Note: This post was originally published in the NAPA section of Anthropology News, which is run by the American Anthropological Association.
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.
— Claude Lévi-Strauss , Le Cru et le Cuit: Mythologiques, 1964
We are, in a manner that might be most clear to the late Claude Lévi-Strauss and to his disciples, a discipline filled with seeming binary oppositions. We speak often of practicing anthropologists as categorically different from anthropologists in academia. Students of anthropology are often seen as categorically distinct from those who hold advanced degrees in the field. It is precisely at the purposeful convergence of these binary oppositions, I’d argue, where contemporary anthropology has the greatest opportunity to flourish.
As a National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA) Governing Council member I’ve learned quite a bit over just a short period of time working alongside a group of dedicated colleagues whose daily lives as faculty members, practitioners, and students all require, and benefit from, interaction outside of their defined anthropological roles. That learning has spawned this narrative, as it has highlighted the notion that the core of our discipline involves engagement with the variously-defined “other”. Perhaps it may be useful to examine our definitions of the “other” within our own discipline. Can we benefit from purposeful efforts at creating intersections where labeled binary opposites can convene? I’ve been fortunate to have benefitted from some of these intersections, both as a faculty member whose applied public health work regularly interfaces with practitioners, and as one who has held a leadership position with two different AAA sections who, prima facie, serve distinct groups. Many moons prior to my current NAPA service, I served a term as President of the National Association of Student Anthropologists (NASA).
Upon reflection, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the great commonality in questions asked in both NAPA and NASA meetings, despite the differing constituencies: “How can we attract more members?” “What new services can we provide for the benefit of our membership?” “How can we more successfully interface with AAA leadership to ensure that the voices of our members are heard?” “How can we more successfully communicate with our members?” And finally, “How can we more effectively work with others?” In both sections, the driving themes seem fundamentally to be questions of convergence.
In NASA, we spoke wistfully of working more with practitioners, as we knew that the majority of anthropological jobs have long been held outside of the academy, and wanted to more effectively make our members aware of the panoply of anthropological job opportunities, most of which do not include the word “anthropologist” in their titles.
In NAPA, we’ve been speaking of the great value we find in working with students, as their outlooks on anthropology’s future represent both our discipline’s future and its present. It was students, for instance, who created some of the most memorable and visually stimulating responses to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent unfortunate comments about our discipline, just as students on my own campus are sharing ideas that profoundly influence and improve our collaborative non-communicable disease prevention efforts in the Republic of Palau, based in no small part on their own fieldwork there last May. Hundreds of campuses provide countless additional examples.
In both sections, the end result of reaching out to the binary-classified “other” has been productive knowledge exchange and renewed momentum. In NASA, when we reached out to practitioners we found those interactions to be tremendously gracious and positive. As a result of that experience, I learned several lessons that I find myself continuing to utilize and share to this day: diverse examples of careers outside of academia, the importance of having a clear ability to articulate the tools anthropologists possess, and how the direction of our discipline is upheld and changed through AAA and other organizations. In NAPA, when we’ve reached out to students we’ve benefited similarly by learning about the concerns and expectations of contemporary anthropologists; new ideas for effective communication across campuses, offices, and field sites; and exciting new areas of disciplinary interest.
Discussion of the value of NAPA/student convergence at the most recent NAPA Governing Council meetings has led to a renewed commitment by the Council to include multiple student voices in the committees and groups that move us forward as a section. To that end, this article serves as a call to NAPA-member students with interest in sharing ideas with us through committee service. Over the coming months, we plan as a section to increase student involvement in our many active committees. Your interest and NAPA membership are the only requirements that we have in mind. Feel free to peruse the NAPA website (practicinganthropology.org) to learn more about what we’re doing, and to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to express your interest in pitching in.
Of course, our call to active NAPA participation is open to all others, as well. We are strengthened as a section by the diversity of active voices that inform and support our efforts. There is value, we believe, in working at the convergence of anthropology’s deeply-held binary labels; so much so that we begin to question the labels themselves. So, in the spirit of Professor Lévi-Strauss, let us ask ourselves some questions: What happens when we look more deeply at these dichotomous intersections within our own discipline? How might we more purposefully work to create more, and more fruitful, points of convergence? Are the old binary practicing/academic and teacher/student models serving us well as a discipline, or are they masking a multitude of daily convergences wherein our discipline is currently making its greatest contributions to science and society?
Chad Morris is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Roanoke College.