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AAA annual meeting: Inclusion, Collaboration & Engagement

8 February, 2008

The AAA have announced the theme of their 2008 conference: Inclusion, Collaboration & Engagement. The call for papers covers a lot of the themes that have been very central to this blog, including the public role of anthropology as an engaged, as well as applied, discipline.One of the framing statements reflects a sentiment that has been expressed on this blog a several times: “Anthropologists, scholars in other disciplines, and the general public have begun to recognize that anthropology has a great deal to contribute in this era of globalization. Still, our discipline remains a mystery to many and we are often not approached when social science information is needed”. Indeed, this would appear to be a direct response to the main concerns raised by Hylland Eriksen in Engaging Anthropology when he asks why a discipline which should have so much of relevance to say to the wider public about the world we live in remains relatively obscure to most people. I think it’s heartening that the AAA is willing to put this sort of question at the centre of its next annual meeting. It will be interesting to see what comes from it.

Here is the full text of the call for papers:

Inclusion, Collaboration & Engagement

The theme for the 2008 AAA Annual Meeting in San Francisco is “Inclusion, Collaboration and Engagement.” This theme provides us the opportunity to critically examine anthropology’s relationships: across subfields, with other disciplines, with our many publics, and with contemporary social problems. The Executive Program Committee envisions healthy debate as we confront methodological, ethical, and epistemological concerns that unite and divide us; as well as discuss the challenges, risks, and opportunities for growth enabled by this dialog.

Inclusion, Collaboration, and Engagement are ideas that have been central to anthropology throughout the discipline’s history and they are particularly important today. Anthropologists, scholars in other disciplines, and the general public have begun to recognize that anthropology has a great deal to contribute in this era of globalization. Still, our discipline remains a mystery to many and we are often not approached when social science information is needed. Moreover, anthropologists are conflicted about whether and how to participate in important public debates. Although there are the myriad attempts to develop a public interest anthropology, we are also wary of activism and public engagement, particularly as we recall government influence on anthropology during times of war.

This theme deserves our scholarly exploration. Analysis of the processes that promote inclusion, collaboration and engagement for positive human outcomes is a common area of interest for both academic and applied/practicing anthropologists, as is clear communication of anthropological perspectives to the wider public.


Anthropology’s historic mission to study humanity through the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities by definition requires the inclusion of multiple disciplines. For example, paleoanthropology and archaeology depend on chemistry, zoology, botany, geology and other disciplines to date sites and interpret data. Similarly, linguistic and sociocultural anthropology regularly include perspectives from other disciplines, including history, philosophy, psychology, and political science. Moreover, there is much merit in an enhanced inclusive dialogue between the branches of anthropology. Cultural and biological anthropology, for example, have opportunities to work together in examining themes such as race, disease, and the environment. Many applied and practicing anthropologists have joint roots in anthropology and other professions such as public health, urban planning, education, business, international development or social work. Their work relies on and contributes to these other disciplines as well as anthropology.

Inclusive anthropology implies more than a holistic or interdisciplinary approach. It suggests research problems and relationships that explicitly address the knowledges and concerns of those who have been relegated to peripheral zones of analysis and theory because of preconceptions about the seemingly static division of intellectual labor. Bringing diverse voices and epistemic perspectives onto the discipline’s center stage—and enlarging that space according to a less hierarchical logic—is consistent with anthropology’s historic principle of inclusion.


Working together toward a common goal is a central characteristic of anthropology, where collaboration may describe work done by teams of anthropologists from diverse subfields or research done by a single anthropologist working together with a subject. For example, heterogeneous research teams in physical anthropology and archeology assemble to address complex intellectual problems. Additionally, the relationship between anthropologists and many Native American tribes might now be best described as collaborative. Native American tribes often require that all anthropological work conducted on reservations directly and actively involve tribal members in the design, implementation, and dissemination of research that addresses problems with contemporary relevance to their tribes. This reconceptualization of the researcher-subject relationship both suggests new challenges and reveals exciting opportunities to improve research and ensure it engages community needs.

