Anthropology Put to Work/Anthropology that Works?


May 19-22, 2005

Organized by

Les W. Field, and Richard Fox


Wenner-Gren Foundation, New York, NY, USA


Anthropology Put to Work (Les Field and Richard Fox, Eds.), Berg, Oxford, 2007.


  • Leslie Aiello Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Linda Basch National Council for Research on Women, USA
  • Pamela Block State University of New York, Stony Brook, USA
  • Mercedes Doretti Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, USA
  • Les W. Field University of New Mexico, USA
  • Douglas Foley University of Texas, USA
  • Richard Fox Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Gelya Frank University of Southern California, USA
  • Charles R. Hale University of Texas, USA
  • Craig Howe Oglala Lakota College, USA
  • Joanne Rappaport Georgetown University, USA
  • Nandini Sundar Delhi University, India
  • Sandy Toussaint University of Western Australia
  • Andrew Walsh University of Western Ontario, Canada
  • Drexel G. Woodson University of Arizona, USA

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: From May 19-22, 2005, the Wenner-Gren Foundation hosted an international symposium on the current situation of anthropology, with particular attention to the distinction between applied and basic research. We wished to speak to the many anthropologists today who worry about the direction for future scholarship. Should anthropology be engaged or disinterested, public or ivory-towered, pure or applied, advocatory or objective? Although such arguments about the ultimate direction and responsibility of anthropology predate World War II, they have recently become more urgent as global inequality, environmental degradation, and corporate/state power have grown apace. Another source of urgency is the lack of protected university positions for many young anthropologists. As they look elsewhere for work, they must ask themselves, “what can we offer,” just as employers ask of them, “what can you do.”

Whether it comes from a commitment to say something meaningful about public issues or from the necessity of competing for jobs in novel places, anthropologists increasingly blur the boundary between the applied and the pure. Some anthropologists consult for indigenous movements, others serve the aims of governments, still others work with the disabled—and there are many other novel working relationships for anthropologists today. Anthropology at work and as work means adapting the discipline to new conditions of labor in the present, which affect theory, methodology, goals, and consciousness.

The symposium started with an evening session on Thursday May 19th, during which the co-organizers set out their objective and defined the format. Richard Fox began with a historical perspective on the sharp boundary between applied and basic research in his graduate training during the early 1960s. Basic research for him in that period was part of a radical project to make over anthropology into a social science, to rid it of a residual antiquarian character from the study of the primitive world, and to resituate it fully as the study of complex, urban societies.

Les Field followed up with a discussion of the parameters he hoped would guide the proceedings in the days to come. Field proposed that for the purposes of the symposium, the participants focus less upon describing the substantive ethnographic features of their work, and more upon their methodologies, epistemological frameworks, and modes of inquiry. Second, Field called attention to the incongruities between the training participants had received in graduate school and their current work as a way of re-emphasizing the crisis in training new anthropologists. Under such circumstances, the old divide between pure and applied research has become particularly debilitating to the future of the discipline.

The format of the symposium made the issue of anthropology’s new work situation central. The opening session on Friday morning May 20th, entitled “The Work Place,” considered changes in where and for whom anthropologists work.

Mercedes Doretti spoke of the new work of forensic anthropologists, as they gather evidence for governments or citizen groups in the aftermath of warfare, ethnic cleansing, or death squads. Linda Basch indicated the sustaining role played by her identity as an anthropologist, even though the work she does in running a foundation that funds research on women makes little direct use of her training in anthropology. Drexel Woodson, reporting on research in Haiti by BARA (Bureau of Applied Anthropology, University of Arizona), discussed the “indicators” that an anthropologist must provide to international aid organizations as proof of the need for aid. Pam Block related her personal work experiences in the new neo-liberal American university, a place that operates on “for profit” and pragmatic principles quite alien from the university as privileged site of protected faculty doing basic research.

The next session, on Friday afternoon, was called “The Work Force” and considered the new working relationships anthropologists have encountered. Anthropologists have historically probed the participant-observer relationship with individual informants, but they have paid much less attention to their relationships with social movements in their own and informants’ countries, with the university systems in these countries, and with the state and private institutions that fund research.

