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NOVEMBER 2013: The Future of NGO Studies
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11/19/2013 to 11/20/2013
When: 11/19/2013

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The Future of NGO Studies

November 19-20, 2013

Chicago, Pre-AAA Conference


Call for Session Organizers and General Participation



Interest in NGOs is rapidly growing among anthropologists. The American Anthropological Association’s Special Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits is now the largest SIG, with over 1,000 members. Scholars are studying NGOs, nonprofits, and voluntary associations in connection with a vast array of cultural processes, including governance, social movements, professionalization, militarization, morality, religion, gender, neocolonialism, and neoliberal restructuring. The proliferation of studies is, on the one hand, advancing understanding of theoretical and practical issues by bringing scholars together to explore connections across diverse geographies and to debate the changing power and significance of NGOs. On the other hand, the immense number and diversity of nongovernmental organizations worldwide has produced a fragmented body of research and divergent styles of engagement by anthropologists, ranging from active participation to more traditional ‘fly on the wall’ fieldwork. Anthropologists practicing ‘NGO-graphy’ confront the question of whether NGOs comprise a coherent object of analysis. Collectively, we are faced with conceptual, methodological, and ethical issues that require more intensive discussion.


The purpose of the conference is to assess, define, refine, and invigorate the field of NGO studies. We invite proposals for panels, workshops, or presentations that can help develop the anthropology of nongovernmental organizations. We envision that these meta-level, field-building conversations will complement research presentations at the AAA. Proposals may take on questions such as (but not limited to) the following: 

What can the discipline of anthropology distinctly bring to the study of NGOs?

What can NGO studies contribute to political and cultural anthropology more broadly?

What are the advantages and pitfalls of institutionalizing NGO Studies as a distinct field of anthropological inquiry?

Is there a canon of studies that defines the area of inquiry?

What new methodologies, theories, and critiques are needed to help us properly understand NGOs in all their diversity? What analytical questions are raised about the category ‘NGO’ when its diverse manifestations and meanings are examined?

How can academic studies of NGOs support the pragmatic needs of practitioners and activists? In what way can NGO practitioners and activists contribute to academic studies? How should we approach the diverse epistemological standpoints of interested thinkers?

How should anthropologists negotiate issues of participation and distance in working with NGOs?



The conference will take place in Chicago on the day before and the day of the start of the 2013 meeting of the AAA. The meeting location will be close to the AAA site. Our goal is to host the Future of NGO Studies conference at the most accessible cost to participants. Minimally, we will charge a low registration fee (max $60) to cover the meeting space, food, and web registration service and offer discounts to participants without access to conference funds. Ideally, we will be able to cover all conference costs for all participants and offer accommodation discounts for lower-income participants. 

The conference will be organized around several sessions planned in response to the questions above. To maximize participation, each session will have an organizer who will be responsible for designing the exploration of a chosen theme. November 19 will be the principal day for discussion, with concurrent sessions in the morning and again that afternoon, including an on-site lunch. The afternoon will culminate in a plenary session during which conference participants will share observations and conclusions from the day’s activities, and leading NGO scholars will offer comments on the state and possible futures of NGO research. Our hope is that the plenary session will open into broad discussion that connects theme explorations and generates a sense of collective interests and concerns. 

Morning discussions on November 20 will focus on constructing an agenda for NGO Studies, including new lines of research and theorization, research collaborations, publishing opportunities, events at the AAA Annual Meeting, and mentoring opportunities. 

At this time, interested participants may 1) propose to organize a conference session or 2) indicate general interest in attending.



Session organizers will work with the conference planning committee to develop lines of discussion that focus on conceptual, practical, political and/or ethical issues surrounding NGO research. It is hoped that session activities will offer a variety of forums that stimulate discussion, including panel sessions, workshops, and roundtables. Each organizer will design a two-hour session to engage 10 to 15 other conference participants. Session themes should be broad enough to intrigue anyone working in NGO Studies or engaged in NGO work, yet specific enough for both scholars and practitioners to engage one another concerning their specializations. Proposed themes may address the questions listed above directly or indirectly. Examples include: dilemmas of participant observation, taking stock of theoretical resources, collaborations between NGO workers and researchers, doing critical ethnographies of NGOs, and comparing an anthropological approach to other methods of studying NGOs. 

Session organizers may recruit some activity proposals from their own networks and fill some slots with submissions solicited through our forthcoming Call for Proposals.



Everyone with an interest in the anthropological study of NGOs (nonprofits, third sectors, voluntary organizations, etc.) is invited to submit proposals for sessions. Proposals should include: 

Theme Definition and Preliminary Structure (300 words): The proposal should explain why the chosen theme is timely and

     relevant to advancing NGO studies. This information will appear in the general CFP and should describe the issues that will focus

     presentations and discussions in the session. The description should also include a preliminary structure for engaging participants

     in focused and lively exploration of theme issues. Organizers may utilize a session format of their choosing or work with the

    planning committee to design an effective format.

 Prospective Participants (200 words): Session organizers are responsible for recruiting participants through personal networks. In the proposal, provide names and planned contributions of potential/confirmed participants (be as specific as possible), but please remain open to collaboration with new colleagues identified through the general CFP. 

Proposals should be submitted as an attachment to Christian Vannier at by March 1. Questions may also be directed to this email address. Session organizers are also welcome to participate in the planning conference call to be held the following week. Announcements will be made by April 1. Calls for proposals for each session will go out immediately following session organizer announcements. 


In order to help us gauge space and fundraising requirements, we ask that all participants interested in attending the conference indicate their intent with a no-cost pre-registration by March 1. Complete registration will open just after AAA submission notifications in August. At that point, a sliding fee structure will be assessed based on success at fundraising and estimates of attendance and costs. 

To pre-register, go to: 

For information regarding conference registration, facilities, scheduling, and other matters please contact Mark Schuller at 

For instructions on how to join the SIG listserv, visit


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