In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Applied Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Meetings and Literature Development
  • Reviews
  • Grey Literature and Cyberportals
  • Films
  • Teaching Methods
  • Teaching as Praxis
  • The Future

Anthropology Applied Anthropology
Barbara Rose Johnston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0002


As a term and a subject area, applied anthropology refers to that broad array of research, methods, and outcomes developed and used for the explicit purpose of recognizing, understanding, and addressing human problems. It has been described both as the fifth field of anthropology and as the bridging discipline since the application of research and knowledge to social problems cross-cuts all fields of anthropology. Some view applied anthropology narrowly, in terms of work conducted outside of university settings that is typically defined and produced under some form of contractual relationship, with services and resulting products used in some sort of problem-solving way. In this usage, applied anthropologists work to resolve problems, often in technocratic contexts, with theoretically informed praxis that generates and refines methodologies though rarely contributes toward the production of theory. For others, applied anthropology has broader meaning and refers to the varied uses of anthropology in public and private settings, including academia, where the primary objective involves problem-focused concerns. In this usage all forms of anthropological endeavor have social meaning and an applied dimension. Both the varied meanings of term and the varied outcomes of endeavor reflect the political economic conditions, social contexts, and identity politics within the discipline as it has been practiced over the past century, especially in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Classification and restricted access agreements imposed by research sponsors (governments, other international institutions, and corporations), limited peer review, publication and distribution of grey literature reports, and the membership-restricted publication of flagship journals historically reinforced the boundaries between university-based anthropologists and applied practitioners. With the advent of the web, library scanning projects, changes in information disclosure laws, the ease of uploading the collected works of various journals, newsletters, and magazines to the web, and the increased sophistication and use of web-based translation, access to the collective works in applied anthropology has never been greater. Increasingly, the distinction between applied and four-field anthropology has relatively less meaning as anthropologists are engaged as disciplinary and public actors in a wide array of scholarly, practical, and advocacy endeavors. Globally, anthropological work involves and is celebrated for its combined theoretical, applied, and practical contributions to society.

Meetings and Literature Development

Professional meetings, small and large, are the most common arena for reporting applied anthropology findings. Such gatherings shape a community of praxis, strengthen the linkages between academic and practicing anthropology, and foster development and dynamic growth in the literature. Thus, conference papers are posted on individual and institutional web pages, and abstracts and proceedings are accessible online from sponsoring organizations and host institutions. Presentations in organized sessions are frequently revised and published as special-themed issues of a journal, or form the core of an anthology. Some gatherings overtly organized as a means to further the field. For example, the School of Advanced Research (SAR) and Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) collaboration has produced a book series highlighting theoretically informed applied work through their cosponsorship of a biannual SAR Applied Anthropology Seminar, followed by an SfAA plenary session, followed by book publication (see Whiteford and Whiteford 2005, Rylko-Bauer, et al. 2009). Research institute conferences and workshops organized in collaboration with international agencies or foundations similarly stimulate growth in the field, as illustrated by the University of Oxford’s Refugees Studies Centre (RSC) whose interdisciplinary work reflects the contributions of many applied anthropologists. RSC meetings, seminars, and workshop findings result in publications that meet both a scholarly and applied social science function, generating theory, praxis, and policy recommendations that shape international understanding of the causes and consequences of forced migration. International commissions and their meetings, consultations, commissioned research, and reports are also important loci for applied anthropology work and its products. For example, the anthropologist Thayer Scudder was appointed to the social science chair on the twelve-member World Commission on Dams (WCD) and coauthored a study of the impacts of large dam development over a fifty-year period (an experience described in Scudder 2005 under Development Anthropology). Produced with input from public consultations and commissioned works (Bartolomé, et al. 1999; Colchester and Forest Peoples Programme 2000; and Johnston 2000), the WCD final report offered best practice guidelines that have been since adopted by many of the world’s nations (World Commission on Dams 2000). And finally, at a global scale, the World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) represents a truly significant venue for reporting on and developing transnational views of the field of applied anthropology. Held every five years with focused inter-congress meetings in the intervening years, the scientific work of the IUAES is organized around the agendas and membership of its twenty-eight commissions, all of which have implicit or explicit applied dimensions.

