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A House Divided: The Case of Academic and Practicing Anthropology

Practicing and applied anthropology are rarely explored in depth in anthropology courses. Applied and practicing anthropology might receive honorable mentions, but the mention is often in reference to the troubled, colonial past of anthropology. Applied anthropology is frequently used as the scapegoat for the many problems inherent in colonial anthropology.

Despite its past, I believe that anthropology has incredible potential for creating change. I’m certainly not the first anthropologist to believe in anthropology’s potential to create such change. James Spradley was an early anthropologist who realized this potential for social change. Anthropologists like Paul Farmer and Merrill Singer have used anthropology to help people who experience a wide range of disparities. Some anthropologists have found a way to stay in academia while creating change; others have left academia to become full-time practicing anthropologists.

Numerous attempts have been made to repair the relationship between practicing and academic anthropology. In particular, anthropologists have been laboring to improve social engagement within academic anthropology for decades. Dell Hyme’s book, Reinventing Anthropology, written in 1972, is a prime example. In it, Hymes and other contributors try to imagine what a reinvented, more socially relevant anthropology might look like. New strains of academic anthropology have emerged more recently, such as ‘engaged anthropology,’ ‘public anthropology,’ and ‘activist anthropology,’ in response to allegations that academic anthropology is not a socially responsive discipline. Unfortunately, the discipline of anthropology is still a house divided, with practicing anthropology and academic anthropology rarely merging.

There are a wide range of disputes between academic and practicing anthropologists. Practicing anthropologists are often accused of being atheoretical, though we know that practitioners engage with a wide range of anthropological and interdisciplinary theories (Rylko-Bauer 2006; Nolan 2013). Academic anthropologists sometimes treat practicing anthropologists as if they are selling out by leaving academia. Practicing anthropologists have a tendency in return of accusing academic anthropologists of not being responsive to social needs.

Within academia, employment in practicing anthropology is viewed as second to employment in academia (Nolan 2013). Reality, however, tells a different story. We know that less than 50% of recent Ph.Ds in the humanities and social sciences will find tenure-track positions (Benton 2009). With the current recession and sequestration, universities won’t hire more academic anthropologists any time soon. In fact, now there are probably more anthropologists working outside of academia than inside academia (Nolan 2013). The emphasis on academic anthropology hasn’t changed much though, which means that the majority anthropology graduates are most likely ill-prepared for the demands of the non-academic world. By privileging only academic anthropology, we are doing a disservice to anthropology students and to our own discipline.

How are we going to engage students and prepare them for an economy in flux?

First, it’s important to know who we’re educating. We’re predominantly teaching students who belong to the millennial generation. Millennials are loosely defined as people who were born between 1980 and 2000. They make up a large minority of the U.S. population, accounting for about 78 million U.S. citizens. The Millennial generation is also on track to be the most educated generation in U.S. history, with over 30% of them attending college (Howe and Strauss 2000). Despite this high rate of education, Millennials are stereotyped as “apathetic, disinterested, tuned out, and selfish (Clinton 2013).”

A search on news sites tells a different story, one of social awareness and innovative activism. Millenials and their social media habits played an integral part in the Occupy Wall Street movements. A recent study of Millennials found that almost 80% of young adults support specific causes because doing so is an integral part of their identities (TWBA Worldwide 2012). It is precisely because of the Millennials’ “me” focus that they are so invested in a wide range of social causes (TWBA Worldwide 2012).

Not only are Millenials informed about social issues, they also believe that they can positively contribute to society by addressing those issues. A survey found that 96% of Millenials who responded agreed with the statement “I believe I can do something great” (Howe and Strauss 2000).  Millennial activism is present at Purdue as well. In 2012, many students responded to the racial bias incident on campus. The March at Purdue in March 2013 attracted over 300 Purdue students who came together to discuss minority issues and rally for change on campus. The Purdue Anti-Racism Coalition organized numerous protests on Purdue’s campus in response to racist attitudes and environments.

