New Political Terrain for a Liberal Discipline

Anthropology -- where the work of researchers is often at odds with the priorities of the Trump White House -- tries to figure out how to maneuver.

March 2, 2017
 

The American Anthropological Association has about 10,000 members, with one-fifth of them living outside the United States.

Many of the association’s members both in and outside the United States conduct research concerning immigrants and migrant populations, so they are unsurprisingly opposed to President Trump’s ban on travel -- since blocked by federal courts -- from seven majority-Muslim countries. And the organization's membership is unabashedly left-leaning over all.

The association’s leadership in Arlington, Va., is plotting how to channel the energy of members into constructive work under the Trump administration and a Republican Congress.

Among the planks of that strategy, the organization plans to speak out forcefully on public policy -- as it did on the January travel ban -- and play defense on federal funding for research. Perhaps most importantly, the organization will emphasize ongoing efforts to improve how it translates the work of members to the public, what AAA Executive Director Ed Liebow calls a “retail sales effort.”

“We cannot take for granted that people will say, ‘Oh, you’re a scientist, so I should listen to you,’” he said. “I think compelling storytelling is going to be of essence in being at all persuasive.”

Liebow said those efforts to communicate with regular people and change the public conversation in the country will complement legislative advocacy efforts from organizations like AAA and street protests like the Women’s March on Washington in January or the March for Science planned for April.

“It takes a lot of people pushing and pulling from different directions to make a social movement,” Liebow said.

Last month, after the Idaho House education committee approved new science standards that deleted mentions of climate change and human impact on the environment, the association coordinated an op-ed by the anthropology department chairs at the state’s three largest universities that spoke out in favor of climate change education. The Senate education committee discussed the standards last week. And an AAA member, University of New Mexico anthropologist Valorie Aquino, is one of the organizers of the March for Science.

The association is focused on four main policy domains: climate change, health disparities, race and social justice (including immigration policy), and cultural heritage protection. Those priorities would have remained the same regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat was occupying the White House, Liebow said.

The group has a history of involvement in hot-button political issues as well as federal funding battles. Last summer, the organization’s members narrowly rejected a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions in what would have been an extension of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The vote followed an annual meeting where attendees overwhelmingly voted to support the BDS campaign, which aims to use economic pressure to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. AAA issued one of the strongest condemnations of the Jan. 27 White House travel ban affecting nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. And it was outspoken against recent congressional attempts to apply a “national interest” standard to research that receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF is the largest source of funding for social science research in the country. Although the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research receives only a fraction of the agency’s budget, that meant more than $270 million in fiscal year 2015. Such social science funding was a favorite target of conservative Republicans long before Trump was a serious presidential candidate.

The association expects that attempts to apply accountability at the individual grant level will resurface in the current Congress on the House science committee, chaired by Texas Republican Lamar Smith. Liebow said the association’s greatest strength in resisting efforts to micromanage research in Congress, just like in the public sphere, will be an ability to tell compelling stories about that research.

Jason De Leon, a University of Michigan anthropologist who studies immigration from Latin America, has long been active in producing “public research” -- academic scholarship translated into everyday English for wider consumption. His work has examined how federal border security policies contribute to migrant deaths in places like the Sonoran Desert to document what those policies actually look like on the ground. De Leon said the work he does has not changed significantly since November.

But he said conversations with colleagues in the field indicate that anthropologists more widely are beginning to re-examine how their work engages the public.

“What’s happening now is folks are recognizing that they have this moral imperative to make their work accessible in this moment and also to try to figure out ways to demonstrate that their work is important for these public conversations,” De Leon said.

To engage with a wider audience, De Leon writes articles and op-eds for nonanthropological audiences and participates in projects like documentaries and in other mediums outside typical academic publishing.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of international affairs and anthropology at George Washington University, said it’s no secret that most anthropologists don’t like Trump. Indeed, most see him as a threat to human rights and democracy, he said.

“We don’t just research people abstractly. We form very intimate relationships of trust with them,” he said. “We feel an obligation to advocate for the people we study in a way a political scientist or economist wouldn’t.”

The cross-cultural orientation of the discipline contributes to the strong stand organizations like the AAA took against the travel ban. One of the greatest strengths of the discipline, Gusterson said, might be its ability to humanize people affected by those policies. That’s also true of populations whom the mostly liberal-minded anthropological profession may not initially empathize with, he said.

Gusterson studies the people who make up the American security state -- members of the intelligence community, employees of weapons labs and others whom opponents of Trump might not see as allies.

“You think you know what a population is like, but you’ve never met anyone from that population,” he said. “Anthropologists find over and over and over again that when they actually talk to them that these people are different than they expected.”

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