Friday, January 24, 2014

#24 / Applied Anthropology

I have only a very sketchy acquaintance with anthropology. In fact, until I looked online the other day, I didn't actually know that an academic field of "applied anthropology" has existed for some time. I am not sure when "applied" anthropology became a recognized and discrete area of study, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that there wasn't any such thing back in the 1960's, which is when I acquired my sketchy knowledge of anthropology from a single undergraduate course. According to Wikipedia, here's a definition

Applied Anthropology refers to the application of the method and theory of anthropology to the analysis and solution of practical problems. Kedia and Van Willigen ... define the process as a “complex of related, research-based, instrumental methods which produce change or stability in specific cultural systems through the provision of data, initiation of direct action, and/or the formulation of policy.” More simply, applied anthropology is the praxis-based side of anthropological research; it includes researcher involvement and activism within the participating community.

The other day, I read in The Wall Street Journal that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, known for his "plain living," had amassed a business empire valued at $95 billion dollars. This is another example of a global phenomenon. Income and wealth inequality is not limited to the "wolves" of Wall Street. Even religious leaders are not immune.

So, I have a suggestion for the applied anthropologists out there. Is there a way that we could find out what makes it possible for some societies to measure their "success" by reference to the state of collective and community well being, instead of by how well various individuals within the society are doing, individually?

It seems to me that this is just the kind of "practical problem" that applied anthropology should be working on. I go so far as to say that the fate of the world may depend on us rather quickly finding out the answer to that question, and then taking steps, everywhere, to change how our societies work. 

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1 comment:

  1. As a certified PhD toting anthropologist (retired). I can say that there has always been an applied anthropology component to the social sciences. Think Margaret Mead.

    The discipline has evolved over time of course. We've moved beyond the idea that we credentialed anthropologists have all the answers for the "primitive" folks' problems, and all they have to do is follow our program to a progressive future.

    An elder on the Pine Ridge reservation once told me: "The Egyptians of Biblical times had their plagues of locusts. We have anthropologists."

    Nowadays and all, applied anthropologists work within the system, seeking solutions to society's problems from within the culture, not from without. I think we've pretty well learned that marching into a society and laying down the law doesn't work, on many levels. Participant observation is the word, bordering unto activism.

    Unfortunately, changing the way societies work does not happen top down. Deep societal change must come from within, from the bottom up. Societies are not particularly amenable to directed manipulation, subscribing to the Alan Wattts Wu Wei school, in which change arises "of itself," not forced or coerced, but arising naturally from the nature of society itself.

    Sometimes this takes too long for hasty, impatient humans living on timetables and economic prognostications.

    The trick is benign neglect, allowing things to go on until they can no longer, at which time the changes arise of themselves from the society.

    Traffic congestion is a good example. Commuters complain about it all the time, not realizing that traffic congestion is the best cure for traffic congestion, carrying within it the seeds of its own cure. Widening the highway only prolongs the disease. Too few good applied anthropologist employed at Caltrans.


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