The outlook of the Millennial generation is being shaped by a unique set of global circumstances. Millenials’ employment prospects are dwindling in the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Millennials are being bombarded by the poor job market, failing government, and the widening gap between the wealthy classes and the working classes, so it’s no wonder that Millennials have been stereotyped as “apathetic, disinterested, tuned out, and selfish (Clinton 2013).” The problems we face are huge and complex, and sometimes they can paralyze us.

Like the rest of the Millenials, I’m looking for solutions. We are all too aware of the problems plaguing the U.S. and the world. It’s important that we understand how those problems came to be, but we also want to understand how to create effective solutions. We are invested in society and we want to contribute. An anthropology that embraces both its academic and practicing traditions has so much to offer Millenials in our quest to provide culturally sensitive solutions to society’s problems.

How are we going to repair the division between practicing anthropology and academic anthropology?

We need to engage with anthropologists, inside and outside of academia. We need to use anthropological methods to assess and repair the division between academic and practicing anthropology. We need to get the house of anthropology (Boellstorff 2007, Weston 1993) in order, and quickly, because we’ve got some “wicked problems” (Nolan 2013) on the horizon that are threatening the vitality of the LGBTQ movement.

It’s projected that between 50-70% of young gay men, now in their early twenties, will be infected with HIV by the time they hit 50 years old (CDC 2012). A new strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is spreading across the U.S., which threatens to disproportionately affect gay men, as almost all other sexually transmitted infections do (CDC 2012). Homelessness is disproportionately affecting LGBTQ youth, as about 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ-identified, while only approximately 10% of the U.S. population is LGBTQ-identified (The Williams Institute 2012).  The future of the LGBTQ movement is dim if half of its gay male population is infected with HIV and 40% of its former youth, if they are lucky, are survivors of homelessness. With the recession and sequestration restricting social welfare funding, we need creative solutions for issues that threaten the lives of current and future LGBTQ Americans. We need inspired scholars who value interdisciplinary collaboration to design those solutions.

First we have to get over our hesitancy to acknowledge the contributions of practicing anthropology. We need to expand what we include as anthropology and discard outdated, purist definitions. We need to invite practicing anthropologists into classrooms and collaborate with them so that their contributions to the field will be recognized within academia.

We need to show students that anthropology can be socially responsive, and we need to stop worrying that they will leave the academy. Graduates are already leaving the academy, and it is up to us to ensure that they are prepared for non-academic sectors. If we want society to acknowledge the relevance of anthropology, we have to demonstrate that anthropology can be socially responsive and socially responsible. And there are ways to do this while still resisting and subverting the hegemonic forces of capitalism and patriarchy.

We need to acknowledge the contributions of practicing anthropology in the courses we teach. We need to create innovative frameworks for problem-solving by combining critiques of society with methodological texts. We need to stoke the flame of passion that exists naturally in students by educating with the intent to inspire them to create change in their communities.  Their individual efforts could, in effect, be crowd-sourced to create major social change.

We will not solve the problems facing LGBTQ Americans by ourselves. In fact, researchers in other disciplines and individuals in the non-academic sector are already at the table, collaborating to solve these problems. Luckily, many academic and applied anthropologists are already working to build a relationship between academic and practicing anthropology. We must further that work. It would be a travesty for our potential contributions to go unrealized because we can’t stop bickering about who gets to live in the house of anthropology. We need engaged students, a unified anthropology, and an interdisciplinary approach, but if we can get those things, there will be a seat at the table waiting for us. 

I am part of the world I studied

How would an ethnographer’s personal identification be changed in the process of fieldwork?

12 years ago, I pursued my Master’s degree in Anthropology, for which I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong’s lesbians, focusing on the identity and body of masculine lesbians who identified themselves as “tomboy.” My academic interest on female masculinity, I cannot deny, is caused by my personal identification. 12 years ago, I was living in the cage of lesbian feminism—regarding any gendered labels, such as butch/femme, tomboy/tomboy’s girl, as restrictive. Although I am masculine and people usually read me as a tomboy, I refused this label. During my 12-year-ago fieldwork, I insisted that I was not a tomboy but a woman if my informants, many of who are my personal friends, took me as a tomboy in the conversation. After all, my fieldwork experience did not change my personal identification. I am masculine; I am a lesbian; but I am not your “tomboy.”

