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.
Is anthropology alive? Gerald Berreman asked this question in 1968. The Vietnam war was raging. Some anthropologists were collaborating with the U.S. government and military. Others were advocating for a value-free, politically-neutral social science. Berreman was not among either of these groups. Instead, he was participating in the UC-Berkeley Vietnam teach-in in 1965, was exposing CIA-academic schemes in the Himalayas, and was asking hard questions about social responsibility for anthropologists all the while conducting important research in India on caste, polyandry, race, religion, environment, and more. Long interested in experiences as well as structures of social inequality, he called social inequality “the most dangerous feature of contemporary society.” Anthropology, he believed, must speak to this danger and thus should not only announce its knowledge, but also act on its “implications and consequences.” We must see that “our knowledge is used for humane changes.” Anthropology must engage the world.
Reason, passion, and courage: these are the traits Gerry Berreman argued an anthropologist needed to address the problems of our times. These traits are as important now as they were when he wrote this forty-five years ago in Current Anthropology. He advised that anthropologists needed moral sensibilities and not just technical proficiencies to recognize the implications of our research. We needed to be involved with public policy. We needed to be responsible. We still need to be all of these things. Continue reading