Public Anthropology

What is ‘public anthropology’ and how should anthropologists practice it? (Author: Edward Coates

Any study of humanity should be available to all; social and cultural anthropology is moving through a period in which it is answering criticism, from within and without, over its relationship (or lack thereof) with the research subjects, academia broadly, and the wider public’s issues.

Public anthropology has grown as part this response, emerging a little after the sub-discipline of applied anthropology, and the development of writing culture, the reflexive turn and other critiques of a discipline which has been in danger of being seen as antiquated. It is specifically concerned with turning eyes of the anthropologist outwards.

Although the term public anthropology will be defined in a general sense, what constitutes it will spill over into description of its practice; and thus remain true to its gestation as an anthropology of action and interaction.

Defining what public anthropology constitutes is not an easy task. It has grown in popularity in Universities because of its ambiguity as a term; it can be applied in multiple ways. However what is generally clear is that public anthropology involves a will to engage outside of the discipline (Borofsky, 1999).  Ethnography, the traditional form of representation to the exterior of anthropology, can be difficult to decipher for the wider public particularly with regards to terminology learnt by anthropologists in training. What is the use of ethnography as liberating tool for humanity if it is not attractive to a readership, at least on some level? Advocative works of engaging ethnography can be highly affective, and popular publicly.                                                                                                Margaret Mead showed a great work of culturally relativism in her work “Coming of Age in Samoa” (Borofsky, 2011) and showed how cultural relativism is an indispensable methodological tool even if it is not ethically realistic, it is a good idealism to aim for and nurture in the minds of those outside of anthropology, it can be seen as a liberating tool. Levi-Strauss’s, “Tristes Tropiques” was an example of unorthodox travel writing which is engaging, if not a little grumpy, but ultimately a refreshing change from standard travelogues; “he challenges our prejudices (or perhaps our belief that we have shed our prejudices)” (Eriksen, 2006) indeed he is likens travel in the jungle as akin to military service (Levi-Strauss, 1955). Therefore public anthropology is a mission in reflexivity, leading to de-ethnocentrification of the mind. I see how this might fall into the trap of being ironically presumptuous by calling for this but if there is going to be a universal tool anthropology can offer the world I think this is the one.                                                                                                                                                                 Public Anthropology is a dual-faceted term because it involves making anthropology public and bringing public issues to bear on anthropological thinking (Scheper Hughes, 2009). In a continual system of feedback; as anthropology becomes more engaged with the public, wider insight into public issues are available, and anthropology evolves into universal resource for humanity; a relationship seen in new ways of collaboration that will be touched upon later. Thus public anthropology is not only a way of re-engaging with the public world but a mission in reflexivity.

One apparent pitfall of engagement is that it often requires one to pander to the whims of the public and social trends. Eriksen outlines a number of styles in which to catch the attention on the wider public, however often these styles particularly “The Intervention”are limited in their effectiveness by external conditions; for example Ashley Montagu’s work on race and culture were not suited to the prevailing social conditions at the height of the Second World War, and thus were “beyond the demands of the entertainment industry” (Eriksen, 2006: 17). Another way of engaging outside the discipline is by not pandering to existing publics and their wants, but by creating publics now this might seem a suspicious practice but by creating I mean altering perceptions on particular topics so as to create support for that issue outside of anthropology, indeed Nancy Scheper-Hughes says “the goal of public anthropology is to make public issues” (2009: 2), and this drive for activism and truth should not be lost.                                                                                                                                                          For anthropologists to be accepted in the public sphere again they should look to ‘reveal’ truths on pressing issues, sometimes “forsaking the questions that absorb anthropologists and addressing the questions that absorb others” (Borofsky, 2011), however the debate over organ trafficking shows how that some questions can absorb both parties. Indeed one way to practice public anthropology is via multi-sited ethnography which responds to current concerns within the context of globalization; “multi-sited research is designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions or juxtapositions of locations” (Marcus, 1995). Good examples of this are the works of Arjun Appadurai on migrants, particularly with regard to migration, and ‘middling migration’ (Eriksen, 2001).  So there is no problem in terms of activism by anthropologists, indeed Marxist and Feminist anthropologists can hardly be seen as socially disengaged and politically somnambulant (Eriksen, 2006).  However the effective engaging the public has been sporadic in recent times. The Prickly Pear Pamphlets show activism in line with public anthropology however their efficacy is not widespread in the non-anthropological community.                                                                                                                      One debate to keep in mind is that over the Anthropologists right to advocacy, particularly with regards to objectivity. Indeed engagement was prevalent with colonial regimes in the early days of anthropology, often with willingness (Ervin, 2000), and anthropology has often found it hard to disentangle its reputation from that of colonialism. Misrepresentation via ethnography and critiques of anthropology show that advocacy is far from the most ideal ways of engaging with public spheres.


