Value within, not unto

Anthropologies continues to publish some provocative essays. This month’s edition focuses on anthropologists working in Appalachia. One of the themes of my essay, “What’s wrong with anthropology?” is how we must produce work that is valuable to the communities that enable our research. Sarah Raskin’s essay in this month’s edition shows that work needs to address concerns within communities, not only about communities: “When the stereotype is the research topic”.

I was thinking about what you said yesterday, the woman said to me, and I have some feedback. I wish youd have said some good things about Appalachia. Our sense of family, our perseverance through adversity, our generosity and care for community, our faith in God. I dont know why everyone always focuses on the negative stuff. Why doesnt anyone talk about the positives? My mother passed her knowledge of the land and handcrafts to me. I havent lived there for decades but I still remember that. Im still proud of it. I dont know why people dont talk about that. Why you didnt talk about that. Unless you didnt see these things in your research in which case, of course, I understand.

Raskin’s research concerns health disparities and in particular access to dental care among rural people in southwest Virginia. As she explains in this case, the stereotype contributes to keeping people out of clinics. And yet, an anthropologist who describes people as disempowered, or who describes only social negatives and stereotypes, may do little to make her work valuable within a community.