Monday 29 December 2014

An anthropologist walks into a bar and asks, 'Why is this joke funny?'

Anthropologists don't just study primitive tribes. Some work for cutting-edge technology corporations while others are helping to progress social policy. Ciarán Walsh meets with a number of Irish anthropologists and asks them what 2014 holds.

People walking around holes in ground

This year promises to be an interesting one. The Troika has left town and there is a sense of what happens now? Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of focus on post-bailout economics and the impact that these will have on the 'squeezed middle' and the 'new poor' -- two groups that epitomise the social impact of the crash of 2007.

But it goes beyond economics. Ireland has transformed over the past six years. Attitudes to money, work, marriage, masculinity and femininity, care of the elderly and the very idea of society are changing.

The crash isn't the only factor driving this. New technologies are transforming the way we live, work and play. The impact of social media on youth culture is obvious, but technological innovations are also revolutionising healthcare and work.

So what happens next? Ask the anthropologists. They have been tracking changes in Irish society for more than 30 years and, more than ever, are influencing policy as health planners, educators and activists.

Intel is a major employer of anthropologists because it recognises its products need to work in human and technological terms. The idea that such people are involved in everything from the care of people with dementia to the roll-out of wearable computers may come as a surprise.

At a guess, most people think anthropologists work 'out there' with societies that are very different from ours.

While it is true that they come in all shapes and sizes, their work, at a basic level involves the same thing -- using research tools to describe distinct groups of people, be in they in a different part of the world or at home.

Patrick Slevin is an ethnographer working with Applied Research for Connected Health (ARCH), a research company funded by the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, and based in UCD Belfield. It uses technology to deliver healthcare outside of hospitals with the objective of improving welfare and, in the new economy, delivering value for money by reducing the demand for in-patient care.

Slevin is one of 20 researchers who work in multidisciplinary teams of between four and seven specialists. He is currently working with people suffering from dementia, evaluating their 'care pathways' by following them through a complex network of hospital and community support systems.

"The key to the ethnographic approach is empathy, getting down to ground level, talking to people and trying to get a clear picture of each person's experience of the system," he says.

To be effective requires the rigorous application of standard anthropological investigation methods -- participant observation and recording, and validating each piece of research through interviews with the people involved.

Slevin is looking for areas in the dementia pathway where technologies can support the system. This probably contradicts most people's idea of what anthropology is about, especially when one considers the history of anthropology in Ireland.

In the 1890s, scientists attempted to explain the difference between the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon in racial terms influenced by evolutionary theory. In the 1930s, doctoral students from Harvard carried out a seminal study of rural families in Co Clare, and a similar study was conducted in Dublin in the late 1940s.

In the 1950s and 1960s Messenger wrote a thinly disguised account of life on Inisheer. And in 1967, Paul Hockings of UCLA filmed 'The Village', an ethnography of the people of Dún Chaoin in Co Kerry.

This was followed in 1987 by the Anthropological Association of Ireland. Its current journal, marking 25 years of the Association, provides a guide to the development of the discipline and the scope of contemporary anthropological practice in Ireland.

Thirty years on, NUI Maynooth still has the only department of anthropology in Ireland. It caters for more than 500 students, 300 of them first year and 100 in both second and third year. There are about 30 graduate students.

Dr Mark Maguire is the head of the department. He sees anthropology, like all social sciences, as being intrinsically tied up with the exercise of power, but redeemed by a long tradition of radical analysis.

Irish Independent

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