An aspect that can be attributed to public anthropology’s definition and practice is that of increased collaboration by anthropologists with publics, research subjects and academia. Indeed the convergence of applied anthropology with public anthropology also incorporates collaborative activities towards a movement of dynamism and practice.                                                                                                                                       It is true that anthropologists are no strangers to collaborating with the people represented in their ethnographies; such as early anthropology and Lewis Henry Morgan’s collaborative activism with the Iroquois (Lassiter, 2005). Furthermore, the early development of American anthropology grew around interactive relationships with Native American communities. However in the second half the twentieth century anthropology has been inflicted with a reticence and under the illusion of self-sufficiency in this regard; “After the Second World War, anthropologists have increasingly been talking to each other, the argument goes, simply because they no longer had to speak to others” (Eriksen, : 21).                                                                                                                        However, within public anthropology the nature of collaboration is altered. What hasn’t been so longstanding is the incorporation of informants and subjects in driving the research and the creation of ethnography; a case in point would be how such Native Americans have “transformed their relations with archaeologists, establishing their own archaeological offices and putting in place their own institutional review boards (IRBs), which grant or deny research permits to cultural anthropologists, medical researchers, and others.”(Lamphere, 2004: 431); thus regaining some autonomy over their representation. Furthermore this agency of the subject has been allowed to flourish in that “collaborative models, in which anthropological research is not merely combined with advocacy, but inherently advocative in that research is, from its outset, aimed at material, symbolic, and political benefits for the research population, as its members have helped to define these.” (Lassiter, 2005: 84).                                                                    When thinking about the drive for collaborative research with the ‘other’, and engaging with publics it must also be noted as a caveat that those we attempt to represent may not wish to be ‘engaged’ with the globalised world. I refer here to the work on indigenous peoples in Amazonia who choose to move to the periphery of the globalised world through ‘voluntary isolation’ (Huertas Castillo, 2004) and how they choose to remain there. This cautionary example raises the importance of agency of the research subject in interactions with public anthropology.

Hastrup and Elsass claim that advocacy and ethnography are incompatible which is due to epistemological differences between subject and researcher and canons of scholarship (Kellet, 2009). With traditional ethnography this may be true, however one way for the anthropologist to allow for greater self-representation of the research subject, and to practice public anthropology is that of the collaborative ethnography.                     “Refunctioned ethnography is much more like what in theater would be an ensemble production, which works through synchronization, or perhaps better, a film montage, in which relations among disparate and apparently disconnected items are established.” (Holmes & Marcus, 2008: 81). Indeed as Eric Wolf claimed; of the world being a sum and totality of interconnected processes (Wolf, 1982), anthropologists should absorb this into redefining their fieldwork, because the larger truth is more likely to be revealed with multiple sources. Multi-national corporations in need of new management staff choose to recruit from outside of the business for, amongst other reasons, the possibility of fresh new ideas outside of their corporate structure; anthropology could utilise this approach in terms of collaborative research, however I suspect that the use here of a theory from the business world would have the traditional inward-looking anthropological community scoffing; but here lies the problem in that anthropology must, and it has been, move away from the presumption that it has some intellectual exclusivity when it comes to being representative of the world.                                                                                                                                                              Now we shall return to the relationship between anthropologist and research subject; aside from ethnography, self-advocacy can be seen in the collaboration of anthropologists with research subjects via visual technologies. Timothy Asch’s work amongst the Yanomamo, training them to use video cameras (Asch, 1991), is a case of how anthropologist’s role is transformed from experts to collaborators (Lamphere, 2004) and facilitators to agency of ‘the other’; joining them in a collaborative activism. Furthermore, it signals alternative ways to engage with publics beyond the texts of traditional ethnography. Indeed the Kayapo have shown how effective the visual can be in engaging with global publics; indeed the indigenous peoples of Amazonia have seen greater support for their decolonising activism by joining with the environmentalist movement (Tuhiwai-Smith, 2009) Anthropologist’s role of facilitators is evident with the implementation of locally defined decolonizing methodologies (2009).                                                                                                                                  Para-ethnography can also incorporate collaboration with other academics outside of anthropology. To those who abhor what may be seen as contamination of anthropology they should be referred to the idea of culture as unbounded;  In social and cultural anthropology the concept of culture has been critiqued in such a way as to move its original conception as a bounded, fixed entity to an idea of it as ‘unbounded’ and interactive concept. This theory should also be reflexively used by anthropologists on the re-designing of the discipline itself, and interacting with the wider public and academics.