Anthropologists who use participatory action methods engage in a knowledge production process that converts “informants” into research consultants and collaborators. These methods can empower local people to have a voice in government and corporate decision-making. Beyond invoking notions of partnership and the sharing of ethnographic authority rhetorically, many anthropologists work to build concrete collaborative relationships in community settings. The benefits, challenges, and contradictory outcomes of collaboration are worthy of examination and constructive self-criticism.


Engaged anthropology has many dimensions. Engagement is becoming a key value in college and university settings where anthropologists recognize that relationships with local publics and community organizations are essential to higher education. From both within and outside of academia, engaged anthropologists have examined public policy issues related to welfare reform, immigration, and protection of indigenous knowledge and rights, and have joined with local participants to instigate and sustain government and community change.

In this area anthropology has much to offer, but the discipline has not yet decisively stepped forward. This year’s theme provides an opportunity for academic and applied/practicing anthropologists to engage in dialogue to set a new agenda for making anthropology increasingly relevant to key issues in the twenty-first century, including social identity, economic growth, cultural preservation, peace-making, and environmental and social justice.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 February, 2008 10:54 am

    The failure to engage with policy and with general publics has already been spotted. In addition to Eriksen’s book, see Batterbury, S.P.J. 2008. Anthropology and global warming: the need for environmental engagement. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. April.
    The failure to engage with climate change as THE issue of the day is frankly negligent, and might be traced in part to the type of wallpaper-gazing postmodernism that Eriksen rightly castigates among his anthropological colleagues (see chapters 1 and 2). I cite in my paper Bruce Kapferer’s appeal for the discipline publised recently in TAJA, that fails to recognize that the social context for modern life is actually environmental – rapid and dangerous environmental change.

    We also have a book in progress, Battterbury and Horowitz (eds) ‘Engaged political ecology’ with contribs. from Carrier, Sheridan, Langton, Austin, Dove and others. There, we argue that the quality and range of existing ‘engaged’ work is high, and does include advocacy and activism, about which Eriksen is sanguine.

  2. 18 February, 2008 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the feedback Simon. Climate change is also something I’ve become interested in exploring from an anthropological perspective. Now that I’ve submitted my thesis I plan to read up on it as I consider what lies ahead in postdoctoral land. I’ll read your article in TAJA with great interest. When the book comes out, feel free to let us know and we’ll publicise it!

  3. 2 April, 2008 3:24 am

    What I have observed, is that many Anthropologists tend to see things from the viewpoint of a mono-disciplinary approach. I am willing to bet that if a had a seminar consisting of one Art Historian, one Archaeologist, one biologist, one molecular biologist, one forensic pathologist, etc. etc. they all would tend to see things through the limitations of their own discipline, and sometimes would invariably argue their own positions vehemently and still end up publishing papers with errors as soon as they stray out of the realm of their particular discipline.

    The irony being that if the entire seminar group actually reviewed the paper it could be controlled for errors by each expert in his or her particular field.

    If for instance we had an Archaeologist with 10 years of digging, categorizing, publishing on “American” South Western ceramics and he published something suggesting that the local populations 1000 BP may have eaten a particular plant substance, most likely someone with a chemistry or biology background would say, “I don’t think so, while it is not completely toxic, it is not edible nor is it digestible, might even make ya sick.”

    This is not a hypothetical scenario. This actually happened. But the info on plant material was given to the Archaeologist after his paper had been published.

    The point being, it has been my contention that a multidisciplinary approach is needed, and if we are to avoid “Collapse” of our ecosystem as Jared Diamond’s book has (finally) used empirical data to prove happened to many of the previous cultures on earth, we need to create some type of multidisciplinary coalition (preferably under the auspices of the UN or WTO) in order to do so.

    One more big topic:

    Most Anthropologists are BORING. Put them in front of a Television camera and if they proved to you the sky was falling you would probably fall asleep.

    Anthropology needs more colorful characters that can engage the audience.

    Face it. Your average Joe six pack is comparing you to Indiana Jones, and the sexy Tomb Raider Angelina Jolie.

    Hard acts to follow.

    I am of the opinion that we need to start writing grant proposals to put together these multidisciplinary teams.

    That, and it should be mandatory to put all Anthropologists in an acting class.


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