Applied Anthropologists Adapt to COVID-19 at SJSU

How has our San José State University applied anthropology community adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Practicum Research Team: Jan English-Lueck, Ann Warfield-Hooker, Abril Perez-Gonzaga, Milton Canas-Chinchilla, and Patrick Padneiros.

To document the anthropological response to COVID19, our team of graduate and undergraduate anthropologists conducted an oral history of our department’s experience of 2020-2021. Members of the anthropological community had to manage the usual academic activities—teaching, research, professional networking and publication—in new ways. Faculty, students, and alumni practitioners adapted by reflecting on those constraints and establishing collaborative partnerships. As a community of applied anthropologists, faculty, students, and practitioners from San José State, we developed research projects, collaborative teaching experiences, and community programs to investigate and adapt to the pandemic.

Capturing the Moment

We decided to collect oral histories of our activities as applied anthropologists in this historic moment.  We adapted our methods to follow physical distancing protocols and conducted remote from February to April 2021. We interviewed faculty, students, and alumni practitioners and collected short video. For our analysis, our team looked for patterns in how we changed our research, teaching and professional practices to capture changes wrought by Covid-19 within our SJSU applied anthropology communities. In an attempt to “capture the moment,” we discovered methodical research challenges. Academic and practitioner researchers needed to rethink how we contacted communities to recruit participants, adapted our toolkits and methods, and mobilized social and economic support for hidden populations. We found that the pandemic accentuated the underlying issues we were already investigating in our research agendas and community applications.

We found that applied anthropologists at San José State University used their analytical skills to identify and overcome the practical methodological obstacles.  Our community used the networking skills we so often investigate to create and intensify partnerships and collaborative relationships to get the work done.

As Dr. Melissa Beresford notes (pictured left) “ What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is it’s just put a giant magnifying glass on all of the existing inequalities that were already in our society, and it’s just kind of magnified, what those inequalities are, and exacerbated those inequalities for sure.”

Adaptation and Collaboration

Applied and public anthropologists at San José State systematically adapted our research and community work to:

  • Identify and overcome obstacles
  • Adapt research methods
  • Retool our analytical toolkits to better understand and communicate the impact of the pandemic

Dr. Beresford clarifies, “So recruitment is really challenging, based on the COVID -19 pandemic, especially recruitment for hidden populations. So what we did to get around that is, we partnered with CommUniverCity San Jose, since they have long standing ties within communities in San Jose, and devised a kind of a virtual recruitment survey.”

Publishing takes a long time, so it was important to get thoughts into the world quickly.  Drs. Marlovits and Gonzalez published an article in Anthropology Today early in the pandemic that framed the emerging experience for a broader audience. As Gonzalez comments,

We were both using the opportunity to try to give a sense of what we were feeling. But also trying to give an anthropological view on how the virus, how the pandemic, was really kind of breaking open these inequalities and these problems, these deep social problems that are often hidden in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area more generally.

Others, barred by circumstance from collecting new information, used the moment to reflect, write, and publish.  Dr. Meniketti comments, in reference to his work in historic archaeology:

So the research was conducted earlier, the pandemic simply enabled me to bring it to publication. I’m editing, I’m working. I’m working on an edited book right now with multiple authors. And essentially, they’ve all said to me, oh, they’ve got time. They can do a chapter for me because they can’t get in the field, they can’t do anything else. So, they’re more than happy to contribute a chapter… They’re just using this as an opportunity to publish that work.”

Our applied anthropological community created collaborative partnerships to amplify the efforts that any one of us could make alone.  We found that people could:

  • Use the moment to experiment with new directions and tools
  • Explore emerging phenomena
  • Collaborate within and across institutions and stakeholders
  • Build research opportunities between professors, professors and students, academia and communities of practice

Dr. Faas used his existing network in disaster anthropology to build a collective.  He comments,

We started thinking about what are the important questions to ask. Not, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before we have all the answers.’ It was based on our work in the past. What are the types of questions we have to ask? And then, I worked with my colleagues in this collective known as CADAN…, which is the Culture and Disasters Action Network… It’s a collective that has been funded multiple times by the National Science Foundation, to work with non-academic practitioners around disasters to develop research-based solutions to really abiding problems in the world of disasters.

