‘Taking care of our own’: From mentorship to peership in anthropology

While the title of this post does seem a bit like a Bruce Springsteen Born-In-The-USA-esque track, it actually draws from a phrase I’ve used a couple of times with some of my peers, that we “anthro [grads] need to take care of our own” – our tribe, if one’s pushing the metaphor too much.

Being in a graduate programme can be, and is, challenging. Especially for many of my peers who have been new to anthropology. More so for those who begin to work professionally, after being trained in anthropology, in related-but-different domains (e.g., qualitative research, medical anthropology, science and technology studies).

There are similar struggles, of course, in education/pedagogy and among professionals. The most common one, I have noticed, can be phrased as thus: how is anthropology relevant?

As students, studying about anthropology’s transition from cultural relativism to cultural critique, to the science of possibilities and human experience, is fascinating. Learning to question and critique our assumptions, or discussing issues cross-culturally, are important analytical tools that we’re trained in.

But, at times, we are also confronted by questions that challenge the very domain of anthropology – especially by our peers in the natural sciences, or in economics or perhaps even sociology.

The question of relevance and credibility – how does what we do matter for the world at large? – is perhaps amplified when we work professionally. As a series of posts on Savage Minds argues, it is also about the precarity of positions: adjunct, tenure-track, freelancing, independent, and so forth.

This post, then, attempts to address both questions, but rather unambitiously and more practically.

***

After I presented at the NGO’s last research meeting (which I describe in a previous post), a friend and colleague – an anthropologist by training and now working on a qualitative research project – spoke about the challenges and differences in her current project.

Her thesis research was on kinship and marriage – both very ‘anthropological’ topics, on which I’ve not really had any substantial experience – and now, she described the largely qualitative work of doing in-depth interviews.

Her main concern, or dilemma, was whether to continue on in qualitative research, or wait it out for more anthropological or ethnographic projects.

I could empathise with her. I was in a similar position a few years ago, when I took a gap year before applying for a master’s programme. It was a risky move: I wasn’t qualified enough (despite some research experience), and there weren’t many people looking for ethnographers.

My first job was in a reading intervention programme at a low-income school in Vikhroli, Mumbai. It was challenging and frustrating because (a) I had to manage both, running the intervention, teaching two kindergarten classes, and managing a group of interns; and (b) managing the research – which was far too quantitative (at one point, I spent just a night trying to master SPSS).

Further, I had no space to be ‘creative’; I was told to do the job I was being paid for.

I did quit, finally, but only when I had a better offer to work as a research assistant – for which I was incredibly lucky. I was able to do more ‘ethnographic’ stuff at this job, and also engage with anthropological topics: labour, embodiment, micro-politics, home-making, and so forth.

But apart from the work I did, what kept me grounded was something simple: reading. Well, reading stuff about anthropology. And that’s what my suggestion to my colleague was: keep reading.

This can be a problem, since access to most current discussions are limited to academic journals – which aren’t really accessible to people outside of universities.

Nonetheless, there are brilliant resources. I think one of which deserves a mention: Savage Minds (which is what I suggested to my colleague. We also spoke of PhD programmes, and researchers or institutions that do require assistants for more ethnography-oriented projects).

Savage Minds is, I maintain, the most exhaustive resource on anthropology outside the leading journals – and perhaps even more, since it is so easily accessible and it covers every conceivable topic/discussion in contemporary anthropology. Thus, the contributions underscore the two central tensions in anthropology that I outlined earlier: the questions of relevance (of anthropology at large), and of professional engagements anthropologists are engaged in.

In my work so far, I have attempted to address these two questions. I will discuss this more concretely below.

***

The fact that anthropologists are increasingly working outside of academic spaces and anthropology faculties is well known (the other side of this picture is that the academic space itself is shrinking).

Even within social organisations, NGOs, and other research networks, ethnography occupies a marginal and contested space: it is far more labour-, and time-intensive than doing a survey or randomized cluster sample (I still have no idea what the latter means).

An effort to keep anthropology relevant, then, is to work on both these fronts: pedagogic and professional. And one of the ways that this can be achieved, at least in what I’ve managed to do so far, is what can be described as peership [See Note at the end].

I graduated from my bachelor’s in 2013, and since then, I have returned several times to discuss my on-going work with undergraduate students, setting up assignments for classes in ethnographic and anthropological theory, and evaluating essays.

This is a time-consuming exercise, yes. But it pays off in little ways: giving students a perspective on what a ‘field’ anthropologist looks like (as one student described it in a paper).

