The Relationship Between Applied and Theoretical Anthropologies

In their text on Applied Anthropology, Ervin emphasizes the “reciprocal relationship (Ervin 2005, 6)” between applied anthropologies and theory. Despite their inseparable interplay, the dividing distinction is often from direction. In classical, theoretical anthropology the topics are selected by researchers, usually relating to their personal interests. The applied direction on the other hand, can be viewed more as “anthropological service,” where the topics of interest stem from the needs of society. (Ervin 2005, 3). The applied anthropologist has a specified role in policy decisions (Ervin 2005, 3), while the theory will have value to policy in a more roundabout fashion (Ervin 2005, 4).

I like to think of these concepts as appreciative nemesis. Although they appear to be pitted against each other as disciplines, they inherently feed off of one another to thrive respectively. The applied aspects of anthropology give theoretical framework a context to thrive within. Likewise, theory can serve as a guiding template which can be applied for specific policy concerns.

Need anthropologists be aware of the relationship between theory and practice on order to do good work? Researchers may not always be aware of the possible applications of their work, and practitioners may not know how to best examine the problem at hand. The work seems to go on regardless of an explicit awareness of all influences involves, but it is through that awareness that we gain a chance to pull back, reexamine, and reassess both sides of the discipline to the benefit of all.

Ultimately, anthropology is interested in understanding and solving human problems (Ervin 2005, 1), and it is with both theory and applied research that we are able to solve very specific issues across multiple scenarios (Ervin 2005, 11). This is not to say all anthropologists should be expected to excel in theory and application, but to collaborate and communicate within the discipline and across others.

Referencing Alexander M. Ervin’s Applied Anthropology: Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary Practice, 2nd Edition, University of Saskatchewan, ©2005 Pearson


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Published by Nikki M

Applied Anthropologist and Digital Dance Specialist

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