Dr. Faas and Dr. Beresford collaborated on data collected by Dr. Faas’ students on pandemic experiences.  Faas and his students collected the data and Beresford and her students analyzed it.  Similar collaborations were taking place in seminars and classes throughout the Anthropology department.


Meanwhile, our alumni in applied anthropology were meeting the moment through their professional work.  Many were working in research, non-profit, or governmental organizations serving communities radically disrupted by the pandemic.  They found new strategies to:

  • Build community with common purposes
  • Seek opportunities to refine and redefine relationships
  • Create more inclusive approaches in their organizations

Maribel Martinez work (shown left being interviewed by Abril Perez- Gonzaga) shifted from her duties with Santa Clara County’s LGBTQ communities to engaging with Spanish-speaking people about the pandemic, drawing on her own Master’s work with SOMOS Mayfair.  She says,

“The other forms of engagement that the county has used have also been more intensified in terms of community outreach. We have partnered with community organizations, such as community health workers, and those who use the promotora model to make sure that our information is going out into the community.”

The experience of work has changed within the County. She adds,

A lot of the work before had been dependent on people being physically in an office or on the job site. Now, because we’ve been doing remote work for over a year, some departments, some of us still come in every day. But some departments have been staffed exclusively by remote work, that it’ll be something that is going to be ingrained into our organizational culture on having those virtual workspaces as well.

Mayra Cerda, (shown above) working with Sacred Heart, amplifies the challenge this poses in working with communities.  She reflects,

Like the Flintstones, we just did everything on paper, on the rocks. And we needed to implement something more advanced like the Jetsons. Right? —like the cartoons. Let’s find out a good software that we can use like Salesforce, in which the application can go through Salesforce, and we can calculate the amount that they will be getting, and to see if they’re qualified. So, everything was like going backwards, like moving fast. In a second. It was very crazy.

 Alumna Hannah Hart applies her anthropological skills as an instructional designer, working on ed tech UX.  She notes, “I think parents and teachers and districts have realized there is […] a limit to how much learning students can do online and we got to be creative in order to make things like that possible in the future.” Hannah also reflects, “But I think parents and teachers and districts have realized there is […] a limit to how much learning students can do online and we got to be creative in order to make things like that possible in the future.”

Students themselves have found connections to get them through jump into the digital learning environment.  Nick Marichione (shown left), an athlete and international undergraduate, is working with Drs. Faas and Beresford to understand the social support systems that students inhabit and create.  He reflects on the communities he has observed and suggests, “Some communities have thrived.” He goes on to add “it sort of made you understand who’s important in your life, and what aspects you need.”

Implications for the Future

The Covid-19 pandemic magnified existing social inequalities in our environment and the discipline of anthropology plays a crucial role in situating and addressing these challenges. Dr. William Reckmeyer, a systems scientist, and emeritus faculty member with a 40-year career in our department, provided us with some insight on how to address major challenges. During his interview, he explained to us the Law of Requisite variety.

One of the things we know from systems science is that if you’re engaging in any kind of complex challenge, you need to have more variety. It’s called the law of requisite variety …it basically says… if you’re not capable of exhibiting as much variety as whatever’s challenging you, you can’t overcome it.

Two basic strategies to overcome complex problems are to dampen external variety or amplify our own. While Covid-19 has brought a magnifying glass to issues and inequalities, it has also highlighted our ability and need to collaborate and communicate with one another. From our departmental community’s oral history, we found that our students, faculty, and practitioners adapted in a variety of innovative ways. Applied anthropologists from San Jose State University collaborated and cultivated a variety of perspectives to meet the challenge.


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