The Interest Group for the Anthropology of Public Policy (IGAPP) moved to AAA section status in summer 2012. The new section, called the Association for the Anthropology of Policy, or ASAP, has been set up to meet an important and increasingly recognized need. It is an institutionalized means for anthropologists studying policy issues to meet and engage in discussion.

At its height, IGAPP had more than 1,800 members (1,811 as of March 5, 2012), according to the AAA. Based on what we know about the research and interests of our members, gleaned in part from the survey of IGAPP members we conducted in summer 2011, no existing section provided a natural home for anthropologists of policy as a collectivity. The study of policy cuts across a broad range of topics of interest to anthropologists. According to our survey, our membership covers a wide breadth—from the study of medical and health care policy issues and processes to those pertaining to natural resources and energy, cultural heritage, education, military and defense, and finance and banking.

The study of policy deals with issues at the heart of anthropology such as: institutions and power; ideology and discourse; identity and culture; and interactions between the global and the local, public and private, and bureaucracy and market. Understanding the dynamics of policy processes is ever more important because of greater global interconnectedness; decisions made in one place or arena increasingly have major effects in other places and arenas. Policy connects disparate and diverse peoples—many of whom never interact personally or directly—yet who are dispersed among the multiple arenas of interaction that policy processes trigger or touch across place and time. The complexity of relations among individuals, networks, and entities—both governmental and nongovernmental—involved in formulating and implementing policy presents theoretical, methodological, and ethical challenges for the researcher. Addressing these challenges impels the anthropologist of policy to the cutting edge of disciplinary innovation. ASAP, devoted to nurturing this work, was founded to provide impetus for such innovation. It should be added that we have no interest in creating a separate publication devoted to the anthropology of policy; to the contrary, our goal is to mainstream the anthropology of policy by publishing and presenting in existing journals and venues.

Mission and Goals of ASAP

The Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP) was founded to provide an institutional framework to identify and foster the work of anthropologists studying policy as social, political, and cultural phenomena and policy processes as social relations and interactions. We believe that policy warrants explicit anthropological attention. Studying policy may be more important than ever before because of the increasing prevalence of complex forms of governance and policymaking, shaped by blends of governmental, nongovernmental, and business entities and networks, from the local to the global levels. ASAP promotes the development and discussion of theories and methods that provide insight into the workings of policies, their frequently unforeseen consequences, and the under-valued factors that often shape their outcomes. Although anthropologists have long engaged in research that implicitly deals with these issues, ASAP’s goal is to make these contributions more salient and to further the development of a systematic body of research in the anthropology of policy. ASAP does not seek to “take action” on policy issues (although some of its members might be so engaged as individuals) but, rather, to strengthen the contributions of the anthropology of policy to anthropology more generally and to interdisciplinary theory on policy. The following three overall goals guide ASAP’s activities:

1. To support anthropological contributions to policy, “policy science,” public administration, and other relevant fields, as well as to policy debates. The anthropology of policy brings much-needed perspectives to the influential field of public policy itself. There are three areas in particular in which anthropology offers crucial and unique contributions.

a) The anthropology of policy takes public policy itself as an object of analysis, rather than the premise of a research agenda. Anthropologists can make clear why the serious study of policy issues should begin by examining taken-for-granted assumptions that channel policy debates, inform the ways policy problems are identified, enable particular classifications of target groups, and legitimize certain policy solutions while marginalizing others. Anthropology is ideally suited to explore the political, cultural, and philosophical underpinnings of policy—its discourses, mobilizing metaphors, and underlying ideologies and uses. By helping to destabilize the assumptions and conceptual metaphors that underpin the formulation of policy problems, the anthropology of policy should make valuable contributions to public policy.

b) Focusing on policy provides a window into the emergence over the past several decades of new forms of governance and new ways of brokering power and influence. Anthropological theory and method are well suited to study them. They are ideally equipped to examine the interactions between public policy and private interests and the mixing of state, nongovernmental, and business structures that are becoming increasingly prevalent around the world.

