Pushing Anthropology Outside the Academic Realm to Shape Refugee Resettlement Policies in the U.S.

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

Historically, anthropology as a discipline and area of study has been situated within the realm of academics—scholars with PhDs traveling to remote places to study untouched civilizations, publishing their work, and spending the rest of their career as a tenured professor at a university. While such scholarly work can be invaluable, it rarely leaves academic circles, making useful research inaccessible to the public sphere.

Anthropological praxis (the actual practice of anthropology) can be useful and necessary outside of the academic realm, and moving academic exploration to concrete practice could be a key to solving critical 21st century issues. In particular, because of the cultural information and understanding gathered by anthropologists, there is great potential for scholars in the field to be involved in solving refugee-related issues. And while there have been some anthropologists that have contributed to refugee resettlement research, there seems to be a major discrepancy in applying research to practical application.

According to the Pew Research Center, “About 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program and the current national standard for the screening and admission of refugees into the country”. These persons face enormous difficulty upon arrival to the United States. They need housing, jobs, and possibly an education in order to meet basic standards of living and productively contribute to their communities. They often come without knowing English, understanding their rights in their new country, or knowing how to access basic healthcare necessities. They are often separated from their families—having potentially come from violent and traumatic situations in their home country—and may need mental health care resources.

A major issue that occurs when refugees immigrate to the United States is the confrontation of their culture with American culture. The ways in which the U.S. views housing situations, government institutions, healthcare, human rights, family and community relationships, and more can be vastly different than that of the refugee’s host country. If we try to force refugees to assimilate into a Westernized framework and culture, it can be distressing for the refugees and unproductive for resettlement. Having even a basic understanding of the host country’s values and ways of viewing the world could help shape effective resettlement policies, but this cultural understanding is often disregarded in policy and practice.

Anthropological praxis could be a way to bridge this gap. Through ethnographic work, interviews, focus groups, and other research methods, anthropologists can aid governmental workers, lawyers, and nonprofit organizations to ensure that the transition from the refugee’s host community is manageable and efficient. To better understand what this application would look like in practice, we can turn to work that has been done in the field of applied anthropology.

During the Great Depression and into the 1940s, the practice of applying anthropological methods and theory to public policy was common, and was useful in areas such as rural development, understanding implications of the Japanese internment camps in World War II, and governmental housing projects. However, after the war, there was a cultural shift toward the importance of higher education, and academia became a more prestigious field. Moreover, during and after the war in Vietnam, there became a public dissatisfaction with government and public policy. Anthropology then became a discipline rooted in academia. The tides once again shifted during the recession in the 1980s when jobs in academia, especially in anthropology, grew scarce. With a scarcity in jobs for post-graduate anthropologists, scholars were again pushed to think outside the realm of academia and enter the public domain.

Since then, the field of applied anthropology has met criticism and clash from academic anthropology. A major reason for this is that anthropologists often struggle to translate their understanding of cultural issues to decision making and policy. However, there are merits to this discipline that, when used correctly, can effectively shape public policy through the unique lens of cultural understanding.

An example of what this looks like in action can be shown by anthropologist Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers, who was able to play a crucial role in advocating for Albanian migrants in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s. During this time, Schwandner-Sievers was employed to develop anthropological reports for asylum and criminal court cases of these migrants. With an influx of Albanian immigrants to the United Kingdom, the nation experienced higher rates of organized crime and gangs associated with the migrants. During criminal court cases, Schwandner-Sievers was typically contracted by police detectives and lawyers to provide ethnographic research on the Albanian “culture of violence”.

Although the exact execution of methodology in cases such as this has not been perfected, the potential for anthropologists to help the public domain understand cultural differences is clear. This also shows how anthropologic theory can be a key component of understanding culture when it comes to the migrant experience.

Another example of anthropological applications is the study of development-induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR). DIDR is a growing body of research, with anthropology as its foundational theoretical framework. This field studies the effects of persons who are forced to leave their communities because of urban development projects such as mining, industrial plants, pipelines, and airports, among others. These developments disrupt communities, often leaving persons jobless, homeless, and socially marginalized. Because of these issues, developers have started to turn to anthropologists and other social scientists to create and revise their resettlement plans.

The social effects of development-induced displacement do not differ greatly from the effects of the displacement and resettlement of refugees that seek asylum in the United States. Yet, much less work is being done in the field of anthropology to apply praxis to refugee-related policies.

Besides creating resettlement plans, anthropologists also have the ability to be involved in public issues and movements in the mainstream media. In the last few years, there have been movements within the anthropology community to be in the mainstream, with anthropologists taking to videos, interviews, blogs, and social media to voice their opinion and influence social change. According to author Angelique Haugerud, “Anthropologists capture tension and textures of everyday life in ways that can alter perceptions of spectacular events such as terror attacks, refugees arriving on Europe’s shores in flimsy and overloaded rafts, gun violence in low-income U.S. neighborhoods, or protests that become riots.”

The movement toward anthropologists’ voices in the media and other public spheres is an important step toward practical application of anthropological praxis. These conversations can enable us to tackle the issues of xenophobia that accompany migration. However, while anthropologists can and should contribute to the discourse surrounding migration in mainstream media, there should be a more pragmatic approach to the actual shaping of resettlement policy. Beyond just communicating with the public about cultural issues and practices, it’s critical that anthropologists use their platform to allow refugees to use their own voices to speak for their specific resettlement needs.

The field of applied anthropology has proven to be useful in providing unique insights in areas such as urban development, social and political movements, and migration. However, when it comes to refugee resettlement, the application of anthropological praxis is lacking. The number of refugees entering the United States has grown substantially and may continue to grow. Local and national governments, as well as global organizations are struggling to keep up with the worldwide refugee crisis, which necessitates new ideas and new people to find strategies to help individuals and communities ensure the successful integration of refugees into new places.