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Authors : Kathleen Millar, Rebecca Prahl, Christine Reiser, Christy DeLair
Title: Reconsidering Routes to Membership in the Anthropological Community
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Source: Reconsidering Routes to Membership in the Anthropological Community
Kathleen Millar, Rebecca Prahl, Christine Reiser, Christy DeLair

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [157kb ]

Reconsidering Routes to Membership in the Anthropological Community

Kathleen Millar, Rebecca Prahl, Christine Reiser and Christy DeLair

Department of Anthropology, Brown University

Recent funding pressures, concerns for shorter time to degree, and changes in post-graduate employment opportunities have led to calls in anthropology and across universities more broadly to rethink graduate education (cf. Thorkelson 2007, SAA Archaeological Record 2006, Golde and Walker 2006). In the midst of these pressures, graduate students often experience frustration navigating their paths to becoming professional anthropologists. While students have always balanced academic with professional development, today they manage requirements to finish quickly (Groen 2006, Passmore 2008) on what are, in some universities, standardized aid packages, all while facing increased anxiety over the possibility of finding employment given a shrinking percentage of tenure track jobs (Sahlins 2008).

This generalized climate has led to an intensified emphasis on professional development and job competitiveness in graduate training that seems to reflect universities’ increasing adoption of corporate logics, languages of professionalization, and rhetorics of the job market (Bousquet 2003, Calhoun 2006). Jennifer Washburn argues, for example, that since the 1980s,

a wholesale culture shift [has been] transforming everything from the way universities educate their students to the language they use to define what they do. Academic administrators refer to students as ‘consumers’ and to education and research as ‘products.’ They talk about branding and marketing and now spend more on lobbying in Washington than defense contractors do. [Washburn 2005:ix]

It is indeed hard to avoid hearing or stating that one is “networking,” “marketing” oneself, or “packaging” one’s work. Such language surfaces with particular frequency amongst graduate students, including ourselves, in efforts to become “competitive” job candidates. Too often, such discursive practices escape critical reflection. After all, when thinking about their futures within the university, students must to some degree concentrate their energies on figuring out how they are going to fit themselves into its structures. This paper, however, urges students and professors to explore how academic training structures can better accommodate diverse aspirations.

  Émile Durkheim once wrote of social science:

Because what we propose to study is above all reality, it does not follow that we should give up the idea of improving it. We would esteem our research not worth the labour of a single hour if its interest were merely speculative. If we distinguish carefully between theoretical and practical problems it is not in order to neglect the latter category. On the contrary, it is in order to put ourselves in a position where we can better resolve them. [1984:xxvi]

Following in this tradition of praxis, in this paper we apply our anthropological training to the shared project of improving graduate education. In what follows, we suggest that there is a disconnect between the ideals of anthropology and the discursive practices that Washburn identifies that can be resolved through the very tools that our discipline has given us. Corporate logics and languages of professionalization can be replaced with ideals and discourses more resonant with anthropology’s holistic philosophies, humanistic commitments, and engaged, collaborative or community-oriented methodologies. Rather than a series of requirements completed as quickly as possible or an education in how to “sell” oneself and one’s work in the academic job market, graduate socialization can be re-envisioned and practiced as entry into, participation in, and contribution to the anthropological community.

We understand “community” here not in the sense of a homogeneous, bounded group but rather draw on recent anthropological efforts to reconceptualize community as a “living and continuing event” (Gibson 2006:196–7), a “convergence of culture, place, intricate social relations, [and] collective identity” (193), among other socialities (see also Caftanzoglou 2001, Dove 2006). Participation, diversity, and dynamism are central dimensions of this conceptualization. Thus by calling for a reconsideration of the routes to membership in the anthropological community, we are seeking to expand the possibilities of graduate education so that it mirrors the richness and range of anthropologists’ work and ways of being. While we understand and respect that many students, ourselves included, embrace aspects of professionalization processes and see these as an avenue for achieving career and life goals, our intent in this essay is to advocate for a wider diversity of approaches to graduate education in anthropology. We encourage structures of graduate education that allow students greater choice concerning whether and how much to professionalize based on considerations of personal identity and how and for whom they hope to use their education in the future. The arguments and examples we present are not meant to represent the experiences of all graduate students in anthropology but rather are inspired by our own personal experiences of graduate socialization, by recent faculty-student discussions in our department at Brown University, by conversations with colleagues in other graduate programs, and by literature on university education.