Right now, I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Anthropology, for which I am writing a dissertation about women’s same-sex relationship among Indonesian migrant women in Hong Kong. Still, one of my focuses is about the masculine women, who identified themselves as “tomboi” (an Indonesian word for tomboy). Did I change my personal identification in this new fieldwork experience? Yes. I did.

Since my informants did not know me before, some of them mistook me as a man based on my masculine appearance. Some of my closer informants would help me to explain, “No, she’s not a man. A tomboi, still a woman.” They positioned me as a tomboi—a biological woman with masculine attributes. At the beginning, I did not correct them when they said I am a tomboi.  I did not want to draw a boundary because I was very eager to become a part of them. My “tomboi” identity did help me to establish closer relationships with them. We shared a common identity “tomboi.”

Surprisingly, after my 2-year fieldwork, I felt I had accepted “tomboi” as one of my personal identification. Especially after going to their “tomboi fashion contest” a couple times, I began to appreciate the way they made sense of gender. As one my informants said, “It’s just usual. There are tombois and girls, so we have tombois’ fashion contest and girls’ fashion contest.” Contestants could join both divisions if they were confident to do both. In their real-life relationships, some of them also changed from girl to tomboi, or from tomboi to girl, when they thought a particular gender would help them to fit into that new relationship. The two genders, tomboi and girl, were not as restrictive as I imagined. I began to appreciate these gender categories—not absolutely restrictive but allow rooms for individuals to imagine and make changes.

I am glad but I am also surprised to recognize that how my recent field work experience had changed my fundamental way of seeing this kind of label, as well as my personal identification. When I am trying to tease out how my informants were influenced by particular discourses that were circulated around them, I just realized how I was shaped by their discourse of tomboi and girl. I am part of the world I studied.

Call me a tomboi. I won’t reject it this time.

On “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”

Like many people across the expansive political spectrum of our current moment in America, I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech with a careful ear for the messages behind the words. So when he briefly referenced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which have been the focus of my research for the past two years, my ears definitely perked up. What does this mean? Is this some kind of victory? Should we be celebrating the reference to this particular moment in U.S. LGBT/Queer History? In this blog post, I’ll answer some of those questions from the perspective of my research thus far, and probably pose a few new questions, too.

Let’s start with the context of this reference to Stonewall. Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary political rhetoric is a highly nuanced way of speaking that is often honed through the use of focus group methods such as “dialing”. In these trials, speeches by major politicians are laboriously crafted to include soundbites-in-waiting; short phrases that are tested for their appeal to various demographics. Such rhetoric, then, is no longer simply an exercise in predicting the response of an imagined public, but rather has become a technical art rooted in the idea that, from a distance, a speaker can reach out to several groups at once. Even if an ostensibly left-of-center politician accepts that she is only really speaking to those who generally support her, references to topics like gun control must still be carefully couched in language that will resonate effectively with liberal gun owners, suburban parents, and P-12 teachers who may or may not be unionized. Such specific language is known as “crafted talk” and, as political writer Steven Hill candidly summarizes, it is slightly creepy.

This “crafted talk”…is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers. (Source)

Ok. So this is probably the worst case scenario, right? Surely there are times when a politician is trying to be honest and inclusive. Perhaps. But ultimately, I don’t think the reference to Stonewall was truly one of them, even if we can read it as a positive sign-of-the-times.

