Anthropology at Work

I would venture to bet that the vast majority of us – perhaps in the range of 99% – work for and in powerful institutions. This is obviously true of academic anthropologists, but is also likely the case for those working outside of academia – for government agencies, non-profits, corporations, etc. And we are hired by them to use our ethnographic methods to understand – to help those in power understand – often marginalized, but in all cases less powerful groups of people. Sometimes those above us care about such understanding, sometimes they don’t and other times they are indifferent – simply content to allow us to continue to do what it is we do. At other times, of course, they are openly hostile, because our work challenges an essential part of their powerful position. However, regardless of their reaction, the ethnographic gaze is usually turned downward. In fact, because we are employees of these institutions, we have a tendency to see them as above whatever conditions we might be studying – there is an intuitive aversion to the idea of studying the people and organizations that have hired us.

I would like to challenge this intuition. Being an upward anthropologist, of course I am interested in encouraging anthropologists who work for powerful institutions – both academic and public (an artificial binary, in any case) – to turn their ethnographic gaze upon those institutions themselves. I see this not only as an opportunity to develop a better understanding of power – the goal of upward anthropology – but also as a responsibility that every anthropologist has to the people they study – allowing them to be fully informed of the way that these institutions use the research that is being conducted. But this isn’t just political, it’s methodological as well. Anthropologists pride themselves on having a “holistic” approach – we teach it as one of the defining characteristics of anthropology in every Introductory class. How can an anthropologist claim to be holistic if she is leaving out of her field of inquiry an entire portion of the system? The fact that an organization is interested in ethnographic research on whatever population implies that there is a relationship between that organization and that population. That means that a full and holistic ethnography of the population can only be done in the context of an ethnography of the relationship between the two. Why does that relationship exist? Why is the organization interested? How had this relationship been developed over time? How has the organization in question shaped and affected the population? All of these are important questions that must be addressed to really understand the situation.

The really political question, then, is who gets the information? I had a professor once who commented on another anthropologist’s work studying farmers beliefs about nutrient management for the USDA. She questioned why it seemed appropriate for the USDA to commission this kind of research on farmers, but it seems inappropriate for the anthropologist to study the USDA and present their findings to the farmers. After all, it was the USDA who told the farmers what and how to think about nutrient management in the first place! When we work for an organization, we feel obligated to provide our findings to that organization, and perhaps that is true. However, as upward anthropologists, it is important that we also provide data to the people who are being studied so that they can understand the power relationship between themselves and this organization, and so that they can develop the tools to resist if need be.

Finally, I would argue that this should be one of the lessons we teach students with even a minor encounter with the field. Students come to us from all disciplines and areas of study – often because our introductory courses fulfill some general education requirement in the college. I believe that it is incumbent upon those of us who are responsible for teaching these students, not only the exotic past and present of anthropology, but also the way that anthropology and ethnography can be useful in their own lives and careers. Using ethnography and the critical lens of anthropology to understand the institutions they will almost inevitably work for is one way that we can fulfill this responsibility.

There are a lot of issues that arise from the anthropology of one’s own workplace – ethical issues, privacy issues, objectivity issues, not to mention keeping one’s job! I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but I encourage others to think about and discuss them. So let this be a challenge – to all anthropologists who work for powerful institutions – think about the role that upward anthropology might play in your own work, and what kinds of benefits and drawbacks you might encounter in the process.


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