Action anthropology is a scholarly enterprise based in field research, data collection, and theory building, during which the anthropologist is also committed to assisting local communities in achieving their goals and meeting specific felt needs. Rather than pursuing pure science or perusing their own agendas, action anthropologists see themselves more as tentative coexplorers who help the host community to identify challenges and seek ways to meet them. In the process, action anthropologists contribute to the community while learning from their experiences. While applied anthropology generally focuses on programmatic concerns of nonlocal funders, both public and private, action anthropology discovers local concerns in the course of ethnographic work and engages local resources in addressing them. Though related to applied anthropology, which began in Great Britain in the 1920s and the United States in the 1930s and which shares the goal of being a useful rather than purely scholarly field, action anthropology takes a more populist approach. The anthropologist must be committed to assisting the host community by serving as an educator and a resource, not as a source of money or expertise. Mutually agreed-upon plans for action arise from knowledge gained by fieldwork and the reception of knowledge by the host group.
Primarily derived from research with Native American communities, action anthropology was a product of and sustained by the personal dynamism of anthropologist Sol Tax (1907-1995). Anthropology has, from its inception, been more than disinterested research and data collection. E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) described anthropology as a reformer’s science. Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) advocated against Iroquois removal. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) publicly excoriated British colonial policy, and James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology critiqued the federal government as part of the cause of Plains Indians’ social and economic problems in the 1880s. Nevertheless, it was many decades before anthropologists came to the idea that host individuals in the field were colleagues rather than “informants” or to the belief that the relationship between field- worker and host community was one of mutual help and reciprocity rather than simply scholar and subject population. Also, action anthropologists are participants as well as participant observers, both objectively learning from outside and eventually entering the fray when and where appropriate. Though not without good intentions, early anthropology simply suggested solutions for Native peoples, anathema to action anthropologists. Action anthropology facilitates what is now referred to as community- based needs assessment.
Tax articulated his own understanding of action anthropology in 1975. He stressed professional tolerance for ambiguity in action anthropology, as its methodology was tentative and contextual, much like the clinical situation of a physician interacting with a patient. He cautioned that this process was not social work; theory building and understanding remained paramount but should never be separated from assisting communities with their specific difficulties. Local people must make their own decisions and identify their own problems and target the specific situations they wish to address. Tax stressed three values in carrying out action anthropology: the value of truth couched in science and scholarship, the value of freedom of communities to make their own decisions, and the value of focusing on only the specific task at hand rather than attempting to change total situations.
Tax worked out the program for action anthropology while teaching at the University of Chicago and directing the work of graduate students at a field school, which ran from 1948 to 1959. Tax himself worked for a short period of time in 1928 among the Fox (Mesquakie) of Tama, Iowa, and steered his students into the Fox Project, where they engaged in cooperative activities such as establishing an American Legion hall, educating the local non-Indian population about the Mesquakie and the Mesquakie about their neighbors, setting up an artists’ cooperative, assisting the Mesquakie in maintaining the integrity of their own local school system, encouraging small-scale communal gardening, establishing scholarships for Native students, and opening their own off-reservation residence as an informal social hall for young people to form strong relationships with members of the Native community.
Tax’s own larger anthropological career demonstrated his commitment to the ideals that find their expression in action anthropology, particularly his organizing the Chicago American Indian Conference in 1961, his activism regarding Native American rights, and his founding of the international journal Current Anthropology, which published new research and facilitated collegial dialogue, academic and Native. In addition to his research and political action in Guatemala, Dr. Tax worked for the improvement of his own Hyde Park neighborhood; participated in the organization and early growth of the American Indian Center of Chicago; supported a Native-based educational venture, Native American Educational Services (NAES) College in Chicago; encouraged Native American participation in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS) at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Indian Center; and facilitated the establishment of the tribal research D’Arcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library, named after his friend, colleague, and key American Indian Chicago Conference associate D’Arcy McNickle (of the Salish culture).