The Ideals of Anthropology

Despite a wealth of views on the specific aims of anthropology, we propose that there are three overarching ideals shared broadly in our discipline: (1) to understand and highlight the diversity of human life; (2) to contribute to a body of knowledge on humankind; and (3) to engage in some capacity with the communities, past or present, in which we study.

Anthropology’s commitment to recognizing the diversity of human life remains its distinctive and perhaps most valued attribute (Binford 1962, Boas 1947, Brinton 1895). As the American Anthropological Association states succinctly in its definition of the discipline, “Nothing human is alien to anthropology” (2007). To embrace this diversity, anthropologists have had to develop and employ an extensive variety of theoretical and methodological approaches both among and within their sub-fields (Nader 2001). Certainly, lab analysis of molecular DNA could not be more different from participant-observation in an urban slum, which in turn diverges significantly from a network analysis of transnational migration. Furthermore, anthropologists could study social movements variously as political contestations, symbolic expressions, economic strategies or communities-in-formation. While such methodological and sub-disciplinary interests have led many to assert that today there are many different anthropologies (Cardoso Oliveira 2000, Krotz 1997, Peirano 1998, Restrepo and Escobar 2005, Ribeiro and Escobar 2006), we see such eclecticism under one roof as a source of creativity and insight. We also see it as a potential source of new ways to think about graduate socialization.

To say that the second aim of anthropology is to contribute to a body of knowledge implies more than the production of grant proposals, data and fieldnotes, journal articles, and books. It suggests that as a discipline anthropology is a collaborative project (Goodenough 2002, Ruby 1991). We return to Boas, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Mead and many others who went before us for guidance in our approaches to contemporary issues and questions. We draw upon the work of colleagues researching other times or places, or other issues in the same time and place, in order to help make sense of our own findings. We attend conferences to bounce our embryonic ideas off each other and review each other’s publications to push our thinking farther. Despite the mythic image of the lone anthropologist in the field, anthropological works are never solo endeavors.

Finally, anthropologists recognize that their research involves the lives of others either directly or indirectly. This is taken for granted in the case of cultural or linguistic anthropologists, who often form close relationships with the people who inform their studies. However, it is also the case for biological anthropologists, whose work may be of consequence to communities in ongoing struggles for legal recognition, or archaeologists, who may partner with local communities in carrying out excavation work. The interconnections that are formed and the extension of these relationships beyond the life of a project itself necessitate that anthropology be not just about research but also about engagement, involvement, change, and critique (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2007, Hale 2006, Marcus and Fischer 1986, Scheper-Hughes 1995, Singer 1995).

As anthropologists, we are committed to honoring diversity in the world and in academic thought, to collaboration in research and communication, and to ethical social engagement. As students train to become anthropologists, however, they simultaneously encounter practices and languages at odds with these ideals. The turn to professionalization in graduate programs has introduced standardization, competition, and false fortifications between “the academic” and “the public” that are tied to processes (political, economic, etc.) occurring within and outside of universities. By examining the origins and outgrowths of professionalization, we will demonstrate how this shift impedes our abilities to build anthropological communities that fully embody the discipline’s ideals.


Although now taken for granted, “professions” themselves only came into being at the end of the 19th century with the rise of schools for the training and credentialing of specialized knowledge. Richard Ohmann describes professions as follows:

Professions are socially made categories, and processes. A group that is doing a particular kind of work organizes itself in a professional association; appropriates, shares and develops a body of knowledge as its own; discredits other practitioners performing similar work; establishes definite routes of admission, including but not limited to academic study; controls access; and gets recognition as the only group allowed to perform that kind of work, ideally with state power backing its monopoly... every constituted profession must continue to defend its rights and its borders. [2003:66]

Thus, a profession is defined by its limited access and its claims to control and authority over a particular body of knowledge. One way in which it limits this access is through systematic, regulated training and through socializing new recruits into the accepted norms of behavior and thought (Clark 1987). As we use the term here, “professionalization” refers to these training processes, as well as to other discourses and practices surrounding the maintenance of established professions.

