation paradox on the head. What kind of thing is new, yet recognizable? The article is a lot of fun (and that counts). But it is also a reminder that innovation is one of the classic anthropological problems and has been addressed by anthropology since Boas wrote “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” in 1887. Innovation, now a sacred word to industry, was important enough to warrant an entire chapter in Boas’ General Anthropology  and fashion was thought important enough for Kroeber to use it to make a point about change over time in “On the Principle of Order in Civilization as Exemplified by Changes of Fashion.”