Anthropology, Higher Education, and the Importance of Sustained Ethnographic Research Abroad
Do you hope for a personally fulfilling career that offers tangible contributions to society through ethnographic research abroad? Me too. I study anthropology because I want to help find solutions to important societal problems through learning about the variations and commonalities of our human experience. Through this essay I recount historical examples of anthropological work in Guatemala to illustrate the legacy and potential of anthropological research abroad. Then I discuss how current trends in higher education obstruct anthropologists from realizing this potential. Last, I offer four recommendations to revitalize our field through collaboration and rigorous research. I hope to encourage faculty and students to continue prioritizing ethnographic research abroad.
Numerous Guatemala scholars trace their legacy back to Sol Tax and Robert Redfield, who collaborated in training multiple generations of ethnographers at the University of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. Focusing on the study of isolated villages in Mexico and Guatemala, this community of American scholars built an important body of knowledge on Mesoamerican history, languages, and cultures. At around the same time, Guatemalan intellectuals were interested in acculturating Indigenous peoples into national societies through modernization, an initiative they wrongfully framed as the “Indian Problem.” Antonio Goubaud Carrera, a master’s student of Tax and Redfield and a childhood friend of members of the Generación de los 1920s, embodied the interests of both American and Guatemalan academics regarding the futures of Indigenous peoples. He became the director of the Instituto Indigenista Nacional de Guatemala (IING).
Researchers at the IING were not armchair anthropologists but fieldworkers dedicated to documenting pressing issues on the ground. For example, Goubaud Carrera conducted research on nutrition and education to improve the livelihoods of Q’eqchi’ Maya and Ch’orti’ Maya people who were facing extremely precarious living conditions. He helped realize the new Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology) and taught anthropology at the Universidad de San Carlos (USAC). Before the American Anthropological Association (AAA) accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Goubaud Carrera had already translated the document into multiple Mayan languages and distributed copies across rural Guatemala. According to Abigail Adams, IING’s most important contribution under Goubaud Carrera’s leadership was “the recognition of Indigenous people as professionals, collaborators, and representatives of their own experience” (Adams 2016:85).
What can we learn about anthropology’s potential from this example? First, ethnography sets our discipline apart. Ethnographic research relies on ground truth: data collected and contextualized in a specific place. As Riall Nolan explains, cultural anthropologists strive to find connections between the patterns we document (holism); to suspend our personal judgment (cultural relativism); to generate data based on specific case studies (inductive reasoning); to understand things from an insider’s perspective (emic viewpoints); to compare case studies for general conclusions (ethnology); and to contextualize in history (diachronic and synchronic views; see Nolan 2017). The outcomes of our research cannot be reproduced in a laboratory setting; rather, they represent the history and culture of a particular place from the perspective of our interlocutors. As such, ethnographic knowledge is truthful, contextualized, and aware of human commonalities and differences.
Second, when traveling to unfamiliar locations, student and faculty ethnographers do not only produce rich scholarship but they create relationships. Indeed, establishing trust is an essential ingredient of ethnographic research, and transnational networks of friendship are important outcomes of anthropological work. These networks include anthropologists, scholars in multiple disciplines, community leaders, research assistants, and other collaborators. Besides carrying out research projects, transnational networks of trust can support each other through emergencies and life challenges, often mobilizing knowledge and resources across borders. Transnational collaborative networks may find innovative solutions to pressing societal problems.
Third, ethnographers care deeply about the well-being of their collaborators. Carrera learned that Maya communities faced structural challenges that prevented them from meeting their basic needs, and he was familiar with the history that led to such circumstances. He wielded his nuanced, community-based knowledge to improve their lives, yet he also cared about teaching Maya people the international discourses on human rights. Carrera believed that ethnographers should not simply extract ideas from communities without sharing new ideas in return.
