european anthropology

Meta Gorup: transforming European anthropology

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Only two weeks remain before one of the most important events on Applied Anthropology begins. Of course, we are talking about the EASA Applied Anthropology Network’s annual symposium ‘Why the world needs anthropologists’. On October 28th and 29th, the city of Durham (UK) will host this year´s edition which will address one of the most important challenges of the 21st century: energy efficiency and the role that anthropologists can play in this sector.

Under the motto “Powering the Planet”, the Why the world needs anthropologists symposium celebrates 5 years of relentless work. A constant and voluntary work the aim of which is to contribute positively to the professionalisation of European anthropology by generating networks and making visible heterogeneous profiles of anthropologists.
But… who’s behind these events that have succeeded in creating a frame of reference in European applied anthropology and how have they done so? To answer these questions we have contacted Meta Gorup.

Meta Gorup Meta Gorup is one of those responsible for organizing this fantastic event. She was one of the founders of the event back in 2012, and she has been involved in all of the following symposiums ever since. Contacting speakers and organizations, promoting the event through social media or taking care of registering hundreds of participants each year are some of the ‘invisible’ tasks she has been carrying out for over five years. All of it so that we can enjoy this great event! Facts speak for themselves and this shows us her commitment to applied anthropology.

Outside her network and symposium existence, Meta is a researcher of organizations with a focus on studying university life, cultures, and identities. Following degrees in Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology (University of Ljubljana) and Culture, Organization and Management (VU University Amsterdam), Meta has undertaken doctoral research in Sociology (Ghent University). Her doctoral project has built on an ethnography of university heads of departments with the aim to expand our knowledge of identity struggles and tensions among university managers.

Here is what she told us:

How did the idea of creating the “Why the world needs anthropologists” symposium originate? 

When I joined the Applied Anthropology Network (AAN) of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) as a co-convener, Dan Podjed – co-founder and convenor of AAN – and I reflected on how we would like our members to communicate and exchange ideas. Mailing list seemed like an obvious choice but we thought, ‘would it not be better if people get to meet in person?’ And that is how the idea was born. We also agreed that symposium would be a great opportunity to popularize anthropology in general and applied anthropology specifically in order to increase our discipline’s impact outside the ivory towers. We decided to create an event that would be free for all and that would represent a counterpart to academic anthropological conferences with the aim to also attract anthropology students and participants from beyond our discipline.

A lot remains to be done for European (applied) anthropologists to become recognized as a necessary part of private and public sector organizations, of for-profit and non-profit institutions. But I like to think we have succeeded in creating a lively platform that has particularly contributed to raising young anthropologists’ self-esteem and hopefully inspired many of them to pursue careers that will enable them to use anthropological skills to better the world we live in, in one way or another.

Why should people come to this event?

Because there is no good reason not to! First of all, we will be hosting four amazing speakers – Benj Sykes, Tanja Winther, Sophie Bouly de Lesdain, and Veronica Strang – who, I am certain, will be great inspiration to all those interested in designing and deploying energy innovations. The talks will also provide insights into how anthropologists collaborate with energy professionals and consumer communities. Secondly, the first day of the event will be full of opportunities for participants to meet and learn about a number of anthropological organizations and associations, anthropology consultancies, projects working in the fields of applied and energy anthropology, and organizations from the energy sector. The second day of the symposium will be even more interactive and hands-on as five different workshops will be taking place. And if that is not enough to convince people to join us, I should mention we are also famous for great parties!

Your doctoral research project is an ethnography of university heads of departments. What drove you to study this group of university members and what have you learnt? 

My master thesis focused on resistance to organizational change at universities. It was at that point that I realized what a complex position heads of departments held in such situations: they were accountable to academic colleagues, many of whom resisted the change, and the managers who dictated that change. This sparked my curiosity: how do heads of departments actually go about their everyday tasks and how do they construct their identities and loyalties in doing so?

