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Anthropology and Policy

Updated on August 18, 2014


Anthropological research reveals what individuals feel about policy, among other things: do policy makers want to know?
Anthropological research reveals what individuals feel about policy, among other things: do policy makers want to know?

Anthropology can be used in the analysis of policy in many important ways. As Erwin points out in the beginning of his chapter on the connection of anthropology and policy, anthropology and policy are similarly all-encompassing categories into which fit all of human activity (Erwin 44). Where anthropology is the study of every facet of human culture and society, policy is the attempt by governments, organizations, etc. to create rules, modes of dialogue, and strategies related to many of those same facets of culture and society. Furthermore, policy is particularly akin to applied anthropology in that both systems take for granted the idea that
"...thoughtfully directed social action can lead to desirable outcomes." (Erwin 44).This affinity between applied anthropology and policy seems to me like one of the best opportunities for any government considering itself to be 'for the people' to improve the reflexivity of its processes, the validity of its definitions and the alignment of its aims with those of its citizens. Traditional anthropology can study the effects of various policy initiatives on different segments of society, but only through the direct application of that data can the policy and social welfare be improved.

Erwin points out some of the fundamental places in which the American government could benefit from the introduction of extensive anthropological research when writing about the "less visible dimensions of policy making" and questioning how "...cultural ideologies exhibit themselves in the policy process?" (45). Both of these lines of inquiry seem as ripe to me now as they were at the time Erwin wrote them. Following them up with research into the process of policy making vis-à-vis powerful corporate interests and varied other groups with lobbyists all pushing their agendas forward would be an interesting path to identifying gaps in the spectrum of interests being pursued. These gaps would represent groups of citizens whose voices are not being represented in the backroom political forums where the lobbyists operate, and thus the illumination of such gaps would be useful in the pursuit of alleviating social inequality. If, as Erwin suggests, policy making is not only a political and social process, but also a cultural one, then ideally the voices of each micro-culture within any democracy should bear some influence on its formulation (Erwin 46).

Beyond the inherent relation between improving social equality through anthropological research and relevant adjustments to policy, anthropology seems like one of the most valuable tools available for initially identifying patterns in social inequality to begin with. Without research into the effects of policy on the varied publics which it governs, an understanding of its effectiveness is impossible. As is any understanding of its shortcomings. Erwin suggests a number of interesting ways in which anthropology is central to any policy which effects multiple publics: "It is important to disaggregate the public into as many subpublics as are relevant to the issue, to try to determine what their needs are in reference to the issue in question, to map out potential conflicts, and to assess the reactions of different publics to proposals." (48).

All of these applications of anthropology seem very useful to me - corners of the discipline which can only grow in the future. Erwin goes on to show how increasing understanding of the relationship between policy and its inheritors is also fruitfully applied to the processes of development (49), at least in theory. Erwin shows that the critics of development - and its anthropological 'co-conspirators' - have been harsh (49). If anthropology is to be associated with the policy of development, the lesson seems to be, then it should be on the terms of the subjects via the anthropologists.

Erwin moves on to show the relevance of anthropology to policy issues concerning the environment (50), social and socioeconomic issues (51), business (52), education and tourism (53), indigenous groups and technology (54), and other realms of human endeavor. Overall, the message is simple: policy formulated by an organization or government which will affect people should involve the study of those people before, during, and after the implementation of the policy. Erwin recognizes that the list of fields in which the chapter has explored the uses of anthropology in policy is limited, though I found some of his categories almost as all-encompassing as the term policy itself (e.g. social and socioeconomic processes).

Another interesting way in which anthropology can be used both in the analysis of policy and in the connection between policy and social inequality is pointed out at the beginning of Chambers' article "The Policy Idea", in which the author describes a conversation he had with an applied anthropologist (1985:36). Chambers writes about how his colleague explained to him that the origins of the anthropological concerns of any given era are driven largely by socio-historic conditions at the time. These conditions, in turn, are in part driven by the policies of the time. The retrospective look at the ways in which policy has influenced the course of anthropology could prove useful in formulating ways in which anthropology can influence policy. Understanding that the influence is a two-way street can disabuse anthropologists of the purity of the origins of their research interests, providing a platform for a wider perspective on their research.

Later on, Chambers describes the rapid evolution of American culture and the necessity of anthropology in maintaining the connection between policy and the changing perceptions and intentions of citizens (40). In a country as diverse as America, concepts such as "American values" can only influence policy to a certain extent before disenfranchisement begins. Chambers outlines the different stages involved in the creation of policy, naming "...formulation, planning, implementation, and review." (41). Each of these stages can, in my view, benefit from the input of anthropological research by using information gathered from and about people to inspire, design, release, and evaluate the policy.

Chambers also describes in this segment an example of how policy can create social inequality, when writing about two low-income housing companies, one of which pursues legal action to protect its (and its tenants) interests, and another which does not. The former succeeds in fending off opposition, while the latter ends up blaming the victims (44). I found Chambers' mentioning of the concept of "too many answers" to have interesting applications to the investigation into anthropology's relation to policy (46). At some point, the practicality of including every voice into the formulation of policy becomes questionable, to me. Yet there remains the question, inspired by the Erwin quotation from above: how many subpublics are there (how far do we subcategorize), how does one decide how many of those subpublics are ‘relevant to the issue’, and who decides? If a ‘subpublic’ of one has a strong interest in an issue, for example, should it really bear strong influence on a policy that affects thousands or millions?

Of the many different types of policy-anthropology relationships discussed in the readings, one of the most relevant to my own aspirations comes from the Okongwu article, where the authors write about policies related to global agriculture and social inequality (114). Though I have not by any means finalized ideas for my practicum, I'm thinking it will likely be related to that area of interest. I’m interested in a number of facets of the indigenous experience in the globalizing world, but one of my primary interests is the adaptation, symbiosis, or hybridization of indigenous knowledge systems with the global science paradigm. This should be done at a rate and include only those features of the global paradigm as dictated by the protectors/perpetuators of the indigenous knowledge systems. From what I’ve read so far, this process is taking place around the world on two major fronts. These are agriculture and the environment: ground zero for the meeting of epistemologies, and to my mind one of the most fertile fields for the sustainable cooperation of them.

Should anthropological research be used to formulate policy in a democracy?

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