Malinowski Award Lecture, 2004: Applied Anthropology in Transition1

By Bennett, John W. | Human Organization, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Malinowski Award Lecture, 2004: Applied Anthropology in Transition1


Bennett, John W., Human Organization


I want to thank the Society for Applied Anthropology for bestowing on me the Bronislaw Malinowski Award. However, I doubt if I deserve it. None of us can equal Malinowski's contribution to socio-cultural anthropology.

I write this in my 89th year. If it sounds stodgy, I plead age. It has been a long haul: I have seen a lot of things happen over the years: economic depressions, withering of the family system, the liberation of colonies, the expansion of racial freedom, the commercialization of practically everything, the invasion of privacy, the pervasive hypocrisy in media and politics, the desperation of the deprived, the growth of excess in culture and behavior-well, lots of things, all of which provided opportunities for social science. But social science must rise to the challenge-it needs courage and vigor. This is the mission of the future for applied anthropology and all the other fields that can contribute. The issues are critical: they cannot be addressed with simple scientific objectivity. Moral stands must be taken, even though these may be difficult.

Nothing stands still in human society: organizations change, people change, ideas change, and social scholarship must keep up with the changes. Anthropology was created as a response to a particular historical situation: the need to record the cultures of peoples on the fringes of civilization before they vanished under the pressure of modernity. This had two consequences for the discipline, both a "museum" orientation and a focus on past events. In order for cultural anthropology to reorient itself toward the historical present and the changing status of former tribal people, it had to create a separate discipline called applied anthropology. And this it did, during the 1940s (Bennett 1998). Moreover, since anthropology started as a museum discipline, this has resulted in a focus on exotic and remote locales and populations. Sociology, on the other hand, did not require a specialized "applied" wing, because the discipline's routine scholarship concerned contemporary society. There was a subfield called "historical sociology" which did focus on past events, but the active research wing was concerned with the living present.

At various times, American applied anthropology has been defined in three ways: (1) the study of modern society by anthropologists; (2) small-scale assistance measures to benefit local people involved in the stress of change; or (3) interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary socio-cultural research. For me, for a long time, interdisciplinary research was my favorite conception. The second paragraph of the SFAA web page "About SFAA" seems to agree with this definition, listing a series of different disciplines and tasks of application that these disciplines can implement. The reason I came to favor an emphasis on the multidisciplinary conception was simply that social behavior and social institutions are too complex to be understood by a single discipline, especially when the discipline was devoted to exotic phenomena. Once one is concerned with practical problems in the historical present, one must search for solutions in any discipline that might be relevant.

My early participation with applied social science was informed by the multidisciplinary approach and also by the promotion of this view by people like Clyde Kluckhohn, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. During the 1930s and 40s, applied anthropology was a kind of elite subdiscipline because noted thinkers like these three were vigorous proponents of social relevance for the anthropological disciplines. It was taken for granted by Kluckhohn for example that research on the Navajo Indians must be concerned with their status and roles in American society, not only on their traditional culture. The research program that he developed at Harvard concerning the Navajo formulated projects that studied the Navajo impact of the southwestern range by sheep herding; medical care; and psychiatry and its relationship to traditional song therapy. …

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