Being an anthropologist and reading, Gavin Johnson's Ethnosacker interview made me smile. I too opted out of academia after completing my PhD in anthropology. As I am also a psychologist, I chose to go back to clinical practice after a four-year long PhD affair with anthropology.
On the one hand, Gavin’s interview brings out what is often the good spirited nature of the kind of social scientists who do not take themselves too seriously (unless, of course, they are talking to a stereotypical academic anthropologist). On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that for those of us anthropologists who stray from the academic path there is a legacy of guilt, or a tint of shame, or some unresolved conflict we must tackle through humour. If this is entirely my projection so be it. Yet being a psychologist too, I get to decide whether or not this is entirely my projection (thank you very much).
What I still struggle with - not suggesting that Gavin does, this is now officially about me - is this idea that commercial ethnographers produce something less ‘worthy’ than our academic peers. I want to challenge this a bit.
Take as example the questions of the funding of academic ethnographers. Funding agencies are not private clients, but PhD candidates still have a lot to answer in terms of what they set themselves to research from the very beginning. Do you often wonder, in a world where people often see the place they belong to as the major identity definer, why we still have more ethnographies of race or ethnicity than, for example, ethnographies of place and space?
Well, if you go somewhere like a race and equality board and ask for a grant to study a part of a city, your chances are substantially reduced if you set yourself to study a particular ethnic group in that part of the city. Try a PhD funding research proposal of the Afro-Caribbean in Brixton. If you are presenting it to a funding agency with clear concerns around ethnicity, compared to an ethnographic study of ‘Brixton as a multi-racial part of London’, your chances of funding will certainly increase. Of course, once you’re there (writing the thesis up) you can always ‘deconstruct’ ethnicity. That’s probably why so many anthropologists feel they need to deconstruct something in the phase of writing: they could hardly deconstruct it while applying for the funding.
Academic work, like everything else in the world, is politically rooted and partially commissioned. Funding agencies are not private clients. That does not mean they do not actively shape the research objects from the start, dividing them in useful and acceptable research objects and something else, on the other side.
Indeed, if we accept that there is something as proper ethnographic objects, here comes the second fallacy on the relation between academic anthropology and commercial ethnography. I think the time will come where commercial anthropologists will lead the forefront of the discipline, at an academic level as well. This isn’t just because academic departments, as we all know, are struggling to survive. If anthropology is a holistic subject, commercial anthropologists, by bringing together data from ethnography, cultural theory, semiotics, social theory, constructivism, neuroscience, thematic analysis etc, more often in the same research project are starting to articulate in practice the holism that academic anthropologists often allude to as the failed promise of the discipline.
There shall be no place for feelings of inferiority regarding our academic soul mates: commercial ethnographers are the only kind of researchers who are TRULY pushing the boundaries while making sure the discipline survives. What we know need is a good high brown theory for what we do, a theory that can shed light on our practices, illuminating the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, just like our informants. Ideally, this theory will inform academic anthropology, in a feedback loop. I’m a strong believer this theory will come, when the time is right. And by the work everyone is doing in commercial ethnography, it’s probably going to come sooner than we all expect.
I have currently resigned from my post as a psychotherapist (enough stories of misery) and looking forward to begin a career in commercial ethnography. I’ve got all the theory in the world and plenty of qualitative research practice in two disciplines…so if you know someone who can use a trilingual anthro-shrink as a commercial ethnographer...