Many scholars have carried on the mission of action anthropology using Tax’s insights and continue to do so. Among the most significant action anthropologists to emerge directly under Sol Tax’s mentorship were Robert Reitz, Robert K. Thomas, and Nancy Lurie. Robert Reitz started with the Fox Project in 1955 and began an artists’ cooperative. He also worked among the Three Confederated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) at Fort Berthold and was director of the Indian Center of Chicago until his death in 1971. Unfortunately, his legacy was in action and not in writing, and thus we have little from his pen. Robert Thomas, a Cherokee anthropologist trained at Chicago, worked on the Fox Project, the National Indian Youth Council, was a founding board member of NAES, and was deeply involved in the struggle for Native American rights. Nancy Lurie of the Milwaukee public museum also based her approach to museum anthropology in the realm of action anthropology, stressing Native community involvement and partnership with the Native community in constructing museum displays and establishing activities and programs. She also promoted displays of contemporary Native life rather than simply focusing on the Native past.
Other anthropologists credited with direct assistance to indigenous populations that presage the tenants of action anthropology include Allan Holmber’s work in Vico, Peru, assisting in the aftermath of an earthquake, and James Spillius’s intervention in Tikopia (Polynesia), after a horrific hurricane. Both anthropologists’ roles moved from pure research to what Tax would call “action”: communal assistance at the time of a crisis.
The invisibility of Tax’s own action program as well as that of others became painfully evident when Vine Deloria Jr. and other Native Americans took anthropology to task for remaining apart from the real needs of Native communities, exploiting them through research that furthered only the career of the anthropologist. Deloria, who attended the American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961, published his initial critique in 1969, some 20 years after the inception of the Fox Project and at a time when research with Native American communities had significantly diminished. Nevertheless, his words served to challenge the discipline to take seriously its commitment to peoples as much as to research and to carry out research not “pure” but practical to lived situations.
Deloria’s critique was part of a larger change in consciousness experienced among U.S. anthropologists who experienced not only paradigmatic meltdown but also a crisis of conscience in the 1970s. Many came to believe that their discipline was too closely associated with the rise of colonialism at best, and instrumental or essential to colonialism’s success at worst. Anthropology as a field grew self-conscious and self-critical, attempted to distance itself from power structures (although the academy itself is a power structure), and sought consciously and even radically to identify and side with indigenous peoples who were once objects of study.
While action anthropology was being formulated both in the mind and heart of Sol Tax and in the praxis of the Fox Project, a similar community organizing was beginning in urban Chicago. Fostered by such activists as Sol Alinsky, who knew Tax well, this movement sought to improve the lives of the urban poor, particularly industrial and meatpacking workers. Tax’s work in the Chicago Community Trust mirrored these concerns.
There is no formal “school” of action anthropology today, nor does it have specific institutional locus. Lecture, meetings, and concrete field model its methods and practices. Tax and his students Fred Gearing and Robert Rietz presented their work on the Fox Project at the Central States Anthropological Society in the spring of 1956. Information on the Fox Project and action anthropology was also presented at a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1957. There have been significant conferences on action anthropology itself, including the Panajachel Symposium, held in Guatemala in November 1974. The majority of contemporary reflections on action anthropology are intimately linked to the career of Sol Tax and the Fox Project.
Action anthropology is not without its critics. Most trenchant of the critiques is precisely that anthropology should be conducted as an objective science whose goals are research, publication, and instruction. To become aligned with people in the field is to betray that objectivity. Furthermore, critics point out, the more students became aligned with the helping aspect of action anthropology, the less likely they were to complete their doctorates, and therefore, they ultimately could do little to interact with and help change larger power structures. While these criticisms are fair, action anthropologists are inclined to empower others to construct solutions rather than to deal with these power structures themselves. Action anthropology is sometimes accused of a hidden paternalism in the assumption that a group needs to change or that outsiders are necessary to effect successful or appropriate change.
Finally, there are critics who say that American anthropological theory was insufficient to the goals of action anthropology and action anthropology would have been better served through British applied social anthropology and a multiplicity of social science approaches. Because the methods of action anthropology are an outcome of Sol Tax’s particular way of proceeding in the field, it may have been too dependent on his own personality and action anthropology is still finding its tentative, experimental way within the discipline. Many anthropologists adhere to the ideals of service to the host group, theory building through social interaction and process, and the trans-formation of anthropology from ivory-tower science to collaborative venture.
