What can anthropology contribute to policy, and how?

An anthropologist outlines the conditions under which the discipline could exert influence. It makes for sobering reading.

There’s a movement afoot among anthropologists to try to increase the capacity of the discipline to influence debates on public issues. But that movement is running into the sharp divisions among anthropologists. A friend who does anthropology as a scientist, rather than as a poet or a political activist, wrote a few paragraphs of probably unwelcome but highly salutary advice to one of the leaders of that movement, and shared them with me. The missive is reprinted below, with the author’s permission.

Here are a few recommendations for changes within the discipline that anthropologists genuinely committed to increasing the relevance of anthropology to both policy makers and the larger world of behavioral science might promulgate:

1) Adopt a scientific perspective. I see no reason why anyone outside the rarefied world of academia should pay any attention to the work of scholars who argue that facts are unknowable, theories are untestable, or framing, perspective, and interpretation are all that count. Would you fly in an airplane designed by an engineer who adopted such a perspective? Would you submit to treatment by a doctor who thought this way? I know I wouldn’t, and I doubt that most folks would. So long as a sizable proportion of anthropologists vocally advocate this type of position, there is every reason for those who actually affect the fates of underrepresented peoples to dismiss the entire discipline as irrelevant, or worse. The same goes for those who influence the availability of funding — the NSF has repeatedly questioned whether cultural anthropology is within its purview (as opposed to the NEH’s), and it is not hard to fathom why — simply pick up any cultural anthropology journal, or even the AA, the flagship journal of our professional association, and you will find this approach on many a page.

2) Eliminate political agendas from research. Policy makers seek to base their decisions on reliable observations. When political activism pervades the research enterprise, potential consumers of the resulting information are justifiably skeptical of the accuracy of the observations reported. Political activism is the core of a democratic society, and I greatly admire those who exert themselves in the service of the dispossessed. However, failing to separate activism from the research enterprise practically guarantees that the research will have no influence on policy, as most folks will simply dismiss the reported findings as nothing more than shrill propaganda.

3) Broaden the scope of the peoples investigated. Anthropology has a remarkable methodological tool kit at its disposable. Why is it that anthropologists feel compelled to focus on the smallest, oddest, or most marginal groups within any given nation-state? One gets the strong impression that applying that remarkable tool kit to the investigation of the members of a majority group, be it ethnic, religious, or linguistic, scores few points in the anthropological arena. Yet policy makers frequently lack the kind of information, and the kind of insights, that anthropologists can supply with regard to majority group members. Inevitably, policy makers will often care more about majority groups than minority groups (if for no other reason than raw political factors); demonstrating that anthropologists can supply useful information on a topic that policy makers care about is a way of getting a foot in the door, so that other kinds of information will subsequently be attended to.

4) Read, understand, and communicate with scholars in the broader world of behavioral science. Outside of their contacts with investigators in closely related areas such as gender and ethnic studies, many anthropologists are astoundingly out of touch with findings from other fields. For example, despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary, a majority of anthropologists apparently continue to hold a tabula rasa view of the human mind. Such willful ignorance often leads other behavioral scientists to dismiss anthropology as having nothing to contribute to the understanding of human behavior (indeed, on more than one occasion I have heard prominent behavioral scientists refer to anthropologists as the contemporary equivalent of flat-Earthers). Correspondingly, when policy makers are told by political scientists, economists, or psychologists that anthropologists live in their own little world, those who hold the reins of power are unlikely to pay much attention to what anthropologists have to say.

The frequency with which the members of a given anthropology department reach out to the public will have little to do with the impact of our discipline so long as the problems listed above persist.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “What can anthropology contribute to policy, and how?”

  1. I think it's touching that he believes that politicians don't want research with a partisan agenda.

  2. People who argue that framing, perspective, and interpretation are all that count… are we talking about anthropologists or political consultants here?
    I think I had the same reaction as JMN, above. These are pretty good suggestions for getting academics and intellectuals outside of anthropology to care about anthropology, no question about that. But politicians and policy makers? A long shot in the best of times, and we do not live in the best of times today.
    And perhaps this last comment is overly snarky, but if a person is that interested in the scientific method then why become an anthropologist in the first place? To a large degree, social sciences differ in methodology more than object of study. If you want to research the culture of groups in a scientific way, you might just do better publishing in sociology journals. And it's not like economists wouldn't be eager to use mathematical models and econometric techniques to study, uh, anything. What of the anthropological tool kit (point 3) is unique to anthropology, applicable to large groups (point 2) and of a scientific perspective (point 1)?
    That question is a serious one, by the way. I have a distaste for anthropology for many of the reasons your correspondent mentions, but I honestly would like to know more about what anthropology could contribute at its best.

  3. If the threshold is sufficiently high, no fact can be proven. On the other hand, if left sufficiently low, EVERYTHING can be claimed as Truth, or true enough. The writers plea that some reasonable middle ground be sought is a valuable one.

  4. A good place to start would be Darfur. Does the genocide represent the breakdown of traditional Sahelian ways of handling inter-group conflict, or their pursuit with much more lethal weapons?

  5. Does you correpsondent know anything about anthropology in the United States or is he reading the National Review? I'm an outsider to the field but here are a few things I know first hand:
    1. Anthropologists have been studying mainstream groups and institutions for 30 years. MIT's John van Maanen was already studying the culture of police departments in the late 1970's. When I taught police in a Master's in Criminial Justice program at Curry College in 1999, I found that others had followed in van Maanen's footsteps.
    2. Julie Schor (eonomist and sociologist) at Boston College has documented recently how anthropologists and psychologists have been helping corporate marketing departments figure out how to sell to teenagers and preteens. A chiling study.

