It is a sad, but unfortunately common tale. A group, a movement, or a field founded on improving the human condition through time loses its way in its own bureaucracy and the bureaucracies of others it is involved with.

Might I suggest that this seems to be happening with anthropology?  Clearly anthropology has the potential to serve the common good.  As I write in the accompanying essay, “Revitalizing Anthropology . . .,”: 

  • With its in-depth research techniques and broad comparative understandings, it can make a difference—a real difference—in the lives of many people around the world . . . In valuing cultural diversity for how it enriches our world, anthropology fosters tolerance of difference. In emphasizing how context shapes behavior, it encourages people to reshape the contexts needed to reshape their lives—medically, economically, socially—so as to find new meaning, opportunity, and hope (2021:1-2).

The intellectual excitement the field generated in earlier times (described by Charles King in Gods of the Upper Air) seems lacking today.  During the 1950’s, my mother, a real estate agent at that time, read Benedict and Mead with considerable interest.  Their writings opened up new understandings, new insights about our humanity, to her that she discussed with friends.

Within social sciences today, anthropology’s role seems diminished.  It tends to have the smallest number of faculty per university department and the smallest amount of funding from the National Science Foundation.   A recent review appearing in the American Anthropologist is entitled: “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn.”  Hearsay evidence suggests many anthropology graduate students feel frustrated with the field.

What is intriguing about the field’s present condition is how few anthropologists seriously explore the underlying reasons for it, especially in terms of the broader hegemonic-like dynamics that shape academic behavior more generally.  The skills anthropologists display in analyzing the social dynamics of others are rarely brought to bear in understanding our own discipline. 

If we did, we could analyze how the academy’s infrastructure, which claims to be focused on benefiting the broader society, in practice reframes social benefits into producing publications of uncertain value.  Instead of advancing knowledge and benefiting others, these publications are often oriented toward advancing academic careers.  Revitalizing the discipline involves more than having thoughtful conversations with others.  It means transforming the institutional structures that perpetuate the field’s problems.

The Revitalizing Anthropology Graduate Student Challenge empowers graduate students as problem solvers.  It draws a new generation of students to move beyond vague affirmations to offering concrete solutions to the discipline’s problems.  The Challenge does not specify what is the best solution (or solutions).  That remains for graduate students to ponder, to articulate, and, by advocating for certain changes, to embrace them as their owns.  Today’s graduate students can be the difference, in Bateson’s phrasing, that makes a difference.




1. BEFORE WRITING YOUR ESSAY, PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING MATERIAL that is available after you create an account and log in:

  • a: Background Reading: “Revitalizing Anthropology . . . With Your Help!,” provides the conceptual framework for your essay.
  • b: Commentaries by a range of anthropologists with diverse perspectives. The present various possibilities for how best to frame your essay.
  • c: Grading Standards focuses on the key standards that will be used to assess your essay.


How to realize—in actions (not just words)—the very real potential of anthropology to facilitate change that demonstrably improves other people’s lives in meaningful ways to them. “Revitalizing Anthropology” acts as a framework for addressing this question. While it is relevant, you are not confined to this essay’s central point:

  • how the academy’s infrastructure . . . which, in principle, claims to be focused on benefiting the broader society, in practice reframes benefits to involving publications of uncertain value. Instead of advancing knowledge and benefiting others, these publications often appear oriented toward advancing academic careers.

You can focus on whatever concerns that will help address the above question. But it is important to be reflexive. We need to understand anthropology in the same systematic and empirical way that you have come to understand other groups that anthropologists deal with.


  • a) To check your essay to make sure there are no “funny characters” in it. This sometimes happens when you change text from a standard word processing program (such as WORD) into PHP, the language that is used in this computer program. With WORD, the “funny characters” frequently involve quote marks and semi-colons.
  • b) Once your essay is saved it is still not officially submitted until the night of the deadline. This means you can revise parts of it, if you wish, right up to the deadline. All papers are officially submitted at the same time after the deadline has passed.


After you have submitted your essay, you are required to evaluate three essays written by your peers. Your paper will not be further evaluated if you do not evaluate these other papers on the form provided. You will be dropped from the project. These peer evaluations offer important insights to ponder.

  • First, they allow you to put your own essay in the context of other students’ essays — allowing you to see how they framed and developed their arguments.
  •  Second, they tend to provide thoughtful feedback on your essay. With a substantial number of submissions, it is difficult to offer meaningful feedback (especially given the busy schedule of many faculty) without a process such as this.

After this peer review is completed, Dr. Borofsky will read the top 30 essays. He will select from them the top 12. Then several prominent anthropologists will review these essays (using the same standards as in your peer grading). The top three essays from this final evaluation will be declared the winners and each receive a $1,000 award. In addition, based on the model used by the Society for the Anthropology of Work’s open access journal, Exertions, several faculty members will help mentor these winners navigate the publishing process so their essays will be published in prominent journals.