SCA Participation in the 2024 Anthropology Meetings in Tampa

Photo by Joseph Brent, originally sourced on Flikr, IMG_3861.

The board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) is weighing how best to proceed with our participation in the 2024 annual AAA (American Anthropological Association) meeting in Tampa, Florida. We acknowledge calls to boycott the meeting, such as the recent call for a non-binding boycott of this year’s meeting from the Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA), and others who have stressed the importance of proceeding as planned. We are aware that many of our section members have supported the political and ethical rationales for a boycott. We also know that many of our members and colleagues feel otherwise with regard to the political or professional necessity of participating in the conference and attending in person in Tampa.

We acknowledge the complexity of this issue: for the AAA, for its constitutive sections, and for its diverse members placed variously in the discipline and in the country and beyond. We are inclined, as a board, to foreground the priorities of our section’s members in deciding how we ought to participate, as a society, in the meeting. In the coming days, we will be asking SCA members to vote on whether our society should sponsor in-person panels and other events at all in Tampa, or whether we should restrict our participation instead to virtual contributions. All current members of SCA will be invited to participate in this vote, which we will take as binding.

What follows is a description of the issues as we see them, and the process we have followed. Whatever the outcome of the vote we have planned, we wish to convey our intention to support our members and their convictions, and our hope to work together with AAA and other sections in ensuring such support for our disciplinary colleagues wrestling with a complicated situation. We will work to support those who choose to attend the Tampa meeting in person, even if our offerings as a society are virtual. Conversely, if we sponsor both physical and virtual programming as a society this year, we will aim to ensure that those who choose to attend virtually have as robust an experience as possible.

Socially engaged scholarly praxis and meaningfully open access to knowledge are core commitments of the SCA, and we aim to anchor our own processes and decisions in these commitments.

The Politics of an Annual Meeting

Annual meetings are occasions for academic societies to focus attention on important subjects of scholarly concern. Now and then, their very organization can bring serious questions into focus. Plans to hold the 1970 AAA annual meeting in Honolulu were criticized for limiting the participation of younger and less affluent members of the profession, and the meeting was eventually moved to San Diego. In 1995, the AAA adopted a resolution to “sign no contracts for any of its annual meetings in any state or local municipality which has [anti-sodomy laws] or policies discriminating against lesbian, gay, or bisexual persons at the time of the signing of the contract,” a commitment that feels relevant now.

The 2004 AAA annual meeting was shifted at the last minute from San Francisco to Atlanta in acknowledgment of the lockout of unionized employees from the San Francisco hotel where conference attendees would have stayed. In 2010, the AAA Executive Board committed to avoid holding its scholarly conferences in Arizona and Georgia in protest of recent anti-immigrant legislation in those states. In recent years, with the public health concerns of the covid pandemic in mind as well as ongoing debates about the steep cost, geographic inaccessibility, and carbon footprint of physical conferencing, the AAA has held its annual meetings on a hybrid basis, accommodating both physical and virtual attendance.

For many months now, colleagues in the discipline have expressed concern over the siting of the 2024 annual meeting in Tampa, Florida, given the rising tide of political and social repression in the state, and dangers these circumstances may pose to trans anthropologists and others who may attend the meeting. A motion to move the meeting elsewhere was made at the 2023 AAA business meeting in Toronto, and passed as an advisory vote. As S.J. Dillon wrote for PoLAR a few weeks later, “if we go to Florida, we communicate to politicians throughout the South that they don’t need to worry” about making discriminatory decisions.

At the same time, other colleagues in the discipline have argued that for reasons of activist responsibility and political solidarity with marginalized communities in Florida, it is essential that anthropologists “show up in full force” in Tampa this fall, as Irma McLaurin and Susan Hyatt wrote in a recent post. Colleagues working in Florida have argued that holding the conference there is an important way to extend support to a local public education system “under siege” and to local colleagues and students working under increasingly difficult circumstances.

At the 2023 business meeting, AAA leaders stressed the likely financial toll of any major change in meeting plans. In the wake of that discussion last November, it seemed that any further decision with regard to the next meeting would be informed by further discussion with AAA membership. But then in late January, we learned that the organization had decided to go ahead with holding the meeting in Tampa as planned.

Perspectives from an SCA Listening Session

As board members with the Society for Cultural Anthropology, we were surprised by the suddenness of this announcement, which felt like a short-circuiting of the further discussion promised by AAA leadership at the 2023 business meeting and thereafter. It also left us uneasy, as a board, about how to orient SCA participation in the 2024 annual meeting. We decided to host an open discussion forum on the topic, and to allow that conversation to inform what we would do as a society.

