Who should be the beneficiaries of anthropological research: the anthropologists doing the research, the broader society supporting the research, or both?

  1. Who should be the beneficiaries of anthropological research?
  2. To gain approval or funding for their research, anthropologists are required to affirm that their work will (a) advance disciplinary knowledge and (b) have positive benefits for the larger society. They must also show that their research will (c) prove more beneficial than detrimental to the research community they study. Why do these requirements exist? What are the specific demands placed on the anthropologists? Are they effective?
  3. Is there a way to ascertain whether the affirmations of anthropologists are more than nice sounding words – that they reflect the actual impact of the work? Or is it too complicated to assess?
  4. Is it possible to enforce such transparency – and therefore accountability – on anthropologists given the field’s dynamics?

The current state of the field of cultural anthropology is rather similar to the state of many other fields in academia: rather disappointing, to be honest. It is somewhat unique, however, in how easily it could turn itself around, not only becoming a shining star among academic fields, but significantly benefiting the cultures it studies, and society at large.

That being said, it will still require some effort; problems do not fix themselves. There seems to be a mess of misunderstandings, and perhaps conflicting expectations among the various parties involved in anthropological research – universities, government agencies and non-profit foundations who fund the research; the communities who are the subjects of the research; the field of anthropology; and the individual anthropologist himself. In any case, each is responsible for part of the problem, and must be held so.

The government agencies (and non-profits) that fund research are best thought of as paying customers, hoping that the research done will help them solve a problem – but if that does not happen – if the product is sub-par – they seem perfectly willing to simply call it a loss, a sunk cost, instead of demanding a refund, or at least “customer service.” If it were only one single, private individual, it would be irrelevant – a stupid decision, perhaps, but not a problem for anyone else. But when multiple government agencies act this way, it can cause serious problems. Immediately, it should spring to mind that the money a government agency wastes on a shoddy product was not theirs to waste; it was borrowed from taxpayers. Furthermore, this sends the message that they only expect a shoddy product, and so this is the product they will continue to receive.

If the groups that fund anthropological research are the paying customers, the communities that act as the subjects of the research, then, would be the suppliers, the anthropologist’s source of raw materials. And they, too, expect far too little from the experience. While perhaps being the subject of research can be rewarding in its own right to the introspective soul who is helped to see himself and his culture from the perspective of an outsider, this is not true for many and, even for them, the experience is rather time-consuming, stressful, and otherwise inconvenient. So, while practicing anthropologists are bound to follow the ethical requirements of funding and regulatory agencies, that typically only means that they do their best not to “harm” the subjects; they are not compensated in any way for their efforts. This is troublesome in that while no there may be no intentional harm, damage is done in the form of lost resources.

Well, universities and the anthropologist community must demand high quality of the research, though, right? Well, sadly, no. In fact, they sit at the core of the problem. An individual anthropologist is measured by these groups merely by the quantity of research he performs, not on the quality of the research or the analysis and application thereof. Now, mind you, the university is not without some cause: number of publications produced is an important measure of a research university in college rankings – number, not quality.

All of this being the case, one would suppose – correctly – that the aforementioned individual anthropologist has no incentive to perform his research in any competent capacity. The university who provides the anthropologist with his living demands as many publications as possible, and nobody objects – not the agencies that fund him, nor his subjects, nor other anthropologists – so he complies. Perhaps they do not find the situation ideal, but to object to the status quo would likely be fruitless at best, or career suicide at worst.

As a taxpayer, as a budding cultural-linguistic anthropologist – presently a student, and a hopeful professor-to-be, but all-around an academic – and as a sometime subject of such research myself, I am sincerely disappointed by the current state of the field. But I know it has the potential to turn itself around, and in a short time-span, at that. It will only take everyone being on the same page. And that page is in a book that perhaps took a while to produce, because it is of the utmost quality, and took pains to ensure that its subjects were treated well, its author was not rushed, and its patron’s interests were fulfilled.