By Carla Pezzia
University of Texas-San Antonio
The HRSJ Committee recently started a new initiative where students get the opportunity to conduct interviews about the HRSJ work of experienced activist anthropologists. We will be highlighting some of these interviews here in the newsletter. The podcast team has also graciously agreed to allow us to post full interviews on their website. Any comments, questions, or suggestions for this initiative can be addressed to Carla Pezzia, Carla.firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Conversation with Dr. Josiah Heyman
By Allison Czapp [email@example.com]
Calls to action may be abundant in the anthropological literature, but the dearth of writing about how to be an activist anthropologist can leave practitioners of the discipline treading murky waters — particularly when the academic and activist realms can at times appear to be polar opposites.
While some applied anthropologists may be able to launch their careers on an activist’s path, for Dr. Josiah Heyman, head of the anthropology department at the University of Texas-El Paso, engagement with human rights and social justice issues was possible only after an established career as an academic.
According to Heyman, who is currently writing suggested language for the next generation of immigration reform legislation, “It’s really important to clarify whether you want to be an academic who has some activist engagement or you want to be an activist. I think there are a lot of people on the academic side who haven’t really committed themselves fully to being academics, who want to be activists, which is not a successful approach” because “it’s going to lead to frustration and failures as an academic.”
A better approach to academic-activism would be to first determine how to attain success in academia through publishing, teaching, researching, etc., and then determine how to realistically “integrate things like community-based research, or public communication,” he says.
Heyman also emphasizes the need for collaboration with other professionals and organizations. “I don’t see the lone-effort thing as usually going anywhere,” he says. “I think it takes an organization that gets the word out,” and there has to be “a clear goal in mind.” Anthropologists can then contribute their unique skill set in efforts to meet those goals. Such contributions might take the form of direct research, or it might be something has more “to do with some of the same skills of knowledge gathering and analysis and so forth,” Heyman says. Furthermore, there must be a concerted effort to learn how to communicate information beyond academic walls.
However, Heyman cautions that questions will remain about whether activist work on short-term agendas can really make a difference or whether it simply reproduces power structures. “The question that’s lurking all along is: Are we affecting policy or are we just being used as ideological window dressing? And then a related ethical question is: To what extent does the ethical impulse that ‘I should be doing whatever it is I can do,’ override the critical impulse, which is ‘This is just ideological window dressing?’
“And I’ve thought about that over and over again for six years and it hasn’t gotten any better, it hasn’t changed.” However, “my gut reaction is that I can’t live in a world in which I tolerate … unnecessary suffering and injustice. So I will, myself, be engaged in immediate struggles,” he says.