The Blackwood Research Group

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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. 

Evelyn Blackwood wins 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize

P R E S S  R E L E A S E

AQA Awards the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize to Evelyn Blackwood’s Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia

The American Anthropological Association’s Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA, formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, SOLGA) is very pleased to announce that Evelyn Blackwood has been awarded the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize in the category “Outstanding Monograph” for Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010)

The Ruth Benedict Prize is presented each year at the American Anthropological Association’s meeting to acknowledge excellence in a scholarly book written from an anthropological perspective about a topic that engages issues and theoretical perspectives relevant to LGBTQ studies.

More about the book:

In Falling into the Lesbi World, Evelyn Blackwood takes us on a vivid ethnographic voyage to West Sumatra.  Her evocative narrative allows us to experience the complex relationship between gender and sexuality in play among female-born persons whom we might be tempted to call “lesbians.”  Given the global drift of language and culture, it’s perhaps not surprising that her protagonists often call their way of life “lesbi,” designating themselves variously as “tombois” and “femmes,” and with local words for “guys” and “girls.”  She shows us, however, that it would be a grave error to assume that the lesbi world is equivalent to what we know as lesbianism, even as there are significant points where meanings and practices do intersect.

Tombois tend to discover their “maleness” when they are young, living very much as boys when they are children, and feeling masculine freedoms as embodied and authentic. But even as they can enact masculinity in their relationships with ideally compliant and domestic femmes, the path to full manhood is blocked at every turn.  Establishing independent households as couples is rarely possible for tombois, and the pull of familial obligations often can draw them back into the role of daughter.  Physical transformation is rarely imagined or desired; tombois live with their physical ambiguities, which they understand as part of who they are.

The title of the book is apt:  the reader is plunged into a world where the meanings of words constantly shift and both compliance and resistance appear as lesbi sensibilities are enacted.  Blackwood’s analysis comes from years of work in West Sumatra and reflections on her position as a femme in a previous relationship with a tomboi, an experience that first alerted her to the ways that Western lesbian and Indonesian lesbi existences merge and stray from one another.  Not unlike the stereotyped roles of sharply distinguished expectations for butches and femmes in the West, tomboi-femme couples struggle with appropriate sexual behaviors.  Only the tombois are definitively lesbi; femmes are “normal” women who are thought to really desire men.  Even so, some femmes understand their attraction to tombois as more than merely situational or transitory, and thus struggle to understand whether they are authentically lesbi.  Lesbi lives, then, while seemingly shaped by prevailing understandings of gender, with appearance, personal style, sexual preferences, and other attributes lining up, can defy the imperatives of gender, reconfiguring desire and identity.

Falling into the Lesbi World poses provocative questions about issues queer anthropology has on its front burner:  how transgender subjectivities are imagined and enacted and how global flows of information and language shape queer experience.  But Blackwood does more.  She tells us that it’s not enough to say that women’s same-sex desires and relationships are less visible than those between men, and hence less worthy of analysis.  We need to ask the right questions and fall into lesbi worlds if we are to better grasp the complexities of sex and gender across cultural divides.  Blackwood guides us into these worlds and makes them come alive.

Evelyn Blackwood is Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. Her books, edited volumes, and articles include award-winning scholarship on Native American female two-spirits and tombois in Indonesia. Much of her work critiques matrilineal theory, matrifocality, and marriage through rich ethnographies of gender, kinship, and political economy, focusing on rural and urban West Sumatra.

The Ruth Benedict Book Prize will be presented to the winning authors during the AQA Business meeting on Friday 18 November at the 110th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Montréal.  AQA would like to thank the Ruth Benedict Book Prize Committee for their thoughtful work, including former Benedict Prize winners Tanya Erzen and Ellen Lewin, and Graduate Student Representative, Richard Martin.  For questions or additional information, please contact the Committee Chair, Mary L. Gray, at

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