Sol Tax’s ideals are manifest in today’s “service learning courses,” in which elements of action anthropology are found, as well as in applied anthropology and hyphenated disciplines such as medical- anthropology and legal-anthropology. With the growth of service learning and values-centered education, there will continue to be a place for action anthropology. Action anthropology turned fieldwork into a lifelong profession and activity, not just something required in graduate school and contemplated for the rest of one’s career. The fundamental notions of action anthropology are widespread today, especially as anthropologists and “Natives” around the world continue to build collaborative relationships. The present generation of anthropologists, especially those who work with Native Americans, has practitioners who consciously identify themselves as action anthropologists and shape their fieldwork and teaching accordingly.
The tension between publishing within the academy versus development of ongoing reciprocal relationships with one’s field is the tension between doing and being, and that tension can be productive. Action anthropology has more often than not revealed the difficulty of change rather than the importance of total transformation. Indeed, in value-oriented anthropology, the deepest relationships are not utilitarian, but simply are. Perhaps that is the more important legacy of action anthropology: fieldworkers learn this lesson through interaction and actively establish these relations, rather than simply gathering knowledge or applying templates for local change.
In my own first year at graduate school in Chicago, Sol Tax told me that ultimately anthropology is an academic discipline that is relegated to the bastions of offices with securely closed doors, libraries, and classrooms. After he said this, he looked up at me and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “But I hope you will prove me wrong on this.”
When Creighton University sought to increase enrollment and improve retention of Native students, it was an anthropologist instructor (me) and a Native American colleague working in retention who together recognized the need to increase the layers of support given to each high school student. They required help filling out both admissions and scholarship applications, and the faculty needed help to better understand the cultural situation of an increasing population of reservation and urban Native individuals on campus. Our work, funded only with gas money and room and board, was in the best tradition of Tax’s action anthropology. We shared the recognition with communities on a local reservation of an addressable problem, the expenditure of a few tanks of gas, and mutually discovered solutions as we worked toward direct assistance to students, to evaluate our successes and failures, and to build better relations with Native students and their relatives.
The best explications of action anthropology come from Sol Tax’s own pen. Keep in mind that Tax’s view was constantly being modified both in particular field contexts as well as in intellectual discourse.
While Sol Tax himself attributed the Fox Project as the birthplace of action anthropology, this program is best understood in the context of Tax’s entire life as demonstrated by Blanchard. Fred Gearing, Robert McC. Netting, and Lisa R. Peattie assembled a documentary history of the Fox Project, which exposes a lot of the thought processes involved in formulating action plans and was used for some time as a textbook for Tax’s seminars on action anthropology. Frederick Gearing also wrote a more analytical text on his work in the Fox Project. Assessments of action anthropology and the Fox Project have originated from a variety of authors, such as Piddington, Stucki, Washburn, Rubenstein, Foley, Bennett, Daubenmeier, and Mertens. While there are many critiques of anthropology by Native people, the most trenchant remains that of Vine Deloria Jr.
- Bennett, J. W. (1998). Applied and action anthropology: Ideological and conceptual aspects with a supplement: The career of Sol Tax and the genesis of action anthropology.
- In J. W. Bennett, L. A. Despres, & M. Nagai (Eds.), Classic anthropology: Critical essays, 1944-1996(pp. 315-358). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Daubenmier, J. M. (2003). The Meskwaki and Sol Tax: Reconsidering the actors in action anthropology (Iowa). Dissertation Abstracts International 64(06A), 394.
- Deloria, V. Jr. (1969). Custer died for your sins: An Indian manifesto. New York: Macmillan.
- Foley, D. E. (1991). The Fox Project: A reappraisal. Current Anthropology, 40, 171-191.
- Gearing, F. O. (1970). The face of the Fox. Chicago: Aldine.
- Mertens, R. (2004). Where the action was. University of Chicago Magazine 96(4), 30-35.
- Piddington, R. O. (1960). Action anthropology. Wellington, New Zealand: Polynesian Society.
- Tax, S. (1975). Action anthropology. Current Anthropology, 16, 514-517.
- Washburn, W. (1984). Ethical perspectives in North American ethnology. In J. Helm (Ed.), Social contexts of American ethnology: Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society (pp. 50-64). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.