Craig Howe started off the afternoon session with the case of the working relationships that entered into the planning and construction of the supposedly radical and Nativist National Museum of the American Indian. The appearance of radicalism and a free hand in presentation is insidious, Howe argued, because in actuality, the NMAI does not challenge standard American representation of Indians. Sandy Toussaint described several cases of no less uneasy working relations for anthropologists in Australia, where anthropological collaboration with other specialists is limited because anthropologists do not produce the right kind of knowledge. Gelya Frank’s presentation reflected upon the career she has developed mixing anthropology with occupational therapy. Her ethnography of everyday life for the disabled represents a major step in the development of disability studies, and has facilitated a much more profound understanding of patient consent and empowerment.

The Saturday morning session focused on “the Work,” that is, on the ways anthropology’s methodology, epistemology, and theory have changed in response to new work places and working relations. Andrew Walsh began by reminding anthropologists that what they do is a job, not a religious calling, and when they “fail” at that job, it’s because the job market is bad, they interviewed poorly, or their research hunches didn’t turn out. It’s not because of some inner failing, which the notion of anthropology as a calling and fieldwork as a sacred “vision quest” promote. Charles Hale approached the symposium with specific goals for “anthropology at work”: fostering innovative and activist-motivated collaborative ethnographic work through institutional changes, including the training of new anthropologists. Dissatisfied with the caricatures of activist work in anthropology, Hale’s use of this adjective connotes engagement with the world and a motivation to study both the powerful and the disempowered. Nandini Sundar showed how the hackneyed definition of anthropology as “what anthropologists do” misses the point that what they do—and what therefore they take to be anthropology—differs greatly in different places and circumstances. In anthropology’s early days in India, Sundar noted, many scholars distinguished their research publications from what they put out as popular texts. Sundar then went on to show that this distinction does not operate for anthropologists in a postcolonial India: the colonial masters have departed and Indian scholars no longer need their approval, and, meanwhile, the pogroms permitted or even encouraged by a post-Independence government and the surge of sectarian hostility cry out for anthropologists to get involved.

Joanne Rappaport discussed characteristics and ramifications of the kind of collaborative work she has been conducting with indigenous movements in Colombia. Her recent projects involved participation between US anthropologists, Colombian anthropologists, and indigenous Nasa researchers. Such projects simultaneously train Native researchers in research skills as well as develop uniquely indigenous epistemologies and forms of knowledge.

On Saturday afternoon Doug Foley presented some unifying themes for the symposium. He felt that the presentations hinged upon a revaluation of new kinds of anthropological work and the products of that work, as well as new kinds of peer-review that could substantiate the quality of the standards and outcomes of such work.

In the final session on Sunday morning, Field outlined three major themes that had been explored. The first focused upon fieldwork and fieldwork methods, particularly in multi-disciplinary work, and especially with regard to a redefinition of the meaning of ethnographic reflexivity. The second theme was an elaboration of the ways in which process and product in anthropological work are valued and evaluated, against the backdrop of the new kinds of work the participants have been engaged in doing. The third theme recognized the importance of different national traditions in anthropology, especially with respect to the meanings and development of applied, basic, and activist types of work.

Fox considered what it would mean to anthropology to move beyond the applied-basic research distinction and recognize the new work places, working relations, and theoretical and methodological work for anthropology. He felt that it would remove some of the unnecessary scholarly allegiances that now fetter anthropology. These include cultural relativism, rapport in the field, holism, and reflexivity as based on self-realization. In the ensuing discussion, participants reflected on whether there could be or should be a unitary anthropology and on how or whether anthropology could be saved. More than likely, whatever anthropologists might or might not want to happen, the new work places and working relations are going to have their way with anthropology no matter what, and we had better prepare ourselves and our students for them.

Wenner-Gren Symposium #136

Seated: P. Block, R. Fox, L. Field, J. Rappaport, L. Basch. Standing: L. Aiello, A. Walsh, C. Howe, M. Doretti, G. Frank, D. Foley, N. Sundar, C. Hale, D. Woodson, S. Toussaint.