Interview with Keely Maxwell, General Anthropologist for the EPA

April 24, 2017

Veronica Davidov

This post is presented in this week’s series recognizing Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.

Keely Maxwell is an environmental anthropologist. She develops and applies interdisciplinary research to environmental problem solving. Keely has conducted research in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Peru, and now works on community resilience. She is a former American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow, as well as a mom of two, and she works at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Disclaimer: Keely is talking purely in a personal capacity and not as a federal employee. She is expressing her personal opinion, not official EPA policy.


Keely Maxwell, general anthropologist of the EPA

Keely Maxwell, general anthropologist for the EPA

VD: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in anthropology?

KM: Sure. Hi, I’m Keely Maxwell. I have actually quite an interdisciplinary background, as many of us do [who] wind up in the environmental anthropology field. I did my undergraduate in biology and environmental studies; then I taught environmental education for a couple years. I went back to graduate school at Yale [University] for forestry, initially to look at and study ecosystem ecology and management, but then I found that … while I love doing ecological research, the questions I was really interested in had to do more with the social aspects of ecosystem management and conservation. So then I wound up continuing on for my PhD at the forestry school and getting, again, an interdisciplinary PhD with my research focusing on issues of conservation and tourism and heritage and resource management at Machu Picchu in Peru. My experience in the federal world began in 2012. I had been teaching for a while and wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. I had the opportunity to do [an] AAAS fellowship. AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and they have a fellowship that places people with a PhD in science—including social science—in executive branch agencies. I was there for two years; I was hosted at the EPA and just really loved doing applied work, and I loved seeing how things that I wrote and things that I did came out and actually had an impact. Then I worked a little bit as a contractor, so I got to see that side of federal world, and I’m currently a federal scientist at the EPA.

VD: Your job title is general anthropologist at the EPA, so my first question is actually how new or old is that position? Not for you personally, but the existence of such a position at the EPA.

KM: When I first talked with the [human resources] folks, they said, “Well, we think you’re the first one we’ve processed, at least.” General anthropologist is a broad job title that OPM, the US Office of Personnel Management, established and set up as one of many job series. So it’s out there and there are probably other folks, possibly at the EPA as well as elsewhere in the federal government, who have that job title, but probably not a whole lot of us.

VD: What kind of work do you do now? Can you say a little bit about the projects you are working on?

KM: Sure. At the EPA, I work in the Office of Research and Development. They have distinct offices within the EPA; you have the program offices like the Office of Air, or Water, or Land, and Emergency Management. These offices implement environmental statutes in different environmental media. Then you have the regional offices. The regional offices are the ones that work a lot with states and communities on local issues. The Office of Research Development [ORD] does research to support work in the programs and regions. So I’m a researcher. I am a scientist in the [ORD] in the National Homeland Security Research Center [NHSRC]. Historically, what the [NHSRC] has done is research to support the EPA’s work in responding to different types of disasters, whether it’s a homeland security incident that might involve a chemical, biological, or radiological attack, or an environmental disaster or catastrophe, or a natural disaster that has environmental components—like toxics that get spewed all over or flooding of water infrastructure. The research center has historically had a lot of engineers, water engineers, toxicologists, microbiologists, but they really wanted to have someone come in and think about the different social components and factors. So I was hired on—well, first I started as a fellow, and I was hired on later. My research focuses on trying to understand community resilience to disasters, especially disasters with an environmental component to them. I am working on a couple of projects right now. One is looking at developing indicators of community resilience for natural disasters and other types of incidents that might involve a chemical spill, an oil spill, or a radiological release. Another component of my research is looking at the different social factors and social issues that might arise during environmental cleanups. When EPA or state agencies or private companies are doing decontamination after an environmental emergency or remediation at a Superfund or brownfield site, what are some of the social factors or issues that affect cleanup actions and outcomes?

VD: In what ways would you say environmental anthropology specifically is relevant to public policy and environmental governance?

KM: I personally think it’s really, really relevant. This is something that different state and federal agencies are realizing, as they are trying to address environmental challenges that are increasingly complex, involving multiple systems, and not just cleaning up one piece of air or water pollution. Agencies are recognizing that they need a better understanding of different social dimensions and social factors that might influence the cause of the problem or how to approach the solution to it, and also how to measure the success of your solution. So, obviously, environmental anthropology is useful because it brings a grounded understanding of people’s relationship with environment. It is relevant because if an agency is going in trying to solve a given problem, for example, sage grouse conservation, or a park management problem, really understanding—what are the fundamental relationships between people and the environment as well as the broader power dynamics and political economic dynamics that might be contributing factors—those are the particular perspectives that environmental anthropologists can bring.

VD: Our discipline is defined by our methods and sensibility of ethnography, as both process and product. Do you find how you position yourself as ethnographer differs in academic versus federal settings? Do you use the ethnographic methods we are all trained for in our PhD programs?