c) Public policy is dominated by economic models, many of which grow out of private-sector experience. Yet anthropologists studying policy processes quickly learn that policy decisions and their implementation cannot be adequately mapped with variables whose value and interaction is pre-specified by an abstract model rather than situated in ethnographic context. Policy making and implementation hardly follow a linear process with a predetermined outcome. Instead, policy processes often encounter unforeseen variables, frequently combined in unforeseen ways, and with unforeseen consequences that may contradict the stated intentions of policymakers. Anthropology is especially well-equipped to deal with the complexity, ambiguity, and messiness of policy processes. The discipline provides a critical corrective to the simplified economic models that work impressively well in journals and textbooks but often fail to produce desired outcomes in the real world.

2. To support the contributions of the anthropology of policy to anthropology. ASAP provides a forum in which to analyze policy processes and thereby to discuss innovation in theory, method, and ethics. ASAP devotes sustained attention to the following three issues:

a) Theoretical innovation. Studying policy makes it necessary to follow connections among policy discourses and programs and among actors, organizations, and institutions involved in or affected by them across place and time. Describing these complex relationships sheds light on how policy processes work and how they affect change. Analyzing these relationships and change processes almost certainly stretches the theoretical imagination and encourages grappling with theories such as those of social change. The anthropology of policy thus presents an opportunity to enrich anthropological theory.

b) Methodological innovation. The study of policy, so much of which transcends particular geographic spaces, presents challenges to traditional ethnography and conceptions of the “field.” This state of affairs calls for discussion of how to conduct research across levels and processes. It also calls for employing additional methods that enable the study of fragmented “fields,” parts of which may be much more difficult to gain access to than is the case in traditional field research. The anthropology of policy thus presents an opportunity to enrich the anthropologist’s toolkit with powerful methods that complement more established ones.

c) Legitimacy of anthropologists studying policy. While IGAPP members and some prominent anthropologists have raised the previously mentioned issues, and while IGAPP has organized panels and activities that address them, they have yet to fully enter the mainstream of disciplinary practice. This is particularly restrictive for graduate students, recent PhDs, and junior scholars who wish to use the full body of anthropological theory and method but who find the anthropological validity of their work being questioned by fellow anthropologists. It is hoped that the institutionalization of ASAP as a section within the AAA will help reduce the sidelining of anthropologists who study policy and the difficulties they may encounter finding institutionally secure positions.

3. To help connect anthropologists in different countries and venues around policy topics of mutual research, interest, and concern. Particular attention will be paid to policies that are promulgated widely by international organizations, supranational entities, or powerful governments. For example, anthropologists studying the impacts of international development or trade policies (or pertinent aspects of “globalization”) in Latin America may find important comparative dimensions in discussions with those working on the impacts of similar policies in Africa, Asia, or the former Soviet Union. Similarly, anthropologists studying the outsourcing of governance in the United States may find common ground with those concerned with “privatization” in other contexts. ASAP thus serves as an international forum in which to link research and debate around policy issues. The fact that many of IGAPP’s members and ASAP’s potential constituents are from outside the United States should help to facilitate this goal.

How ASAP Can Advance the AAA’s goals

In addition to the points already mentioned, ASAP aspires to:

Work toward placing the AAA in a position on par with other fields of “policy science” that train policy professionals in major universities.

Serve as a resource for the AAA using ASAP’s scholars who work in specific policy domains, from environmental to foreign to financial policy. They could help prepare Congressional testimony, provide analysis pieces for the news media, and brief political officials in their specialty issues.

Provide 1,800+ IGAPP members (who can now join ASAP) with resources and activities that foster their anthropological interests.

Finally, we emphasize that we aim to work with other AAA sections and groups on matters of mutual interest and to nurture complementary relationships and synergies.