Of late I’ve been saying that the constraints that come with applied work are useful for doing good theoretical and empirical work. Just as experimental models bring demands to the research process that can clarify methods and outcomes, so too can applied work.
I mean this point in two ways: (1) Grand theories can be grand and all, but when they are applied, reality often comes to the fore; applied anthropology can test anthropological theory in ways that most ethnographic research does not. (2) Applied work on its own requires a set of considerations that leads to useful knowledge production, a configuration of the research process that illuminates through the types of methods, evidence, and outcomes that are central to applied anthropology.
Types of Methods: Activist and community-based approaches require an active consideration of “the other” that goes well beyond normal anthropological approaches. Having research questions, ways of gathering data, and research partnerships come out of engagement with informants and communities on their own terms represents an important break with research-as-usual. Community-based work is inherently integrative and interdisciplinary, as I have argued before.
Evidence: Applied anthropologists make certain types of connections that university-based anthropologists rarely do. How can data actually reach back to the community, and not just to another peer-reviewed publication? Where is the fit between my research interests and what the community is interested in? How can this work have an impact on policy? These questions lead to the gathering of evidence on aspects of local and larger realities that are often neglected in more traditional approaches.
I learned this lesson the hard way – I did some good research on the neuroanthropology of addiction; when I went back to the field to present the results at the places where I had worked, I quickly got the question, “Great. Now what do we do with this?” I didn’t know what to say. One of the main problems, I realized, is that I had not gotten THE DATA to be able to answer that question. I should have gotten that data while I was in the field; after the fact, it was too late.
The answer to the question of What to do? didn’t magically reveal itself once I had a better understanding of addiction. I needed evidence to connect my own work to the sorts of considerations that made up the daily work and efforts of people I knew in the field. It would have been easy to get in a systematic way. So now I tell my students, Get the applied data while you’re in the field.
Outcomes: Applied work brings a refiguring and expansion of research outcomes that improves the research process. Knowing going into a project that you have to have relevant applied outcomes, whatever shape those might be, brings a set of constraints to the research that can shape the questions, methods, and evidence used. We often think in terms of academic outcomes from research – a conference presentation, a journal paper, and so forth. We need to also think in terms of applied outcomes. Here is my list of the Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, as well as Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists.
Applied Work and Experimental Anthropology
By comparing applied work to experimental work, I am channeling Roepstorff and Frith’s 2012 artcle, Neuroanthropology or simply anthropology? Going experimental as method, as object of study, and as research aesthetic.
In any research field, there is an obvious tension between the ideals of method and the realities of the research. For experiments, it is very much about control of those factors that make the experiment possible: control of the variables studied, of the technologies applied, of the experimental design. It does not take much experience as a researcher, or as a fieldworker in a laboratory setting (Latour and Woolgar 1986; Roepstorff 2001), to realize that the research process is rarely just like that. Experimental research is, it is increasingly clear, a complicated practice, a bricolage tinkering with the possible elements (Pickering 1995) to make things work (103).
Figuring out how to get an experiment to work, while at the same time attending to those factors to produce reliable knowledge from experiments, can be a creative process. So too can applied work. Returning to Roepstorff & Frith:
We need novel cases that can examine and illustrate how these factors interrelate in concrete settings. We need questions and models that can be tested in the field and in the lab, and we need to formulate potential mechanisms as a way to gain a better foothold. There may be dialectics at stake here, but the dialectics may be a matter of sending questions, approaches and models back and forth. We need to develop a metalevel discourse that can grasp what happens when experiments and concepts travel. This approach is, we argue, not neuroanthropological, it is simply anthropological. If there is a need for a specific identifier, it could be an ‘experimental anthropology’ (108).
Applied anthropology can also produce that sort of dialectics, and it can be connected into deep debates within the field. We do need a metalevel discourse, but we can also have a practical discourse when outcomes and concepts become engaged. Applied work brings a focus on how factors interrelate in concrete settings and forces a consideration of mechanisms of change. Applied work can be deeply theoretical.
Stuart Hall and the Limit as Method
Over at Savage Minds, Sareeta Amrute wrote a recent piece Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method.
Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended.
I was struck by this section, where Amrute considers Hall’s essay, “When Was The Post-Colonial? Thinking at the Limit”.
As such, [post-colonial’s] periodization, emphasizing as it does the colonial encounter, provides an alternative narrative of capitalist modernity that puts the peripheries at the center of a story normally told from the perspective of European modernization… The essay on the post-colonial mobilizes the idea of the limit to mean an “episteme-in-formation”, denoting an emergent relationship of power, temporality, and knowledge that both carries with it colonial ‘after-effects’ as Hall calls them, and marks a shift that reconfigures those relations.
The limits that come with applied research do the same, bringing forth an emergent relationship of power, temporality and knowledge that carries the ‘after-effects’ of earlier applied work in anthropology and a reconfiguration of those relations. It means producing knowledge that is not just for the academy’s sake, it means training students for jobs outside academia, it means asking questions that find a common ground between the researcher and people living in particular times and spaces.
Pushing this point, applied work does what Amrute covers with how case studies can reveal theoretical limits: “The importance of the limit in this sense of an empirical case that gives the lie as it were to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics.”
Knowledge About and Knowledge How
But applied limits go beyond that, because they force very concrete consideration of what engaged Stuart Hall, those case studies “through which to think more carefully about how the politics of class and of race are aligned and fractured under certain historically specific conditions.” Applied work can quickly bring the researcher right up against how social and biological realities are aligned and fractured and constructed under certain historically specific conditions. Applied work becomes a way to do theory, to “push at and delineate the limits of what is currently known.”
And there is one more way to see applied theory, not just as focusing on knowledge about things – the limits of what is currently known – but knowledge on how to do things. As I relayed earlier, I thought knowledge about addiction would magically transform itself into knowledge about how to do something about addiction. That was a big mistake. Psychology, for example, has a whole arena of applied theory that is distinct from academic theory; some of the most productive approaches in psychology fall solidly on the practitioner side (I am most familiar with motivational interviewing) and in the space between applied and academic work – the whole field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is testament to that. Anthropology has not developed its practitioner and applied side as much, but I am confident that such work will yield exciting theoretical and practical developments in the years to come.
Recognizing the productive limits for research that come from applied work proves a powerful way to think about the benefits of being applied. How-to knowledge is important, as I’ve written about before in this 2012 article with Greg Downey:
Too often researchers unfamiliar with the challenges of applied research assume that theory leads directly to application in an unproblematic fashion. Neuroanthropologists will need to advocate developing knowledge about a problem and knowledge about how to make a difference. That how-to knowledge can include applied theory, familiarity with local resources for change, and an awareness not just of a community’s needs but also what social structures might limit or appropriate any plans for a program or policy change.
But today I am as struck by how applied work as limit can make us better researchers. As I wrote in that same article, applied work can require “ongoing testing both in terms of the theory we apply and our modes to intervene to generate change in dynamic systems, because engagement will require a broader empirical basis for understanding how systems and communities function (12).” But it’s not just the testing of knowledge (another form of being critical, whether it’s empirical testing or testing our assumptions). It is generating that broader empirical basis for understanding how we create, shape and change our lives.