Anthropology Put to Work

Anthropology Put to Work

Anthropology Put to Work

Anthropology Put to Work


How do anthropologists work today and how will they work in future? While some anthropologists have recently called for a new "public" or "engaged" anthropology, profound changes have already occurred, leading to new kinds of work for a large number of anthropologists. The image of anthropologists "reaching out" from protected academic positions to a vaguely defined "public" is out of touch with the working conditions of these anthropologists, especially those junior and untenured. The papers in this volume show that anthropology is put to work in diverse ways today. They indicate that the new conditions of anthropological work require significant departures from canonical principles of cultural anthropology, such as replacing ethnographic rapport with multiple forms of collaboration. This volume's goal is to help graduate students and early-career scholars accept these changes without feeling something essential to anthropology has been lost. There really is no other choice for most young anthropologists.


Les W. Field and Richard G. Fox

We had military governments many times [in Argentina] but this one
was particularly bloody and thousands of people disappeared. And so,
when democracy returned—that was '84—there was the need to recover
the remains of the people that had disappeared … The first time I went
into a grave, I basically was very concentrated on what I was doing …
I was able to work … and I realized that I felt [good] about doing
something concrete …, meeting with the families of victims and feeling
that there was some concrete thing that we could contribute … to try to
do something about what happened in the past.

—Mercedes Doretti, on becoming a forensic anthropologist

From its beginnings, cultural anthropology claimed to work. By “working” we mean that anthropologists claimed they had the training and skills to gain knowledge necessary and useful to society. This knowledge could be theoretical or practical or some mix of the two, but it was, early anthropologists insisted, of benefit to society that people know it. The rationale for why such knowledge benefited society might even shift. In anthropology's early days, for example, researching primitive societies was said to matter because their customs reflected previous evolutionary stages. Later, it was because primitive societies showed the range of human cultural possibility. Whether such knowledge claims “work,” that is, whether they are accepted and rewarded, is a matter of conventional understanding in the wider society—a projection of education, media, the market, and the other institutions that create judgments of value to society. Whether anthropology works, therefore . . .

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