Finally, Carrera’s example proves that anthropologists are not exempt from personal and professional biases. Indigenista researchers at the IING had good intentions as they documented cultural continuity and change, but they erroneously assumed that Indigenous cultures would disappear. More than half a century after the height of indigenismo, Indigenous peoples continue passing down their ancestors’ legacies and anthropological work remains relevant. The world is more interconnected than ever, but it faces urgent environmental threats while the social fabric seems to be fraying in developed and underdeveloped countries alike. From my perspective, anthropologists are uniquely trained to confront these issues while striving for social and environmental justice.
In recent decades, anthropology has suffered a precipitous downturn from the lofty position it once held in American universities. Historically, anthropologists have prepared students to thrive in any liberal arts field through a unique education grounded in history, a global perspective, and qualitative methods.
In turn, universities have offered anthropologists the opportunity to continue conducting fieldwork while involving students. According to Nolan, anthropology expanded quickly after World War II, when higher education was growing (2017:41). In 1950 there were twenty North American PhD programs; by 1975 there were eighty-seven. Disciplinary specializations such as medical anthropology, political anthropology, and economic anthropology proliferated in the 1960s alongside the emergence of interdisciplinary area studies centers focused on world regions like Africa, East Asia, East Europe, and Latin America (Borofsky 2019:18). These trends guaranteed secure employment in higher education for anthropologists for decades at a time when many were discouraged from pursuing careers in government for fear of contributing to American intervention abroad, such as during Guatemala’s counterrevolution.
The 1980s witnessed the decline of anthropology’s engagement abroad. The focus on culture as text and theoretical critique to the development industry drove anthropologists’ attention away from the potential societal impacts of ethnographic research and discouraged scholars and practitioners from collaborating with one another. As the discipline grew more theoretical and less practical, departments placed emphasis on publications for tenure and promotion, leading to the slash-and-burn of paradigms in anthropology. The accelerated pace of theoretical innovation is evidenced by academic job offers. Ilana Gershon and Dafna Rachok (2021) find that many topics of expertise like psychological anthropology and environmental anthropology that were popular in the 1990s have fallen out of favor. Instead, many departments now hire topical experts in subjects like human trafficking and the Anthropocene (ibid). The trend toward specialization makes it more difficult for contemporary anthropologists to maintain their inherited transnational networks given that their closest colleagues work in other departments or institutions.
Senseless budget cuts, rising tuition rates, bloated administrative salaries, and the “adjunctification” of tenure lines have made social science disciplines like anthropology less attractive to students. As anthropology departments churn out more PhDs than ever before, fewer tenure lines spur cutthroat competition among graduates. A recent survey by Robert Speakman et al. (2018) estimates that 79 percent of US anthropology doctorates do not obtain university tenure-track positions, while those who graduate from foreign institutions or higher-ranked programs (90th percentile) have a much greater competitive advantage in the job market (Speakman et al. 2018). Tenured employment is often tied to a “publish-or-perish” mentality, while precarious adjunct employment has skyrocketed. Those who do land a tenure-track position now dedicate more time to administrative tasks. A consequence of this conundrum is a declining quality of anthropological research. As Robert Borofsky (2021) mentions, publications offer concrete reference points that convey an appearance of accountability, but they do not guarantee intellectual merit. In fact, many theoretical frameworks that initially appear new may be variations on older ones.
Today it seems as if academic anthropologists must navigate a world of upside-down priorities, where their job is to turn a profit for their university rather than serve the community. Graduate students are especially vulnerable to such circumstances. In a given semester, we complete our coursework, teach classes, and serve on student organizations and committees. As we advance on our degrees, we meticulously prepare our research proposals, conduct fieldwork, attend conferences, and rewrite multiple versions of our dissertation chapters while swimming in an ever-deepening ocean of peer-reviewed literature to read. We feel uncertainty toward the labor market because everyone around us is overaccomplished, but few land tenure-track jobs. How can we possibly contribute to our field, to broader society, and to the communities that offer their knowledge and friendship to us?
