World Anthropologies

By Marina Pignatelli (Center for Research in Anthropology/University of Lisbon, Portugal)

Who are we? What are our academic and professional pathways? How do we apply and develop the knowledge and the techniques we learned when we were in training? What areas of research, both topical and geographical, are of interest to us? Who employs us? With whom do we share our work and professional activities? The lack of systematized and up-to-date data on these and other issues related to the current situation of anthropologists in Portugal has hampered many efforts and initiatives seeking more visibility and support for anthropology in the country.

The Portuguese Anthropological Association (APA) was established in 1989 and aims to represent all anthropologists in all fields in which anthropologists work and train in Portugal. It seeks to be pluralistic and inclusive. Having as its primary mission the promotion and valuing of anthropological knowledge and the defense of its scientific and professional skills, the APA has always seen the activities and difficulties that anthropologists face as a central concern. With this in mind, a team of thirteen anthropologists in Portugal, in collaboration with different scientific and technical institutions, research centers, and departments of anthropology at several Portuguese universities, developed a large study from 2014 to 2016 about the profile of anthropologists in Portugal, including their research activities, their professional careers, and their capabilities. We were also interested in any obstacles we found to anthropological practice.

This study was meant to update an earlier one, from 1999, in which the APA collected quantitative data on anthropologists’ graduation, research, and other professional dimensions. The 1999 survey provides a valuable comparative database for reflection and action that should be of use to the Portuguese anthropological community and all institutions with responsibility for training and professionalizing our discipline.

The new study explores the kinds of anthropology we practice in our country and collected data aimed at defining the range of professional profiles of Portuguese anthropologists. This should serve as a useful framework as the Ministries of Education and of Science and Technology evaluate the profession of anthropology. I believe that the data we have collected, and which I share here, provide ample information that should be of use in reflections and revisions of academic curricula, new proposed study plans, and overall training in anthropology.

The study involved several research techniques, each one designed to accomplish specific objectives. We sent out a survey to all anthropologists who had received university degrees in Portugal (even if temporarily working abroad) and foreign anthropologist long living and settled in Portugal. We included questions about their training, graduation, research, and professional activities. We also did about fifty qualitative interviews of well-known anthropologists working in different fields, including academics and researchers. Finally, we made three films consisting of interviews with anthropologists: a short ten-minute teaser, a sixty-minute documentary, and a promotional three-minute spot to advertise and clarify what anthropologists do for the surrounding society.

“The Podence Caretos,” masks used by young men in Carnaval festivities in the northeast of Portugal. (Flickr)

Here are the main quantitative and qualitative results of our study. There are still five national journals that regularly accept manuscripts that provide results of anthropological research. There are also seven public teaching institutions/universities offering some kind of degree in anthropology in Portugal. However, there are more PhD courses than undergraduate degrees offered. In Portuguese academia, it seems that the teaching staff is aging and there are few young assistants taking their place. In addition, we have had almost no visiting professors since the 1990s. The teaching staff is presently overloaded with administrative work and teaching and has very little time to conduct proper research.

The survey also shows that the majority of anthropologists in Portugal are women between the ages of thirty and thirty-nine years old, that they mainly live in Lisbon (the country’s capital), and that they work in the field they studied at their universities. Yet men over forty still predominate if one looks at anthropologists with higher degrees, anthropologists holding full-time jobs, and anthropologists with better job stability. These anthropologists mainly work as administrators, as high-tech personnel, and as academics, and many respondents have been critical of this gender disparity.

Unemployment is high. Among anthropologists, it has doubled since 1999, and today it is higher than the national average for all university graduates (16.3 percent). Young people account for most of the unemployment, suggesting that anthropologists eventually find jobs in their field. The study also shows that the number of anthropologists working as high school teachers has decreased since the late 1990s and that many are now employed in a large variety of professional activities. Most report being characterized as versatile employees with working skills that extend well beyond teaching and research. Many report being quite autonomous at work and in fulfilling their assigned tasks, yet still report developing good relationships with their peers at work.

When working within multidisciplinary research or professional teams, these anthropologists tend to join their colleagues from sociology and history more often than they join people trained in different fields. More than half of the anthropologists who responded to our survey, however, live in Lisbon’s metropolitan area, and this is a bit worrisome. Dispersal from Lisbon has increased, nonetheless, since 1999, but so has the number of Portuguese colleagues now living abroad. Many anthropologists complain about the lack of jobs and job stability, the low salaries they earn, and the scarce opportunities for promotion in Portugal.

When they do work, they seem to apply the best they get from anthropology: an ability to relate to other people, a critical analysis of things, an attention to detail, a strong tolerance toward difference, a lack of social prejudice, an open-mindedness, an ability to view the world holistically, and a tendency to relativize both cultural and biological differences. They see themselves as professionals with a very wide, versatile, multifunctional, and solid preparation that enables them to better understand other cultures with a relativistic knowledge that is useful in several humanistic professional domains, and to be critical, reflexive, and attentive to details.

Quoting one of the interviewees, “Anthropology is the swimming sport of knowledge!” I think she meant that it was the most complete university education one can get. I don’t think that she was saying that swimming is the most complete sport one can practice. On the other hand, another interviewee gave a critical explanation of the Portuguese anthropological field in these terms: “Too many hippies, dumb people, and smart-asses (chicos espertos)!”

