The Immeasurable Impact of Anthropology

The Immeasurable Impact of Anthropology

What are the many ways anthropologists can impact the world? How should we think about impact in anthropology specifically? In a new blog series our researchers address the question of impact and what it means to them to ensure that their research matters.

Much anthropological research is driven by an ethical impulse – by a desire to change, or at least improve slightly, the world in which we live. Students are drawn to the study of anthropology, to the study of diverse human cultures, because they want to understand how the world works, how it works differently for different people, and how we can use our knowledge about human difference to make it a safer and happier place for all people. At a time when we are faced with stark warnings of impending environmental disaster, with daily news about the newly emboldened racism and misogyny of groups worldwide, with the seemingly continuous news of human lives lost at sea (by now in the tens of thousands) and of the torture inflicted upon those that do make it to our borders, it becomes more important than ever to ask ourselves, what is the impact we have?

Measuring impact

This blog post is part of a larger reflection process at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology in Leiden to think about the many forms of impact that anthropologists can have. In academic settings, there has recently been increased interest in the question of impact. This has meant more attention to the task of measuring impact. But how do we measure impact and when? The desire to assess impact has led to a focus on the classic academic forms of the written text and the lecture, and the question of how many people, and which people, we are reaching with our texts and lectures. The texts we produce can and should take various forms – newspaper articles, blogs, policy reports. Lectures should also be for diverse audiences and not only for students or fellow anthropologists; they should include public lectures, podcasts, and interviews for radio, TV, newspapers as well as providing expert input to policy-makers, non-government organizations, citizen groups and anyone else who asks. Our academic texts should be open access and spread through social media so more people can access them. Still, measuring impact remains difficult. While we can sometimes know how many people “view” a text, it is hard to know what the impact is of these views. The question of when to measure is also problematic; what if the impact of research findings is only visible decades later because society is not “ready” for the knowledge being produced (research on climate change might be a great example of this)?

Impact through fieldwork

In this blog, I want to address one form of impact that is important to anthropological research specifically, and qualitative fieldwork-based research more generally. All of the above types of impact invoke a linear timeline in which there is first a phase of doing research and then a phase of having impact. These forms of impact are important, but for anthropology, this is only half the story. Because anthropologists use methods based on long-term fieldwork – living with and participating in the daily lives of the people that we study – we build strong relationships of trust; sometimes lifelong friendships, sometimes relations that are closer to those of family. This means that we become implicated in the ins and outs of people's everyday lives, and we are often there when they are faced with problems – these problems may even be the thing we came to research. In this way, the field itself becomes the very first site, and an immensely important site, of impact in anthropological research. As we intervene in the daily world of our research field(s), we use our research expertise (and our basic human compassion) as a way to improve the lives of those we live with and the political, cultural and social processes that we study. Even when we study topics and people that we disagree with, personally or politically, the goal is always to produce a better understanding of the people, situations, and structures, so that we can intervene in a positive way with our knowledge.

With our research program on Global Vulnerabilities and Social Resilience in Leiden we work on three interconnected areas of Sustainability, Digitalization and Diversity – all areas in which impact is urgent. We explore questions such as, what is preventing humans and nature from finding a sustainable balance across different cultures? How do local communities envision environmental, social and economic sustainability differently when it comes to natural resources such as food, water, forests and minerals such as gold? We bring these conversations into dialogue with new developments in digitalization to explore how technologies shape people's sense of self, their interests, their relationships, and their collective power, while also maintaining a sharp eye for the many ways that people transform these technologies through their use. Finally, all of these questions are connected to our research focus on diversity which explores how the world, its people, and its objects are classified into distinct and unequal categories and what the role of science is in reproducing or challenging these hierarchies.

Mobilizing research findings in interaction with the people we study

But how does our fieldwork itself have an impact on each of these topics? In my own work, impact in the field has taken different forms depending on the research topic. When I studied the attempts by transnational social movements to build more egalitarian forms of democracy on a global scale, I actively participated in this political process by, on the one hand facilitating meetings and contributing my ideas about what a “good” democracy is directly into these ongoing global conversations, and on the other hand, by bringing these conversations into dialogue with centuries of political theory in my writings. In this way, my analyses of democratic practice were fed directly into these democratic processes as they unfolded. If we only look at the impact of my writings and not at the impact of my actions as a researcher in the field, we miss an important piece of the picture. The self-organization that these social movements enact also requires a lot of labor from participants. When doing research into self-organization, I also contribute my labour to these initiatives, from helping with the overall organization to doing the everyday “dirty” jobs of cleaning, building, cooking, running errands. This kind of contribution has an important, if immeasurable, impact. My current research topic, that of eviction, makes the importance of impact in the field even more visible. Anthropologists who have worked on this topic in the past have had a direct impact through their fieldwork in many ways from the simple gesture of holding a person's hand as they hear their court verdict, to helping someone pack all of their life's possessions while talking through what it means for them to leave the only place they've ever felt at home, to going door to door with local housing groups to make people aware of their rights and how to assert them. In each of these simple actions the knowledge we build as researchers informs the conversations we have, reassures people in times of worry, and builds connections among people in the field who, in turn, become essential resources for one another. All of this needs to be viewed as impact.

In Leiden, we are trying to think through the notion of impact in a way that allows us to think about it as expansively as possible and to redefine what impact means in the case of anthropology specifically. To this end, we are launching a series of blogs that explore this topic so that we can learn to value (if perhaps not measure) all of the ways our work can and does impact our world.


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