My research paints a complex picture where personal biographies, pressures stemming from multiple organizational levels, and influences of national policies interact – and actively shape one another in the process of heads of departments’ construction of manifold fluid identities. As heads of departments try to avoid uncertainty in their professional lives and the lives of organizations they manage, their decisions are limited by the – uncertain – context in which they find themselves. So they need to be pragmatic sometimes. But this is not to say that they are always helpless when it comes to shaping the implementation of their decisions.

This very much makes me think of some of the criticism applied anthropologists have received due to their ‘work for the system’. I suppose part of that decision might for many at least partly originate from pragmatism, but at the same time provides an opportunity to leave a mark, to take small steps towards improving the system from within. Inspired by Anne McClard’s piece Radicals in Cubicles, I would say that even if this sometimes means two steps forward, one step back, it is worth it.

From an organizational approach, how do you see applied anthropologists organizing as a group? 

I suppose it is a blessing and a curse that anthropology is as fragmented as it is. On the one hand, this is positive because (applied) anthropology is a home to people interested in all sorts of things who can come together and talk to one another. But on the other hand, some would say it raises questions of whether we, as a discipline, have lost our focus.

Another issue lies in the persistent dichotomy between anthropology as a predominantly academic discipline versus an applied one. This, I think, is even trickier. While I am all for strong anthropology background for whomever calls themselves an anthropologist, I feel that the boundaries of anthropology as an academic discipline do not always fit the ways in which the world surrounding us is organized. This fragmentation and divisions of course create tensions with regards to who we are and whether we will lose our defining features if we open up to working with other disciplines (even more) and embrace different ways of organizing. I tend to think this is the way forward if we are to actively contribute to our societies. Rather than creating a closed group where we only speak to each other, we should try to find ways to also become a crucial part of interdisciplinary communities.

How do you think anthropology courses at universities could be improved?

I try to be optimistic about that. It is true that way too many courses seem to be too theoretical, too abstract, so that by the time students graduate they do not realize what skills they have actually acquired. I would say this goes together with anthropology’s image as perceived by the broader society: that it is probably an interesting, but pretty much useless endeavor. I think it will take a lot more effort if we are to change that image.

But on the other hand I am really encouraged by some anthropology courses and initiatives I have come across in the recent years. For example, at our last year’s symposium in Tartu, Estonia, I got to attend the workshop organized by AnthroAnalysis. I was absolutely fascinated by the way instructors Steffen Jöhncke and Bettina Skårup guided the students to employ anthropological concepts to resolve very practical problems. It was a perfect illustration of how anthropological analysis of people, their cultures, and contexts can inform answers sought by for-profit and non-profit organizations. Similarly, PEOPLE project has designed activities which give anthropology students opportunities to inform the work of companies through their own research.

Such approaches to teaching anthropology result in increasing students’ confidence and make them aware of what they are actually capable of as anthropology graduates – and at the same time make potential employers aware of that too. I think anthropology students would greatly benefit from courses that offer more student engagement opportunities and hands-on experiences.

What advice would you give to anthropology students regarding skills and prospective job searching?

I am not sure I am the best person to answer this question as I am yet to find a job myself! But I am convinced that anthropology graduates have more skills than we realize. If you are looking for a job outside academia, you might want to think about the value of skills that you have acquired during your anthropology studies: understanding different points of views and linking them to anthropological theories, critical thinking, observation, interviewing, analysis of large qualitative datasets, and so on. How would you explain their importance to non-anthropologists? And how could you contribute to a team by employing these skills? Talk to people who inspire you, who are doing the jobs you think you would one day want to do. Ask about how they got to where they are, what additional skills they needed to acquire, what dilemmas they have dealt with. Follow your interests but be prepared for compromises: even if you land in a position that initially does not seem to fit the idea of your perfect job, try to find ways to weave in your passions and give it an anthropological spin. In short, stay open, engage with unknown territories, acquire new skills, talk to professionals of different backgrounds. And be persistent!

Thanks Meta. See you in Durham!


Don´t forget to check out the links to AnthroAnalysis & PEOPLEproject!

AnthroAnalysis    Link

PEOPLE Project   Link 


Designing the Future

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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