  6. Well, I'm an anthropologist and I disagree with your "informant." A) as pointed out above, anthropologists, and sociologists borrowing from anthropologists, have studied large cultures and small cultures within modern societies for years. B) there are no unimportant little groups/cultures/societies but there are many that are little studied and little known. So, sure, *your informant's* cup of tea, and the hypothetical policy makers with bucks to spend, might not be interested in the fate of the gypsies in france, some little village in nepal, the ainu in japan but that doesn't make their fate any less important to them, or to someone studying them.
    If you want to analogize it to the "Hard" sciences, with which, like many anthropologists, I have more than a passing aquaintance, you'd find that even the hardest of hard ones, such as biology, were considered frivolous until they started to promise to "cure cancer." After that the money, indeed, started flowing. That's not because better research was being done–in fact that focus led to the abandonment of much basic research that didn't have what was thought to be a clear payoff. There is a constant funding struggle between people wanting to do basic research and those who can only find funding through targeted, industrial or highly political funding sources who want a quick payoff. Whether that has been good for science or society is an open question–but whether it can be emulated by anthropologists is really not that much in question–it can't.
    To the extent that anthropologists have, in recent historical times, seen themselves as interacting with a fast moving social world in which the cultures they study are dissapearing (not true for all anthropologists, but let it pass) they have also been on the front lines of interacting with peoples who are not seen as having much "social value" and certainly little "economic value" and, generally speaking, no political clout. The idea that the big government agencies and NGOs and international groups are just yearning to fund basic rescue research is absurd–they aren't. As in the hard sciences the money is in contract research aimed at forcing or ameliorating change that is imposed from outside these soceities. The work is there, but its often morally compromised. Because the anthropologists subject matter–other humans–are entitled to ethical considerations, a kind of fiduciary responsibility, that doesn't exist in the hard sciences or in contract research. Your client when you prep yourself to take part in the "broader world of behavioral science" is not the peopleyou study and work with but some distant, often wholly politically compromised funding group whose objectives don't necessarily match those of your subjects.
    I'd also like to say that the accusation that anthropologists are sometimes out of touch with other social scientists is, of course, correct. We are also vain, shallow, trivial people whose attempts to live for long periods of time in other cultures, learn other languages, endure hardship in pursuit of arcane knowledge, is entirely pointless and often not well communicated to outsiders. That is as true of other fields, of course–minus the opprobrium. I well remember joining a group of sociologists at a conference cocktail party. I entered into a lively discussion with them about a new book in their field–to a person they asked me why I'd read it because *it wasn't my field.* Of course, to do what I did required a wide variety of reading–there really weren't any things that were off limits–but I was continually stunned by just how little sociologists, historians,and economists (let alone legal scholars) were expected to know of their own fields, let alone mine.
    Since we are all going on anecdotal information here I have met many "behavioral scientists" and sociologists who don't read law, anthropology, or economics and for each of the other fields I'd say exactly the same. It is only anthropology, with its porous borders, that requires its practitioners to read widely in each of these fields simply in order to account for issues in a single village.
    In short–well, leave me not be obscene in my typing here, your informant/correspondent is entitled to his own opinion. Its not an uncommon one. I'm sorry that the very real work that anthropologists do, and have done, on the boundaries of societies to record, fix, explore and express the differences and similarities among cultures/societies has so shockingly few rewards material rewards. I'm sorry that "behavioral scientists" (whoever they may be when they aren't, also, anthropologists) have such a moronic view of anthropolgoy that they can say that "anthroplogists apparently continue to hold a tabula rasa view of the human mind" (I can't even imagine what that could mean. Anthropologists don't usually deal with early development of the mind–though they may deal with child rearing and pregnancy related social practices). I know of no anthropologists who hold such a view though I know of many behavioral scientists who are completely ignorant of the role of culture in shaping human responses to various stimuli.
    But what is the point of mud slinging,? YOur informant/correspondent is in the position of the "concern troll" on a website. He explains to you why what you are doing is totally wrong–for you!–and if you'd only do things his way, how happy you would be. Its insulting, and its infantilizing, but hey! its always nice to have people tell you that your field is doomed by its own irrelevance because your subject matter is too petty, your methods too badly misunderstood, and the money guys and the real scientists don't like you.

  7. In my view, the most important point is #3: anthropologists study groups that aren't of much interest to western policymakers. And both Kleiman's informant and the anthropologist commenting above basically agree.
    As an economist, I'd love to read some ethnographic studies of poor Americans, but there are only a few. Even better would be studies of the working poor. To my knowledge, anthropologists have produced exactly 1 study like this (Newman, "Ain't no Shame in my Game"). It's been a few years since I searched out these books, but I have spent a fair amount of time looking.
    As an aside, of the groups mentioned by aimai, only one seems truly obscure (Tibetan villagers). I believe that there are enough poor Romani that European policymakers are interested. The anthropologist I know who studies the Romani seems to have meetings with members of the EU parliament and such. And I understand that the Ainu are of much interest in Japan. Perhaps studies of truly tiny & obscure groups are of so little interest that even anthropologists don't read them?

  8. The informant seems to be describing sociologists more than anthropologists. The anthropological studies I occassionally read seem to have a real methodology and fall within social sceince. Sociology, however, seems almost entirely agenda driven.

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