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  • My Life as a ChameleonFinding the Anthropological Self through Interdisciplinary Collaboration
  • Hedda Haugen Askland (bio)

Chameleon: A saurian reptile of the genus Chamæleo, family Chamæleonidæ, small lizard-like creatures, distinguished by a prehensile tail, long tongue, eyes moving independently, and covered each with a single circular eyelid, but esp. by their power of changing the colour of the skin, “varying through different shades of yellow, red, gray, brown, and dull inky blue” (Carpenter Zoology 1847). From their inanimate appearance, and power of existing for long periods without food, they were formerly supposed to live on air. These attributes made the name famous and familiar to many who knew nothing else of the animal.

(Oxford English Dictionary 2012)

Although geographically removed from anthropological schools such as those of Manchester and Chicago, Australia represents a major center for anthropological education and expertise. The Australian National University (anu) alone holds one of the largest concentrations of anthropological expertise anywhere and has over one hundred PhD candidates engaged in its Anthropology Higher Degree Research Academic Network (anu 2012). Together with peers from other Australian universities, these candidates enter a competitive work environment after completing their degrees, in which few valuable academic positions as lecturer or research fellow are available. As a consequence, many of those graduating with a PhD in anthropology have to think creatively about how to progress in their careers and how to balance their academic ambitions with the pragmatisms of life. This was what happened to me; having studied at a regional Australian university in [End Page 244] which anthropology has become an often undervalued and low priority subject, I found that my chances of an anthropological appointment in the region where I lived were slim.

My options for work would have to be found elsewhere, in a different city, region, or nation, beyond the discipline of anthropology, or in non-academic sectors. At this stage of my life, moving was not a viable alternative, and I therefore had to consider how I could best employ—and further develop—my skills and experiences beyond the anthropological discipline. Raising my dilemma to my former head of school at the university where I gained my PhD, I was encouraged to I contact the head of the School of Architecture and Built Environment. Quite a few social science graduates had previously been employed in this school, leading to a sarcastic observation from some that the school was offering a “social science graduate program.” The advice I was given had unexpected consequences and opened doors I had not previously seen as entry points to my life as an anthropologist.

What had I imagined my professional life would be like? My vision of life after the PhD resembled an image pointing me in a general direction carved out of my ideals more than a map borne out of pragmatic strategies and career ambitions. Then as now, I strongly identified as an anthropologist, and I wanted to use my more than ten years of anthropological training to contribute, somehow, to contemporary understandings of human culture and society. More specifically, I empathized strongly with the human values embedded in anthropology and the discipline’s moral ethos—or its political purpose—to “rediscover the humanity in the peripheral subject” (Westbrook 2008: 11). As to my professional credentials, I believed they resided in my experience of conducting ethnographic fieldwork as well as the theoretical knowledge I had developed and my regional expertise. Thus I presumed that future work would correspond with the theoretical themes of refugees, exile, diaspora, identity, belonging, (trans)nationalism, human rights, war and conflict, the methodological premise of ethnography, and the regional challenges facing the Asia Pacific. I was therefore surprised when shortly after sending my cv to the head of the School of Architecture and Built Environment I was approached with an offer of research work. What was it that I, as an anthropologist, could bring to the fore? How could my phenomenological approach and ethnographic experience [End Page 245] expand knowledge in disciplines that, at least on paper, appear removed from the anthropological enterprise?

These questions are at the core of this article, in which I draw on my experience of working...


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