Academic Precarity and Anthropology as a Discipline

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

David Platzer and Anne Allison’s immensely stimulating and provocative essay draws attention to one of the most pressing problems facing anthropology today. The problem of finding jobs for PhDs is not only an ethical issue of great importance but also concerns our vision of the discipline. Where does anthropology fit in the larger intellectual landscape of the neoliberal university? How do labor elites—tenured faculty—forge alliances with other workers in higher education, including adjunct faculty and those doing bureaucratic and custodial work? Platzer and Allison develop Hugh Gusterson’s (2017) call to turn our anthropological gaze on the institutions that we know well—the places where we work—with insightful observation and extensive interviews with a range of informants.

I take Platzer and Allison’s chief question to be how it is possible for an aspirational norm of getting a tenure-track job to persist in the face of clear evidence that such a norm will not be realized for as many as four out of five anthropology PhDs. In truth, I sometimes feel like the recent graduate who is quoted as wanting to yell at his faculty to “wake the hell up!” Even when I received my PhD exactly thirty years ago, the number of doctorates granted in anthropology were at least four times the number of tenure-track jobs available. After the period of rapid expansion of U.S. universities in the 1960s and 70s, there was a serious shortage of tenure-track positions because new positions were not being created and replacement positions were few because not many faculty were retiring. Meanwhile, more PhDs were being granted from an array of new anthropology graduate programs, even as existing programs scaled up to supply increased demand on the part of students.

Given this persistent gap between supply and demand, which has lasted for more than three decades, holding on to the belief that we are simply reproducing the professoriate would appear delusional. In the face of this situation, two strategies are possible: decrease the number of PhDs being conferred; or, augment the training of anthropologists so that they are qualified for a number of different jobs and can be placed in professions other than the teaching of anthropology.

I want to explore the second option in some detail. One way to guarantee the irrelevance of anthropology inside the North American academy, and especially outside it, is to simply work to reproduce anthropology departments. We diminish the importance and relevance of the discipline by not actively promoting the entry of our graduates into different professional fields. Within the academic world, anthropologists are often in demand as faculty in various schools and departments, ranging from business and education to medicine and public health. Platzer and Allison list a few such fields beyond the academy, including industrial design, government, journalism, development, and advocacy. I would add to that list fields such as business consulting, media, human relations, multilateral institutions, teaching in secondary schools, publishing, and more. One could argue, for example, that more anthropologists writing for the mainstream media (like Gillian Tett of the Financial Times) or for film studios—or even serving as TV journalists and anchors—could have a major influence on the representations of diverse populations in mass culture and could serve to elevate the generally low level of discourse about cultural and religious difference in most nation-states.

We academics can keep talking to each other about why anthropology matters, but unless we expand anthropology’s reach to other domains and professions, we will reproduce our own marginalization within the academy and the larger world. Most institutions in the business and nonprofit sector are now thoroughly globalized and constantly have to deal with the question of cultural difference in their everyday operations. Who better than anthropologists to help them figure out how to structure their operations and processes, to the benefit of their clients as well as their own employees?

Many anthropology professors in the United States worry that placing PhDs in nonacademic careers constitutes a form of selling out and will lead to the erosion of the critical norms that mark our discipline as an anticapitalist, antihegemonic domain of knowledge. This is a particularly difficult criticism because most of us are acutely aware of our own imbrication in a thoroughly neoliberal institution: the North American university. But even given our own complicity with capitalism, do we not equip our students with tools that enable them to think critically about their own place in a world that seemingly multiplies inequality without end? Even if we do not rage against the machine, those of us who work in R1 universities do at least attempt to “democratize the ruling class” (in the words of one of my former colleagues). Is there not a similar role for people who work in for-profit institutions? Does working in such environments necessarily mean abandoning critical perspectives? The answers to these questions are far from evident, but let me suggest that we not dismiss the role that specific intellectuals may play by using their critical skills and perspectives in a variety of settings.

Platzer and Allison raise a critical issue by emphasizing methodological “cross-training” as a serious need. This point makes me wonder about the conventional strategy of promoting applied anthropology in different contexts by emphasizing a holistic perspective. I would rather argue that cultural anthropology’s distinctive contribution is its ability to translate contexts across linguistic, cultural, and political differences. This ability to cross boundaries and to understand contexts so as to make translation possible—an ability that is obtained through rigorous intellectual training, but which also requires well-developed qualities of empathy and perspective—is a rare combination that can be applied to almost all areas of human endeavor. In a world where institutions are finding it difficult to negotiate cultural differences, anthropologists with PhDs have a great deal to contribute. Lateral thinking, the ability to make connections across contexts, and the ability to understand where people are coming from are much-prized assets in most employment settings, and they are precisely the skills for which anthropologists are trained.

Finally, I would be remiss in not pointing out that Platzer and Allison’s argument is specific to the North American academy, or might perhaps be extended to the European Union and the United Kingdom. In Asia, universities are expanding at a breakneck rate, and there is tremendous scope for new anthropology departments to be set up. There are new faculty positions available, but it means that scholars trained in North American universities will have to look further and to be willing and able to move to other parts of the world to find those elusive tenure-track jobs.


Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. “Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University.” American Ethnological Society 2017 presidential address. American Ethnologist 44, no. 3: 435–50.