Just over four years ago, I was sitting among students, friends and colleagues in the Black Cultural Center of Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus listening to President Obama’s first inauguration speech. And I remember being slightly in awe of this same man, as he acknowledged atheists and agnostics from behind what is arguably the most important pulpit on our planet. When he referred to the United States as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” I felt a sense of acceptance and inclusion that made me forget, even if just temporarily, the deeply-rooted Christian rhetoric that pushed in on that sentence from all sides. And while I still cringe at the idea of someone who is Wiccan or Jain or Baha’i hearing that list and not finding themselves among it, I know that I felt validated. This was in spite of the fact that it was not more than a few moments before his reference to non-theists that he had explicitly used Biblical language and regardless of the reality that he went on to mention “God” four more times before leaving the microphone. But in that moment, in hearing “nonbelievers,” I heard him say, “I know you’re out there. And I respect you.” Nevertheless, as I listened this year, at a time when you might have expected me to be telling the same story about the warm fuzzies I got from his mention of the Stonewall Riots and his ostensible support for marriage equality, I found myself underwhelmed.

To be sure, neither I nor President Obama are the people we were in January of 2009. Four years of continued economic struggle, the disappointment of the 2010 elections, and the tension with which we both, surely, watched the polls this past November have refined our positions, nuanced our arguments and, in some cases, changed our minds entirely. But do not take me to be so naïve as to be suggesting that I’m merely bummed because he didn’t do all the things he said he would. I understand enough of the circus of American politics to believe two things at least: that no contemporary candidate will ever truly live up to her campaign promises and that most incumbents are more liberal personally than their track record suggests. But the elephant-in-the-corner of both cases is the fact that the whole American political spectrum has been shifted dramatically to the right. So how is it, I wonder, that evoking Stonewall would seem like an effective way to look directly into the eyes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans and say, as LZ Granderson has suggested, “I see you”?

As a young academic in American Studies, my primary research focus has been on the narrative of the Stonewall Riots; specifically, the ways in which the story of Stonewall has both informed and reflected LGBT/Queer identity for the last 44 years. At the time, raids on bars frequented by “homosexuals” were common and brutal injustices inflicted by police (especially on those whose clothing did not conform to gender norms of the day) were heinous reminders of a state and society that rejected people like me. As such, the political salience of not only resisting a police raid on a bar, but of forcing city, state, and federal officials back into the building and then trying to set it on fire can neither be mistaken for anything less than violent protest nor polished to suggest some reverence for the system against which those rioters raged. Stonewall was not planned. It was not part of a larger campaign for gay rights. It was a livid, impromptu, dangerous and deeply personal response to many years of violent state oppression. Moreover, the week of riots that followed the initial raid were aimed at reclaiming the protestors’ identity from the newspapers that smeared them and the dirty businesses that exploited them. (Let’s not forget that the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by members of the New York Mafia who regularly paid off their local NYPD precinct—not to prevent raids, but to plan them in advance and at times that would allow the bar to reopen mere hours later.) And while the narrative of the riots is most often told from the perspective of middle-aged gay white men who did not identify as trans* or gender-variant, numerous firsthand accounts mention a racially diverse cadre of drag queens fighting alongside gay men, lesbians, straight hippies and homeless youth, many of whom engaged in street warfare, tagging buildings with “Gay Power” slogans and ripping parking meters from the ground to be used as battering rams against the cops. Indeed, as historian Gary Leupp writes over at,

This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant. (Source)

“But wait,” you say, “surely President Obama wasn’t suggesting that details of these three events were synonymous!” And you’re right. And that’s the point. As Leupp suggests, the inclusion of Stonewall here is significant, whether or not most folks know the history behind the reference. It is also important to note, as does Leupp, that the President’s reference to Stonewall should not be read as a condoning of anti-state violence. So, what’s left?

First of all, the obvious alliteration and engaging rhythm highlight the rhetorical utility of this phrase; these three events in history simply sound nice together. But more importantly, they each reach out from over the podium individually. Like “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” the extra conjunctions, “and Selma, and Stonewall,” shine a spotlight on particular demographics making up the president’s intended audience. One can easily imagine speech writers and consultants whispering to one another, “Stonewall?” “Oh, it’s a gay pride thing. From the 60’s. The gays will catch the reference.” Indeed, many of us did. And gleefully.