In relation to their job-satisfaction levels, the majority of the anthropologists who answered the survey seemed to point to autonomy, flexibility, and collegial relationships as the major advantages of their work and education as anthropologists. But respondents also identified several negative aspects of being an anthropologist, namely job precariousness or unemployment, corporatism, and academism. In addition, they identified a certain alienation from civil society and the public domain, as well as a difficulty in seeing clearly beyond the academic sphere, beyond Lisbon, beyond self-enclosure in the ivory tower, and beyond invisibility (of anthropologists’ direct impact) in society. Most respondents complained about the lack of class recognition among colleagues, the overacademism of people in educational institutions, and the fact that they are undervalued in the labor market.

APA sees in all these references among Portuguese anthropologists an opportunity to reflect on the place of anthropology in our society to try to change and surpass anthropologists’ contemporary challenges. They want to redirect our scientific field away from academia and out to the world, its source, and where it belongs. Many communities of anthropologists around the world worry about the state of their field. We do and we don’t. There are things to fix, but there are also a number of things that pleasantly surprised us. We proceeded with a new survey in October 2017 focusing on students, planning to keep tabs on them for a decade and aiming to collect data on their concerns and successes as they continue their training and live and work beyond it.

The space of anthropology is clearly changing in Portugal, as all things naturally change in human societies. What is at stake with regard to these changes, both within universities and beyond, is what concerns us, especially at the Portuguese Anthropological Association (APA). As an example, a recent study on the The Anthropologist’s Profile in Portugal (2014–2016) has shown that the number of students choosing to major in anthropology is growing in Portuguese universities, yet faculties are finding employment more precarious. How do we account for these seemingly disparate findings? And what are students doing with their degrees? Cultural Anthropology recently posted a series of essays about academic precarity and graduate training. Still, what we see in Portugal is, in a way, the opposite of this. Although our graduates have many difficulties entering academia, those professionals already placed on faculties—around one hundred—have more or less safe jobs, and the state intends to professionalize researchers’ careers and is trying to stimulate scientific employment by creating several legal instruments and programs to raise the number of new contracted PhDs, “especially in the interior of the country, as a mesure to combat its desertification.” The increase in the last decade of such doctoral researchers and of scientific activity in all domains is a fact, as is the number of students entering anthropology courses. It might sound like a paradox since social sciences (in general) and anthropology (in particular) have been largely underfunded in our country as well. Moreover, anthropology is not even considered/classified as one of the “Fields of Science and Technology,” according to the Frascati Handbook, a touchstone still followed by our own Science, Technology and Higher Education Minister. Instead, we work under a very large umbrella called the “sociology” domain, along with ethnology, demography and “social matters” (the study of women and gender, social and family issues, and social service). This is another paradox, since it is politically correct in Portugal to state that social sciences and humanities are important pillars for a full understanding and knowledge of the world and people’s well-being and development, but state budgets are continually distributed in very unequal ways among the various scientific fields, with a clear disadvantage for the “soft sciences.” So, why study anthropology?

During the 1990s, Portuguese students could choose to pick two optional subjects in the last years of high school, and many schools offered anthropology as an option. Many graduated anthropologists today took that option. We do not know how many anthropology classes existed then, as we still do not know how many there are today or how many anthropologists are teaching other subjects in high schools in the present. But our association is working to find out, as recently stated by Rita Cachado in our newsletter’s editorial. APA embraced that precious file labeled “The Anthropology in Secondary Schools” and has already started to work on the challenge of building a steady bridge between academic anthropologists and high schools students by promoting visits to a few high schools and by creating a group of secondary teachers graduated in anthropology who may propel a snowball mobilization among other anthropology graduate teachers throughout the country. Also, the idea of including anthropology in high schools through a wider program adapted to the so-called “Essential Learnings” was followed. It refers to a document produced to direct the development of the students’ skills by the time they graduate from high school. With this in mind, an anthropologist was recently invited to collaborate in this document’s production. We think it is important to teach anthropology in high schools so students can might consider the discipline when choosing universities. But we also think that the sooner people learn other ways of contemplating our world, the better. Anthropology is, after all, the most scientific field of humanities and the most humane of all sciences!

There is hope, however, in the younger Portuguese anthropologists. Students of anthropology from several universities have recently established a national association of their own and have organized a meeting in Coimbra. A small step for humankind, but a large one for Portuguese anthropology, as it means that our field of knowledge and work will go on in the future, despite the gloom reflected by the respondents to our study on anthropology’s profile in Portugal—particularly concerning their future professional lives, and despite all contemporary real obstacles. These young students certainly represent that future.

Finally, another significant step will be the hosting in Lisbon of the “Why the World Needs Anthropologists?” (WWNA) Meeting, launched by the EASA Applied Anthropology Net. APA and CRIA (the Portuguese Network Centre for Research in Anthropology) will be co-organizers of this meeting, which will take place in October 2018. We hope it will also contribute to lighten up a bit our “future” paths.

Pignatelli, Marina. 2018. “The Changing Space of Anthropology in Portugal.” American Anthropologist website, May 29.

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