While the practices of law, medicine, and engineering have long been recognized as professions, historically many academic pursuits have not been considered as such. [1] However, in recent decades a range of structural pressures on universities, including fiscal stress, rising tuition costs, burgeoning enrollments, and transformations in accreditation processes (Calhoun 2006, Scobey 2002) have contributed to the adoption of professionalization practices in academia. While this phenomenon was noted in Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s The Academic Revolution as early as 1968, it has lately intensified as a way to adapt to the above demands. In the following, we describe certain features of professionalization that have entered into graduate education and explore how they are in tension with the ideals of anthropology.

Standardization & Diversity

One such feature includes standardization. Following Tom Fox (1999), we understand “standards” to be “provisional goals” to which students aspire and which can be made in dialogue with their advisors, committees, and programs on a person by person basis. In contrast, we understand the term “standardization” to refer to the processes by which standards become largely inflexible, bureaucratic, and applied to entire cohorts of students. While we recognize that standards are beneficial in graduate training, in this section we argue that processes of standardization inhibit diversity.

Professional standards establish expectations surrounding comportment, competency, knowledge base, or skill sets. As such, socialization in graduate training may include learning disciplinary writing styles, building and drawing from intellectual repertoires, or mastering proper collegial etiquette. While certainly aspects of this training are beneficial, when these expectations become standardized they may require some students to change in ways that are difficult and that raise concerns over what may be compromised in the process (Goodwin 2002). Some, for example, may find that the jargon that gives them currency in disciplinary circles does not always resonate with, and can even alienate, their friends and family. One student described feelings of estrangement when she solicited her parents for editorial guidance on a grant proposal, and they—though exceedingly familiar with her field research and intellectual interests—could not wade through the dense language to connect with its meaning. For this student, this seemingly banal occurrence triggered a sense of real loss, since she conceives of her work as a form of advocacy that ought to be meaningful to non-anthropologists more broadly but felt that the language of her proposal could not be adjusted if she were to follow common grant-writing practices.

Such socialization to professional standards in graduate programs may also mask the expression of graduate students’ diversity. Some, for instance, may feel a disjuncture between their “ways of thinking” and “ways of doing” and those promoted in academic training (see, for example, Hundle 2008). A student from another university who lives with a chronic illness described the tension she often felt with publicly acknowledging her health in the context of graduate school and the expectations she perceived within it. Though she knew she was capable, she worried that her illness might affect others’ perceptions of her as a student. Consequently, she often decided to perform a healthy persona, even when she felt otherwise, as part of an attempt to, as she worded, “appear professional.” Acting in these ways, however, often made her feel that such maskings do not fully express the many modes of life that individuals inhabit within a university. In theory, professionalization can allow for students’ unique outlooks, aspirations, and circumstances, and the majority of mentors are likely sensitive to their individual needs. However, when professionalization processes become standardized, there is always the potential for them to encumber the expression or creativity of some. 

Standardization in graduate training also occurs in the form of generalized timelines and requirements that leave little if any room for reflection and contemplation of the myriad ideas discovered during graduate study. Students may indeed have difficulty finding the space to flesh out new theories, to experiment with innovative representational styles, and to navigate different paths to intellectual growth. In the process of completing requirements on a standardized timeline, for example, they have limited room for what Marilyn Strathern describes as the “productive non-productivity” inherent to academic work. Positing that “the process of learning is not one of consumption but one of absorption and reformulation,” she writes that, “in research, time must be set aside for all the wasteful and dead-end activities that precede the genuine findings. Both require otherwise non-productive periods” (Strathern 1997, cited in Giri 2000:179). As a result, standardization may stunt diverse ways of thinking and communicating within academic disciplines. While there are certainly many hallmarks of anthropology which graduate students must variously learn, and while academic programs necessarily have standards and goals their students must meet, the standardization of funding packages, academic timelines, and acts of learning delimit how students can achieve these goals. By this measure, standardized training may be too narrow to encompass all the ways that students might prepare themselves to contribute to the anthropological community. In anthropology, the irony of this is all the more transparent given that the discipline’s very foundation is built upon the celebration of human diversity.

