Current Issue, Practice

Cooperative Extension and Practicing Anthropology: A Natural Fit By Jacqueline Comito and Brandy Case Haub

“Where is Practice in Practicing Anthropology?” was the theme of Practicing Anthropology’s Winter 2018 issue. Outgoing co-editors Shirley J. Fiske and Judith N. Freidenberg (2018) introduced this question with a brief history of practice as a term within United States anthropology and an overview of current understandings of practice as perceived by anthropologists working in diverse sectors outside of academia. As anthropologists working for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, much of this volume resonated with us—particularly the discussions about the relevance of the term practice, the distinction between applied academics and practicing anthropologists, and the increasingly blurry line between these two groups.

As we thought about the ways in which anthropology has informed and improved our community outreach and education programs for the cooperative extension system, we wondered why we haven’t seen more articles in Practicing Anthropology or similar publications from practitioners working within the extension system. Anthropological skills are well suited to the system’s mission to “put scientific knowledge into practice” (NIFA and USDA 2018). In our extension and outreach programs at Iowa State University, we go beyond putting science into practice to advocating for behavioral changes that will improve water quality, build soil health, and restore wildlife habitat. This advocacy role has a long tradition in certain areas of anthropology. Alexander Ervin (2000:123) notes, “Advocacy ultimately covers much of the scope of contemporary applied anthropology, especially in its relationship to policy.” The very mission of our programs is to advocate for the adoption of practices that address environmental problems; as practicing anthropologists, we advocate by using scientific research and emotional messages to bring practical solutions to the communities we serve.

Since an anthropological worldview is key to our success, we are curious whether other anthropologists are working within the sixty university-based extension programs across the nation—and if so, why aren’t they sharing their work in publications like Practicing Anthropology?

In the following pages, we describe how anthropological methodologies and perspectives helped to create two successful Iowa State University Extension and Outreach initiatives, Iowa Learning Farms and the Water Rocks! program. We hope that our example of anthropology in practice within a university-based extension program will serve as a case study for what an anthropological approach could offer to other cooperative extension programs nationwide.

Cooperative Extension: Putting Knowledge into Practice

There are 112 land-grant universities in the United States today, and of those, sixty operate extension programs. The 1914 Smith-Lever Act established a national cooperative extension service for land-grant universities that formalized a third mission, in addition to teaching and research, for these institutions: to apply scholarship to public needs by bringing scientific research and non-formal education to America’s rural citizens. Traditionally focused on bringing agricultural research and advances to farming and rural audiences living near land-grant universities, the Cooperative Extension Service translates “research into action” by “bringing cutting edge discoveries” to the people who can “put knowledge into practice” where it is most needed (NIFA and USDA 2018:para.1). Today, the Cooperative Extension Service is the largest education system of its kind and has expanded to all communities, rural and urban, regardless of population. In addition to the agricultural and home economics program, Cooperative Extension Service offers programs in social and economic problems as well as cultural, recreational, and leisure-time activities. The main goal of the nearly 3,000 extension programs across the country is to help disseminate scholarly research and information so the general public can use it to solve problems in practical ways. Extension professionals work in interdisciplinary teams to educate citizens about new research and applications and enable active engagement within the community.

Likewise, practicing anthropologists work in multidisciplinary, collaborative teams. The job of practitioners is to “figure out how to use anthropology to solve clients’ problems” (van Willigen 2002:233); as such, their work is “highly result-oriented” as “action and outcomes are assumed to be the top priority” (Nolan 2013:3). Whereas academic anthropologists provide perspective on problems, practitioners are expected to solve them. “Practicing anthropologists are engaged in action…not just critical reflection” (Ervin 2000:4). The topics practitioners focus on are not decided by the anthropologists themselves but by the larger institutions for whom they work and can include program evaluation, public service, advocacy research, and policy development. Often, the same is true for extension professionals.

A distinction is frequently made between applied and practicing anthropologists, identifying applied anthropologists as university-based practitioners doing part-time, project-based work applying their skills within a community setting, and practicing anthropologists as those working entirely outside of the academy, putting their anthropological skills to use for practical purposes (Ervin 2000; Nolan 2013). In our work with extension, we occupy a middle ground between application and practice. Our positions and programs are completely “soft-funded” and focus primarily on bringing practical solutions to environmental problems through research, outreach, and education. Our work is focused entirely outside of the academy for the purposes of motivating environmental improvements. The goals and habits of both extension professionals and practicing anthropologists are quite similar, so while many try to make a distinction between applied and practicing anthropologists, we think this distinction does not consider those anthropologists working in extension.

Continue reading in the spring issue of Practicing Anthropology.

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