Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Kevin Preister, Senior Associate at James Kent Associates and Executive Director at the Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

Tell me about the consulting firm you work for – James Kent Associates – and how you got started there.

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 4.29.31 AMI met my mentor, Jim Kent, in Denver in 1979, after receiving a master’s degree in anthropology from Catholic University. The companies I had been approaching for work were pretty boiler plate consulting companies. Social Impact Assessment was big then and that was my interest, but most companies (working for some larger companies on behalf of large projects), seemed content with crunching numbers and providing cursory overlooks of various communities. The story on Jim Kent was that his company was one you hired and could not get rid of. That is, his company meant business and was present to make sure local communities got a benefit from change. What he offered was a bottom-up approach to make sure that the project in question got a review with real people in the community and that the discourse was not dominated by the few.

I got invited over, we had a few beers on the front porch, and as the world began spinning, I marveled at the turn of circumstances that had me getting buzzed around a senior guy I hoped would hire me! The outfit was just beginning a project, and I was invited to come to a small town to do a few days of fieldwork, along with two other possible hires. Even though I lied to residents about the nature of my presence, a practice I have not repeated, I enjoyed the friendliness of fieldwork. My only job was to get to know people and listen! My first project was looking at a proposed ski area in western Colorado, which ended up to not be built, but we really worked to help locals understand the potential effects and what could be done to improve the design.

JKA, where I am a Senior Associate, is a consulting company offering management services, community-based research, and issue management services for government, corporate and community clients. Our mission is to optimize the social, economic and ecological benefits of change in local communities. The Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy (CSEPP), where I am Executive Director, is the nonprofit arm of the JKA Group. We are united by a Social Ecology approach to social change projects. Both operate as consulting, training and mapping companies.

What is your approach to community-based research?

When I am in the field, my team and I are totally immersed in the community with which we are engaged. We work 14-hour days and are always mingling, going to the gathering places, asking who else should we talk to, trying to get a sense of how the community operates, how people communicate, who is well regarded and who is not, what the issues are, and how people have solved issues in the past. We call this form of ethnography The Discovery Process, which is a descriptive approach to “enter the routines” of the community in order to get the inside look.

Once the Discovery phase is complete, we begin to facilitate the “resolution of issues” as possible with the issue carriers—a single individual, an informal network trying to get something done, or an organized group. Sometimes we are in multi-year projects in which we can witness real “social change” occurring—that is, changes in behavior patterns that have the prospect of being long-lasting. Sometimes, we just get through phase one of the Discovery Process, and we are unable to find the means to continue our presence. Sometimes, we tap multiple resources to sustain a longer-term effort.

In all cases, the source of the action is the individual citizen. As an anthropologist, I can’t take the “action” except insofar as to tell the truth about what I have been told, to convey research findings, and most importantly, to reflect with local residents about their situation until they know what they must do. Action is relegated to those whose home it is, a point Sol Tax was clear about, much to his lasting credit. Our work is to document findings so that we can speak “truth to power” and also to facilitate social change that is positive from a local perspective. In our experience, the best way to stimulate a social movement, sustainable change, and a resilient community is to integrate the “citizen issues” of informal network systems operating in any community with the “management concerns” of formal organizations. If “cultural alignment” is achieved in this way, things begin to take off.

Who are you influenced by?

One of my favorite anthropologists was Walter Goldschmidt. He was an excellent researcher and had the mark of distinction of being fired and his work suppressed by Congress for his conclusions about community life in central valley California. As an emerging applied anthropologist, I understood early the political nature of the work and the risks of some interests not liking what was happening. In my first project, I had a county commissioner stand up and say, “If that Preister ever shows his face in my county again, I’ll have his head!” I was proud of this at the time because my orientation was that politicians and corporate executives were the bad guys and I had gotten the attention of this commissioner. Today, I view that story as an embarrassment and a failure of inclusion, of letting my own viewpoint get in the way of good community process in reaching a healthy decision.

I am also influenced by Sol Tax, Eric Wolf, Sidney Mintz, John Bennett, Paulo Freire, and John Steinbeck (the first “social ecologist”!).

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

The best applied work is empowerment-oriented. To position for empowerment, you have to start with description. Steinbeck called it the “science of ‘what is’”. Just to describe the physical, social and cultural world we are observing is a tremendous accomplishment and so worthwhile. It is worth saying that some of the worst describers I have worked with have been academically-trained anthropologists who somehow get locked into a “critical” and comparative mode that blocks pure observation and description.

How have you applied your anthropology training in your career?

The holistic perspective of anthropology is extremely helpful, and a systems perspective is essential. But really, the success of this work depends on the “fine art of hanging out.” Even though we have fancy names for it, it’s really the ability to be comfortable being a stranger, and just hanging with people as they go about their daily routines. It is a rare person in our society, and in many other societies, who takes the time to do this. The rewards of this approach are enormous. Hanging out is how you really find out how a community works. Anthropology is cool also because you get knowledge about how the world works.

In addition, anthropology’s broad perspective across time and space to understand the various ways humans have adapted and survived is of great value in deepening local discussions and as a repository for ideas that may fit a local area. The danger of the broad perspective is it can stymie the descriptive quality of ethnography—if you always compare what you observe with a situation you were familiar with previously, you stop observing and learning about your local setting. We say resist interpretation and certainly judgment as much as you can, reserving it for latter phases of discussion. By staying in the “ethnographic present,” you become positioned as a change agent.

