“What Anthropologists Do,” by Veronica Strang

August 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

This blogpost comprises some notes on my reading of Veronica Strang’s book What Anthropologists Do (published by Berg in 2009); it will be updated as I read more of the book.

One of the objectives of my recent visit to India was to meet with the people I did my PhD research with in order to think through how I might continue working with them, and after this visit it seemed a good idea to shift Veronica Strang’s book What Anthropologists Do to the top of my to-do list.

Strang argues against the frequently-voiced division of anthropology into ‘applied’ work and (pure) ‘academic’ work, pointing out that on the one hand “good ‘applied’ research, wherever it is based, requires a strong theoretical framework and a rigorous ‘academic’ approach” and, on the other, “however esoteric a research question may seem, understanding ‘why people do what they do’ always has some practical value, and even seemingly abstract research generates new ideas and proposes new theories that – if they are robust – will filter, through wider discourse, into practice” (6-7).

In exploring a concept of “anthropology as ‘community service'” (11), Strang takes up a variety of ways anthropologists engage with the communities they research. The first chapter deals with advocacy, which can range from formal, legal interventions as an ‘expert witness’ to Strang’s own work with Aboriginal people in north Queensland doing participatory action research, which involved

travelling with the elders around their ‘country’, much of which lies outside the reserve area held by the community…Cultural mapping entails recording, in a variety of media, all of the information about each group’s sacred sites and important historical places, and their traditional knowledge about the land and its resources. This collaboration has resulted in a detailed collection of cultural information, which is now archived in the community, and provides a key teaching resource for younger generations, as well as a body of evidence for indigenous claims to the land. (22)

Chapter two deals with the world of international aid, where, Strang suggests, anthropologists often take on one of two major roles: either ‘stepping back a bit’ to “examine the social, economic and political realities of the interactions between agencies and the recipients of aid” or giving more “direct assistance to organisations that they feel are genuinely trying to help people in need” (29). What is striking about the two roles Strang invokes here is how readily they map onto the applied/pure anthropology dichotomy Strang rejected earlier in the book; here too, Strang cautions against drawing a sharp distinction between these roles, noting that whatever anthropologists choose to do, “they still have to deal with a slightly tricky reality: that their work is also reflexive and thus potentially critical of their host/funding organisation and its activities” (29).

What Anthropologists Do refers to specific examples in its description of the variety of work in which anthropologists are engaged. As a result, flicking through this book has alerted me to the existence of a large number of anthropologists whose work I am now going to explore further. These include:

  • Glenn Stone’s work on the introduction of GM cotton in India, which examines how this has destabilised local knowledge and exchange systems, placing immense pressure on farmers and leading to a rapid rise in the suicide rate among them.
  • Stuart Kirsch’s work in Papau New Guinea, exploring indigenous communities’ collaborative use of anthropological methods in trying to explain the social and environmental impact of mining and communicating their concerns to decision-makers.
  • John Van Willigen and V.C. Channa’s work on the underlying causes of violence against women in India.
  • Anthropologists at the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC).



Kirsch, S. (2006) Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Stone, G. (2002) “Biotechnology and Suicide in India” Anthropology News 43 (5) May http://grain.org/research_files/biotechandsuicide.pdf

Stone, G. (2007) “Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal” Current Anthropology 48 (1) 67-103

Strang, Veronica (2009) What Anthropologists Do Oxford: Berg

Van Willigen, J. and V. Channa (1991) “Law, Custom, and Crimes Against Women: The Problem of Dowry Death in India” in J. McDonald (ed.) (2002) The Applied Anthropology Reader Boston: Allyn and Bacon, p. 116-130


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