A.J. Faas

A.J. Faas

Associate Professor, Anthropology


What research questions currently preoccupy you?

I primarily study the intimately related issues of development, disasters, and displacement, which I consider some of the hardest problems in social science. For some time, I have been focused on the relational aspects of practice in these contexts and, more broadly, in human-environment relations. I have done so largely through the lens of social network analysis in order to capture relational processes that facilitate or constrain vulnerability, coping, and adaptation. Lately, I find the concept of entanglement helps me scaffold social networks to webs of ties between humans and environment, materials and material culture, practice, and discourse. Entanglement refers to forms of connections between things through production and reproduction, exchange, use, consumption, discard, and decay. I increasingly focus on human-material entanglements and relational networks as they vary in their tautness and rigidity, alternatively affording or constraining certain possibilities for behavior and interpretation in disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, and adaptation.

I also explore problems of articulation in disasters, development, and resettlement. I am interested in social disarticulation, which refers to disruptions of social networks, human-environmental relations, and material culture in disasters and resettlement schemes. I also use the concept of mis-articulation to examine the compatibility of sociotechnical systems—scientific instruments, expert knowledge, and organizational practices—with the social, cultural, and biophysical contexts in which they are deployed.

After considering the above factors, I am ultimately interested in human agency and how people engage and confront entanglements and (dis)(mis)articulations in practice. Coping with crisis is improvisational, but neither without points of reference, nor without constraints. Improvisations are always emergent, neither wholly determined by nor entirely independent of previous arrangements. Certain practices will inevitably be met with resistance, and therefore adjusted, often iteratively until actors are able to maneuver towards their desired goals or reinvent them. These are the processes that fascinate me.

Finally, because I am an applied anthropologist, I do not always determine my research questions by myself. Frequently, I do this in collaboration with non-academic partners in the interest of helping them solve problems, while also creating partnerships for student research in San José and the greater Bay Area. One ongoing project of mine is a collaboration with CommUniverCity to study community leadership in downtown San José. Specifically, this study is designed to understand: (1) the attributes, capacities, and resources of established and emerging leaders; (2) community leadership needs; and (3) the degree alignment between community leadership needs, established leadership, and emerging leadership. Ultimately, the study will attempt to determine how community members and leaders best work to foster the development of leadership to meet community needs.

What personal factors contributed to your study of disasters?

My interest in disasters began with an interest in the problems of development. I was concerned with the ways in which global development initiatives fostered the development of humanitarian crises and inequalities. As a graduate student at the University of South Florida, I worked as a research assistant for Linda Whiteford, a medical anthropologist largely known for her work on disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, she had transitioned from studying disasters in Ecuador to studying them in Mexico. Since I lived in Mexico prior to graduate school and was positively in love with the place, I was happy to work on the project, but I frankly found the topic of disasters to be boring. I remained interested in studying development in Mexico, but towards the end of my second year in graduate school, I grew anxious because I had yet to identify a project I wanted to study. One day, Linda was late to a meeting, and, while I was waiting, I picked up a new book sitting on her desk. I read a chapter about the anthropology of displacement and resettlement by Anthony Oliver-Smith. It instantly resonated with me and, when Linda burst in apologizing for being late, I just waived the chapter at her and said “Please don’t apologize. In this time I finally figured out what I want to do.” Shortly after this, I actually headed to Ecuador where several agencies (government and non-governmental) were planning resettlements, and I have been studying these processes ever since. I am also now fortunate to count on Tony (as he’s affectionately known by friends and colleagues) as a mentor, colleague, and friend.

What has been most challenging in your research?

The most challenging thing about studying disasters is the fact that you are face to face with tremendous suffering. This is often tempered by wonderful examples of human resilience in the face of adversity, but you always come back to the suffering. This is one of several factors that drives me to be relevant and useful with my research. At the end of the day, it may amount to much less than I would like, but I design my research in collaboration with others in order to apply it to solve real issues that continue to vex those working in disaster contexts.

How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research?

First of all, joining the faculty at SJSU brought my research here to San José. California is a hotbed of natural hazards ranging from earthquakes, wildfires, and drought, to floods, the occasional tornado, and the emerging impacts of climate change. I have already begun building partnerships with government agencies, nonprofits, and citizen’s groups to study the relational aspects of disaster planning, preparedness, response, recovery, and adaptation over time in Santa Clara County and beyond.

Secondly, our tremendous students make it possible (and fun!) to build dynamic research teams to approach these problems from multiple angles. In the Department of Anthropology, we are fortunate to have three undergraduate majors (Anthropology, Behavioral Sciences, and Organizational Studies) and our graduate program in applied anthropology. Since coming to SJSU, I have found each of these programs to be filled with talented and intelligent students looking to develop their skills and knowledge through the research process. This has made it possible for me to build a number of research partnerships that I could not feasibly maintain on my own. Rather than being a tax on my efforts, I have found the students at SJSU to be tremendous assets, and I learn from working with them each day.

Finally, I cannot say enough great things about my colleagues here at SJSU. The faculty in the Department of Anthropology are an incredibly talented bunch, and I am grateful to learn from and collaborate with them. We do not all have similar interests and expertise, but we support and complement each other’s talents and efforts. It really feels great to be part of such a motivated and encouraging team. Many of us work together on projects, and we work together to get as many students involved as possible.

A hidden (research) talent:

I was a musician for many years before becoming an anthropologist. Though I do not play anymore, I often use my background in music to build rapport or just to unwind with people. Just about everyone likes to talk about, share, or play music.

One book that changed your life (or research) and why:

Shortly before applying to graduate school, I read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998), which is a post-structuralist political ecology of high modernist development schemes in multiple societies in the 20th century. Basically, it is a study of why so many schemes to improve the human condition fail so catastrophically. It helped me begin thinking beyond my political and intellectual perspective at the time—so much “good” and “evil” in the world—to thinking about how political, economic, and environmental schemes are often hamstrung by epistemological fallacies as much as by inequalities in the world. Oftentimes, disasters result from the best laid plans of people and organizations with the best of intentions. This really inspired me to pursue a deeper study of anthropology, culture, and practice on a global scale.

A website/journal/newspaper (in your field?) you follow without fail:

Human Organization is the premier journal of applied anthropology, and it welcomes contributions from other disciplines as well. The journal features theoretically-driven empirical research with direct relevance to policy and practice in a diverse range of issue areas (e.g., environment, economy, health/wellbeing, migration, technology). I read each issue the week it comes out. Recently, I guest edited a special issue of Human Organization on the applied anthropology of risk, hazards, and disasters (74[4] see more here).

Advice you’d give to newer faculty or students:

The worst vice is advice, so I would not presume to provide unsolicited advice to my peers. However, one thing I am constantly reminding myself and my students of is to find what I call “the words between.” When we write and when we speak, I find that we often rely too heavily on extremes—“totally awesome!” or “absolutely terrible!” I encourage my students and remind myself to find the words between these extremes; to better capture the nuances of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I feel like this not only helps us improve as writers and social scientists, but it also helps us develop better emotional intelligence insomuch as finding the words between can help us better express ourselves to others in our lives.