World Anthropologies

By Vanina Santy (Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium)

I am an Argentine PhD candidate at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). As I advance in my research project, I wonder: What sort of job do I expect to find as an anthropologist once I have received my degree? What sort of social scientists does the market require? And another important—and personal—riddle: Where would I like to be or could I be employed? Belgium and Argentina, the latter my country of origin, are the most probable options. What are the distinguishing features of employment in each context? And where is “home” for me after three years of living in Brussels? These questions arose in the last year, and they have kept me actively pursuing the acquisition of professional competences as part of my doctoral training.

Alterity might help me understand the sensation of “here and now” I experience at present in Brussels, and the “there and then” that represents my homeland (Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Fabian 2006). This anthropological concept helps me think about displacement and its impact not only on my relation to place but also on the certainties that previously defined me as belonging to a place. When I became mobile, so did my conception of things. Being immersed in a different culture led me to a process of reconstruction of my “self” that has not been easy. However, this process has also allowed me to creatively pursue new activities and new interests. For instance, my international movement has spurred my interest in international cooperation and development partnerships. In 2015, I began to offer my services as a volunteer in this field. For one year, I was responsible for the formulation and implementation of the fundraising plan of a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental and other problems in Africa.

Along with this cultural displacement, my understanding of what I study and how to communicate my research findings has also changed. The title of this essay alludes to this displacement that occurs in the transition from a developing country to a developed one (Alatas 2003). Academic work produced in Belgium has international influence and attracts more attention and acknowledgment than academic work produced in Argentina. This disparity is particularly apparent to me at the ULB through the constant demand upon researchers and PhD candidates to produce knowledge. The university has to maintain its international positioning in research performance, so scientific articles have to meet quality standards and be published by renowned houses in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. In my experience, Argentinian researchers are neither held in such high demand, nor are they held to such high standards. The need to constantly generate results has compelled me to become more rigorous with theory, to redefine my frame of analysis so as to be seen as relevant (and more generally of interest), and to develop new skills and even methods for academic writing.

WHY DOCTORAL TRAINING IN BELGIUM?

I have a background in communications and over fifteen years of work experience in Argentinean multinationals, nonprofit organizations, and the public sector. While I was still writing my master’s thesis in Argentina, I enrolled in the doctoral program at ULB. I was looking forward to developing advanced skills that could open doors to positions with a research approach. Furthermore, a lot of questions had remained open from my master’s fieldwork in greater Buenos Aires. Though I spent a long period there, from 2011 to 2014, I wanted to extend my knowledge on the conflictive turn of land relations in the urbanization of coastal ecosystems in Argentina. Unfortunately, the political and social situation in Argentina was getting more and more difficult, so I decided to venture abroad.

A protest in 2012 by neighbors’ assemblies about deforestation of native forests on the coast of Avellaneda. (Courtesy of Assembly No to the Appropriation of the Coast)

Belgium was an option for several reasons, both personal and professional. First, my brother and his family live there. Second, the ULB is located in the heart of Europe, providing a range of opportunities in Belgium and other countries on the continent. The theoretical work in the field of anthropology for which Belgium is renowned becomes noticeable to me whenever I communicate my research results in academic settings in Europe and Argentina. The fact that I am here in Belgium undoubtedly facilitates contact with other researchers and organizations, which might help me find a job. Third, the ULB offers tailored research training combined with the development of essential transferable skills that make students more attractive to future employers. Fourth, the research center I am associated with, the Center of Social Anthropology, focuses on fundamental research and brings together ethnologists, archaeologists, and ethnographers with a long tradition in African studies. After my education oriented to applied anthropology and development at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Argentina, my hope was and is that I will be able to find a conceptual and methodological balance between these two research perspectives. Additionally, I see interesting parallels between many social and environmental problems in Argentina and African countries, so the Center of Social Anthropology is an enriching atmosphere for my specialization.

I would like to find a career in which I can combine a scientific approach with the application of data, theories, and tools in order to solve problems. Exploring the thorny issues of land grabbing and the management of natural resources, I hope my PhD thesis will help political and economic actors make better decisions. I believe that a systematic ethnographic approach to social needs can lead to the reconsideration of decisions about land, many of which have a heavy impact on traditional forms of life.

THE ARGENTINEAN AND BELGIAN JOB MARKETS

What professional profiles are in demand? What is the general picture for qualified anthropologists? In Argentina, 74 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology go on to graduate school, some for a master’s, but most enter a doctoral program. Only a small number decide to study abroad. Brazil and the United States are the favorite destinations, and those who return to Argentina work in academia. Two-thirds of anthropologists in Argentina have more than one job, and some of them work in different domains at the same time: basic and applied research, teaching, and training. According to a survey carried out in 2016 by the College of Graduates in Anthropology (Colegio de Graduados en Antropología, or CGA), a body that oversees and advocates for the discipline and its practitioners, anthropologists are mainly hired by the public sector, public universities, and research institutions. Most of these positions tend to offer precarious or temporary work conditions, and only public universities or research institutions are recognized for employing anthropologists under legal and/or beneficial conditions. When working for the state, the areas of professional development are heritage, education, culture, and health. Management in the public and private sectors attracts 24 percent of graduates on a full-time basis.

