Critique – Making a Difference

Critique is option #1 in our Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, and the principal way most anthropologists approach being relevant. Relying only on critique can be problematic – it emphasizes passivity over engagement, promotes an academic idea of change, and can keep us from developing ideas and getting data about other ways of making a difference. But critique also has a real-world impact.

Amidst a wealth of work, I have highlighted two prominent books as well as recent examples of putting critique into action. I also cover how critique is often most useful when used to improve our own efforts.

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

Jonathan Marks’ 2003 book What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee is an excellent example of critical work in biological anthropology. Marks draws on the breadth of anthropology to produce a trenchant analysis of both science and popular ideas about genetics and human nature. As the American Scientist review says, “A trenchant assault on genetic reductionism and a spirited call for a more critical science, one better informed by the perspectives of anthropology and the humanities.”

James Ferguson’s (1994) The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho is now a classic in the anthropological critique of development. Ferguson shows how poverty and powerlessness are reduced to technical and bureaucratic problems, even as the state extends its realm of control locally. As the American Political Science review puts it, “He strips the development community of its conceptual attire and leaves it naked for all to see.”

Open Anthropology is Maximilian Forte’s admirable effort to put critical analysis to use, both with respect to the field and to the current state of the world. Open Anthropology aims to “transform anthropology into something that is neither Eurocentric nor elitist,” while also focusing on critical issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military is co-opting social science through projects like the Human Terrain System and Minerva. With Open Anthropology, critique is now online.

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Expanding the Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference

Last month’s The Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference outlined how people’s work can have real-world impact. The idea was to get people’s attention and provide them with ideas about what to do. It worked. The Top Ten Ways became a popular post and provoked good discussion.

Now it is time to take the next step – not just what to do, but how to do it. Over the coming weeks the series Ten Ways To Make A Difference will provide examples and references for each type of engaged anthropology. The examples will come from both biological and cultural anthropology, and cover how each option applies to anthropology itself.

The post serves as the master list for Ten Ways To Make A Difference. As each part of the series comes online, the corresponding description will become a live link to that post.


(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)
(2) Develop basic knowledge of problems. Rather than keeping to analysis, embrace our role as being able to speak directly about the causes and consequences of significant problems.
(3) Investigation. Take critique and go after something that matters to the public, whether that’s a community or the effects of a misguided policy.
(4) Advocacy. Use our understanding and our position as scholars to help advocate for change, to both represent the local point of view and to speak from our status as an expert. (Yes, expert – that research you did and the degree you have help grant that in the eyes of others.)
(5) Involve the community in your research. Besides making for better research and applied outcomes, involving the community in your work yields direct and indirect benefits, through salaries, skill development, idea exchange and more.
(6) Develop concrete community or applied outcomes. Start by having these outcomes as a goal from the beginning, along with more traditional outcomes like peer-reviewed articles. Then do community-based research to make sure your applied outcome is relevant.
(7) Focus on developing or changing policy. Yes you can. As anthropologists we know plenty about unintended consequences, we also know a lot about what works locally. Put that to use.
(8) Get the word out. Communicate your work in an effective and popular way. Write an op-ed or a blog post or, gasp, a popular book. Remember that communication can also be informal. As anthropologists we can act as conduits, communicating among different constituencies in the field, different parties at the negotiating or policy table, or even different fields’ perspectives on a problem.
(9) Help develop organizations. Organizations do make a difference. They can bring people together in common cause and provide a framework through which to work. Indeed, organizations can take all the points made here and ramp them up to the next level.
(10) Create interventions or programs. Have a good idea? What about your community partners? Then try it out to see if it might work. Other fields do it. We can too. Do some investigation, get community involvement, and also check on what other fields recommend. And then see if our anthropology ideas make a difference. Remember, it’s always good to evaluate how effective your program is!