chapter  8
Time and the Method of the Unexpected
BySheena Nahm
Pages 14

Dry erase marker squeaked as I scribbled on the large white panel hung adjacent to my desk. I had created a large matrix of program deliverables and was attempting to capture the year past while plotting a plan for the year forward. I recorded both grant proposals for funding that would need to be in place in two years while also noting major milestones and achievements in this year’s projects. Life as a leader within a large nonprofit organization was never dull and I felt I was thriving in this environment. I had always been engaged with nonprofit organizations, particularly those involved in education, social services, and health services among minority populations but never thought that would constitute my Monday through Friday 9 am to 5 pm schedule. I had always thought I would work in these agencies either as a committed volunteer or perhaps as a collaborative partner. In my graduate school mind, I imagined that these offices would be spaces and places where I could participate and observe in the role of an anthropologist conducting research. But in that scenario, I would always return to the university as my home base where I would then prepare syllabi and lectures in my baseline role as a tenure-track professor. Years after walking across the stage and receiving my doctorate, I found myself

dry erase marker in hand and deep in the trenches of community-based nonprofit work. This was the third major nonprofit that I worked for after graduate school. When the academic job market collapsed during the economic recession, which happened to take place just as I was preparing to graduate, I found a range of job postings in my hometown of Los Angeles. Working in research, policy, communications, and management at various agencies that had deep local or broad global reach, I found that I could integrate anthropological concepts and methods in my work. The ways in which I articulated this work had to be adjusted, of course, as I articulated and justified these methods to audiences that were not familiar with terms and techniques often taken for granted in the halls of academia. But the

assumption that graduate school needed to be entirely scrapped for a new world of applied work was far from true. I found that the two worlds merged and converged, though admittedly with a great deal of work in translating and adapting theory and practice. When interviewing for positions at various nonprofit organizations, most would-be

supervisors were intrigued by my mixed background in public health, neuroscience, and cultural anthropology. They were excited to hear about my cross-cultural work and ability to balance flexibility with structure. But in the end, interest did not equate with marketability in a competitive pool of candidates. What turned interesting stories “from the field” into viability as an employee was my ability to translate my anthropological work into concrete skills. Such skills included: familiarity with specific statistical software; experience in conducting focus groups; a long record of presentations and speaking engagements ranging from community-based workshops to national and international conferences; and comfort with writing grant proposals. This is not to say that the whole of my professional identity was boiled down to tasks or skills, as many interviewers were quick to connect to me as a person and to assess whether my vision and passion for working with vulnerable populations was in line with their own mission. But on the practical level, they were interested in how my familiarity with mixed methodologies and my interdisciplinary background could best serve the needs of their own organization and how my past work as an anthropologist would be applicable to the position for which I was applying. Connecting the dots in a sense was a balance between communicating core values and assessing our alignment in these values with addressing the very practical nature of WIFM (better known as “What’s in it for me?”), where the “cool” factor of cultural anthropological perspectives could be applied in ways that contributed to the organization and the clients we would serve together as a team. This is not a unique experience, as many of the authors in this volume had

similar or comparable reflections upon entering the job market. It was with this in mind that this volume was created. The collection of case studies in this volume demonstrates the many spaces in which anthropology has found a home. Anthropologists “doing” and “talking” culture outside of the academy situate their work in a variety of contexts that might not have been fully envisioned or understood during one’s graduate school days. In these foreign and unexpected contexts, applied anthropologists find themselves asking the same level of critical questions that they were trained to ask while preparing for academic careers. As we have discussed in our introductory chapter, the question is less of deciphering what distinguishes applied anthropology from other forms of cultural anthropology and more of what it might mean to trace and track anthropological advancements in a variety of unexpected spaces. Across the vast expanse of places and topics explored in this volume, we find equally diverse references to theoretical frameworks. However, there is also a common reflection that begs closer examination; it centers on the role of time in our methodological approaches. An anthropological approach takes time. After all, culture is an assemblage of

ideas, symbols, and actions that are so profoundly embedded that they are hardly

given a second thought. Things are the way they are. It takes a great deal of critical inquiry and deep engagement with both the data and the stakeholders participating in how data is conceived, collected, and understood to understand culture. To bring an anthropological approach to a topic, group, or place where it has not been regularly used is to unpack one’s intellectual and methodological suitcase and settle in. Engaging interlocutors means moving forward, sometimes at a crawling pace

when it seems no one is willing to speak candidly with me, and sometimes at a bullet train’s speed when multiple threads seem to emerge and require follow-up. With all these ebbs and flows, the project moves forward. But for the most part, classic fieldwork approaches allow enough time for the anthropologist to be fully immersed and to some extent let things unfurl. While grant funding and sometimes political or personal factors contribute to the bookends of when fieldwork may begin or end, there is a sense that one has time to wander off and to explore the unexpected. To go off script and be open to the promise of the unknown is part of the commitment to exploring assumptions and challenging norms so deep that they seem simple. The questions we propose often become reformulated in the course of fieldwork into questions about even more basic (but profound) understandings held by ourselves and our interlocutors. In contrast, anthropologists in many applied settings are always in the field. But

rather than this “always being in the field” giving more time, the constraints of everyday employment push us forward whether we would like to pause or not. Deadlines beckon and reports must be submitted. This creates a linear trajectory that seems unstoppable. There is no real pause button in sight. And yet, I would argue that any time an anthropological approach is applied there is an inherent openness to stumbling upon the unexpected. This stumbling (even in a humble office setting where we clock in and clock out daily) creates a moment to pause in a linear stream of activities that often tumble forward at a fast and furious pace because milestones and deadlines stop for no one. In the course of my own ethnographic fieldwork and in stories from the field among colleagues, I have observed that the unexpected can appear catastrophic and completely reorient one’s project. But the unexpected can also be found in micro-interactions that cause me to pause and wonder why something seemed unexpected, thereby revealing assumptions and categorical definitions that I had without even knowing it. The unexpected reconfigures time, but in so doing, creates productive ruptures where new inquiries can be made and old inquiries can deepen. The cases in this volume highlight some unexpected spaces and topics for

anthropology to be applied. In examining these cases, there are insights to be gleaned for those interested in specific subfields such as medical or educational anthropology. But in looking at the common threads that tie together when the “unexpected” itself becomes a modality of inquiry, I suggest that there is a metamethodological narrative that emerges. In this chapter, I examine how methods have developed from the classical to the multi-sited. I then turn to an exploration of alternative forms of ethnography and how they might appear in practice through a variety of methods. I ask how classic methods are enhanced when the role of

time in unexpected spaces is more closely examined. I draw from my own experiences across various nonprofit organizations I have worked with and reflect on how time converges with the unexpected to create productive ways of integrating an anthropological approach.