Creating a global community of practicing anthropologists

Creating a global community of practicing anthropologists

Baba, Marietta L

Marietta Baba is Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University, Detroit, Ml. She also served as chair of the IUAES Commission on Anthropology in Policy and Practice from 1993-1998.

Key words: applied anthropology, networking, international cooperation, International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES)

Anthropologists working in the academy (including the author) often take for granted the international networks that enrich our professional lives. Global linkages are a vital component of academic culture, and often are underwritten by our institutions. In the course of our teaching and research, we become familiar with the work of colleagues in other nations, we personally meet and interact with our international counterparts at conferences and symposia, and we regularly communicate globally via e-mail and more traditional modes. These connections are invaluable – they expand our base of knowledge, create professional opportunities, support fieldwork arrangements for our students, and nurture personal friendships that generally promote global understanding.

But what of anthropologists practicing beyond the academy – do they have the same opportunities to participate in global networks that form around domains of practice? This question may be asked both of anthropologists in the United States and those living in other nations. There are at least two issues to consider here – the existence of practitioner-oriented networks, and access to these networks.

While academics benefit from international networks (or network-friendly environments) that have been in existence for decades, practitioners often find that global networks focused on practitioner issues simply do not exist. Even in cases where regional communities of applied and practicing anthropologists have formed (as in Europe), there may be few cross-regional ties. Further, many practicing anthropologists are affiliated with organizations that do not have the financial resources needed for international travel, and/or do not provide time for such activity as it is not viewed as part of their mission.

As ever more anthropologists enter the world of practice, more and more of us will have difficulty joining global communities of peers. Consequently, there is a growing need for new avenues of communication that allow practitioners to understand the breadth and diversity of our mutual activities, to pool what we are learning across nations, to grow from sharing our experience, and to create synergy through collaboration. In addition, applied and practicing anthropologists of many nations need to seek new ways of collectively exploring and addressing the emergent set of needs and concerns that relate directly to the experience of anthropological practice.

To meet these needs, and to seize an important opportunity for intellectual and professional growth, a group of anthropological practitioners representing several nations established a new commission within the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) – one focusing especially on the work of applied and practicing anthropologists. Now that the commission (which was formed in 1993) is five years old and about to experience its first major leadership succession, the time is right to review what we have learned and take a look ahead.

Historical Background

Prior to the establishment of the commission, an international network of applied/practicing anthropologists had been in formation for at least three years. In 1990, representatives of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) and the British Association for Social Anthropology in Policy and Practice (BASAPP) met together in York, England to discuss the creation and expansion of an international network of applied/practicing anthropologists. The representatives agreed that formation of cross-continental ties would be desirable and should be pursued. Later in 1990, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Board of Directors suggested that an international commission created for the purpose of globally connecting applied/practicing anthropologists be established within the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES). The author was appointed AAA Delegate to the IUAES and charged with responsibility for exploring and possibly establishing such a network.

The IUAES was suggested as the forum for this activity because it is the largest and best-known international organization in our discipline, with members from countries around the globe, and because it is not perceived to be dominated by anthropologists from the United States. Early discussions about forming a global community of practitioners brought to the surface the issue of American domination. Some anthropologists from other nations expressed concern that any organization formed by American anthropologists ultimately would become controlled by Americans (due both to our overwhelming numbers and relative ease of access to travel funds). In fact, this concern was first expressed during the SfAA’s earlier efforts to expand internationally. The IUAES, on the other hand, historically has had globally rotating leadership, with the presidency circulating across nations every five years. Thus, while the current president is an American, the two former presidents were Mexican and Yugoslavian, respectively, and prior to that the presidents came from a large number of other countries. As a result of the concern regarding American dominance, early efforts to establish the commission placed strong emphasis on participation from anthropologists outside the United States.

Initially, a small planning committee was formed, comprised of delegates from SfAA, BASAPP, and AAA. The committee’s strategy was to make contact with as many organizations representing applied/practicing anthropologists as possible, and to ask these organizations to join the planning effort. Since one of this group’s primary goals was to enable communication linkages among practicing anthropologists in all nations and regions of the world, it seemed appropriate to begin by attempting to connect organizations that already represented such practitioners. The planning committee also affirmed, however, its intention to support the linkage of individual practitioners in various nations who may not be affiliated with any organization.

During 1991, face-to-face meetings with the leadership of various anthropological organizations were carried out to explain the planning group’s objectives and obtain input. While not all of the organizations listed below agreed formally to appoint delegates to the planning committee, all expressed an interest in establishing communication linkages with the effort. The organizations that were contacted during the planning process included the following:

1. American Anthropological Association (AAA; USA)

2. Association Francaise des Anthropologues (AFA; France)

3. British Association for Social Anthropology in Policy and Practice (BASAPP; Great Britain)

4. Groupe de Recherche sur l’Anthropologie Appliqu6e au Finalis6e en France et hors de France (GRA2F3, or GRAF; France)

5. Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas (Mexico)

6. National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA; USA)

7. Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA; USA)

8. Society of Applied Anthropology in Canada (SAAC; Canada)

9. University of Paris VIII (France)

10. USSR Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology (USSR)

Some of the organizations listed above named delegates to the planning committee. Members of that committee met on November 24, 1991 in Chicago at the Annual Meetings of the AAA to discuss the structure and activities of the Commission.