KM: So in terms of the methodological toolbox, there are a couple of things that come to mind in terms of what is similar and what is different. Obviously, the actual research methods—whether it’s participant observation, interviews, surveys, GIS [geographic information systems], remote sensing, discourse analysis, social statistics—are relevant and are used not just by me but in a variety of projects across federal agencies that involve anthropology. The key difference is, first of all, it’s very team-oriented. I work on a lot of interdisciplinary teams, with some social scientists but also with others who are not. Another difference is, there are a couple of additional challenges for doing social science as a federal researcher. There are certain laws and policies that regulate and govern how federal public servants in general can interact with the public. For example, FACA (the Federal Advisory Committee Act) sets limits and conditions for how feds can ask advice from the public. Doing something like community-based participatory research may be difficult because of these broad policies that were not designed to affect research but have that impact. Another example is [the] Paperwork Reduction Act that means that any research that requires me collecting information from the public—and not just me, any anthropologist in the federal government—has to go through additional scrutiny through the Office of Management and Budget, on top of the human subjects approvals that are standard. Another key difference is not just methods but products. Writing journal articles is part of professional development for federal scientists, but for federal agencies to be really able to listen to anthropological insights and knowledge requires different product/outputs. So instead of journal articles, we might produce reports or technical briefs or databases or tools broadly speaking. The core ethnographic methods are the same, but there are these differences along the way that shape how research is done and what the outputs are.

VD: Can you talk the aspects of your work that pertain to communication and engagement with other anthropologists?

KM: Part of my role is communication and engagement with anthropologists outside the federal government. I go to anthropological meetings such as the Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, and I am hoping to have a panel at the [American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting] next fall, so I continue to engage on those fronts. One issue where I and other anthropologists in the federal service can really help is the bridging aspect—how can anthropologists in academia, outside what we call “the federal family,” how can they bring their insights, their experiences with individual communities, but also their expertise on economic, political and cultural dimensions of environmental issues to the table? How can we facilitate that sort of engagement? I’ve been thinking a lot about how that can be facilitated more easily.

VD: Can you talk about those strategies?

KM: In terms of academic anthropologists wanting to have their expertise inform federal decision making and policies and even research or research products, there are a couple of ways that can be facilitated. One of the things is trying to figure out strategically as an anthropologist: “To whom do I need to speak?” For example, the EPA works on a variety of problems, and it has its overarching mission to protect human health and environment. Other agencies might work on similar problems—USGS [United States Geological Survey] or NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] or NIH [National Institutes of Health] might do research and work on a variety of somewhat overlapping areas, but agencies are really clear about “what’s my mission, what’s my lane.” So instead approaching it broadly, with the idea of “I want to talk to a federal policymaker on this critical environmental issue,” really being able to dig deeper and figuring out which agencies are working on this issue in what capacity and what is the best entry point for trying to talk to people is important. And that’s just at the executive branch. The Congress and congressional representatives—with them there is a whole other communication strategy you want to utilize.

VD: In your opinion, what are the key environmental issues today from an anthropological perspective, and what roles can anthropologists play in working on them?

KM: There are so many environmental challenges out there, and of course, as an anthropologist, I see human and social dimensions of many of them. Obviously, climate change is a concern today, but also you have issues of lingering toxic legacies that different communities are facing, environmental justice issues, as well as issues of access to natural resources, whether for subsistence or recreational purposes—that is very much an important issue around the country, and of course social justice issues come up when dealing with who has access to different resources and who does not. I think anthropologists can have a voice on any of these topics and can bring to the table perspectives that may not be considered otherwise, especially if the problem is being defined in a very technical way or with very narrow focus. Again, relating this back to the idea that federal agencies and even offices within agencies are so focused on “what’s my lane, what’s my scope of authority, what can I do on this issue,” the ability to broaden it out, to [ask], “Well, what is the real problem here?” That ability is something environmental anthropologists are especially good at—unpacking those layers and bringing into focus what political and social issues underlie environmental and ecological ones.

VD: Can you say more about the AAA roundtable you are proposing?

KM: We have some environmental anthropologists from a number of federal agencies who will be included in this proposed roundtable, and part of it will be discussing some things we talked about today—our different experiences in different organizational cultures and how they have managed to navigate those to get anthropology voices heard. Also, we want to talk about ideas and strategies for these boundary types of communication and engagement between academic and government anthropologists, including issues of how can academic anthropologists successfully translate their work and thoughts in ways that federal agencies are able to hear and say, “Oh, this ties into a decision I am making,” or, “This ties into a project that I am working on,” so how to translate it from both broad social theory and rich detailed ethnographic information that is not going to be very meaningful if it does not have something people can hang their hat on in federal agencies. They have to be able to say, “Oh, this ties into what I am doing, and I see clearly these connections.” We are also going to touch on issues of how is the work of anthropologists in federal agencies affecting not just federal activities but anthropology more broadly, what’s the conversation back and forth between these arenas, and how anthropology being done in federal agencies can inform anthropology out on the broader world.

VD: Last question: What are you going to do for Earth Day?

KM: Well, I have two small boys, and I am thinking of taking them to the March [for] Science if I can herd them there and back! And there are some fun activities in town to celebrate Earth Day, so that is the main plan.



Veronica Davidov
is an assistant professor of anthropology at Monmouth University.



Cite as: 
Davidov, Veronica. 2017. “Interview with Keely Maxwell, General Anthropologist for the EPA.” EnvironSociety, 24 April. www.envirosociety.org/2017/04/interview-with-keely-maxwell-general-anthropologist-for-the-epa.

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