Call for Papers

We are pleased to announce that our Interest Group will be organizing our third biennial conference.  As in 2013 and 2015, this two-day meeting will be held immediately prior to the AAA Meetings and in the same city, Washington, DC, to help defer travel costs for participants: Monday, November 27 – Tuesday, November 28, 2017.  The conference will be held at American University. (Details regarding department sponsorship to follow.)
The theme of this year’s conference is Thinking Beyond the Critical/Applied Dichotomy.  This topic was carefully chosen in response to questions, critiques, and long-standing conversations of our broad membership, who have expressed great interest in exploring not only what NGOs and nonprofits are, but what spaces, places, and roles that NGOs and anthropologists play in one another’s interactions.  As more and more anthropologists take on untraditional roles as researchers, we, as a group, need to probe this complex interplay, both to solidify ourselves as anthropologists of NGOs and Nonprofits and to collaborate to move intellectual conversations about the ever-changing ecology of NGOs as entities and “NGO-ing” (Schuller) as actions forward.
Please send submissions to by September 10, 2017.

“Thinking Beyond the Critical/Applied Dichotomy”

As many anthropologists whose work intersects with NGOs have pointed out, the anthropology of NGOs is not only a study of, but also a field of collaboration. In some cases, interlocutors are colleagues. In other cases, participant observation means that the anthropologist takes on an active role within an NGO, even establishing their own professional organizations. This collaborative relationship is one that in some cases challenges and in other cases eliminates the dichotomy between critical and applied approaches and changes the nature of anthropological inquiry. As David Mosse writes, “The participation of anthropologists themselves in [the field of international development]—as policy workers, consultants, or advocates—first produced a distinction between pure and applied anthropology but now generates new ethnographic knowledge and epistemological debate through variants of reflective “observant participation” (Mosse 2013: 228, Mosse 2006, Gow 2008, Rottenburg 2009).

The purpose of the third NGOs and nonprofits conference is to rethink the dichotomy between the “critical” and “applied” approaches to nongovernmental and nonprofit work. As Fisher points out in his influential article, “the tendency in the NGO literature as a whole has been to treat NGOs as essentialized categories divorced from the particularities of history, culture, or even individual experience” (1997:447). Taking our cue from Fisher and others, we seek ideas to break down the dichotomy and highlight collaboration—to “contextualize NGOs as the product of dynamic social interaction rather than as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ types” (Murdock 2003:509). Participants in previous conferences have argued that the anthropology of NGOs and nonprofits tends to focus on criticisms or assessments from those working within these organizations. In other words, existing conversations have fallen into the dichotomy of anthropology of or anthropology in.

The distinction between the two approaches often fails to capture the complex ways in which critique and action are so often inextricable, which a great deal of anthropological research on NGOs has made clear. At the same time, there may be practical and ideological constraints, what Erica James (2010)  and Peter Redfield (2012) have explored as double-binds, that may constitute very real (and often uneasy) limits to the actions that anthropologists can take from within NGOs. And yet, anthropologists still find creative ways to theorize, intervene in, and contribute to practical and paradigm shifts from within the porous, often ambiguous borders of NGO and non-profits (Good, Grayman and DelVecchio-Good 2015; Benjamin 2015). In this conference, we will examine the multiple pathways through which anthropologists engage with and within NGOs, while also formulating new strategies for collaboration.

We call for papers, panel discussions, and interactive sessions that speak to the complementary nature of the critical and the applied and that offer alternatives to the frequently entrenched dichotomy. We seek to engage in fruitful discussion that considers how NGO representatives engage with, interpret, and make use of the work and insights of anthropology and anthropologists. To this end, we particularly encourage submissions from those working in NGOs and nonprofits who can provide valuable insights into the potential nexuses for collaboration.

We invite topics including, but not limited to, the following questions:

  • How do we think beyond language and discourse that reinforces dichotomies between “critical” and “applied” approaches to anthropological engagements with NGOs?

  • To what extent and how might contemporary anthropology-NGO engagements alter disciplinary and professional traditions?

  • In what ways have anthropologists forged pathways for engagement with and within NGOs? And in what ways have NGOs sought engagement with anthropologists and their work?

  • How has collaboration with our NGO interlocutors and colleagues altered anthropological practice and the aims of our research and professional endeavors?

  • Where do we see theoretical engagements inextricably linked with action?

  • What are the constraints, theoretical and/or practical, that influence, limit, or otherwise affect anthropologists from their positions within NGOs and non-profits? And how do anthropologists and practitioners navigate, negotiate, defy, or reinforce those conditions?

  • How does anthropology matter for NGOs and nonprofits?  How should it matter to NGOs and nonprofits?

  • Under what circumstances are the engagements of anthropologists of and in NGOs most and least effective?

  • In what ways do the engagements of anthropologists and NGOs involve topics raised in both critical and applied traditions of thinking within the discipline?

  • What assumptions remain unchallenged in these discussions?