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02 April, 2011

Anthropology of Anthropology

This week, I attended the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Seattle. Mostly because they were offering, in the form of a "Traditional Foods Summit" an irresistible whetstone upon which to grind the ax I use to clear new ground for cultural resources. (Long story short: the current legal and customary practices ignore the breadth of what is cultural, impose some strange thresholds and dichotomies, and invite Native people to agree with the professionals or shut up.)

The Food Summit was amazing. Or at least it seemed that way to me because there were so many people in synch with my perceptions and biases. I met many kindred spirits. Even though I feel like a babe in the woods in many respects, I was somehow recognized as knowledgable, and maybe even useful.

It always amazes me how far you can ride on common sense, but then we live in a world crazed by greed and isms.

Then the larger anthropological public showed. It's been a long time since I interacted with more than a regional subset of this group, and it got a little weird.

Or maybe, not weird enough. I expect anthropologists to be a little more Outsidery. One of the texts we used in college was "The Professional Stranger," and anthropologists have always operated at the fringes of society. Unafraid to profess Marxist tendencies, irreligious or pagan, prone to wearing clothes designed to fit in only in some far-flung locale.

But on the evening of the big reception, I kept seeing guys in tweed jackets with suede elbow patches, women with plenty of make-up and perfume. Students aside, most of them seemed old, comfortable, separated from the field by too many years. Too comfortable in an expensive hotel. The drinks were 9 or 10 bucks a piece, in part to support a large staff of "help" (much blacker on average than the crowd) who held doors and refilled water pitchers, but I never heard anyone remark on that dynamic. 

Looking at the program, it amazed me at first to see how few of the "applied" anthropologists worked for anything other than academic departments. But then, the people who work outside academia are generally in some poorly funded entity, or in jobs that don't identify them as anthropologists, and they drift away from the world of conferences and publications. In a panel devoted to Sol Tax, father of "action anthropology," the guy included to do something other than adore the subject leaned toward dismissing Tax's contribution by virtue of the paucity of academic citations, which seems to miss the obvious point: anthropologists prone to action, to political engagement as opposed to academic disinterest, are more likely to spend their careers doing things than to write about them. I've been influenced by the Taxian take on the world, but before the session would not have articulated that--I worked toward cultural preservation and perpetuation for 20 years before attending the applied anthro conference, and probably won't do so again until it happens to be in the neighborhood again. My footprint in "the literature" is invisible.

The crowd at the conference undoubtedly represents a skewed sample. University folks are over-represented because the students attend in hopes of finding jobs, and the professors need to burnish their status and plug their books. The better funded agencies are represented. The wealthier individuals, interested in being seen but not inclined to crawl out of their suites for the early morning sessions, put in appearances between fine meals and drinks. The conference addicts flit about, invariably looking at name tags before making eye contact. It is unfair of me to denigrate the field of anthropology based on this sample.

But the field is where I will return. Away from the windowless rooms and the screens filled with bulleted powerpoint slides (are anthropologists no longer taught anything about human communication?). Plugging away, recording archaeological sites and writing emails, publishing nothing. 

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