  • Bartolomé, L. J., C. De Wet, H. Mander, V. K. Nagraj, with contribution from C. M. Danklmaier, R. Hemadri, J. Jing, and S. Robinson. 1999. Displacement, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reparation and Development, Thematic Review I.3. Cape Town, South Africa: World Commission on Dams.

    Bartolomé and colleagues review the resettlement, rehabilitation, and development experience of people displaced by dam construction as a means of determining whether existing safeguard mechanisms adequately protect the rights of affected people. Authors identify constraints to successful resettlement, as well as principles of best practice, including the identification of legal instruments and remedial actions that ensure (or restore) accountability.

  • Colchester, Marcus, and Forest Peoples Programme. 2000. Dams, Indigenous People and Vulnerable Ethnic Minorities, Thematic Review 1.2. Cape Town, South Africa: World Commission on Dams.

    This comprehensive review documents the experiences of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities with large dams, conclusively demonstrating that a disproportionate number of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and a disproportionate number of women and children, bear the brunt of adverse impact from global hydrodevelopment.

  • International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

    With members from more than fifty countries, the IUAES represents the largest forum for reporting anthropological findings. In addition to the newsletters, journals, reports, and books published by the commissions and its members, the proceedings of the World Congress are published on the host nation’s website.

  • Johnston, Barbara Rose. 2000. Reparations and the Right to Remedy. Cape Town, South Africa: World Commission on Dams.

    This paper (prepared for Thematic Review 1.3) assesses the legal basis for a human right to remedy, summarizes illustrative cases where dam development involved gross violations of human rights, and reviews emerging trends in law and development praxis for providing meaningful redress. Content, conclusions, and recommendations support WCD findings that an international obligation exists for host nations, financiers, and industry to provide reparation for development project–related abuses.

  • Refugees Studies Centre. Department of International Development, University of Oxford.

    Meetings, seminars, and workshops on forced migration led to publications in the RSC’s journal Forced Migration Review (distributed in four languages), the Journal of Refugees Studies, policy briefings and working papers accessed through the RSC publications link, and Studies in Forced Migration, a book series published by Berghahn Books.

  • Rylko-Bauer, Barbara, Linda Whiteford, and Paul Farmer, eds. 2009. Global health in times of violence. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research.

    Authors use intimate experience and reflective insight to contextualize public health data, producing an analysis of the social impact of structural, military, and communal violence on health, psychosocial well-being, and health-care delivery. Authors argue that witnessing, researching, and exposing the conditions and consequences of structural violence are an essential step toward shaping transformative policies and realities.

  • Scudder, Thayer. 2010. Global threats, global futures: Living with declining living standards. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    With sixty years of experience working with Tongan people displaced by Africa’s Kariba Dam, and other communities displaced by development around the globe, Scudder offers a comprehensive account of the destructive costs of “progress.” His focus on what has gone wrong includes alternative scenarios for how we might do things right, arguing that sustainability requires transforming our notions of success and happiness––to truly understand that less is more.

  • Whiteford, Linda, and Scott Whiteford. 2005. Globalization, water & health: Resource management in times of scarcity. Santa Fe, NM: SAR.

    In a book written for researchers, policymakers, and students, these contributors use theory and praxis from medical anthropology and political ecology to examine the relationship between water, globalization, and health. Case-specific chapters examine the external forces and factors that shape local conditions and contexts, and collectively consider the global pattern of disparity in health and access to water.

  • World Commission on Dams. 2000. Dams and Development. A New Framework for Decision-Making––The Report of the World Commission on Dams. Cape Town, South Africa, and London: Earthscan.

    The WCD served as a catalyst in social movement formation and a force that expanded rights-protective space for dam-affected communities to negotiate an equitable involvement in development. The report is archived on the WCD site UNEP Dams, and it and supporting documents can also be found on government and agency sites, including that of the World Bank.

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