Doing Anthropology in Public

I’m not going to link to a certain New York Times columnist who inspired this post. His piece about how there are no good public intellectuals anymore is a pathetic attempt to troll the academic community. He clearly doesn’t read widely enough to know better. Or he does, but he chooses to pretend otherwise. I do, however, want to say something about anthropologists as public intellectuals. It may be an obvious point, but it is something I think all too often gets overlooked when we have these discussions. The thing is, anthropology is full of public intellectuals. You see anthropologists across all different forms of media, from leading newspapers to blogs, to local talk radio. You see anthropologists working on behalf of communities all around the world as well as working as bridges between communities. And you see anthropologists working daily with the large portion of the public that is in school, training the next generation of public intellectuals.

So, if that’s true, why does the discipline always seem to be in a crisis about the state of our public intellectuals? Why do we feel so marginal to public discourse? Why do we barely even get mentioned in debates like the one that erupted in response to a certain op-ed columnist? I think I have an answer for that. Anthropological expertise is shaped by the ethnographic method. That means that anthropological interventions in the public sphere tend to be grounded in specific ethnographic encounters. The anthropologist who studies religion will offer insights in faith, while the anthropologist who studies nuclear weapons will have insights on national security, and the anthropologist who studies ecology… etc.

This has a number of important consequences. First, it means that the public generally doesn’t see the anthropology behind these interventions. Even if the discipline has accumulated a body of theory shared by many anthropologists, the very nature of how we engage in public often means setting this theory aside. Jargon that fills our journal articles when we are talking to each other is carefully avoided when talking to a wider audience. There is nothing wrong with this, but it means that people rarely see the underlying concepts and ideas which are shared by the many anthropologists who participate in the public sphere.

Secondly, anthropological publics are often different from the imagined community newspaper columnists think of as their public. An anthropologist of Japan might find it more important to publish something in a Japanese paper than an English one, and someone working in a Native American community might find it more useful to speak out at a community meeting than to write an op-ed. Our interventions are often specific and local, which doesn’t make them any less “public.” In fact, they might be more effective for this very reason, but it does make us less visible at the national level.

This brings us to the third point, which is that while in an ideal world anthropological insight would probably be very useful for shaping government policy, the kinds of policies most anthropologists would recommend are unlikely to mesh well with our current political economic climate. That is to say, the facts have a liberal bent so most of our leading institutions don’t want to hear the facts. For instance, certain Times columnists might have to rethink their rescue crusades if they actually read ethnographies of sex workers, and that would put a cramp in their style. Much better to stick to intellectuals whose work can confirm one’s common sense understanding of the world while simultaneously seeming to give empirical proof that this common sense understanding is correct.

So, what should we do? Keep calm and do anthropology.

[Note: The title of this post is taken from something Rex often says when we talk about the blog (and whether it constitutes “public anthropology”). It just perfectly captured what I was trying to say here…]

4 thoughts on “Doing Anthropology in Public

  1. I’m putting that on a t-shirt! That aside, I’ve always wondered why, for example, NPR segments on human evolution might bring on an expert who is, say, an evolutionary psychologist rather than an anthropologist. As a discipline, we have failed to gain traction in the public sphere, particularly in the matter of putting ourselves forward as experts. Your post offers a thought-provoking set of reasons for that. Maybe not the only ones, but this gives me a good place to begin thinking about something I’ve been struggling with. Thanks, Kerim.

  2. Thanks for that post Kerim. I sometimes feel like asking “when will we have too much public anthropology?” or “what if we had a public anthropology and no one knew it?”

    Its worth asking what would satisfy anthropologists in the public arena — will we not be happy unless we have another Margaret Mead striding colossus like over American discourse? Because realistically, that sort of thing doesn’t happen that often.

  3. Kerim, ‘public intellectuals’ is a peculiar term to use in a context (and I assume you’re speaking of the US since you referred to the NYTimes piece) that is so anti-intellectual. There are rare serious public discourses – and I’m not speaking of academia here, which is more privileged than public – around issues that do/should matter to people whether it has to do with their general well being or simple intellectual curiosity. The forums for this just don’t exist – not NPR or NYTimes, which have willingly dumbed themselves down over the past decade to increases listeners/readers – because we live within a general culture that actually reviles thoughtfulness and reflection, doesn’t see the benefit and play of intellectual banter, and reveres any kind of shortcut to understanding anything. Harsh, I know, but come on….
    I lived in France during the Reagan decade and worked in the Fashion Industry, and I swear if Andreé Glucksmann, or Régis Dubray, or Alain Finkielkraut, or BHL weighed in on any important or not so important but provocative issues of the day, it was the talk of the town so to speak. And I was the Fashion Industry! The most popular TV program was Apostrophe, which was about books, and it aired on a Friday night! Ideas swirled and were part of the fabric of French life where there was room and respect for the public intellectual. Nothing in the US comes close to this. Maybe Sontag in her heyday and Chomsky when people paid attention….but that was a different time indeed.

  4. Thank you for pointing out the many ways in which anthropologists and their work can be known to the public without splashing their names across headlines or bylines. In fact, anthropology and anthropologists are in the public far more than you suggest.

    However, anthropological expertise is not drawn from ethnography, it is drawn from our holistic study of human beings, human societies, and the human condition of which ethnography is one of many important tools. The ethnographic method is not unique to anthropology — it is used in everything from sociology to market research. One of the most important ways we can help make anthropologists more visible is to promote our field in all its many forms.

    Anthropologists who study or work in the fields of public health, heritage and cultural resources, museums, education, and the like, but who do not use ethnography as their primary methodology contribute — or can contribute — as much who’s work is based on ethnography. Anthropologists have profoundly local insights, but they also draw on fundamentally comparative research as well. Just a friendly reminder from an anthropologist who has never conducted an ethnography but hopes his work will have an impact in the world (and will be appreciated and plugged by his friends and colleagues).

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