Can Applied Anthropologists Challenge Power Structures by Working within Them?

While most anthropologists are trained to critically focus on inequity and imperialism, according to the AAA reports on work (2006, 2010), many do not become professors, instead gaining employment in other careers. Although Ginsberg (2016) asserts that most anthropologists are not professors, his AAA report only gives a statistical view of professional anthropologists.  Depending on intellectual trajectories and past training, the outlines of “applied anthropology” can fall anywhere along a continuum—ranging from NGOs, federal or local governments, to careers within the private sector. Whether anthropologists work in marketing firms, political think tanks, the military, or other sites of authority, this panel argues that these professionals gain access to “insider knowledge” in the workings of power structures—but this access may expose scholars to ethical landmines. How do we negotiate the drawbacks of working for institutions that foster the status quo within economic, political, or imperialist realms of authority—both pragmatically as employees, and ethically as applied anthropologists? Does applied anthropology that is heavily imbricated within structures of power offer spaces to intervene, and if so, how?

If applied anthropology intends to offer solutions to the militarization or corporatization of U.S. society, we must first bring ethnographic tools to bear on the issue. “Studying up” provides insight into a variety of contemporary issues that matter: the economies of expanding military budgets and shrinking funding for education; political horizons that examine the escalation of shrill “debate” within big-party policymaking; constraining gendered categories within the biopolitics of marketing campaigns; or the marginalization of Black Lives Matter by backlash against whiteness studies in the academy and racist discourse in the public realm. Anthropological attention to institutional debates about these issues matter, from both practical measures of how these deliberations are contested/represented within spaces of power, and theoretical measures of how those in power reify hegemony.

Some questions that arise from taking an applied anthropological perspective within institutions of power could be: What does it mean that Native Americans, whose ancestors were devastated by the US military, now constitute the largest per capita ethnic population to serve in the U.S. armed forces? How are we to analyze marketing campaigns that raise money for a cause—allowing consumers to remove themselves from the “work” of politics? At more methodological and disciplinary levels, other questions that might be broached in this panel include: What role can ethnographers working for the Army Corps of Engineers play in the continuing controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline?  As the prospect of professorial careers shrink, how do applied anthropologists maintain professional standards as researchers within institutions that perpetuate the status quo? Or is the “status quo” a category that is in critical need of close ethnographic attention in order to question the monolithic perceptions of the “military” or the “private sector?” In raising such questions, this panel seeks to deconstruct assumptions of power and imperialism to demonstrate how close ethnographic analysis can give voice to unrepresented interlocutors within structures of power, allowing practicing anthropologists a space for continued critical scholarship.

Please send your 250 word abstract and paper title to by March 27.