Competition & Collaboration

In addition to standardization in graduate programs, professionalization has generated discourses and practices of commodification, competition, and instrumentalism that deter collaborative scholarship and learning. These manifestations of professionalization are fueled by a hyper attention to career-building and the job market. And while, indeed, jobs provide the necessary means through which anthropologists can teach students, conduct research, learn from colleagues, and apply anthropology beyond academia, often it seems that jobs are an end rather than a means of anthropological work.

Indeed, commodification of students’ own knowledge, ideas and personhood pervades discussions in graduate programs, whether in a moment of choosing a field site, deciding on a conference to attend or writing a grant. Students are often told: Package yourself. Market yourself. Sell yourself. Just as the packaging of a commodity can become more important than the commodity itself (Willis 1991), clever abilities to dress up ideas and research can take precedence over the actual ideas. What will or will not “get a job” also becomes a concern. Topics or theoretical approaches considered passé are discouraged for thesis research. For cultural anthropologists, certain field sites are taboo. For example, despite the growth and significant contributions of North Americanist anthropology, many students who wish to work in the U.S. meet disapproval in part due to fears that their studies will not result in grants or jobs.

This constant job talk, which influences and at times stifles students’ ideas, interests and innovations, occurs not only in meetings with faculty advisors; it also circulates even more frequently in conversations amongst graduate students. We all know that university budgets are becoming tighter, that adjunct positions are replacing professorships, and that less than half of new PhDs find tenure-track jobs (see Givens et al. 1997). Given this reality, the sincere concern of faculty members that their students do well, coupled with students’ own aspirations of post-doctoral teaching and research, leads to a generalized participation in the discourse on jobs. While this originates from a commitment on the part of faculty to teach and train the next generation of anthropologists, and from a desire on the part of students to follow in the footsteps of their mentors, it produces and reproduces a market logic from which competition and instrumentalism—by which we mean opportunistic behavior to achieve personal gain (Block 1990)—often follow.

The phrase “academic job market” is almost always preceded by the word “competitive.” Although this may certainly be the case, the degree of attention that “the market” receives can create in graduate programs an atmosphere that inhibits collaboration and mutual support. Students are less likely to share half-formed ideas with other students and faculty, branch out of their areas of expertise, feel free to express frustration or confusion, or take intellectual risks in choosing their thesis topics. Graduate education can seem to be less about learning to conduct innovative research and scholarship and more about learning to play the academic game. And to play it safely.

Furthermore, instrumentalist attitudes can shape how academics talk about their collegial practices. Describing meeting an inspirational scholar at a conference as “networking” or referring to graduate student publication as “CV development” diminishes the many facets of these endeavors. Despite the fact that all anthropological research is fundamentally collaborative, these discourses celebrate the myth of the lone anthropologist. They encourage the presentation of research and work as an individual product rather than crediting the array of academic and non-academic participants who influenced its creation. In so doing, anthropologists fail to collaborate fully with their colleagues. This can also reinforce boundaries between academic communities and communities beyond.

Isolation & Engagement

Boundaries between academic and non-academic communities are also created through specialization, program requirements, and career development which limit the extent to which students can stretch their energies beyond the immediate expectations of their curricula. Growing strains in universities, like fiscal stress (Calhoun 2006) and the reduction of tenure-track jobs (Sahlins 2008 [2]), have accelerated the clocks on which universities and programs operate. Just as faculty are encouraged to publish at an ever-faster pace, students are expected to pursue their graduate studies more expeditiously. The phrase “time to degree” has become a hallmark of any discussion around graduate education. As a consequence of these time constraints, students find it hard to pursue a breadth of interests, both academic and non-, during their graduate education. This in turn has negatively affected students’ capacities to engage with the communities in which they live and with whom they have ties.

For example, a colleague at another university described the difficulties she faced in negotiating academic demands and volunteer work with local environmental groups. She regretted that she was not able to give enough of her time back to the groups who had trained her in waste reduction and conservation techniques, while at the same time she felt that she had to justify to herself that any volunteering she did was connected to her academic research. “My volunteer work was completely unrelated to my research project but I rationalized that it was,” she explained. As a result of this tension, she spent less time with the environmental groups than she originally intended and furthermore felt that by volunteering rather than focusing exclusively on her academic study, she was “being a bad graduate student.”

