UMaine anthropologist wins Solon T. Kimball Award

09/24/04

University of Maine anthropology and marine sciences professor James Acheson has been named the 2004 winner of the American Anthropological Association's Kimball award for effecting change in public policy.

Acheson, a cultural anthropologist, author and professor at UMaine since 1968, will receive the Solon T. Kimball Award for Public and Applied Anthropology at the association's annual meeting in San Francisco in November.

The award, given only every other year since 1978, recognizes outstanding achievement in applied anthropology and research that has had an impact on public policy.

"It was something I never expected," Acheson says.

Founded in 1902 and with nearly 30,000 members, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is the world's largest anthropological organization.

A Bangor, Maine resident, Acheson has a joint appointment in the Anthropology Department and the School of Marine Sciences. He is also cooperating research professor with the university's Lobster Institute. He is an internationally recognized authority on economic anthropology and the social science aspects of fisheries management.

"In the past few years, my primary contribution has been to use 'rational choice theory' to show under what conditions groups of people will and will not develop rules to conserve the resources on which their livelihood depends," Acheson says. "This has led me into a far more theoretical realm namely trying to understand the circumstances under which people develop rules in general."

Acheson has studied the system of self governance in the Maine lobster industry and has chronicled the circumstances under which lobster fishermen developed informal rules and lobbied for formal laws to conserve the lobster stock.

"Lobstering is an unusual success story and there's an awful lot we can learn there," he says. "The important thing is these guys imposed these rules on themselves. It's an interesting, interesting industry," and the lessons we can learn from this industry can be applied to managing other threatened natural resources, from oil to clean air.

Allan Burns, professor of anthropology and associate dean of faculty affairs at the University of Florida and chair of the AAA's award selection committee, writes in an announcement of this year's Solon Kimball Award that Acheson's "work is especially impressive in that his theoretical perspectives drive his policy efforts.

"The ease with which he works across disciplinary lines such as anthropology and economics reflects the spirit of the Kimball Award and the career of Solon Kimball as well," Burns writes. "His work truly contributes to the development of anthropology as an applied science, and his commitment to working in national and international policy is especially inspirational for all anthropologists."

Jim Roscoe, chair of the UMaine Anthropology Department, says that through his close work with lobstermen, Acheson introduced a human element into a regulatory process that traditionally has been guided by politicians and biologists.

Additionally, Roscoe says, "Jim has helped develop over the years theories of how institutions and rules evolve that can be used in other disciplines.

In helping to identify successful ways to regulate public policy, Acheson has provided insight into "what most of us cultural anthropologists are trying to do to come up with the means that will help us with the problems most of humanity faces," Roscoe adds.

Acheson grew up in Augusta and earned a bachelor of arts degree from Colby College and a doctorate at the University of Rochester. In all, Acheson has published more than 75 articles, including one in the June issue of the prestigious American Anthropologist, four books, several monographs and reports to the Maine legislature. His two books on the Maine lobster industry are "The Lobster Gangs of Maine," published in 1988, and "Capturing the Commons" in 2003. The second focuses on the management of the lobster industry.

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