Destruction of a vast area of wetlands that took place in 2016 in Bernal city’s riverside. (Courtesy of neighbors from Avellaneda and Quilmes)

So, what is happening in Brussels? This question is more pressing for me. Because my studies are self-funded, I need to find a part-time job to afford the last two years of my program. In addition to these economic reasons for working, finding meaningful work would ease some angst-ridden wondering about whether a career change from communications to anthropology at forty years old holds promise. Some days, before writing, I would check job search engines to track opportunities outside academia for social scientists, and the results were frustrating. There was only one advertisement posted by the European Commission looking for research fellows, and applicants had to be “European.” As for the educational sector, the ULB is the largest employer in the Brussels-Capital Region. But people with a master’s degree are not considered for administrative jobs, and teaching assistantships have strict language requirements. As a non-“native” French speaker, my applications for assistantships have been rejected three years in a row. I also have the sense that my age has had a negative impact on my ability to secure an assistantship or funding for my studies.

A workshop on career opportunities for doctoral candidates in June this year showed me that these discouraging conditions for my current employability as an older Argentine PhD student are not a cause for concern about my future prospects. This workshop was organized by a nonprofit working for the promotion of scientific research and funded by the Walloon government. According to the presenters, over 80 percent of researchers with a PhD degree, from all fields combined, find a full-time job within six months of graduation. The main areas of employability are teaching and research, and to a lesser extent public administration and social services. Overall, the job market in Brussels is very competitive, as European institutions and international corporations and organizations are based there. But unlike in Argentina, a degree in anthropology is highly valued, and is even highly sought-after by the private sector for the authorship of scientific reports, for example.

GOING “HOME”

When I talk about home, I tend to use images that sometimes oppose each other. It is the place where I live and it is also the country where I was born; it is being homesick but simultaneously feeling comfortable abroad. I often associate home with my affections since my husband and parents are in Buenos Aires. As a migrant anthropologist staying abroad long-term for training, the home-work intersection proves to be more complex. In fact, I should say that I have two homes and two lives, different from each other. Yet I also feel estranged, in different ways, from both of these homes. Is this strangeness not, in fact, something familiar to anthropologists when we are located “elsewhere” for fieldwork—an othering of subjects and their conditions that is, for me, part of an open-ended professional exploration?

As I mentioned, alterity plays an important role in the formation and interplay of these representations. It is how I relate to “others” who are supposedly different and, at the same time, how I am depicted as the “other.” As Clifford writes, “every version of an ‘other,’ wherever found, is also the construction of a ‘self’” (1986, 23). When in Buenos Aires, I am the foreigner, especially for those I work with in my area of study, because I live in Europe. And in Brussels, I am someone who comes from an exotic land. This othering is a mutual process that obliges me to surpass differences whenever I run into discrimination or to be tolerant when fascination with my otherness, generally associated with Argentine meat, gauchos, and tango, becomes tiresome.

My estrangement, displacement, and alterity do not render me “home-less.” For me, “home” does not represent a problem because my idea of it implies more opportunities than obstacles. Home for me is about the future and my return to the job market. What will I do with what I have been learning and experiencing? I haven’t discarded the possibility of looking for a job in Argentina, but it seems today a little remote, both geographically and temporally. This is because I currently prioritize my doctoral training in Brussels and because it would be complicated to match it with a job position in Argentina. In addition, I have begun to identify closely with the Belgian work culture, which is less time-consuming and stressful than in Argentina. People have succeeded in finding a balance here between personal and professional life.

My otherness could be important for employability in Brussels. My knowledge of Latin American issues has become an asset since the opening up of Cuba and recent political, social, and economic events in Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. Latin America is generally regarded as difficult to comprehend, even for researchers, and sometimes tends to be imagined in a stereotypical way. There is increasing interest in Latin America not only at universities like the ULB but also at nonprofit organizations devoted to international development. That I might be able to profit from the opportunity my alterity offers is the kind of fraught issue that leads to my feeling of estrangement. But, ultimately, I will make a home with strangeness wherever I find a job.

REFERENCES CITED
Alatas, Syed Farid. 2003. “Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences.” Current Sociology 51 (6): 599–613.

CGA (Colegio de Graduados en Antropología de la República Argentina). 2016. “Segunda encuesta de perfiles profesionales.” http://www.cga.org.ar/nota-264-2-encuesta-de-perfiles-profesionales-2016.

Clifford, James. 1986. “Introduction: Partial Truths.” In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, 1–26. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 2006. “The Other Revisited: Critical Afterthoughts.” Anthropological Theory 6 (2): 139–52.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6–23.

CITE AS
Santy, Vanina. 2018. “From South to North: Anthropological PhD Training Abroad and Employability at ‘Home'” American Anthropologist website, May 24.

 

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