Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Anthropologists Only Need Apply: Challenges of Applied anthropology./Quand Les Anthropologues S'appliquent: Heurs et Malheurs De L'anthropologie Appliquee

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Anthropologists Only Need Apply: Challenges of Applied anthropology./Quand Les Anthropologues S'appliquent: Heurs et Malheurs De L'anthropologie Appliquee

Article excerpt

What practical use is anthropology? This is an increasingly pertinent question in today's political-economic climate, as market-driven changes impact on higher education. But it is disconcerting, after 150 years, that it is necessary to ask at all. The disappointing returns on successive generations of anthropologists' efforts suggest that the way in which the discipline defines and approaches issues has inhibited it making applied connections. If we do not agree that our preoccupations prevent meaningful involvement, why do we seem to have such trouble with practical engagement? Some twenty years ago Redclift put a similar question in a volume devoted to putting applied anthropology back on the agenda, asking 'Are the blockages which exist within anthropology today the result of an inability to make compromises with reality, or a symptom of something deeper?' (1985: 202). Progress towards an answer seems limited.

Perhaps we are thinking of 'applied' in the wrong way. The discipline is not amenable, as Evans-Pritchard (1946: 92), Hogbin (1957: 245-6), Mair (1969: 3), and others pointed out some time ago, to applications such as engineering, medicine, or agriculture. And in this vein, I have pointed out that the idea of applying anthropology is 'something of a contradiction in terms' (Sillitoe 2000: 7-8), asking how one could apply knowledge of, for example, totemic beliefs and taboos, or knowledge of kinship terminologies, prescriptive marriage arrangements, or ancestor beliefs. The challenge is to agree what application implies for anthropology, and, from there, address issues currently inhibiting engagement. Past experience suggests that this will be no straightforward endeavour (Firth 1981; Grillo 1985).

The current efforts to apply anthropology reflect the wide spread of the discipline, with persons seeking applications in an array of areas, including retailing, banking, government, business, and leisure. These endeavours suggest that anthropology has relevance to almost everything, which ultimately begs the discipline's existence. For me the enterprise focuses on so-called 'indigenous knowledge' inquiries in development, where I can see a ready application of anthropology. (1) Their emergence, following changes in development over the last two decades or so (increasingly involving people's participation), gives a new edge to the question 'how might we apply anthropology?' (Antweiler 1998; DeWalt 1994; Purcell 1998; Sillitoe 1998). The opportunities for anthropology to contribute have perhaps never been better, looking back. Yet, even with the advent of participatory approaches, it still seems reluctant to engage, such that non-anthropologists are largely taking these forwards. When I have tried to take up the challenge of applying anthropology I confess that I have become increasingly perplexed by the paradoxes I seem to encounter at every turn. We surely have the wherewithal to contend with such contradictory issues, having refined ways to resolve others' cultural contradictions, notably in structuralist and post-structuralist discourse.

History of applied anthropology

A review of anthropology's history reveals that it has sought to show its relevance since its inception, albeit comprising a catalogue of largely frustrated expectations from early attempts to establish ethnology bureaux to current efforts (Sillitoe 2006b). Initially promoted as having something to contribute to the training of colonial officers and others serving in dominions overseas, then as supplying persons trained to access the 'native view' and present this to administrators and policy-makers to facilitate better government, the subject today seeks to contribute not only to work in international development, but also to problems facing industry, government, and society more widely.

After the US government founded a Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 (which came to focus its efforts largely on 'salvage ethnography' of subjugated Amerindian populations), repeated attempts in the UK in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to establish a similar institution to work with peoples of the Empire proved unsuccessful, advocates failing to convince those in power that anthropology had anything significant to offer the Colonial Office (Harvey 2006). …

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