We say you have to listen with your whole nervous system, that is, really use all faculties to understand the communication of local residents. Oftentimes, there is a hidden story that is implied, and verbal messages are more nuanced than is often apparent. Mention a known name to someone you are talking with, and it is impossible for them to avoid a positive or negative signal, for example. What is the person really trying to say?

What has it been like for you to work as an anthropologist in business?

I have been in business for 3 decades. The anthropology identity has grown—the term now helps to communicate an approach and it has clearly-perceived value in several professional niches. However, even if the term is used, discussion that is driven by practical solutions to problems is necessary to successfully close on contracts. In any new marketing situation, you have a few minutes, or a couple hours, or a few sessions if you are lucky, to “learn the culture” of your potential client and to speak in a way that adds value.

In my organization’s work, we blend two messages, one, the short-term utilitarian value of what the Discovery Process can provide in evaluating a proposed change initiative—say, a project, program or policy of our government or corporate client, and two, the importance of optimizing community benefits in the course of implementing the change (and how to do it!).

Describe one or two of your biggest accomplishments.

One: In 1995-1998, I worked in an urban re-development project in West Medford, Oregon, where there was lots of poverty, third generation welfare, addictions, and crime, and more and more demand on agency services, but the problems kept growing. Agencies came together for a “needs assessment” (a dependency word), but I convinced them that they needed a “strengths assessment.” How do things work now, how do these people survive? In a population on the edge like this, you’d be lucky to have 10 people come to a meeting. But working through the local networks of support, by which people survived, we were able to mobilize action on a host of fronts that improved living conditions enormously—several methamphetamine houses broken up, several blight homes shut down, 487 abandoned cars were removed, several homes of the elderly were painted (keeping them in their homes), annual clean up days generated tons of trash, very poor families in the school system were stabilized (there were social workers in the schools for the first time). These were interventions that successfully got 25 families to stay rather than run despite agency attention because we combined the carrots with the sticks.

Why were we so successful? First, we matched local routines—we did not depend on meetings because people didn’t use them (e.g., people would come together in their “pockets” (three or four block areas), or the local stores). Second, there was good alignment between agencies and residents. It is rare in my experience for organizations to be oriented to public service and issue resolution. We were fortunate at the time to have exceptional individuals in as department heads, including the police chief and representatives from public safety and building inspection. These folks would come with us as we learned about issues and they (and city policy at the time) were geared to rapid response. Within a few days, many problems were taken care of, encouraging positive civic engagement. This was fine work that made a difference.

Two: the mayor of Hawaii County hired us to evaluate a proposed resort in the Ka`u District on the south portion of the Big Island. The resort was strongly opposed by an environmental group that had indigenous people as the public face of the organization but which was dominated by haole (white) interests. The mayor asked us to “hear the unheard voices” and so we did. We found most people wanted a resort but the one proposed was too large and did not build in local benefits—they didn’t “give back to the community.” More seriously, we heard story after story of residents being threatened, bullied and beat up by members of the environmental group. Our report and public testimony made it impossible for this group to be in public for several years afterward they were so discredited. The mayor asked the developer if he could scale back the size of the resort and to include local housing and other benefits, but agreement could not be reached and the developer lost his development rights.

How has practicing anthropology compared with how you envisioned it as a student?

In school, I thought of applied work as research oriented but for me it has been process oriented. That is, it is how we work with people and work within their existing cultural systems of communication and survival matter more for applied success than high quality research.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers?

  1. Be careful about working for others. It is often difficult to remain independent.
  2. Keep promoting the professional values we bring to the work—local residents must benefit from change and we can find out opportunities from a local perspective for making things better.
  3. People expect you to have “professional standards” and you should put them out there.
  4. It takes years to develop “a practice”. Be patient. Find a mentor. I had a really good mentor and it was life changing. Senior people can shield you while you get your networks going and your own specialties. This point contradicts #1. It’s a balance.


  1. I’d love more detail on advice point #1. What does Preister mean by “be careful about working for others”? Does he mean one loses ones unique value by working for someone else, or does he mean it’s hard to find employers who understand anthropology, or does he mean it’s more difficult to “do anthropology” while employed by someone else? Or is he recommending every anthropologist should remain independent, which begs the question “why”? He makes an interesting point but I’m not sure what to make of it.

    1. You are right. My point was unclear. In a social change setting, it is important as we know to conduct fieldwork among all social segments affected by the change–local community, relevant organizations, perhaps industry, government agencies, and of course, the client. We know also it is important to maintain the stance of “disciplined stranger” so that we maintain a fresh eye and we are not inured by the familiar and stop “seeing.”. If we work for the proponent of change, or their consultant, special challenges are presented. First, you have only 6 months to a year in a new organization when your status as a stranger and newcomer can help create change within the organization. Second, you are expected to be committed to the change agent’s agenda and that limits your effectiveness. We tell our clients that we work for the community and that there is advantage to them in this commitment–that rather than be victimized by loud voices or those that do not represent the community, we can get them the “fairest” reading possible of their proposal. Because we can get into the fabric of the community, find the people trusted and well regarded by others, and we understand local cultural practices in solving life’s challenges and have a sense of how the project can integrate into the fabric of the community to optimize its benefits, that provides value to the client. In contrast, a PR approach would involve local contact but the intent is to persuade, to talk people into the change at hand. Anthropology has much more to offer than that.
      Hope this helps.
      Kevin Preister

  2. This is so helpful. I’m seriously looking at a career switch from business/marketing to Anthropology or History and these interviews are tremendously helpful.

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