“Revitalizing” means infusing something with new vitality without changing its essence. Our effort to revitalize anthropology should be focused on two priorities: improving the quality of our research and restoring our level of engagement with social change. To this end, we can work individually and collectively, within and outside higher education. I propose four recommendations for revitalizing anthropology:
We should strengthen the long-term transnational networks built through anthropological work. In the 1930s, when Carrera was a student at the University of Chicago, anthropology departments were highly specialized in a geographical region. They attracted students and faculty mentors belonging to the same transnational collaborative network. Today many faculty members have moved in new intellectual directions that separate them from their colleagues, and departments gather specialists in diverse topics and geographic regions (Borofsky 2021, Nolan 2017). Diversity within anthropology departments offers an important advantage: faculty can teach a greater scope of anthropological knowledge to students. Yet this also means that members of the same transnational collaborative network live thousands of miles away from one another.
Today most faculty members conduct research in isolation. Working alone under a publish-or-perish mentality, faculty have fewer opportunities to advance anthropological theory or collaborate in applied projects. We must seek academic collaborations beyond our department affiliation. One way of developing new networks would be to invite scholars from related disciplines to participate in virtual seminar discussions around a theme or framework that is relevant for doing research in their region. Faculty leading these sessions could rotate to share the responsibility for the group. When the content discussed is accessible and available in a lingua franca, local collaborators and practitioners could also be invited to participate in these sessions. The purpose would be to generate ideas around a particular topic in the hopes of creating future applied research projects.
We should do group ethnography more often. Nolan observes that tenured faculty face pressure to develop a record of research, publication, and teaching early in their careers.8 This pressure is part of the reason why publications do not add up to a substantial, integrated, coherent body of knowledge (Borofsky 2021). The best scholarship in any field requires seniority because ethnographers who have implemented a theory and tested its scope and limitations for years are better able to establish guidelines for how to continue using such theory. Working in groups would allow young scholars to learn from senior mentors as they move the field forward. It would allow anthropologists to publish together more often. Furthermore, group ethnography would enhance the opportunities of using research data to improve the lives of our collaborators. A group of ethnographers can divide the work and expand the realm of their impact. They can alternate fieldwork seasons and maintain a presence on the ground. Importantly, group ethnography should be carried out by experts in the same regional area. It is often best to work with socially constituted groups, especially those respected by many of your informants (ibid).
We should expand the collaboration between anthropologists working within and outside higher education. Anthropologists have different forms of employment and areas of expertise. We implement our knowledge in different ways, but we need to work together more often. One concrete step toward strengthening the relationship between academic and practitioner anthropologists would be to incorporate apprenticeship opportunities into anthropology graduate programs. This would allow faculty and students to expand their professional network and include institutions in different sectors of the economy. The AAA should advertise jobs in think tanks, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, museums, and private companies. Furthermore, academic journals should welcome publications from practitioner anthropologists. They should not require a university affiliation to publish an article. If an anthropologist has the training and data to contribute to a body of knowledge, they should be able to participate in the academic conversation. Theoretical discussion often revolves around practical, concrete questions.
In addition, we should continue rewarding efforts to improve the lives of our collaborators. Support for public, engaged, and applied anthropology can be offered in funding, awards, and recognition. In our efforts to bring together applied and scholarly anthropology, we should keep in mind that the job of practitioners is judged not by peers but by bosses and clients.11 Therefore, enhancing collaborations between academic units and practitioners might require us to negotiate the criteria we use to evaluate good work. Assessment metrics could include intellectual merit and benefits to society as well as degree of involvement of local collaborators.
We need to downsize the for-profit academic publishing industry. Most academic presses make much of their profit by selling books to students who are required to read them as part of a university course (Borofsky 2021). Academics manage to produce more publications in less time by lowering their standards of intellectual merit. In short, the academic publishing industry favors quantity over quality. Anthropologists can do a lot to mitigate the effects of these trends. As educators, we can use open-access texts in our classes. As authors, we can cite fewer publications while offering each citation greater depth of engagement. We can submit our work in open-access and foreign academic journals, and we can prioritize publishing in accessible newspapers, magazines, and other media. As peer reviewers, we can ask authors to reduce their number of citations.
