Skip to main content

Anthropologist empowers communities through research

North Alaskan wilderness
September 20, 2011

For Shauna BurnSilver, an ecological anthropologist at Arizona State University, the most valuable social science research combines strong science and real partnerships in a collaborative process. Her ideal research project begins by building relationships with all stakeholders and ends with results being shared iteratively with agencies and institutions, policymakers and the participants themselves.

A strong proponent of community-based research, BurnSilver has racked up years of on-the-ground experience involving people in studies that are not only about them but that ultimately could affect their way of life and well-being.

This is BurnSilver’s first semester at ASU, where she is an assistant professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her prior position as a post doctoral researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks focused on the Subsistence Sharing Network Project, funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The project documented the social networks of sharing and cooperation vital to the hunting and fishing livelihoods of three Alaska Native villages (Wainwright, Kaktovik and Venetie) to assess potential vulnerabilities and resilience to the effects of oil and gas development and climate change.

BurnSilver and her UAF colleagues invested a year and a half prior to the project, setting up local advisory boards and working with community members to define how the research should be carried out – all this before beginning the data collection portion of the project. The project was based on strong research partnerships with UAF, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and tribal and village government entities.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm, creativity and local leadership that came out of this process, and our combined efforts contributed to an exceptionally high participation rate within the study,” BurnSilver said. “These communities and agencies can use the data to inform future policy decisions, and that is very gratifying.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior recently chose the project for its Partners in Conservation Award, which will be presented by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar this week in Washington, D.C.

“We are thrilled and honored to have been selected for this award,” BurnSilver said. “It belongs to many, many people who contributed to the project. It is truly encouraging that this kind of collaborative research process is being recognized by the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

She shared, “I believe that knowledge really is power, and results from research should not just appear in scholarly journals, but be available to people on the ground, as well as institutions and agencies.”

 BurnSilver’s recent Alaska work is part of a long progression towards collaborative research engagement with communities. As an undergraduate, BurnSilver studied international relations at Scripps College. She read obsessively, sorting through the conflicting viewpoints represented in various texts. Finally, in her senior year she decided she "needed to stop reading and talking and start doing."

She joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Mali, West Africa, where she gained experience in the importance of collaboration and process in development.

“Getting out in the field and learning about the ecological and cultural components of a setting made me understand that there are usually very specific reasons why people do what they do,” she said.

She went on to earn a master’s in resource interpretation and a doctorate in human ecology, studying the impact of land tenure change on the livelihoods of the Kenyan Maasai. She found that in the face of broad changes in land tenure, people used traditional social relationships to renegotiate access to critical resources. In 2007, as a graduate student, she received the Lourdes Arizpe Student Award from the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association. The award recognized “her collaborative, precedent-setting fieldwork with the Maasai on community-based conservation.”

From her new faculty position at ASU, her work in Alaska continues, and she is also working with Fulani and Tamashek pastoralists in Northern Mali on issues of land tenure and wellbeing. “Alaska and sub-Saharan Africa are not as far apart as one might think,” BurnSilver said. “One is bitter cold and one is scalding hot, but people face similar issues of livelihood change and insecure resources.”

BurnSilver was attracted to the School of Human Evolution and Social Change since the university and the school are good fits for her interests and skills. “Both the administration and my colleagues here acknowledge that the major problems humans wrestle with are transdisciplinary in nature and that the research we do should matter to people,” she said. “I wanted to be where that type of thinking is epitomized and collaboration among fields is encouraged.”