The emergence of public anthropology has sparked calls for redefinitions of anthropology to make it stand out in collective consciousness of the public. The situation regarding the domain of the historian in contrast to that of the anthropologist when talking of engagement with exterior actors, reflects the fact that historians have had great success in communicating with non-historians (Eriksen, 2006) Indeed one obstacle to public anthropology is its reticence to represent knowledge until a deep understanding is obtained -making it historical (Scheper-Hughes, 2009). Thus public anthropology has the task of engaging in the now, making activism a prime function.                                 However with this in mind there has been a resistence to public anthropology from applied anthropology, surprisingly. This has born from claims that public anthropology is just rehashing the role applied anthropology has taken up (Borofsky, 2011).  However the two anthropologies should be seen as a convergence of each other coupled with the increase in collaborative efforts outside the discipline, in an “umbrella effort” (Lamphere, 2004). The issue is between a “bureaucratic general anthropology, whose latent function is the protection of academic comfort and privilege, and a personal general anthropology, whose function is the advancement of knowledge and the welfare of mankind.” (Lassiter, 2005: 83). This melee of practicing anthropology is useful; it should be practiced by its engagement and influence on public policy. Certainly this can be seen on the work in the field of international development, particularly with regards to collaboration with NGOs and grassroots change in the localities undergoing change; anthropologists can aid human rights efforts and local agency in the face of neo-imperialistic activities, “indeed collaborative research in local communities can lead to an analysis that is helpful in pushing for policy changes”(Lamphere, 2004; the dimensions of local participation in grassroots development need “appraisal”, or ways of understanding the local community that allows for further steps towards empowerment (Willis, 2011).

Public anthropology can also be seen as an attempt to regain control over anthropology as a whole (Borofsky, 2011); for example what can be constituted as anthropological knowledge has been represented by those without traditional anthropological training, for instance with Bruce Parry and his widely popular documentaries on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and worldwide. It is an attempt to regain respect, via engaging with outside world and by seeing a more united anthropology, the discipline will move away from associated stereotypes of preoccupation with the exotic and “primitive” (Lamphere, 2004).                                                                                                                 In attempts to move anthropology into the forefront of the contemporary world “Students are demanding training that will give them access to careers not only in academia, but in a host of non-academic public and private organizations” (Lamphere, 2004: 431), and an anthropology which incorporates practice theory into its own makeup and methodologies, will provide individuals better able to emancipate and serve the complex and dynamic state of humanity. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes proclaims “If anthropology cannot be put to service as a tool for human liberation, why are we bothering with it at all?” (2009: 3).


Public Anthropology is necessary; necessary to the survival of academic anthropology, and also for benefitting mankind from here on out.  Its agglomeration with other anthropologies of practice show a movement for anthropology towards a more engaged, proactive and altruistic discipline, one which leaves the dusty self-righteousness behind. Indeed it is practiced via an incorporation of degrees of engagement and collaboration to aid the subjects of study and liberate the minds of the public.                                                                                                                                                                               Anthropology means the study of man, and this broad, all-encompassing definition, should be kept in mind when thinking about a converging anthropology not just public anthropology. Anthropology is also not just a discipline but a way, or ways, of thinking or a resource which ‘de-ethnocentricizes’ humanity if applied correctly, and will become more respected as a discipline outside its own household.


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Lamphere, L. (2004). ‘The Convergence of Applied, Practicing and Public Anthropology in the 21st Century’. Human Organization. 63 (4), 431-441.

Lassiter, L.E. (2005). ‘Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology’, Current Anthropology 46(1): 83–106.

Levi-Strauss (1955). ‘Tristes Tropiques’. UK: Penguin

Marcus, G. E.. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography’. Annual Review of Anthropology. 24 , 95-117

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Smith, L.T. (1999). ‘Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples’. London: Zed.

Willis, K (2011). ‘Theories and Practices of Development’. 2nd ed. UK: Routledge.

Wolf, E (1982). ‘Europe and People without History’. USA: University of California Press.


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