Response to Applied Anthropology Discussion – Barry Bainton

A few weeks ago I started a discussion about applied anthropology and the role of theory. Here is a response to my initial post from Barry Bainton:

The question, “where is the theory in applied anthropology?, is an old one. It is one I have dealt with for the past 40 years and this is what I have learned.

You ask, “Why is academic anthropological theory and sometimes training of so little use to researchers using ethnography as a research technique?”

The simple answer is that it not the job of academic anthropologist to do so. Academic anthropology is based on the university’s paradigm of professionalism.

This paradigm (using Kuhn’s definition) is part of the larger institutional culture of free and open dialogue and sharing of information directed toward finding “Truth.” The research subsystems of scholarship and science promotes the search for truth by limiting the questions to be addressed to those arising from the dominate paradigm of the discipline at the time — regardless of the policy questions facing society or its members.

The applied anthropologist is a technician in the real world outside of the academic department. He/she is hired to provide answers (not questions) for a client seeking to make a “practical” decision related to the client’s self interest.

The applied anthropologist is asked to play the role of expert, not seeker, for applying ethnographic knowledge. The client expects the “bullet points” in the executive summary so that they can judge the value of the information and apply it to their problem. Even if you write a detailed report, the client will not read it. The detail only serves to justify a decision based on your conclusion after the fact, especially in the event that the decision is questioned.

As an applied anthropologist you must understand your client and the purpose they have in mind when they hire you.

You also ask, “How can academics create theory that speaks to applied fields and industry?”

This is the wrong question. The theory already exists in the broad sweep of behavioral and social science. The question is “How do you package the theory in an user friendly mode that will be meaningful to the client?”

Academics write for academics. Applied anthropologist are culture brokers who bridge the academic and real world cultures of their particular “people.” They write for non academic.

The theory that academic anthropologist should apply to communicating to the applied fields and industry are the basic ethnographic principles of “participant-observation,” and learning the native language and rituals. What do applied anthropologists need, not what do we want them to know?

If the applied anthropologist’s client wanted to be an anthropologist, she/he would study anthropology and not do what they are doing. But they don’t, and you can’t blame them for that short coming. Otherwise, there is no need for the applied anthropologist as a profession if every client can do it themselves.

Hope this is helpful.

I use the analogy to the legal profession. There are law school professors who research and write about jurisprudence, and then there are attorneys who practice their craft in the real world. Here they apply their legal training to help clients avoid problems; or they are trial lawyers who help their clients defend/advocate their interests. Applied anthropology lives in this real world. The applied anthropologist needs the added communication skill set to survive and prosper here.