A proposal for creation of a new commission was finalized at that time. The planning committee agreed that the name of the proposed organization would be the Commission on Anthropology in Policy and Practice. This name follows the suggestion of BASAPP delegates that the commission focus especially on practitioners’ efforts to shape, influence, and enact public and private sector policy alternatives that reflect anthropological knowledge and practice. The objectives of the commission were determined as follows:

1. To advance our understanding of the nature of applied and practicing anthropology across all nations and regions of the world.

2. To provide a worldwide forum through which applied and practicing anthropologists may consider and address issues of mutual interest and concern.

3. To enhance communication among applied and practicing anthropologists in all nations and regions of the world.

4. To expand opportunities for cooperation and collaboration in research, teaching and training, and practice among applied and practicing anthropologists.

5. To broaden public and private policy discourse to include considerations of culture and society as relevant to policy decisions.

6. To validate, promote, and encourage the work of applied and practicing anthropologists in all regions of the world. Several types of activities were envisioned for the commission, including:

a) sponsorship of regional and worldwide meetings and conferences on subjects of interest to applied/ racticing anthropologists;

b) publication of books and/or monographs on subjects of interest to the international community of applied/practicing anthropologists;

c) provision of a worldwide forum for the discussion of public and private sector policy matters that relate to culture and society, and support for the dissemination of relevant information to policy-makers;

d) establishment of exchange programs to provide international research and/or training opportunities for advanced students and/or professionals; and

e) service as a clearinghouse or resource center for information on employment opportunities and student training programs in applied/practicing anthropology.

It was agreed that the United States would provide leadership for the first five years of the commission, but that hereafter the leadership would rotate globally. The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) and the Society for Applied Anthropology provided delegates to serve as commission chair and executive secretary for the first five years (M. Baba and C. Hill, respectively). The proposal for the commission was formally accepted by the IUAES leadership at the 1993 World Congress of the IUAES in Mexico City, and was granted a charter to operate for five years (i.e., until the 1998 World Congress).

The commission held its first scientific session and business meeting at the Mexico City Congress. Since a key objective of the organization is to increase our understanding of applied/ practicing anthropology in all nations and regions of the world, the first scientific session was devoted to exploring the nature of applied/practicing anthropology in different countries and regions. The papers presented in this session addressed issues such as:

a) the political history of applied/practicing anthropology in a different nation or region (including special ethical issues in their locale);

b) the substantive foci of applied/practicing anthropology in a particular nation or region;

c) the nature of linkages between academic and applied anthropology in different countries, and

d) the niches filled by applied/practicing anthropologists, and/or how these anthropologists are funded.

Those papers now comprise the chapters of a volume entitled The Global Practice of Anthropology (Baba and Hill 1997). This is the first published work to explore systematically the nature of anthropology as a global field of practice, encompassing practice in the First, Second and Third Worlds.

What Have We Learned?

As the commission nears the end of its five year charter and prepares to request approval for a second five years of operation, it is appropriate to look back and summarize what we have learned in this endeavor. A brief summary of learning to date follows.

Global Practitioners are Eager to Communicate

Even before the commission was formally approved, practicing anthropologists from all over the world were writing and e-mailing us to request membership. There was a worldwide outpouring of interest in this effort, and we discovered colleagues in scores of nations who had no professional associations and were eager to connect. From a handful of people attending the first business meeting in 1993, the commission has grown to 125 members in 24 nations on six continents.

Practitioner Issues are Convergent Across Nations

Our two scientific sessions, one in Mexico City (1993) and one in Linkoping, Sweden (1996) made clear that practitioners “speak the same language” because they face the same issues across nations. Several themes resonate globally (see Baba and Hill 1997), including:

1. Cultural Preservation — Everyone is facing the threat of extinction of local cultures, and everyone worries about the role of anthropology in dealing with this issue. Who should speak for the local culture is a question that stimulates serious debate everywhere.

2. Problematic Role of Anthropologists — Conflicts of interest between sponsors of anthropological practice and anthropological “subjects” nearly always confront anthropologists with difficult ethical dilemmas that require special skills to manage.

3. Ambivalence Regarding Power — While anthropologists everywhere complain that they do not have sufficient power to influence authorities with respect to their recommendations, there is the seeming contradiction that many anthropologists are uncomfortable wielding power and often do not seek positions of power.

