07 July 2016

Anthropology & Public Policy

One of the motivations for starting anthro everywhere! was to create a page where teachers and students (and skeptical relatives) alike could get a better idea of the wide range of things that you can do with anthropology or what an anthropological perspective can bring to a workplace. If you check out our page, "Applying an anthropological perspective outside of university" or our tag 'what can anthro do?' you can see how anthropologists are bringing their critical cultural perspective and ethnographic methodological approach to a wide variety of fields, including:
  • Media: Journalism, Writing, Entertainment
  • Marketing/ Brand & Product Development
  • Health Professions
  • Technology
  • Finance
  • Entrepreneurship
While there seems to be a lot of easily accessible material on the internet about the value of an anthropological lens in, say, the marketing or health sectors, I had a hard time finding any similar publications on what an anthropological perspective can bring to work in the fields of public policy or public service. Of course, these too are fields where anthropologists not only work, but excel. 

In order to address this issue, I recently went to Ottawa where I interviewed three public servants currently working for Canada's federal department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs who have backgrounds in anthropology. While this piece isn't ready for publication just yet, I luckily came across another interesting perspective on an anthropological or ethnographic perspective in a recent post from EPIC: Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry.

In "Human-Centered Research in Policymaking" (20 June, 2016 - part of the Data|Design|Civics Series) Chelsea Mauldin and Natalia Radywyl discuss how they were involved in a project to "use ethnographic research to develop the New York City Digital Playbook, a policy and operational guide to help City staff develop new and improved digital services for New Yorkers." Their work in this project will help advise on how to create digital services that will actually be used by those who need them, including vulnerable New Yorkers who might already have difficulty accessing city services, and who are not seen as the typical 'user' of digital technology. In spite of the innovative results promised should the City incorporate their findings, Mauldin and Radywyl write that the adoption of an ethnographic + design approach in policy making is still new.
Our work is part of a broad human-centered shift in policymaking. However, design and ethnographic work is happening primarily in the arena of operational policy – the strategic direction and day-to-day practices that inform how members of the public interact with government. Less enlightened are the “upstream” phases of policymaking that constrain operational policy. These are legislative policy, laws enacted by elected legislative bodies, and regulatory policy, the arena in which civil servants interpret how a given piece of legislation should be acted upon by operational components of government.
Hopefully, we will be able to provide more links to accessible, open-access writing about the connections between anthropology and public policy/ public service very soon! If you have come across this kind of work, write on it, or do it yourself, we would love to hear from you (anthrolens at gmail.com).

Quick links and further reading: