Professional Precarity, Ethics, and Social Justice

By Netta Avineri and Steven P. Black

“As long as we participate in social systems we don’t get to choose whether to be involved in the consequences they produce. We’re involved simply through the fact that we’re here. As such, we can only choose how to be involved, whether to be just part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.”

–Johnson (2005) Privilege, Power, and Difference, p. 89

There is a labor crisis in academia. Scholars throughout the country now recognize that a system of privilege and marginalization is permeating our classrooms, faculty meetings, and institutional cultures, placing many academics in precarious professional positions (see As a discipline, anthropology presents unique perspectives on this professional precarity. Recently, the Committee on Labor Relations, the Committee for Human Rights Task Group/ Society for Linguistic Anthropology Committee on Language & Social Justice (Avineri), the Committee on Ethics (Black), and the presidents of the various AAA sections independently recognized the importance of this issue and are now beginning to take collective action. We are collaborating to craft a statement on adjuncting and precarity to present to the AAA Executive Committee (through liaison Rayna Rapp). We encourage you to use the comments section of the blog to share thoughts and experiences with us that might be helpful in shaping our perspective and constructing a statement.

The Ethics of Professional Practice

Professional precarity is an ethics issue. Principle seven of the Principles of Ethical Responsibility, “Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships,” is impractical or even impossible in the face of the current situation. The supporting information for this principle states, “Anthropologists should at all times work to ensure that no exclusionary practices be perpetrated on the basis of any nonacademic attributes.” While once there may have been a legitimate distinction between adjuncts and tenure-track faculty in terms of academic attributes, that distinction (if ever there was one) is no longer present. This principle also states that anthropologists, “must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials.” The promotion of a small number of tenured anthropologists while the majority remain untenured/in non-tenure-track positions is a form of exploitation, even if not directly initiated by the actions of particular anthropologists. The research productivity of tenure-track faculty is in many ways dependent upon this existing structure.

The Language of Marginalized Identities

While propelled by institutional policies, unethical practices are also constituted in professional activities and spaces, especially through the unreflexive discourse that occurs within them. The ways that people talk about academic and non-academic positions are rooted in conceptualizations of temporality and spatiality. The labels “tenure-track/tenure-stream” indicate a sense of directionality and future-oriented possibilities. On the other hand, “contingent”/”part-time”/”adjunct”/”visiting” point toward the now, to positions that are dependent on more important things, a temporary placement outside of the system, and finding oneself elsewhere and not truly present. Professional introductions, as a system of person reference, are one example of exclusionary and marginalizing language. At conferences, introducing oneself or others using titles (e.g., associate professor, visiting lecturer) become sites for positioning and identity maintenance. Seemingly less direct questions like, “What’s your teaching load?” index particular identities, priorities, and possibilities. Even the evaluation of affiliations can become problematic–are you in an academic position? Is your university a teaching institution? R2? R1?

Such ranking systems are invalid in the contemporary professional market. The incredible scarcity of available tenure-track positions means that one’s ability to land an academic job at an R1 institution is less a commentary on one’s worth as a scholar or anthropologist and more an indication of one’s professional connections (and in some cases, luck). Our continued use of these terms, and the underlying ideologies they evidence, constitutes a conceptual and linguistic inertia that hampers our ability to be more inclusive, ethical, and just.

Safe Spaces, Leveling Policies, and Creating Communities of Practice

Our goal is to reevaluate professional discourse and AAA policy to promote a more inclusive space that fosters academic freedom, growth, and productivity in the face of the current crisis. In doing so, we hope to  contest precarity at an institutional level while simultaneously shifting our practices and policies to change the scholarly landscape from the ground up. Our suggestions are meant to complement collective action that would rectify the current reliance on contingent labor in academic institutions (eg. higher wages, a higher proportion of stable positions in departments, or changes to the tenure system itself):

Below are three proposals for actions that individuals, groups and the AAA might take in this direction:

1) End the use of rank and/or affiliation for gatekeeping. Currently, one’s rank and affiliation may determine one’s ability to serve on particular editorial boards, gain access to funding (e.g., NSF), or write pieces for venues such as Annual Review of Anthropology. These positive and negative feedback loops become a vicious cycle. Rather than the arbitrary metrics of rank/ affiliation, utilize the evaluation of expertise, knowledge, and quality scholarship.

2) Stop using the AAA Annual Meeting as a venue for interviews. Those in “contingent” positions frequently do not receive funding to attend conferences and are therefore automatically in a less desirable position than those who have the money to make face-to-face contact with potential employers. Once difficult and confusing, digital interviews (eg. through Skype) are now easy and cost-effective for initial candidate screening.

3) Create safe spaces in which academics in a variety of positions are able to share ideas freely and experiment with their pedagogy without fear of being fired because their positions are less-than-secure. The field of anthropology can then move forward through enacting many of its basic tenets of perspective-taking and depth of understanding through experience over the long-term. Adjuncts’ teaching positions are highly dependent on student evaluations but don’t generally have the support they need to do their best in their teaching. For example, as a field we should support one another through anonymous online spaces for support and advice, online writing groups and retreats, teaching resources websites, “non-academic” advisors, and scholarships — where hierarchies can be flattened and various knowledges can be valued to allow for a variety of mentorship models.

Our sincere aspiration is that these and other policies will help to alleviate the current labor crisis in conjunction with direct action, while allowing for more flexible career trajectories and a level playing field. In doing so, we hope to encourage those in a range of jobs to feel confident and proud of what they are doing, to have the support they need to move them in the directions they would like at this point, and/or stay right where they are. Please share with us your thoughts on these proposals, or suggest alternatives, in the comments section of the blog.


2015 CoGEA Award Nominations

Nominations due: May 1 to Suzanne Mattingly, CoGEA Liaison at [email protected]

The CoGEA Award (formerly known as the Squeaky Wheel Award), sponsored by the AAA Committee on Gender Equity in Anthropology (CoGEA), recognizes individuals whose service to the discipline, and collective spirit of whose research, teaching and mentoring, demonstrates the courage to bring to light and investigate practices in anthropology that are potentially sexist and discriminatory based on gender presentation.

Historically this award has honored those who have acted to raise awareness of women’s contributions to anthropology, worked to identify barriers to full participation by women in anthropology, or helped to bring about significant shifts in intellectual paradigms through their anthropological research on women’s lives.

The CoGEA Award now has an even broader scope.  In addition to honoring scholars who work against discrimination against women in anthropology the committee is interested in honoring feminist scholars who work to raise awareness of discrimination in anthropology on grounds of gender presentation of any kind. Recent past winners include Barbara Voorhies, Mary Ann Levine, Elizabeth Brumfiel, Laura Nader, and Constance Sutton.

The committee seeks nominations for scholars and practitioners from all subfields of anthropology, at stages ranging anywhere from promising mid-career to proven late-career, who have acted to improve the status of those discriminated against on the basis of sex or gender identity in anthropology through:

  • Mentorship of colleagues and students
  • Research that directly addresses gender roles, situations of gender bias, and experiences of gender discrimination in anthropology
  • Scholarship on women or gender that has influenced shifts in anthropological theory
  • The development of policies, procedures, or other professional standards that alleviate gender inequalities in the field of anthropology

Nominations should include the name, affiliation and title of the individual being nominated, a one-or two-paragraph description of the reason for the nomination, a statement on the nature of the person’s contribution to the improvement of the status of women and/or any persons discriminated again on grounds of gender presentation or gender identity in anthropology, and a copy of the nominee’s CV.  Please include the name, address, phone number and email address of the nominator. Check the AAA website to see if the person has already won the award.

Nominators may be contacted for additional material concerning finalists.  Self nominations are not accepted.  Nominators may be AAA members, non-AAA members, and those working outside the discipline of anthropology. Proposed candidates must be a current AAA member and registered to attend the 2015 AAA Meetings in Denver, CO. The award will be presented during the AAA Awards Ceremony, and it is critical that the selected recipient of the award be present for the honor.

Nominations should be sent by May 1 to Suzanne Mattingly, CoGEA Liaison at [email protected].  Awardees and nominators will be notified by July 1.