How much public anthropology is enough public anthropology?

Anthropologists seem unusual in their desire to make the public think what they think. Other disciplines relate to the public differently — Classicists sigh endlessly about the anachronisms of Hollywood blockbusters, while for some philosophers the whole point is to be the kind of person the merely average can’t understand. But is there another discipline as obsessed with proselytizing as anthropology? I can’t think of one.

So here’s my question: instead of worrying that there isn’t enough anthropology out there, can we (as they say in video games) formulate victory conditions? Can we move from “there’s not enough public anthropology” to “this is how much public anthropology we want”?

In my opinion, anthropology has always had a robust public presence in American society (sticking here with the country I know best). Professors often forget this because we sometimes don’t read what the public reads. Mostly, I think, this is because the great communicators are too busy to engage in the cut and thrust of academic politics. As a result, they don’t train graduate students who we must train our graduate students to defeat if they are to pull our chariot in the future, to take a phrase from Ruth Underhill. Mead, Turnbull, Harris, Graeber — they all have students, of course, but their engagement outside the walls of our discipline is less visible to us because we are busy with our own internal issues. And this is even more true of other people with anthropology backgrounds who aren’t in the academy at all — I reckon there’s five or ten Gillian Tetts in every crop of journalists. People in the ivory tower just can’t see them.

But what is the point? What is the goal? How would anthropologists know that they’d been Public Enough? Will we not be satisfied until the world’s population walks around, borg-like, with a Nodule attached to their neck pumping progressive anthropology directly into their blood stream? Is the goal a utopian vision where racial and class inequalities have been wiped out by anthropology alone? If anthropologists and sociologist teamed up to create World Peace would we feel a little disappointed, deep down inside, since we feel like we should have done it without the sociologists?

Of course, you’re only as big as your last picture, and being in the public eye is an ongoing process, not an accomplishment. So yes, we continue to churn out pieces year after year because that’s what it means to be publicly engaged.

But we shouldn’t interpret this constant movement as failure. And if we stepped back for a second and thought about what our goals were, rather than fixating on the idea that we haven’t achieved them, mightn’t we find that we’ve had the right amount of public anthropology for quite some time now?

If the answer is no, then perhaps imagining where we want to be might help us better understand the next best step to getting there. Regardless, it might be more satisfying than our current mode of engagement which can occasionally be reactive and anxious.

So for 2015, let’s take a moment to breathe, congratulate ourselves on our successes in the past year, and plan where we want to be this time next year. We might find that, having formulated that goal clearly, we are much closer to it than we had imagined.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “How much public anthropology is enough public anthropology?

  1. Is the issue really “How much?” or “What kind of?” Is the goal to entertain, to enlighten, or to move to action?

    Consider the elements found in creative briefs in the advertising industry.

    Target. Who are we trying to influence.
    Objective. What response do we want—awareness, understanding, liking, action?
    Proposition. What single sentence captures the take-away, what the target will remember even if everything else is forgotten?
    Rationale. Why do we believe that communicating this proposition to that target will achieve our objective?
    Evidence. How can we support the proposition?
    Imperatives. What are the things we mustn’t forget?

    Then come the “How much?” issues. How much of which media while staying within the budget and time allowed for the project?

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