Just like that, the subtle mention of Stonewall became a metonym for an imagined “LGBT America.” And while NPR quickly pulled together a guide for those who didn’t quite get it and the Huffington Post reported on the angry video response from the American Family Association, LGBT/Queer journalists jumped on the story, too. LZ Granderson, writing on, took mainstream media to task for suggesting that there were no memorable lines in the speech. And Irene Monroe, writing for the Huffington Post, considered how President Obama’s linking of Selma and Stonewall might have furthered divides in the Black community. Noting both our country’s problematic tendency to talk about the fight against oppression by only referencing the struggles of Black communities, as well as the sense in which some Black folks were offended at the comparison of the two movements, she ponders the progressive possibilities of such a reference.

Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans. (Source)

According to Monroe, the President’s Stonewall mention points to an opportunity for solidarity that is accompanied by a challenge to foreground and understand difference. While I agree with her analysis, my concerns differ slightly.

For many white, educated, middle-income, cisgender gay men, such as myself, there seems to be a desire simply to be mentioned in such speeches. In my view, this corresponds to another desire–one which is very effectively lobbied for by national groups allegedly representing LGBT people–to be recognized by the State. To be granted full citizenship, which was as often couched in the demand for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it is today in the continued fight for marriage equality, seems to be the chief concern of most national LGBT lobbying efforts. But such issues are not the key concerns of all LGBT people. And while smaller organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition or the National Center for Transgender Equality (among many others!) are working to broaden the political conversation around LGBT efforts, our contemporary reality remains a place in which mainstream perceptions of LGBT people in the United States have come to reflect the interests of a socially-privileged, economically-empowered and politically-connected elite.

As such, for the President of the United States of America, during an inauguration speech, to mention the Stonewall Riots as a metonymic reference to the lives and struggles of “LGBT Americans” is clearly a victory. The question is, whose victory is it? Whose story is represented by Stonewall? Whose concerns are assuaged by marriage equality or by the repeal of a ban on military service after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? And whose voices are represented by the multi-million dollar lobbying machines that make such references possible?

Not mine. For me, a victory is this fleeting moment of significance that is bound so tightly to context and intersection that it cannot move forward on its own. And I believe Stonewall was a victory, but one I cannot claim. And it does inform me and I do believe I can learn from it; but to see it hoisted as a banner congratulating the efficacy of a queer movement that is so deeply mired in complex iterations of racism, sexism, ableism  and classism is pure farce.

Victory is not a queer idea. In my view, queerness, if it must be analyzed at all as queer theory and not simply queer survival, is deeply skeptical of boundaries between people, of dominant hierarchies that constrict creative spirit and of the probable falseness of most rhetorical positionings. A political win is fleeting. What comes next is forever.

Queer Fashion in Singapore: When “lesbian chic” is about being afraid to look like a lesbian

Was just reading Gayle Pitman’s article on “The influence of Race, Ethnicity, Class and Sexual Politics on Lesbians’ Body Image” (Journal of Homosexuality, 2000: 40,2) and what caught my eye was her discussion on “passing” among the lesbians in her study. In her study, she came across a number of women who raised concerns with regards to their ability or inability to pass as White, as heterosexual, or as both as strategies for quotidian survival. In one particular vignette, Pitman highlights the experience of a young white college student who had categorized her anorexia as her “last attempt at heterosexuality” (54). Pitman suggests that the particular student’s issue with her body image may be linked to the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. Pitman elaborates: “by constructing her appearance based on mainstream standards of female beauty, she was able to protect herself from the opinions, assumptions,and prejudices of others, and potentially from anti-lesbian violence. The consequence of this protection, unfortunately, was a serious eating disorder that lasted for several years” (54).