Over sixty people participated in the online listening session the SCA held on February 16th, 2024, including representatives of other AAA sections and some AAA leaders and staff. Participants expressed strongly-held views regarding questions of process and decision-making, as well as the question of whether to boycott the in-person conference in Tampa.

Several participants in our listening session, including some presidents of other sections, raised serious concerns about the opacity and top-down character of the AAA’s decision-making. The first person to speak noted that the AAA decided to go ahead with holding the meeting in Tampa without consulting with members. Another person echoed this sentiment, pointing out that multiple individual members and sections who had raised questions at the 2023 meeting in Toronto had been told by the AAA that there would be time for extensive discussions. These concerns about what looked like hasty decision-making, the lack of transparency evinced by the process, and the failure to honor the promise of consultation were echoed by many people who attended the meeting.

Representatives of other sections present at our listening session noted that the AAA’s decision to forego consultative process left them in the awkward position of having to make difficult decisions about the meeting that would inevitably disappoint one group while upholding and honoring the concerns of others. In other words, the AAA’s decision-making had seemed to put the onus of addressing member concerns entirely on individual sections.

The listening session also witnessed heated debates over whether to boycott the Tampa conference: to protect members at risk in Florida, and to protest the AAA’s lack of consultative process. Several members and section representatives argued that a boycott was necessary in order to assure members who had serious concerns about safety in Florida that they were being heard by individual sections, if not by the AAA. They raised specific concerns about how recent legislation in Florida would impact queer, trans, immigrant, and pregnant attendees among others. These participants not only expressed individual opposition to attending the meeting—motivated by concerns about personal safety, and for reasons of political strategy and efficacy—but also demanded collective action across AAA sections.

Other attendees, particularly graduate students and faculty members from Florida, argued that a boycott would hurt queer, trans, immigrant, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) academic communities living and working in Florida. These participants expressed feeling abandoned by the discipline and their colleagues, and shared their dismay at how Florida-based perspectives had been neglected in conversations about the annual meeting. Several graduate students based in Florida articulated a strong desire for engagement and requested anthropologists to “join the fight with them.”

Tangible differences between in-person and virtual conference attendance also came into focus in the conversation. Participants pointed out that a hybrid or two-track meeting could marginalize virtual attendees who would not have opportunities for in-person networking and participation. Many attendees argued, meanwhile, that attending the conference in person in Tampa would serve as an occasion to engage in local advocacy and solidarity work, and as a way to support local businesses operated by vulnerable community members.

Finally, while the pros and cons of an in-person conference boycott gained the most attention in the conversation, participants also asked what forms of protest or pressure might exist beyond such a boycott, evoking powerful examples such as strikes, walk-outs, and die-ins. Some comments placed our discussion of a possible conference boycott in conversation with other political commitments and actions, including individual and association support for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).

Lessons for the Road Ahead

One of the challenges of this conversation was to avoid binary frameworks that would pit one group of colleagues against one another, e.g. those “for” or “against” the boycott. Indeed, the conversation highlighted important points of commonality, including a desire to work in solidarity, and the shared recognition that Florida politics are not exceptional.

Many of us already live and work in states and cities and on campuses that are not experienced as safe, and future conference venues, regardless of location, are likely to pose similar dilemmas. Beyond the 2024 annual meeting, we appreciate and support the call to work proactively to address how future AAA meeting arrangements will handle concerns about member safety and wellbeing, as well as the larger questions about the political implications of a meeting’s location.

Important ideas and strategies to respond to such challenges can surface through processes of collective deliberation. Specifically, for example, we echo the call given voice at our listening session for the AAA to negotiate future contracts that have a no-fault cancellation clause, in case the state where a meeting would be held enacts laws that discriminate against and endanger our members.

The Association for Political and Legal Anthropology board has called for transparency from the AAA, with regard to its decision-making processes and the association’s plans for response to any potential medical or security emergencies. The SCA shares the disappointment voiced by many of our colleagues with regard to the lack of meaningful collaborative process in the decision to continue with the Tampa meeting plan, and going forward, we call for greater transparency and consultation with members and sections in such significant decisions.

As one participant in our listening session put it pointedly, the AAA’s quick decision about Tampa left us asking what purpose an association serves if it does not attend to the concerns of its members. We are grateful for the efforts that the organization has since made to better understand the views of its members on this and other matters, such as the town hall held and survey circulated in the wake of the decision’s announcement.

We hope and expect that as the challenges and conundrums of this year’s meeting are weighed, we will see many other occasions for real dialogue and collective deliberation. We wish to thank all those who took the time to attend our listening session and to share their thoughtful and clarifying perspectives. And we remain grateful to our SCA members for their commitment to face difficult questions with the care and consideration they deserve.