Dear AAA: Sink or Swim?

Posted on 31 August 2012 by


This statement, written by Ryan Anderson, Jason Antrosio, Sarah Kendzior and myself, is a response to a post on the American Anthropological Association blog that discusses our recent writings about adjuncts, anthropology, and academia.

We are gratified that the American Anthropological Association has taken note of our critical commentary on the vagaries of the academic career, and we thank fellow blogger Joslyn O. for publicizing our work on the Association website. However, we would like to clear up a few misconceptions.

The AAA post suggests we represent two “camps,” but we share only one: a commitment to ending precarious intellectual labour. We protest the transformation of our profession into a swelling Hooverville congregated on the margins of universities whose dwindling tenured citizenry is bankrolled by our low-wage, low-benefit, low-security, low-respect work.

The bleak future of the aspiring anthropologist is not a concoction rooted in cynicism. It is an empirically demonstrable, material condition that speaks its truth in the language of debt, dependency, discouragement, and occasionally, the dole. We queue up for the work time and again because we deeply value anthropology. There is little other reason to plough the terrain of a field whose prospects for success resemble a lottery more than a competition. But as the national belt tightens in the face of prolonged economic crisis, contingent workers are increasingly unable to afford to subsidize the discipline financially, however highly we regard it intellectually. And the dignity deficit takes its toll on us all.

Anthropology is, and is not, “what we make it.” The most powerful producers of anthropological policy and practice seldom include the ranks of the precarious, yet even the privileged can lay no proprietary claim to a field whose fate, like that of its sister subjects in the social sciences, arts and humanities, rests at the mercy of profitability. Nonetheless, anthropology’s commitment to the science of social justice makes the studied ignorance of its own internal inequities insupportably ironic.

The resolution of these contradictions is served by neither silence nor sympathy, but solidarity. An academy structured upon the division of a two-tiered labor market discourages such an alliance. Yet we hope that anthropologists will join together to fight for the value of our work beyond the barometer of the bottom line. We must, for the same structural forces that divide tenured and contingent faculty threaten to subsume us all beneath a wave of public retrenchment, whose end game will inter us on the same sinking ship if we do not turn the tide. While the reserve army may constitute the foot soldiers in this battle for survival, the generals are hardly immune to the war on intellectual value.

The AAA can play a role in promoting solidarity. The first step is acknowledging that we are a house divided: not into camps which value, or do not value, the craft of anthropology, but into classes which are unevenly able to extract a living wage from that craft. The second step is to extend the professional respect and responsibility the Association demands for students, informants, the public and science itself to our fellow workers, within and without the academy. This solidarity is not only desirable but vital, for the future of anthropology is far more than academic.

Ryan Anderson
Jason Antrosio
Eliza Jane Darling
Sarah Kendzior

Associated Posts:

Anthropology: the major, the career, by Joslyn O. on AAA Blog
Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major for changing your life, by Jason Antrosio on Living Anthropologically
Anthropology minus one and counting, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
Academia, closed, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
The adjunct anthropologist’s open thread, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
Annual meetings as a regressive tax, by Rex on Savage Minds
Less than Zero anthropology, by Eliza Jane Darling on Zero Anthropology
The closing of American academia, by Sarah Kendzior on Al Jazeera
On American academia, by Sarah Kendzior on sarahkendzior.com
Now that I have your attention…, by Sarah Kendzior on sarahkendzior.com
The conversation continues, by Sarah Kendzior on sarahkendzior.com
Crisis in the academy, by Sarah Kendzior on sarahkendzior.com
Sarah Kendzior exposes the Ponzi scheme of academic jobs, by Eric Garland on ericgarland.co