While conducting my research among femmes (feminine presented women who desire female-bodied persons at some point/s of their lives) in Singapore, I too noted a fear toward claiming a lesbian identity. In this country, gays and lesbians are tolerated as part of the state’s neoliberal project to promote diversity in order to invite foreign investment. The liberalization toward gay and lesbian fulfills economic agendas without being accompanied by legal human right changes such as repelling the sodomy law of 377A that makes vulnerable a population of MSMs in the country, or given equal rights in terms of housing subsidies. In this context, gays and lesbians are tolerated only to be exploited to provide the appearance of sexual diversity. How has this political ambivalence toward sexual minorities affect the way a queer female Singapore identify and embody herself?

I met for instance, some Singaporean femmes who styled their bodies according to the latest global consumer trends by following fashion blogs, magazines, shopping at international brands such as Zara, Forever 21, Topshop, etc. By paying attention to mainstream beauty ideals, these women stated also their desire to be cosmopolitan- “ambitious and worldly” where being sexually “open-minded” and fashionable validates their cosmopolitan aspirations. At the same time, while their beauty regime presents the image of lesbian-chic and signals their desirability among other women, some of these femmes see their beauty as a strategy of passing. Looking beautiful was one of the ways in which these femmes attempt to pass off as heterosexual which may also reveal the fear of claiming a lesbian identity. One of the stylish femmes in my study identifies as “Pure Lesbian”–a label describing a feminine woman who sexually desires another feminine woman- but  articulated being afraid to be discovered a lesbian by her family and close friends. I found her narrative fascinatingly ironic because while she dresses in the latest accessory and trends to attract feminine women, the lesbian-chic aesthetic that she subscribes to (she talks about The L Word quite a lot) is also utilized as a strategy to look “straight”.

The lesbian chic aesthetic in Singapore has also produced the sentiment that butch-presentation- masculine females wearing baggy clothing- is a fashion faux pas, and an embarrassment. Further having a butch looking partner, does not further a femme’s aim to pass as straight. Some of these femmes have resorted to androfying their partners to not only fulfill the lesbian chic image but also using their partners bodies to manage their passing strategies. It is easier to bring home an androgynous female as your best friend to conservative mom and dad than to bring home an overtly looking masculine butch- the latter would definitely raise suspicion toward being a lesbian- a confrontation that a lot of my femme interlocutors fear.

The lesbian chic aesthetic is possibly about managing the fear from being read as lesbian.  My observations highlight how the “lesbian chic” physical ideal in Singapore is about looking less “lesbian” (by presenting a gender normative image of femininity) and more chic. It seems that among this crowd in Singapore, what is particularly “lesbian” about lesbian chic, is about trying to not look like one–yes, the “fashion faux pas”one.

I am a Black lesbian

I am lesbian, not queer. I am Black, not colored, and while I stand in solidarity with my sisters, brothers, and genderqueers of color, I will not allow anyone’s deconstruction of identity to erase my own. I am a Black woman, cis-gendered and femme. I reserve the right to name and claim my own identity and I respect the right for you to do the same.

That is all.

Feminism 101 or Why Women’s Studies Can’t Wait: A Workshop for Girls (via the Crunk Feminist Collective)

Paula Ettelbrick and Feminist Leadership

Urvashi Vaid’s comments on the passing of Paula Ettelbrick remind us that “LGBT” is not a monolithic group that shares all the same desires and interests.  There are many differences and disparities hidden behind those letters and also hidden in the now somewhat passe phrase “lesbian-and-gay.”  We need to continue to struggle to address the sexism and racism that inhere even within our movment to ensure that social and economic justice, equality and freedom apply to all.

Paula Ettelbrick and Feminist Leadership.

I don’t know what LGBT means anymore, but I do know that when it’s used in academic research–and we all use it–no one is really talking about the thing as a whole, but about parts of it.  There are very few statements that can be made about “LGBT” that apply to all.  And as bisexuals have known for a long time, the “B” is usually silent.  We CAN work together but let’s not lose our histories, our complexities, and our differences to a soundbite that is useful for the media, but has little other value.

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