Studying anthropology can also create some type of sensitivity, and it certainly creates some insight into the world. When you leave university for everyday life, field research will also prove to be very valuable. It is a good experience to get outside of your comfort zone. For instance, you learn to talk to people you would not normally speak with or even meet.
Could you begin by telling me more about you?
My name is Barbora Bírová and I am a social anthropologist. I studied social anthropology at the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at Comenius University, where I completed my Master’s degree in 2013, and shortly after that I started my doctoral studies at the Faculty of Humanities in Prague.
I currently work at the Platform for Social Housing in Prague, where I deal with the topic of homelessness and exclusion from housing. The platform is mainly trying to adopt a legislative framework in the Czech Republic that would systematically end homelessness. Advocacy and lobbying activities are important for us, which means defending the target group, namely the people who experience homelessness and exclusion from housing, and negotiating adequate systemic changes at a number of levels. Moreover, we also do analytical work – we provide up-to-date data on the situation with homelessness. We have the most detailed data on homelessness, but we also try to work with people who have personally experienced homelessness and exclusion from housing, so there is also a degree of participation.
Since 2013, I have also been working in the Anthropictures studio of anthropological research, where I have done dozens of studies in applied research over the last eight years, focusing mainly on the city and development. There I have also encountered the topic of homelessness quite often. As of now, I am still interested in research and its applicability for achieving the change in policies, but at the same time I am also very interested in contributing to ending homelessness and creating policies to help more directly.
How did you get to the topic of homelessness?
I started to deal with this topic when I was doing my Master’s degree – I started to be primarily interested in how the discourse regarding the solution of homelessness is formed – both in terms of what the story is, but also what kind of policies are applied to the topic. Later, I also became interested in gender-related issues in regards to homelessness, such as how the issue of violence shapes women’s homelessness, and specifically domestic, sexual, and sexualized violence, as well as how this violence manifests itself in structural forms. These are topics that have remained of interest to me until now. However, since conducting academic research on the topic, I also became interested in its application – especially in the ways things can be changed on the basis of research. Today, in my work, I work with a variety of actors – be they politicians, bureaucrats, municipalities, but also just whoever else who has the power to influence homelessness-related policies.
So you are dealing with applied anthropology, which is a very interesting area of our discipline. However, for students accustomed to the academic environment, it often remains very abstract. Why is applied anthropology important, and how should it be pursued?
This is a very difficult question, because after eight years I am relatively critical of many things related to applied anthropology. In applied anthropology, it is especially important for me to demonstrate that through a combination of concepts, theories, and methods, we can investigate something, or also show the status quo of how things are or why people behave a certain way.
Anthropology can tell, based on past and present experience, how things are, why something is happening, and what we can do about it. Let me give you my own practical example. Let’s say I’m researching a park or some public space. First of all, I should describe how things are – for example, that there is a certain type of population in the area that uses the public space in certain ways, and that there are some conflicts there. Through such research, anthropologists can attempt to interpret a certain type of reality, perhaps also with the help of communication partners who use the space. Based on this research, the anthropologist can then make some recommendations for how to proceed.
Especially in applied research, it seems to me that, unlike in other professions, you can also involve the voices of those who might not have been heard otherwise. Thus, when I do applied research, I also take the opinion of a homeless person, someone who cares for the greenery, someone from the town hall and the various people who spend time there, which allows me to create a more colorful picture. The advantage of anthropology and applied research may be that you look at things holistically and find your way to different people to whom others will not find a way to, and this can be quite beneficial.
How do you apply and use anthropological knowledge and skills in your work?
For example, whenever I find myself in a new environment or in the field, I try to look at some of the behavioral mechanisms at work there. However, what is even more important for me is the degree of empathy that I now have thanks to the fact that I completed some training in anthropology. What I also notice is also the need for self-reflection and the importance of respect and paying attention to ethical issues. At the same time, I consider the various research methods and techniques very valuable for both qualitative and quantitative research. Anthropological education is obviously very important in this case, but at the same time I think that many of those skills and abilities are also about the will of the individual themselves – whether they want to find out more about what interests them, their own curiosity and courage to find new experience and knowledge.
Let’s go back to your times as a student, or even before that. Can you tell me how you got into social anthropology?
BB: My story is quite personal. During high school, I had several close people around me who were addicted to drugs, and after the death of one of them, I really needed to process with how it is that society works – why some are accepted by it and some are not, as well as on what basis some are supported by their family or society and some are not. I had already had some awareness of some ways in which class divisions and similar issues worked when I was in high school, but I was really interested in how all of this works. At that time, I was looking for available opportunities for studying and social anthropology was one of the things that fascinated me. So when I found out that I was accepted, I was very happy. Although anthropology was also unknown to me in many ways, I was very curious. These factors were some of my original motivations.
What did the study of social anthropology teach you?
Anthropology can provide us all with some life experience, which is very valuable in itself, because we study in a particular environment, we read certain texts, we meet new people. Studying anthropology can also create some type of sensitivity, and it certainly creates some insight into the world. When you leave university for everyday life, field research will also prove to be very valuable. It is a good experience to get outside of your comfort zone. For instance, you learn to talk to people you would not normally speak with or even meet.
What advice would you give to students wondering about how an anthropologist can work in the field after school, what such opportunities are and where to look for them?
I would highly recommend that, before they even become students, they look at what is available abroad on this topic. Now, thanks to the pandemic, a large number of different webinars and courses have been made available online. This can also provide some inspiration during their time as a student, for example, when choosing a topic that they would like to research. At the same time, I also think that the educational institution itself should not take the view that it is only there to provide formal education, as it is also important to show students that there are opportunities and internships available. Universities and other research institutions likewise do not want all students with a degree to start working at the first corporation, because that is where they will actually be able to find employment.
I find it extremely important to bring together people from different sectors, whether non-profit, business or the public sector. It would be wonderful if someone with the time and courage could try to create such a space – be it an environmental organization, one dealing with human rights, one focusing on the climate crisis, or even one targeted at marketing. It could be a research position, but also a consulting activity. These kinds of activities are already emerging, for example, in public institutions. However, in order for it to be properly anthropological, it seems important to me that people from several sides fight for it themselves, or try to set up their own organization that will provide research activities, for example in applied anthropology, and will show that the discipline has something to contribute.
On behalf of SASA, the interview was conducted by Ines Herćan