Advancing the Value of Ethnography

The Future of Anthropology: EPIC/AAA Partnership


“I have just seen the future of anthropology,” I said to anyone and everyone who asked me about the first EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), held in 2005 at Microsoft’s Seattle area campus. I had had a privileged vantage point, having offered to coordinate the production of the conference proceedings on behalf of AAA/NAPA (American Anthropological Association/National Association for the Praxis of Anthropology). The setting, the format, the participants all looked fresh through the EPIC lens. Even the proceedings – at least their timing – were a novelty. They appeared online the day before the conference started that first year, and every year since. Freely accessible to the whole world. This practice has created an archive and promoted an idea exchange, of course, but it has also served an important quality-assurance function: No last-minute presentations scribbled on airline cocktail napkins for EPIC. The conference pulls a community together around carefully curated sessions, coherently organized around a provocative theme.

Especially in my current role as executive director of AAA, I need to keep my gaze fixed on the future of our field. And EPIC provides me with a clear viewfinder.

In the US, we graduate about 500 anthropology PhDs every year, and about twice that many MA/MScs. But only about 200 full-time academic positions—at any rank—are available each year. Do the arithmetic. The vast majority of newly trained anthropologists will do something after graduation other than join the professoriate. And as Karen Kelsky points out in her new book, drastic reductions in public support for higher education mean that full-time academic positions will not increase in the foreseeable future.

And yet, this is a good time for anthropology. Because of our work, lives are saved through better quality health and medicine, school systems are being improved, environmental resources are managed more effectively, heritage and languages are preserved, products and services we need are better designed, and a culture of innovation is better understood and managed.

EPIC has understood this from the beginning. And AAA/NAPA have been right there at EPIC’s side. Back in the paleo era, at that first EPIC, Rick Robinson acknowledged the importance of theory, Marietta Baba called for an end to the “theory/practice ‘apartheid’,” and EPIC signaled that it would be a dedicated space for inspecting big ideas, specific cases, and everything in between. Both AAA and NAPA—our section dedicated to practitioners employed mainly beyond the academy—have a strong interest in welcoming and advancing the practice of anthropology as a profession and as an applied scholarly discipline. And we also have a strong interest in supporting EPIC’s efforts to provide a forum for cultural anthropologists, designers, business strategists, planners, architects, policy officials, and others to provide the best practical ethnographic expertise around the world, to exchange ideas about ethnographic praxis, and to develop new theories and methods for the advancement of ethnography.

From the beginning, AAA and NAPA have seen the relationship as a productive one. We have been pleased to be able to distribute conference-related publicity to AAA members, publish and make openly accessible the annual proceedings as part of the AnthroSource portal, and pursue joint initiatives in public advocacy, professional development, student mentoring and career advancement, and other areas of mutual interest. We are in conversation right now about developing a couple of content-driven events each year (e.g., webinars) that would focus on exchanges between EPIC representatives and academic institutions. We are working together to enhance AAA’s Career Center so we can deliver a deep talent pool of qualified candidates to the employers that are at EPIC’s core. And we are working to coordinate a student colloquium across both conferences in 2016.

When I was appointed to my current role at the end of 2012, I set out an ambitious agenda for AAA. We need to revamp our forums for scholarly exchange, including our publishing and conferences programs. We need to grow our membership, not for growth’s sake, but to become a more inclusive association, and especially to become a more welcoming organizational home for people who make their living outside the academy. And we need to call greater public attention to the remarkable contributions that anthropologists make to human understanding and to tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

In each of these endeavors, we consider EPIC to be an important partner, and I personally look to the formative experience I’ve had working the EPIC leadership network for inspiration and for innovative approaches we can emulate. And something the Association appreciates greatly, even 10 years on: EPIC remains a welcoming community where anyone who wishes to step up and help propel the field forward has a genuine opportunity to do so. That quality of openness is a key ingredient in maintaining a future focus and, through our partnership with EPIC, something I aim to have rub off on the AAA.

The American Anthropological Association is an EPIC2015 Sponsor.



Ed Liebow, Executive Director, American Anthropological Association

Ed is AAA’s executive director, an anthropologist with a lengthy history of environmental health and social policy research. In a previous incarnation, he served as EPIC’s treasurer and proceedings coordinator.