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Anthropology students’ achievement at the municipality of Amsterdam

By Puck de Boer

What greater thing could happen to students in their Bachelor than doing a research that actually has impact in real life? Exactly this happened to four students from the VU Bachelor Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. In the course Organisations and Anthropology, students do research for the municipality of Amsterdam. Afterwards, they translate their knowledge into a concrete policy advice.

Rieky, Joost, Roos and Charlotte evaluated the municipality’s policy by researching the extent to which residents can participate in decision-making processes. They spent a month doing fieldwork at the Ringdijk and Weesperzijde to discover the effect of past participation projects in these neighbourhoods. The goal of the research was to present suggestions to improve future projects. A year later, the students were told that the municipality is implementing all their suggestions. This is a wonderful achievement. I was curious to hear more about their research, and what this project has taught them about the added value of anthropology. They were excited to sit down for an interview. Via Zoom, we spoke about the added value and challenges of applying anthropology outside of academia.

When I asked the group about their expectations of the course, they told me how the first few lectures already promised a whole new approach to anthropology. It was different than the researches they had done before. Instead of focusing on academic thinking and writing only, this course expected students to apply and translate their knowledge for a certain stakeholder. In this case the stakeholders were civil servants at the municipality.

The assignment challenged the group in ways they had not experienced before. They had to cope with the different interests that participants had in the outcome of their research. It even came to a point where civil servants wanted to make adjustments to their report. By stressing the independent nature of their research and reaching out to their supervisor at the municipality, they solved the matter. This experience taught them the importance of staying true to yourself and to your research. It does raise an important question: who do you represent in your research? And what responsibilities come with that representation?

Overall, the experience has been very positive. Rieky, Joost, Roos and Charlotte told me numerous stories about their fieldwork. Anthropological methods allowed the students to broadly investigate what happens in a neighbourhood, and they discovered that participation in decision-making is hardly separable from other things that happen in a neighbourhood. Participant observation and informal interviews made clear how residents took matters in their own hands, instead of waiting for the municipality to take action. The students were trusted easily after they explained their role, and residents were encouraged to tell everything they wanted to say. Being ‘there’ also enabled the students to hear the voices of residents that are easily overlooked by the municipality. Their discoveries point to an important aspect of the added value of anthropologists. Our holistic eye enables us to see what would otherwise be overlooked. This paints a more realistic picture than the one in the minds of civil servants. The stories from the ground play an important role in formulating more effective policy interventions.

So what impact did this course have on the group of students? Rieky told me that she likes applying anthropology, but that she wants to continue her studies in Law. She imagines combining her knowledge on law and anthropology and applying this to the field of migration. Roos envisions a career in investigative journalism in which she applies anthropology as well. Joost wants to use anthropology in creating mutual understanding between people. Finally, Charlotte wants to specialise in Organisational Studies and wants to apply anthropology in relation to employees. In sum, the course Organisations and Anthropology provided a helpful hand to discover and express their added value as anthropologists.

Their collective experience of applying anthropology, the success they achieved with their report and their individual dreams for the future make me hopeful for the future as well. They show how there is an added value of anthropology, and that anthropology students have the opportunity to make real impact during their studies already. Be it inside, or outside of academia.

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