This time, for instance, I interacted with a group of students in charge of the ‘panel’ at my undergraduate department’s annual seminar. I could share many new and contemporary readings and discussions on their theme – human flows – from my own syllabus here in Leuven.

For the assignment that I evaluated, on the theme of ethics in anthropology – a topic that wasn’t covered during my undergraduate years – it was a tad bit challenging, but reading some insightful papers pays off (as well as coming across plagiarised ones – ah, the irony of plagiarising in an ethics paper!).

My intention wasn’t to ‘convert’ people to anthropology – in the liberal arts fashion, we take three courses in the bachelor’s, choosing to major in one or two in the final year – but to show that a training in anthropology can equip students to foray into a wide range of work with a critical perspective (in a class of 60, only 10 raised their hands when asked how many wished to pursue anthropology).

When I was in their place, I was already lucky to be working as a very junior field researcher on AIDS interventions – a formative experience that oriented me towards the discipline (and even to this day, I am thankful to my coordinator and mentor, Genevie).

My experience here countered the fundamental challenge confronting undergraduate students: access to field sites and the lack of research networks. But such is the brilliance of anthropology that the ‘field,’ as we know it, is everywhere. Thus, one can ‘encounter’ the field whilst walking from the train station to the classroom; or within the train itself (as I did, writing my first short ethnography). This is also one of the reasons why I keep urging my professor to give students ethnographic projects – and we also had to write a final dissertation based on field research (Savage Minds’ Carole McGranahan has written a brilliant paper on teaching ethnography in this regard).

Professionally, though, it can be more difficult. In my research on front-line workers with the NGO, I was also fortunate enough to convince my coordinator on the need to do ethnography (but we also had to do interviews as the ‘primary’ method of data collection; and also thanks to my friend who got me the job and vouched for me).

It gets harder when one is writing proposals for funding and grants – coupled by the fact that the term ‘ethnography’ also tends to be misused by researchers who erroneously call any kind of prolonged field engagement as ethnography.

***

Written from another perspective, this post is really about the individuals who provided crucial assistance and guidance to me during the last couple of years: friends, colleagues, peers, and teachers – people who are perhaps the most important human infrastructure in the human sciences.

While mentorship is an apt term to describe this, it has certain connotations of power that I am uncomfortable with. Instead, I find it more productive to think through with a term like “peership.”

First, there is a connotation of less superiority between actors in the term; second, it would refer more to how students and colleagues ‘take care of their own’ in educational and professional spaces – a crucial support network that enables many of us to get around, be it during assignments or professional projects.

Indeed, as I proceed with the second and final year in my masters, one of my primary concerns is to be able to continue and sustain this network of peership with my colleagues in university, and also my colleague in the NGO.

As I mentioned above, it is a rather unambitious plan really. The outcome, I hope, would include less frustration and a bit more empathy. There are, of course, techniques that I’ve learned from peers to do better research; also ones I’ve managed to develop somehow. What I do imagine is a space to speak, discuss, question – or even do none of the above (with the occasional beer, of course. Studying in Belgium has its benefits after all).

Eric R. Wolf had once described anthropology as the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences.

Taking care of our own, perhaps, then could be one of those things that makes anthropology uniquely humanistic.

***

 

Note: After writing this post, I came across a series of articles dealing with the term “peership,” albeit in a slightly different context. The term was used by Don Brenneis in his presidential address to the American Anthropological Association in 2004, titled ‘A Partial View of Contemporary Anthropology’, where he writes more about the relationship between knowledge production and funding structures in academia. The November 2011 issue of Anthropology News, too, engages with the idea of peership, again with a focus on funding proposals (particularly Amy Levine’s article in it).

 

Works Cited:

Don Brenneis. (2004). A Partial View of Contemporary Anthropology. American Anthropologist. (Link)

James D. Faubion & George E. Marcus. (2009). Field-Work Is Not What It Used To Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition.

Amy Levine. (2011). Return to the Funding Proposal as Technique of Peership. Anthropology News.

Jason D. Lind. (2015). Mentoring the Next Generation of Practicing Anthropologists. Anthropology News. (Link)

Carole McGranahan. (2014). What is Ethnography? Teaching Ethnographic Sensibilities without Fieldwork. Teaching Anthropology.

Deepa S. Reddy. (2012). Ethnography on/from the Sidelines: A quick Introduction. Savage Minds. (Link)

Eric R. Wolf. (1964). Anthropology.

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