SPENDING five days with around 1000 anthropologists is probably not any normal person's idea of a good time. Usually it wouldn't be mine either. But my wife and I have recently returned from a conference in Tucson, Arizona, held by the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA). It gave us a sense of the current highs and lows of the profession, particularly its American incarnation.
The SfAA's strength lies in bringing together academic anthropologists with practitioners working in private industry, government and community groups, thus tempering the current tendency of many university-based anthropologists to part company with reality. As well as involvement in more traditional areas-- such as community development and indigenous land and heritage issues-- applied anthropologists are now working on projects as varied as attempts to address public fears about the introduction of potentially beneficial technologies, and the design of greeting cards catering for cultural diversity.
Certainly, the tempering effects of this practical activity can be exaggerated. Academics still outnumbered others at the conference. A number of the non-profit organizations which welcome applied anthropologists encourage a view of the world that is just as delusory and leftist as the most politically-correct university milieux. Some of the anthropologists working for corporations seem to share their academic colleagues' strong dislike of private industry, giving the impression that they would much rather be advocating wealth redistribution and destruction than working in the bellies of wealth-creating beasts.
So the lows were as bad as any to be found in Australian anthropology. Many papers offered a disagreeable porridge of pretension, posturing, political correctness and misrepresentation. Sitting unrecognized in one session, an anthropologist whose careful research has played a major and honourable role in exposing a Hindmarsh Island-like fraud in California heard himself being denounced as a `racist', a totally unfounded and particularly damaging accusation for someone whose livelihood comes from working with Native Americans and migrant labourers.
`Globalization', `free markets', and economists proved very unpopular, although `economic rationalism' as a bogey term does not seem to have taken hold in American anthropological discourse. Titles and abstracts in the conference programme enabled us to avoid some truly unpromising sessions, such as `Queer life matters: applying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender anthropology', a sub-field of the discipline whose existence I had hitherto not even suspected. But it was still possible to be beguiled into attending some real horrors by abstracts which bore little relation to the actual presentations. …