Just as the time constraints of graduate study may force a certain singularity upon students’ lives, the same pressures may also demand developing a singular research focus. Augmented concerns over “time to graduation” have placed increased stress upon students to specialize, and to specialize early in order to establish a place in the field. Upon entry to graduate school, students are urged to find a niche, to develop a “manageable” research project, and to focus. Because they have a limited amount of time, many stick to a singular research path rather than exploring the varied intellectual possibilities that may arise through coursework and conversation. However, in the process of learning to carve out their place in the field students often inadvertently risk “quagmiring in hyper-specialization” (Shanks 2006). The emphasis on specialization in the development of expertise can transform graduate study into a narrow and individualized pursuit. As one graduate student in archaeology commented, “This move toward specialization has its benefits. With countless experts to consult, archaeologists are able to explore subtleties and complexities of ancient life that hardly seemed possible to do even a few decades ago. But it has also had for me a distancing effect. As I pay more and more attention to [specific regional and topical interests], I have less and less time to learn about other cultures. Seeing and understanding ‘the big picture’ can become more difficult.”

Additionally, heightened attention to the milestones that “count” in graduate programs—qualifying examinations, research, coursework, theses—has made it seem as though these requirements are tantamount to one’s graduate education. Meeting requirements becomes a prescription for success in a program, and by extension, the anthropological profession. The single-mindedness with which the curricular agenda is pursued pushes other activities, interests, and relationships to the peripheries. While some aspects of a graduate student’s life may not seem related to anthropological interests, others may directly contribute to graduate learning. Extra-curriculars could be curricular. Endeavors such as running community teach-ins, writing op-eds for a local newspaper, or helping an organization in their outreach efforts do not fit easily into graduate student requirements and schedules. Though students often discuss their community involvement as one of the most fulfilling aspects of their graduate experience and as a stimulant for intellectual growth, such projects tend to be excluded from CV development and may be seen as unhelpful or even detractive from a graduate student’s education and professionalization. For instance, Cantor and Lavine write that:

[while] community engagement is flourishing, the graduate students and faculty members who are fueling the trend are not...In graduate school, [students] want to remain engaged, and ultimately, they hope to bring into the professoriate their commitment to that interdisciplinary type of scholarship. But scholars who want to collaborate with diverse groups off their campuses are still pressured to defer community-based research and civic collaborations until they receive tenure [2006:1]

While students do draw creative and intellectual energy from working to fulfill their academic requirements, can anthropologists not expand the creative possibilities of education in ways that better recognize students as full people? Education is certainly much more inclusive than schooling (DeVitis et al. 1998), especially for anthropologists whose research is fundamentally holistic and depends upon human interconnection. As John Dewey (1916) described, education is a unification of personal and communal development, an action-oriented engagement (Harkavy and Benson 1998).

The Shift to Community

We have argued that, contradictory to the ideals of our discipline, the professional discourses and practices found in universities today standardize and streamline, foster instrumentalism and competition, and falsely separate the academic from the extra-curricular. Judith Rodin aptly observes, “Just as a prison can be a university, so too can a university be a prison, one whose bars are orthodoxy, indifference, or disengagement from the larger community” (2003:233). These constraints are magnified in the contemporary professional turn, creating an environment which stifles our diversity, creative flexibility, and collaborative potential. Rather than continuing to perceive graduate education as entry into a profession, we could do better by emphasizing our years of training as entrance into community.

We need look no farther for guidance in these endeavors than our own methodologies and ideological stances that take as their primary consideration the relation to community. Calls for engaged, applied, public, shared, and critical anthropologies are currently crosscutting our subfields. While we increasingly use their principles and methodologies to guide our research, they can also help us re-envision the aims of graduate education. These types of collaborations move pedagogy away from the individualistic and privatized learning that characterizes much of graduate training and which is frequently at the root of our feelings of estrangement.

