[On screen] NAPA Logo
Ever considered urban planning as an applied area of anthropology? Well, check out sNAPAshots, conversations with practicing professional and applied anthropologists. Let’s meet Robert Wulff. Robert is a Caucasian male wearing a black polo shirt. He is [a Practicing] anthropologist who builds communities for people to live, work and play. How did you get into anthropology and what is your subfield of practice?
Robert Wulff 0:41
As a teenager, I was fascinated with archaeology and spent a lot of time reading about it and decided to wanted to be near Eastern archaeologist and went to the University of Chicago because of the Oriental Institute, and I studied there and I was a junior, this is 1965, the Vietnam war is going on the world is exploding, and people were burning their draft cards and going to jail. And, frankly, archaeology seemed…not irrelevant, but not pertinent. It was a very different time that you can…anyway, America was in the middle of a civil war with itself. So it just so happened my senior year, I took of course in salt tax in the anthropology department, because I had an elective, and I fell in love with action anthropology. And I said, Where can I go to graduate school to get this? And he said, I don’t know. I don’t think there is any place. But he said UCLA just started a program in, in urban anthropology. So I applied and I got in. And so I went to UCLA to do to do more action anthropology. Well, they were very good there, the program was new, they didn’t know what to do. So they said, take courses all over the University. And I said, Well, if I looked around, I said, if the catalog course has urban in the title I’ll think about and I ended up taking a lot of courses in the school of architecture and urban planning, which changed my perspective tremendously. Because I’ve worked with planners and architects who, of course, make a living and government and industry. And I’d learned what a professional was. And I learned what a practice was. And these are words that don’t get talked about in anthropology. But I came out of there with a very different perspective. And I was pleased to get a job because of that perspective, with the new brand new graduate program at the University of Florida. In applied anthropology, a master’s, was the first program of its kind. And I said, this is me, I this is what I was meant to do. So I go out to teach, and I’m in Tampa. And I’m teaching and I’m not liking it. And I tried to introduce some of the ideas of practice and professionalism. And while the faculty was curious, they really weren’t committed. And it’s cradle to grave academics. These are good men and women, but they really didn’t get it. And it took me three years, and they don’t get it. So I left I left academia just walked away, and started my own consulting firm with an architect, an urban planning consulting firm. And we we made money for a year, but it was scary because you’re only as good as your last contract as a consultant. I mean, archaeologists do a lot of that, and they know this. And I it scared me and I got an offer from the Carter administration to come to Washington and work for HUD. So I did. And I worked in the office of neighborhood development. And it was fascinating because you were we were building capacity of neighborhoods to do things to organize themselves. And and he said, do simple things like food co-ops, but to do more complex things like build low income housing. So it was very gratifying. And I did a lot of traveling and we was boots on the ground. It was very ethnographic in that sense. And then the Carter Carter didn’t get elected reelected, the Reagan came in the program was killed. And I thought about what I was going to do and I had a lot of time to think and I had a friend who was in real estate development and and we talked a lot and she said, you know, what you’re doing at HUD is really development you’re you’re working with people more than we would work with people but you have the skills and you should come in and we’re creating a new division for apartments, rental apartments, and you could run that so I did. It’s basically your your choreographer, your, your, you know everything, you know a little bit of everything, and then you organize everybody to do it. And there’s a lot of design and in terms of conceptualizing what a community should look like. And it’s very creative. And I found my anthropological knowledge very useful. So that’s how I got into development. And I stayed there for 35 years.
[On screen] How has the anthropological mindset enhanced your contribution to your workplace?
Robert Wulff 5:30
It’s the culture concept, which, to me is being able to connect the dots that others don’t see, and to find patterns that others don’t see, I think we’re uniquely good at that if I use this analogy, when I was teaching it, all the behavioral social scientists, if all the different behavioral and social sciences were each fish, in the School of fishes was swimming in the ocean, the anthropology fish would be the first one to figure out they were swimming in water. And I think that’s what anthropology contributes, that is unique to the other social sciences. The second valuable knowledge is ethnography, the ethnographic method which covers a lot of territory, but I think what what it gives you in problem solving, it gives you the EMIC-ETIC distinction, the insider-outsider distinction, which is very valuable in in negotiating and understanding other people’s motives, which is very useful in business, no matter what business you’re in. I found myself over and over again, seeing a being able to understand what the other side really wanted, not what they said they want, but what they wanted, which is very valuable in negotiation, in life, much less business, you know. And of course, the ethnography is, you know, boots on the ground, getting out getting yourself dirty. And, and understanding the native point of view. And that translates just to all sorts of good business practices. So, and then the third one is cross-cultural approach, which we talked I talked about briefly, which I think provides empathy, which is really valuable as a human being, but it’s also valuable in government, industry and business. So the trouble with those three hunks of knowledge, they’re really hard to sell. I mean, you can’t put it on a business card, you can, but nobody will buy it. So it’s a real problem in in an anthropology outside of academia, because it’s hard to sell the knowledge.
[On screen] What’s one thing about the practice of Anthropology that nobody told you as a student?
Robert Wulff 7:54
None of my Anthro professors ever told me anything about practice. Because they didn’t know about, they didn’t know anything about certainly not at the University of Chicago, they sneer at practice. These guys are, you know, from heaven, they’re in theory, their whole lives. And they’re, they’re very good at it. You know, they get awards, and they get tenure in there. And they publish wonderful books, and it’s a great department. But don’t go there learn about how to use your anthropological knowledge and government in history. I mean, they don’t want to know and ain’t gonna tell you, you know, because they can’t. Okay, so that’s it and, and they tried it, and they and they try at UCLA. But the reason I took so many courses in the School of Architecture and Planning is because I wasn’t getting it from Anthro professors because, and how could they they’re cradle to grave academics. They couldn’t tell me about practice about using my Anthro knowledge. Now, neither could the people in planning and architecture but at least they knew how to you use their knowledge in government and industry and I could model myself on them.
Thank you, Robert, for sharing your experience as a practicing professional and applied anthropologist. For more Stanford shots. Find us here practicing anthropology.org, Twitter, meta and LinkedIn.
[On screen] Many thanks to NAPA’s General Council and the American Anthropological Association for supporting sNAPAshots NAPA is a section of the AAA PracticingAnthropology.org
[Outtakes] Interviewer 9:36
Ok, give me the big, the big headshot smile.
[Outtakes] Robert Wulff 9:40
I’m not gonna smile.
[Outtakes] Interviewer 9:41
Oh, you look for great. There we go. I’m gonna take a second one just in case.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai