Thursday, November 22, 2012

Anthropologists in the NGO World

Source: Anthropology Works, American Anthropological Association
by Jean J Schensul

I am a medical/educational anthropologist who has spent almost all of my professional life in the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) world in the United States and globally. NGOs are situated at the interface between government, the private sector and people. They have the capacity to reach people when governmental or private agencies cannot. Because they are flexible in administration and staffing, NGOs are positioned to identify new problems in the field and to shift their programs quickly. They are uniquely able to react rapidly to emerging health problems, natural and human created disasters, and other situations that require immediate response.

In my own work, I have been committed to the development and growth of a particular form of NGO, the Community Based Research Organization (CBRO). CBROs conduct collaborative or participatory action research usually with social action or social justice purposes. My reasons for building CBROs lie in my desire as a methodologist and activist scholar to democratize science – to make the theories, methods and results of social science research available to communities that have been excluded from the creation and dissemination of science-based knowledge so that they, together with social scientists, can create their own knowledge base and speak to power from a position of strength.

In 1978, I moved to Hartford, and joined the fledgling Hispanic Health Council, a CBRO, as a co-founder along with founders Maria Borrero, a community activist, and Stephen Schensul, a medical anthropologist. The Hispanic Health Council was then dedicated to research training and advocacy to reverse inequities, and to improve the health of Latinos in Connecticut. At the Hispanic Health Council I learned to write many National Institutes of Health (NIH) and local/national foundation grants, and, working with Maria, developed its strategic plan and research program. As an increasingly competent and creative technical writer, I could draw on and integrate cultural and structural factors, community voices and ethnographic methods into successful grants. My knowledge of Spanish and field experiences in Cuban Miami and in central Mexico helped, although I had to work at a proper Puerto Rican pronunciation.

After ten years, the “adolescent phase” of growth at the Hispanic Health Council was complete, and in 1987 I was invited to re-invent another CBRO, the Institute for Community Research. I was given a small amount of money and the support to create an organization dedicated to collaborative research for social justice. My prior experience at the “Council” gave me the authenticity and knowledge that enabled me to work with many marginalized communities, to link them around common development agendas and to engage them with national funders, researchers, and activist collaborators around the country and the globe. I was able to bring my considerable administrative experience as a research director to the directorship of an organization with a broader vision, mandate and reach. With board support, we revised the mission statement, replaced and diversified the board and staff, and began to hire anthropologists as researchers. We quickly put into place a broad ranging interdisciplinary program of participatory action research with our community partners in HIV, aging, youth development, substance and substance abuse. This program continues to this day in the greater Hartford area, and has extended to sites in China and India thanks to strong support by NIH, other federal funders, and national and local foundations and the capacities and connections of our research team. Over 40 anthropologists have contributed to the ICR mission since 1988.

For anthropologists interested in innovative ways of conducting research for social change, CBROs in the U. S. and elsewhere are ideal environments. The advantages of working in an NGO are many including proximity to communities, opportunities to innovate, and ways of maximizing the uses of anthropology in field settings. CBROs are in high demand as partners to university faculty that want to conduct community based research and need the leadership of community based scientists and community advocates. Despite the constraints of unstable funding, limited upward mobility and shifting funder priorities, I have found the creation and management of CBROs, calling for passionate entrepreneurship, collaboration, imagination, political analysis, and methodological sophistication, to be highly rewarding.

Jean J Schensul is Senior Scientist & Founding Director at the Institute for Community Research in Hartford, CT.


  1. Sir, i am a graduate in anthropology. Can i go for degree in nutrition ?? Will nutrition course enhance the value of my anthropology?? Will this be usefull in getting jobs in ngo??

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  3. Treating diseases the noble way- Madhusudan Naidu in the Direction of Swami’s Ideals!- Madhusudan Naidu Muddenahalli
    in the Direction of Swami’s Ideals!