Many of our colleagues working in collaborative and applied anthropologies are already drawing on pedagogical and research models, such as participatory action research and service learning, which can orient this shift in language and practice (Keene and Colligan 2004, Nassaney 2004, Sanday 1998). These models, gaining attention in undergraduate education, offer powerful curriculum and research designs which blur boundaries between academic, public, and personal domains (Eyler and Giles 1999, Rhoads and Howard 1998). They are founded upon the principle that research and learning is best conceived and conducted in collaboration with communities, in ways meaningful to the goals of both groups. Researchers and educators guided by these frameworks build relationships with communities based on ideals of trust and reciprocity. In this spirit, they offer anthropological insights as perspectives that can be shared, practiced, and contested, mitigating the hierarchy that can result when scholars represent themselves as experts. Concretely, they provide us with a new repertoire of words and practices which could replace professional logics with ones more in keeping with the holistic ideals of anthropology.

One way to begin this shift is to introduce alternative ways of describing our actions and goals in graduate education by substituting the language of professionalization with the language of action-oriented engagement. Rather than stating that networking and developing one’s CV are essential if students are to succeed in the “reality” of the job market, anthropologists might emphasize that building relationships and diverse intellectual contributions are practices integral to participation in the anthropological community. Rather than emphasizing instrumentalism, we can emphasize reciprocity; rather than specialization, exploration; rather than individuation, exchange. Certainly we recognize as anthropologists that words have action. Through the use of a professional discourse, we internalize the logic that underlies it and inadvertently produce and reproduce structures that are contrary to ideals of anthropology. Drawing upon the language of action-oriented engagement points to similar practices in graduate school but conceives of them in a different spirit.

This shift that we propose, in the ways we comprehend and speak about graduate education, can lead to concrete actions of involvement, collaboration, exchange and critique. Indeed, such actions have already begun. In our own department at Brown University, a group of anthropology graduate students developed a lecture series in 2005 with the intent to explore new ways to contribute to social change through research and representation. Eleven speakers who variously blended anthropology, sociology, art, and activism addressed the challenges that they face in their work and provided students with inspiration and ideas for merging their anthropological training with innovative representational practices, research designs, and community action. In the spring of the same year, students had the chance to experiment with these ideas in a community-based research project that was a core component of a graduate seminar taught by Professor Catherine Lutz. The course was grounded in literatures of public anthropology and community advocacy that provided a curricular foundation for the students’ collaborative project, which centered on a labor union who at the time had been working without a contract for over five years. The project, which proved both challenging and stimulating, presented graduate students with an opportunity to engage in new interdisciplinary and community partnerships, as well as a chance to practice writing for different publics, as part of their curricular work. 

These events were followed by a department-wide conversation reflecting, in part, a desire that such opportunities become more commonplace. In the fall of 2006, at the joint invitation of the departmental chair, Professor William Simmons, and graduate advisor, Professor Stephen Houston, faculty and students gathered at a professor’s home to talk about the current state of graduate education in the U.S. and possibilities for its transformation. Discussion ranged from concerns as broad as the meaning of disciplinary stewardship and the goals of anthropological education to detailed suggestions regarding funding timelines, assessment practices, and procedures for forming students’ academic committees. We see it as an inspiration that such a conversation was encouraged and welcomed by faculty and graduate students alike, that it increased general self-reflection regarding education practices in our program, and that such self-reflection was followed by concrete changes in policies and expectations listed in the departmental handbook that guides students’ graduate training.

But perhaps most promising is the fact that the forum brought forward calls for continued conversation and action in our department and which we hear echoing across Brown more broadly. In the spring of 2007, an interdisciplinary graduate student conference entitled “Intellectuals and the Academy in Public Life,” organized by students in the History department at Brown and in which several anthropology graduate students participated, also generated discussions on alternative forms of research and learning and ways to implement them in graduate training. Recognizing these moments of conversational and pedagogical possibility within and outside of our departments opens up the potential for future action. We hope to continue such efforts by connecting with other graduate students who are working to recreate graduate training in varied ways. We welcome comments, critiques, insights and suggestions on how to make graduate education not just entry into a profession but entry into a diverse anthropological community.


1. The distinction between professional and academic work is tenuous, but one way to make the distinction is in terms of training. Professionals are trained to master a body of knowledge and put it into practice. Academics are trained to learn a body of knowledge and make a unique contribution to it, which can include questioning its foundational tenets.

2. “...some 70 percent of all faculty are adjuncts” (Sahlins 2008:5).

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