In Guatemala the counterrevolution halted much of the anthropological work conducted by American and Guatemalan ethnographers through IING. Carrera was killed in Guatemala City in 1951 after changing his career path to international diplomacy. In 1954 the interim director of IING was imprisoned, and the work of IING declined throughout the 1960s. Yet American and Guatemalan ethnographers continued supporting engaged research and applied projects for generations. In the last few decades anthropologists working in Guatemala have been instrumental in supporting postwar efforts toward transitional justice. Many anthropologists accompanied war refugees and survivors during the genocide. Others have produced knowledge from archival research, forensic research, and oral history to bring the perpetrators to justice in court. Anthropologists who have contributed to revitalizing Maya have offered health-care services, educational opportunities, and knowledge that empowers communities. I admire these efforts for their commitment to the well-being of their collaborators.
To be sure, anthropological practice in Guatemala is far from perfect. However, the people participating in these projects make a conscious effort to resolve the political asymmetries of ethnography. For example, John Watanabe argues that anthropologists should focus on empowering real people, rather than focus on imagining others through text (Watanabe 1995). He criticizes postmodern literary theory because it frames the crisis of anthropology as a problem of representation rather than injustice in the real world. I agree that anthropologists doing work in Guatemala should address power asymmetries with their collaborators. In the future I would like to work with Maya researchers and collaborators who demand the return of their heritage, their history, and their identity.
I believe that benefiting others must be a priority if we are to realize the full potential of anthropology. Our discipline has a lot to offer when it comes to tackling global problems of poverty, injustice, and climate change, but we often encounter obstacles. Our pasts are marked by colonialism, the institutions that support us are weakened by neoliberalism, and our allies are often imperfect. Yet, from our individual positionings, we can achieve social change in unique ways. Recognizing and creating opportunities to enact this potential requires us to look inward for our motivations and skill set, and outward for collective strategies and institutional changes that challenge the status quo.
Through this exploration I found that I needed a dose of hope and a dose of innocence to believe in the potential of the discipline and imagine what can be accomplished. I found a lot of inspiration in the legacy of Guatemalan anthropology. The big limitation of this reflective essay is my restricted knowledge of the field, both in terms of its theoretical body of knowledge and my personal experience navigating the professional social network. Some of my suggestions might be impractical to implement or might produce side effects I did not anticipate. Nevertheless, I wanted to share what, in my view, would be the best of all worlds. I hope to continue learning and testing some of my own recommendations in the future.
Adams, Abigail E. 2016. Relocating the Contributions to Ethnography and Public Anthropology of Antonio Goubaud Carrera (1902–1951), Guatemala’s First Official Indigenist. In Ethnographic Collaborations in Latin America: The Effects of Globalization. Edited by June Nash and Hans Buechler, pp. 67–88. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Borofsky, Robert. 2019. An Anthropology or Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms? Kailua, HI: Center for a Public Anthropology. https://books.publicanthropology.org/an-anthropology-of-anthropology.html.
Borofsky, Robert. 2021. Revitalizing Anthropology . . . with Your Help: A Study in Public Anthropology. Accessed September 6, 2022: https://revitalizing.publicanthropology.net/static/pdf/revitalizing-anthropology-with-your-help.pdf
Gershon, Ilana, and Dafna Rachok. 2021. Hello to Tristes Tropes. Anthropology News, September 16. www.anthropology-news.org/articles/hello-to-tristes-tropes/.
Nolan, Riall. 2017. Using Anthropology in the World: A Guide to Becoming an Anthropologist Practitioner. New York: Routledge.
Speakman, Robert J., Carla S. Hadden, Matthew H. Colvin, Justin Cramb, and K. C. Jones, et al. 2018. Market Share and Recent Hiring Trends in Anthropology Faculty Positions. PLoS ONE 13(9): e0202528.
Watanabe, John M. 1995. Unimagining the Maya: Anthropologists, Others, and the Inescapable Hubris of Authorship. Bulletin of Latin American Research 14(1):25–45.
Sylvia Sanchez Díaz is a Ph.D student at the University of Kansas.