4. Practitioners vs. Academics — Differences between practitioner and academic goals and values create tensions among anthropologists, with practitioners in many nations feeling like second class professionals. Contentious arguments regarding ethical “purity” separate academics and practitioners in many nations.

The Nature of Anthropology Differs Across Nations

More anthropologists from formerly “colonized” nations accept the notion of anthropology focused on modern problems, primarily because resource scarcity in these nations has required academics to use their knowledge for practical purposes. In “colonizer” nations, on the other hand, one is more likely to find an anthropology that focuses on disciplinary problems and gives priority to theory-building, especially in academia.

International Publishing is No Easy Matter

Baba and Hill (1997) includes chapters from twelve different nations. This volume took three and one-half years to publish, primarily due to cross-cultural problems such as incompatibility of computing software or lack of computing resources in some nations. For example, electronic versions of manuscripts had to be converted, and hard copies had to be scanned and/or retyped. Also, language barriers were a problem; manuscripts had to be translated from a foreign language into English, or required heavy copy-editing when the author was not a native English speaker. Differences in standards for publication across nations meant that some authors’ work did not conform with traditional expectations around academic publication in the United States. The editors of the volume had to expend significant personal financial resources to resolve some of these matters (e.g., we paid for translations ourselves), and also had to be flexible and sensitive to cross-cultural differences when requesting changes in a manuscript.

Americans Preconceive Structural Complexity

When the commission was first conceived, we had grandiose plans for its future organizational structure. We envisioned that the leadership would be comprised of a Council of Representatives, with delegates from other organizations across the globe. This council would become an information hub, taking in ideas and news from all over the world and sending information out to a far-flung network of member organizations in other nations. Reality struck in Mexico City when we asked for volunteers to implement this vision and found virtually no takers. People from other countries simply did not have the resources needed to act as national or regional liaisons to a global organization. (Indeed, finding resources to support commission members’ travel to international meetings has been a continuing problem, although we have obtained some travel funds from NAPA, SfAA and other organizations.) The commission chair and executive secretary did not have sufficient resources to establish and maintain such a complex global organization all by themselves. Thus, we decided to simplify the actual working of the commission such that it is essentially a group of individual members who communicate directly with the leadership via worldwide news circulars and periodic meetings. Business is conducted at various national, regional and international meetings, with decisions made essentially by those who show up. To date, no one has complained about this structure.

Scarce Resources Make Leadership Succession a Problem

The problem mentioned above regarding scarce resources become a major issue when we began to recruit leadership for the second five-year period (1998-2003). The Americans were determined to transfer leadership, or “sunset” the commission. A number of potential candidates for chair and executive secretary concluded after deliberation that they simply did not have resources to support this work. It is no wonder that they were worried about resources; the chair and executive secretary had come to rely on a combination of funding from their institutions, their professional associations, and their own pocketbooks to support the commission’s major activities. These included mailing news circulars, publishing a volume, and organizing and conducting international meetings. For a while it looked as if we might have to “sunset” the commission for lack of candidates to assume leadership. Finally, the issue was resolved by an innovative plan created by colleagues in Mexico. A group of four Mexican anthropologists affiliated with several different institutions proposed to serve as commission co-chairs and co-executive secretaries, thereby enabling support to be derived from a broader institutional base. This proposal, also intended to support the growth of applied anthropology in Mexico, will be presented to the commission membership and decided upon at the 1998 World Congress in Williamsburg, Virginia. If agreeable to the membership, our Mexican colleagues will take over leadership responsibilities in July 1998.

Where are We Going?

From my perspective, the basic idea behind the Commission on Anthropology in Policy and Practice has proven feasible, and yielded some tangible benefits – a network of colleagues on six continents and a published work that provides a foundation for future understanding and collaboration. Although I do not have detailed knowledge of what else may have spun off from our efforts, I do know that the existence of the commission was a key reason behind Motorola’s recent decision to form a global advisory Board of Anthropologists. The existence of the commission convinced Motorola leadership that there were practicing anthropologists outside the United States who could advise them in foreign activity. No doubt, there are or will be other significant repercussions.

I will recommend that the commission be re-chartered for a second five-year period, with leadership based in Mexico. Those of us in the United States should remain active in the commission, to expand number of individuals and institutions available to support the commission’s activities. The prospective Mexican leadership is interested in establishing collaborative projects that bring professionals and students from two or more nations together to work on applied and practicing agendas. We should actively support this plan, and continue to send delegates from NAPA and the SfAA to serve in a liaison capacity. Like other international networks, a global community of practitioners will require long-term commitment to build, but the returns from this investment are likely to be significant over the course of the next century as globalization becomes the modern reality.


Marietta Baba and Carole Hill

1997 The Global Practice of Anthropology.Willamsburg VA: College of William and Mary.

Copyright Society of Applied Anthropology Fall 1998

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