Introduction of Sue Wright, COPAA’s First Distinguished International Scholar

By Susan Hyatt (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis)

At the Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology,
Memphis, 25-29 March 2008

It is my great pleasure and privilege to introduce our first COPAA Distinguished International Scholar, Professor Sue Wright.  Dr. Wright comes to us from her current position as Professor at the Danish School of Education, University of Aarhus in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she has been for the past 5 years.  She was hired there to develop a program in Educational Anthropology as a new sub-discipline and to set up a research program on changes in universities.  Most of her professional life, however, has been spent in the country of her origin, England, where she has played an absolutely critical role in institutionalizing practicing and applied anthropology in Great Britain.

Dr. Wright received her PhD in Social Anthropology from Oxford University in 1985.  She conducted her dissertation research in Iran in which she focused on how tribal peoples were reorganizing their communities in response to the Shah’s modernization program during the 1970s.  After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Dr. Wright was asked by her Iranian informants not to publish her work, which could have endangered them in the new political climate that then obtained in Iran.  Dr. Wright was able to make three short research trips back to Iran during the 1990s and one day she will be able to publish her book based on this work.  Through her work in Iran, Dr. Wright realized the importance of using an anthropological lens to understand he effects of shifting modes of governance on the lives of everyday people.  And, in its own way, an equally far-reaching transformation of the state was also launched in England with the election of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

When Dr. Wright completed her PhD in 1985, there were very few positions available in the UK for academic anthropologists.  At that time, British universities only trained their students to take positions in universities.  Her first post-PhD job was on a government-funded project to research the impact of policies and decision-making on rural areas in a traditionally strong Labour region of northeast England, a region that had once had an economy based on mining and on steel which had been transformed by both deindustrialization and by the attack of the national Thatcher government on social welfare programs.  As Dr. Wright recalled in a paper she has written, one of her Oxford professors, upon hearing about her job, remarked, “It’s a shame you will no longer be an anthropologist.”  In response, Wright wrote that, “Many of us were not just impelled for economic reasons to seek employment outside of anthropology departments; we actively wanted to use our anthropology to contribute critically to international development or to improve the operations of the British welfare state.  We did not think of ourselves as ‘no longer’ anthropologists, even if we did not fit within the tight confines of academic anthropology.”

What makes Sue Wright such a perfect choice as our speaker this evening—and what makes her such a remarkable person in general—is not only her many critical contributions to academic research; it is also the fact that throughout her career, she has consistently been an activist, battling to create organizations and spaces for applied anthropology in Great Britain, a much tougher challenge than we have faced here in the US.  From 1946-1983, major organization for cultural anthropology in the UK, the Association for Social Anthropology (ASA) was only open to anthropologists with both PhDs and academic positions.  Initially this was consciously to exclude anthropologists who had served as colonial officers.  The very legitimacy of anthropology as an academic discipline was called into question in the post-colonial period.

In 1981, following on the heels of an SfAA meeting that had been held in Edinburgh earlier that year, Dr. Wright was among the founding members of the first of several groups dedicated to institutionalizing applied work which was called GAPP—the Group for Anthropology in Policy and Practice.  In 1988, Dr. Wright and two other colleagues received a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to establish an umbrella organization for applied anthropology in Britain, which became known as BASAPP—the British Association for Social Anthropology in Policy and Practice.

In 1993, BASAPP changed its name to Anthropology in Action, and although it ceased to be a membership-based organization in 2000, it remains the name of Britain’s applied anthropology journal.  In 2004, a practicing anthropologists’ network was finally established under the auspices of the ASA.

Dr. Wright’s organizing talents have been key to the success of all of these endeavors. In the 1990s, she and an English colleague, Cris Shore, turned their attention to theorizing policy as a domain for a new kind of anthropological analysis.  As they put it in their brilliant introduction to their 1997 book, Anthropology of Policy, “Not only do policies codify social norms and values and articulate fundamental organizing principles of society, they also contain implicit (and sometimes explicit) models of society.”  Many of us here, including me, have bee deeply influenced in our own work by that insight.

Amidst all of this activity, Dr. Wright has held academic positions at the University of Sussex, and in the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Her list of publications is too voluminous to enumerate here, and ranges from her research on participatory development in the 1980s and ‘90s, to her work on policy, to more recent work in the changing nature of universities in the present neoliberal moment to work on the teaching and learning of anthropology.

On a personal note, I first met Sue Wright in 1993, when she presented a seminar at the University of Manchester on her research on local government in the Northeast of England.  At that time, I was conducting my own dissertation fieldwork on tenant activism and the changing nature of public housing in W. Yorkshire.  Sue helped me enormously in thinking through my analysis of my data, and she has continued to be a wonderfully intellectual mentor to me and many others as well.  She concludes one of her articles with the following remark:  “… it is equally important for practicing anthropologists to be involved in their local departments, and for their insights into contemporary society to be drawn upon in debates about teaching and incorporated into research.  From GAPP’s experience, the biggest challenge will be to overcome the vestiges of the pure/applied divide, and encourage both wings of the discipline to engage in analysis of contemporary social change, using insights from academic debates and from policy and practice to mutual benefit.”  In her research and her writing, her teaching and her activism, Sue Wright has modeled for all of us how to do exactly that in our own careers.  The title of her talk tonight is “Making Anthropological Application Count in a Global Knowledge Economy.”  I invite you to join me in welcoming Dr. Sue Wright to the podium.