Tue, 1 Oct 1996 15:14:27 -0400
I promised myself to make a contibution to the work thread. The trouble was
that the more I thought about it, the less I thought I knew. But then a
friend who has gone out of his way in the past to be kind to me included in
a recent message that his university no longer supports travel to academic
meetings. Even those who present papers receive no support. This item is
one more in a list of minor and major irritants, obstacles, and 'economy
measures' at his university. He is thinking of taking an early retirement.
I was dismayed. Take his remark seriously, as I do: after a good many years
at this school he is finding that the working conditions are more and more
onerous and less and less rewarding. Mind you now, anthropology is not the
issue; work as an anthropologist at his university is. Job security is not
the issue, he has tenure and is, I add, highly regarded by those who know
him and his work. He is a vigorous scholar - read productive here - and is
an ethnographer who eagerly returns to the field, on an almost yearly basis.
Several of his books are standards. The university would lose a
conscientious employee and the students would lose a good teacher. Nobody
would win if he walked - except him, perhaps.
Now, I tried to put myself in his position to think through what I would be
inclined to do. Retire? Try for a position elsewhere? Go to a foundation
or an NGO? To retire means giving up access to most research funds and
institutional support and quick access to a _real_ library (those who do not
have academic positions understand this only too well). To move to a new
position entails trying to revise a career that is already well established,
but little continuity would be lost. Going to a foundation or NGO might make
sense but might be intellectually ho-hum even if it would satisfy a felt
need to perform a service for people.
I took the course of least resistance: I decided not to retire, to put more
energy into doing the things I liked to do and to let the rest slide. I
adopted a classic time-server's attitude. If that is the way my employer
thought about me, then turn about is fair play, eh?
My friend decided to go back to class to learn more (much more) about a
technical field that anthropologists often find useful but just as often
belittle for its non-humanistic (mathematical) content (little do we know;
little did I know).
So now, in addition to teaching and research, he is also a student, taking
classes with some of those he teaches. Admirable, huh? A much more
optimistic, 'forward looking' solution than mine. If he does decide to
retire early, he will have freshly-minted knowledge that, combined with his
experience, will do very nicely for developing a new career or for simply
finding a job. (I think that careers and jobs are different.)
Now, to return to work.
John McCreery's earliest contributions to this thread asked what are the big
ideas in anthropology? How might these ideas be presented? To whom should
they be presented? These questions are useful as springboards for thinking
about what the discipline is; grand questions can, sometimes, lead to grand
answers. But, I am not up to such a task right now and would rather think
about how one anthropologist might find satisfaction as a non-traditional
practitioner. Rather than adopting the illusory hope that many Meads,
Benedicts and Batesons exist as undiscovered gems and that some may take the
public by storm (well, probably just college students and maybe their
parents), I think that expanding on the anecdotal material I provide above
might be fruitful. That is, what can I learn about my friend's experience
and where do I think some big ideas might lead him?
How about some raw speculation? My friend's fieldwork, teaching, and
learning experiences, understanding of another culture and willingness to
learn a new (mathematical) language are hallmarks of flexibility,
risk-taking, and 'vision'. Corporations value these traits (well, this is
the current buzz). Could it be that he might be a perfect candidate to
manage corporate functions in locating new sites for factories in expanding
markets? How about providing services after a factory or an office is up
and running? He is perfectly capable of providing expert advice on how a
project might affect the local people in various positive and negative ways,
on how to manage employees so that they can be happy and productive, on how
traditional methods of education might be adopted to train people (all the
people - from those being groomed for high-level executive status to those
who run the production line). He can understand more easily than others
who have no academic training in anthropology the patterns of labor
migration and how to turn these patterns into a source of strength for the
company and the employees (nurturing specific locales as sources for
employees, finding jobs for relatives, managing holidays...). My
speculation is that his knowledge of culture as an anthropologist qualifies
him to perform complex functions at quite responsible levels in a
corporation. (I will not debate the ethics of this kind of work; this is
only an example).
What are the big ideas here? His knowledge of kinship organization, culture
& behavior, ethnicity, socialization, education and economic organization in
the local community. Gee, sounds like social anthropology. (Feel free to
supply your pet definitions for these terms; I know that you know what I mean.)
How are these ideas presented? My friend would probably: sit in meetings,
prepare memos, develop plans, send email, write reports & argue for his
point of view. This sounds like, um, regular work, even if it is more like
committee work than teaching.
To whom will the ideas be presented? The audience is important here. Since
(in the example) it consists of 'hard-nosed' business people who are not
necessarily receptive, educated or willing to treat people (local employees)
with dignity or understanding, he must demonstrate, through _results that
pay off_, that his presence helps reach corporate goals. Could this be any
more difficult than working to get tenure? Probably not. Further, I'll
point out that in both cases the bottom line is continued employment.
No new, big ideas here, just a speculation on applying some old, big ideas
in a different setting.
I wonder what my friend actually will do?
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