Spanning boundaries at the Society for Applied Anthropology conference

Suzanne Webster ·
1 April 2019
Applying Science | Learning Science |     1 comments

Earlier this month, Bill, Katie May, Vanessa, and I travelled to Portland, Oregon to attend the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) conference from March 19-23. We were all excited for the opportunity to learn from researchers and practitioners who work in the social sciences, and to absorb new ideas and approaches that will help us enhance IAN’s capacity to do work that spans natural and social science disciplines. This conference was especially exciting for me, because although I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and have continued my training in this field throughout graduate school, I had previously never attended a national anthropology conference!

We had some time to explore downtown Portland between sessions!

The SfAA
conference is an annual meeting where anthropologists share insights from the
diverse applied research that they are conducting all over the world. Anthropology is the scientific study of human
society and behavior through linguistics, archaeology, evolutionary biology,
and most importantly for our purposes, exploration of cultural and social
values. The SfAA meeting differs from many other conferences in that it is
specifically targeted towards practitioners, rather than solely researchers
within academia, and presenters share their knowledge and experiences stemming
from doing anthropological work that solves real-word problems. The theme of
this year’s conference was “Engaging Change in Turbulent Times,” so many presenters specifically
addressed difficulties they have faced and challenges they have overcome in the
context of today’s politically polarized society.

The SfAA conference draws “scholars, practicing social scientists, and students from a variety of disciplines and organizations”.

My mentor, Dr. Michael Paolisso, served as the conference chair this
year, and encouraged me to put together a session about some of the work I have
been doing for my dissertation research on citizen science. I felt a bit
nervous to chair my first conference session, but I thought the SfAA conference
would be an excellent opportunity for myself and several other IAN team members
to share insights from some of our increasingly transdisciplinary projects.

We had a beautiful view of Portland from the conference hotel.

Our session was called “Transdisciplinary approaches for researching socio-environmental systems”.  A transdisciplinary research approach involves an interdisciplinary team, which is composed of individuals with a range of expertise, including non-academic partners. Transdisciplinary teams work together to synthesize diverse expertise and co-create new knowledge that is both responsive to societal needs and reflective of diverse stakeholder perspectives and interests. During our session, we highlighted IAN’s role as a boundary-spanning organization and showcased several of the transdisciplinary research approaches help our team at IAN to holistically understand socioecological systems and collaboratively address complex environmental problems.

Bill started the session by introducing IAN as an organization within UMCES. During his presentation, Bill shared information on how IAN was first created, and how our group has changed in function over time, evolving from primarily specializing in developing science communication products and conducting short science communication trainings, to facilitating more intensive collaborative work with partners and expanding our teaching capabilities. Bill’s talk was particularly interesting to practicing anthropologists who work within a University system but are looking for more ways to build (and secure funding to support) new partnerships with communities and non-academic stakeholders. He will discuss his presentation in more detail in an upcoming blog.

Bill introduced IAN as a boundary organization that connects academic researchers with other stakeholders.

During my
presentation, I discussed two ongoing citizen science efforts at IAN. Citizen science can be thought of as a
transdisciplinary research approach because it is problem-oriented, focuses on
solving locally-relevant research questions, and collaboratively generates new
knowledge and actionable science that can empower communities to advocate for
real change. I shared two examples of how citizen science efforts in the
Chesapeake Bay are helping our community to better understand and manage the
Bay as a whole socio-environmental system. The projects that I talked about
were the Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative, and the new Chesapeake Bay SAV
Watchers monitoring program, which I will talk about more in a future blog.

The Chesapeake Monitoring Cooperative and the Chesapeake Bay SAV Watchers program create collaborative opportunities for diverse environmental stakeholders, especially citizen scientists.

Katie May’s presentation focused on IAN’s current effort to create a strategy for assessing the status of natural and cultural resources of America’s National Parks. IAN has already generated natural resource condition assessments for all of the parks in the National Capital Region and is now collaborating with archaeologists and cultural anthropologists at the National Parks Service to develop indicators that can be used to measure the health of four types of resources: built environment, meanings and values, history, and communities. She used the Mentimeter platform to share the results of our team’s efforts thus far, and to ask the conference attendees for feedback and suggestions on how we can strengthen our approach as we move forward.

The National Parks Service is striving towards integrated management of cultural and natural resources.

Finally, no
IAN session would be complete without a presentation about report cards. Vanessa
explained IAN’s stakeholder-driven and action-oriented approach for
synthesizing data and communicating the health of an environmental system. She
highlighted the Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay report card processes as examples of
transdisciplinary collaborative efforts, and shared some of her preliminary
dissertation research on stakeholder perceptions of the benefits and challenges associated with developing “holistic” report

The report card process synthesizes diverse data and knowledge and creates a space for stakeholders to work towards a common goal.

The reactions to our presentations were mostly positive, and we also received some feedback that will help us as we move forward in our projects. We had many people approach us individually after our presentations, throughout the rest of the conference, to ask specific questions about IAN as an organization, and to learn more about the transdisciplinary approaches we use. We celebrated our successful session with a trip to Deschutes Brewery!

We toasted to a successful conference session at one of Portland’s most famous breweries!

attending this conference, I’m even more convinced that IAN should continue to
invest in our team’s capacity to use approaches from the social sciences to
continue to improve our group’s ability to collaborate on transdisciplinary
projects with diverse environmental stakeholders and communities all over the
world. Beyond engaging in professional development activities that teach our
current team more about social science methodologies and approaches, I believe
that if IAN is going to continue to strive to do boundary-spanning work and
generate holistic socioenvironmental assessments, our organization should
increase our efforts to hire employees and collaborate with research partners
who have formal training and experience in other fields, such as anthropology,
sociology, psychology, and the arts. As many conference attendees mentioned
during their presentations, anthropology is increasingly “infiltrating” other
disciplines, including “the world of natural science,” and I am so glad that
IAN is part of this transition towards more interdisciplinary and holistic
research and problem-solving.

the SfAA conference was an excellent opportunity for IAN team members to learn
more about methodologies, theories, and practical applications from the field
of anthropology. We left the conference with several new ideas, tools, and
networking possibilities that we can explore for current and future projects. As
practitioners and boundary spanners who do applied research every day, and we
can gain a lot by maintaining a growth mindset and learning new skills necessary for interdisciplinary
translation and collaboration.

We passed this mural every day on our way to the conference. It is called "Star Catcher," by Rustam QBic. This mural inspires me to reach for the stars and try to capture beauty in my own work.

About the author

Suzanne Webster

Suzi Webster is a PhD Candidate at UMCES. Suzi's dissertation research investigates stakeholder perspectives on how citizen science can contribute to scientific research that informs collaborative and innovative environmental management decisions. Her work provides evidence-based recommendations for expanded public engagement in environmental science and management in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Suzi is currently a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, and she works in NOAA’s Technology Partnerships Office as their first Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Specialist.
Previously, Suzi worked as a Graduate Assistant at IAN for six years. During her time at IAN, she contributed to various communications products, led an effort to create a citizen science monitoring program, and assisted in developing and teaching a variety of graduate- and professional-level courses relating to environmental management, science communication, and interdisciplinary environmental research. Before joining IAN, Suzi worked as a research assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA and received a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology from the University of Notre Dame.

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  • Michael J. Paolisso 3 years ago

    Very nice blog posting and summary of IAN's participation in the SfAA conference. The conference was enriched by having Bill, Suzi, Katie May and Vanessa participate. They not only contributed good ideas but attended many other sessions, and the reception, of course. Thanks for attending. Let's do it again next year in Albuquerque.


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