Following the Bologna reforms, academic study programs have become increasingly school-like and regimented. At the same time, universities are called to equip students with an adequate preparation for their professional life outside of academia. While disciplines such as the natural sciences rather seamlessly transfer their knowledge from the laboratory into practice, the humanities have much greater difficulties adapting their knowledge and their research foci to the expectations of the world outside academia. This also applies to cultural anthropology, ethnology, and cultural analysis, i.e. disciplines which, ironically, should be particularly prone to applied approaches, given their interest in everyday lives.
Yet, in large parts of the anthropological and ethnological disciplines, skepticism prevails, with critics arguing that a turn to practice and applied knowledge would lead to reduced complexity of academic knowledge and necessarily result in intellectual triviality. Such critique is based on, at least, two pillars: first, the demands and rationale of the non-academic world would obstruct any frictionless transfer from theory to practice by virtue of their search for easy explanations; second, applied anthropologists are accused of lacking analytical distance to their field which is often also their employer. The two logics of capitalism and academia are juxtaposed in an irreconcilable way.
Applied anthropologists, in turn, argue against these critics that cultural anthropology and cultural analysis at universities tend to perform l'art pour l'art; that scholars within the academy prefer to identify and analyze social and political questions from a distance, yet that they shy away from any serious attempt to contribute in a practical way to the solution of these very problems.
This arbitrary divide has a profound and lasting impact. The ways of applied and academic anthropology depart at the moment of graduation, when graduates leave university and seek to make a living in the world of work. Instead of sustaining the link and making use of valuable synergies, both sides tend to turn their backs on each other. This is even more virulent as an overwhelming percentage of anthropology graduates does not stay within academia but finds employment in NGOs, cultural institutions, journalism, the private economy or public administration.
This structural effect, and anthropology's claim to the research of everyday culture and the impact of power structures and historical legacies on identities, subjectifications, and inequalities, should not lead us to shy away from the attempt to educate students in a way where they not only learn how to analyze practices, but how to transfer critical knowledge and put it into practice.
Applied anthropology approaches are not homogeneous but differ considerably, they intersect and merge. We broadly conceive of applied anthropology as "the application of anthropological knowledge, theory, and methods to real-world issues, the practical rather than the theoretical" (Copeland and Dengah 2016: 122). Orientations towards applicability exist:
- With regard to the application of ethnographic methods and anthropological theories e.g. to organizations, trans- and interculturality in the private or health sector, NGOs, public administration etc.
- With regard to specific problems and empowerment strategies, often with the aim to improve life chances of social and cultural groups or to fight discrimination. Such approaches often use collaborative forms of research and intersect with action anthropology.
- How to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and practice?
- How to design study programs and teach applied anthropology?
- How to keep high academic standards and not slip into oversimplification?
- How do practitioners perceive academic anthropology, and what kind of synergies could emerge?
- Which specific ethical challenges confront applied anthropologists?
University of Klagenfurt
Department of Cultural Analysis
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexandra Schwell (email@example.com) and Dr. Janine Schemmer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Copeland, T. J. and H. J. F. Dengah (2016). "'Involve me and I learn': Teaching and applying anthropology." Annals of Anthropological Practice 40(2): 120-133.