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Introduction: The Work of Anthropology

Call for submissions for a new section of Exertions

Published onJun 16, 2023
Introduction: The Work of Anthropology

At one point or another in the course of their professional careers, most academic anthropologists learn that the work is not one, but three: research, teaching, and service. Each happens to require a different skillset. They are also evaluated by different standards. More often than not they feel like separate jobs, which end up jockeying with one another for space in an increasingly crowded schedule. Develop and maintain a research agenda, they say. But also sharpen and adapt your teaching skills to meet the changing demands of our students and the world. And while you’re at it, if you could just keep some of the basic functions of your department, the institution, and the profession up and running, that would be great.

Consequently, the cheap advice offered to newcomers: find balance. It’s a difficult prospect for many reasons. Like the balance between work and life, the proposal never seems to amount to a reduction in work. More likely another email from HR encouraging self-care. But it’s also a normative imposition, a call to think about one’s life and work, and the relationship between them, in a particularly way that happens to be legible and countable within administrative logics. It’s certainly not because the categorical distinctions implied by balance make sense — they don’t — but rather because thinking about a job as a series of check-boxes is an expedient want to develop an audit culture.

When I was a recent grad, I took my mentors’ advice to “find balance” to mean protect your time. Keep researching, and above all keep writing. I was never particularly good at that brand of balance. That’s in part because of the position I landed out of grad school at a wealthy, liberal arts university in North Carolina called High Point, where within the first few years I was tasked with starting and directing the Anthropology program, co-creating the (now recently shuttered) Women & Gender Studies program, helping found the First Year Seminar program, and later directing the Environmental Studies program, all in addition to a teaching load of between six to nine courses a year as well as some not-insignificant publishing expectations.

Looking back, I understand why balance was so elusive. But it’s elusive for a lot of people — especially women, BIPOC, and queer faculty, among others, who are expected to perform additional mentoring and other kinds of carework for students, while also carrying the burden of institutional change, and yet for whom the expectation of academic excellence always seems to be higher. And they are higher, in part, because some of the same people who preach “balance” vacated those same roles a long time ago.

These days, I tend to think this prospect of balance is not only elusive but also deceptive and damaging. Those who practice the arts of listening and communicating know that this skill is central to anthropology within and between each one modalities: teaching, service, ethnographic research, and writing. Sacrificing one part for another, or dividing them up into distinct categories, may appear to reduce the complexity to manageable parts, but what it really does is short circuit the very same dynamic process of connection and creative disjuncture that makes anthropology unique.

The job is not three, but one.

Classrooms are enhanced by the fieldwork experiences an instructor brings, as we all know, because having those experiences and that knowledge enriches student experiences while also modeling the life-long learning process qua research. More enterprising folk somehow manage the reverse, as well, committing themselves to bring the classroom into the field, blurring the line between the two, and creating space for co-learning — a process that also demands a great deal of service work, it should be noted.

The idea that productive connections can take shape between distinct parts of the job isn’t new. Marilyn Strathern (1999) hinted at these possibilities in her notion of “the ethnographic moment.” We tend to separate fieldwork and writing, she says, but the truth is that they are linked by relations of surprise and insight, in which “what is analyzed at the moment of observation” comes into creative relation with “what is observed at the moment of analysis” (1999:6). In other words, moving between keyboard and field is generative of something new, not merely a question of recording what happened. One cannot help but bring a certain conceptual toolkit to the field, for better or worse; none of our theoretical concepts remain untouched by those experiences that give them texture and meaning, making it usefully difficult to hold certain terms steady.

It’s all part of the job, as they say — a job that, as Tim Ingold (2018) argues, has something vitally important to offer the world today. Anthropology, he says, is not about studying others but “studying with them” (2018:ix). Education, similarly, is not so much about “stilling in” (as in instruction) as “leading out, opening paths of intellectual growth and discovery without predetermined outcomes or fixed endpoints” (2018:vii). Anthropology is education, through and through, and that connection applies equally to every moment of our jobs as we move between them.

And yet, much as our students only tend to see the academic highlight reel, when we talk about the work of anthropology, what feeds it, some moments get more attention than others. Consequently, some anthropologists get much less attention than others because of the way institutions, positions, and ranks, not to mention hiring practices, are structured and organized (Kawa et al. 2019). Who gets hired and for what job, both inside and outside academia, how those jobs take shape, and which perspectives make their way into decision-making, matter as much as what we teach, who we talk to in the field, and how anthropology is applied.

Call for Submissions: The Work of Anthropology

“The Work of Anthropology” is a new section of Exertions, intended to be an open, respectful, and constructive conversation about the lesser-seen aspects of the work of anthropology, in its many varieties, and the connections between them — an “anthropological moment,” as it were.  It is also meant to be a forum for proposals that challenge anthropology as we know it, and thus for enlivening and emboldening that work of “leading out” into worlds yet to come.

Submissions may take the form of essays authored by one or more individuals, additions to existing collections such as “The Jobs We Had” (edited by Carrie Lane, concerning the invisible work of making one’s way through college and grad school), or proposals for new collections that take the conversation in a different direction. Proposals for existing collections should be addressed to the respective editor, while others can be addressed to Exertions editor Joshua Fisher ([email protected]). We especially want to hear from those who, for whatever reason, haven’t had their say.


Ingold, Tim. 2018. Anthropology And/As Education. London: Routledge.

Kawa, Nick, José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty. 2019. “The social network of US academic anthropology and its inequalities.” American Anthropologist 121(1):14-29.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1999. Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: Athlone Press.

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