Public Anthropology

Yanomami Girl by Victor Englebert
Yanomami Girl by Victor Englebert

Public anthropology happens when anthropologists engage with public issues and problems rather than just pursuing discipline-specific endeavors.

As Rob Borofsky writes in Public Anthropology – A Personal Perspective, this approach to anthropology addresses:

important social concerns in an engaging, non-academic manner. Public, in this sense, contrasted with traditional academic styles of presentation and definition of problems… The only way to be taken seriously by the broader public, I am suggesting, is to ask the questions readers beyond the academic pale ask, to answer the questions these readers long to know, to share experiences that add insight and meaning.

Rob Borofsky has been one of the leaders in public anthropology, having founded the Center for a Public Anthropology and serving as editor for the series in Public Anthropology at the University of California Press.

Many prominent books have come out of the UC Press series. Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor is the best-known. Carolyn Nordstrom recently published Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World (for a taste, see this video of Nordstrom “Fighting for a Healthy Global Economy”). Rob Borofsky himself put together Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It. The latest is Righteous Dope Fiend by Phillippe Bourgois.

Public Anthropology and the University of California Press host an annual competition for new manuscripts in public anthropology [this is actually the 2009 call here], one aimed at graduate students and the other for scholars more broadly. Here’s Cat Bolton, the latest graduate winner and an incoming faculty here at Notre Dame, encouraging you to submit:

The Public Anthropology’s website declares, “Seeking to Serve the Common Good.” Three specific efforts demark the work of the Center. First, Borofsky has done a wide-reaching Public Outreach Assessment. This 2006 evaluation focused on outreach by doctoral programs in the United States, and ranked programs according to how they addressed “social concerns in the broader world beyond the university”

There is also a graduate school network, which encourages graduate students to get involved in public concerns and to generate change within anthropology, and an ongoing effort to create a journal archive on public anthropology.

Finally, there is a Community Action Website. This project engages students directly in generating change and reflecting on public issues. Bob O’Boyle explains from sunny Montana:

For more from Public Anthropology, you can catch all their YouTube clips here, check out the photos from the “Faces of the World” series by Victor Englebert, and see other public anthropology photos including work by Jeff Schonberg.

Public Anthropology also features an interview with Frederik Barth, with the following two quotes.

Since anthropology draws on the ethnography of the whole world – as it must and should – it has a unique potential to supplement Western science and Western humanism. It can contribute broadly to human thought, to human imagination… to opening up windows of human reflection on the human condition in radically new directions, that people have never really imagined.

[I]f we want influence in the world, we should speak up about issues that are important to others, not just ourselves. Even more important than voting, though that is important, is presenting a view, a voice, on issues because that may influence public policy. One should, of course, realize the difficulties here. But speaking out is much better than only responding to the packages that the political system presents. That is part of being a citizen – finding the occasions and the places where you can have public influence.

And to wrap up, here are some lines from an interview with Noam Chomsky.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters — and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking TO, but WITH. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.

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