Category Archives: public anthropology

On Public Anthropology…

I am enthralled at the discovery of a fantastic and intriguing blog called “About Neuroanthropology.”

One of the reasons I love anthropology is its interdisciplinary and holistic approach to studying social problems in the world. This blog captures the source of my enthusiasm for the discipline:

Neuroanthropology. Sometimes it’s straight-up neuroscience, sometimes it’s all anthropology, most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle.

We’re about intersections and convergences, about meshing the insights of neuroscience and anthropology into a more cohesive whole. Often with some psychology, philosophy, evolution and human biology thrown into the mix.

Greg is the cultural guy, now interested in bio stuff. Daniel is the bio guy, now interested in cultural stuff. Or, to say it differently, Greg does capoiera and mixed martial arts and other sports. Daniel does alcohol and drugs. Two very different styles of recreation.

The post on public anthropology articulates exactly why I consider myself a public anthropologist, though I must stress that Robert Borofsky makes two important points about this — first, labels of whether we’re public, applied or academic are not as important as our discipline’s committed goal to solving social problems and second, we must engage with divergent perspectives. I disagree with Borofsky on the point that applied anthropologists are marginalized by the discipline because they focus on concrete solutions to concrete problems without accounting for larger macro-structures and power differentials, even among their informants. In my experience, academic anthropologists often exclude the history of anthropology itself, which was for the most part, until the 1950s and early 1960s, focused on applied work. As I stated in a previous post, the British structural-functionalist school trained many African nationalists and politically engaged anthropologists to aid in anti-colonial struggles. Most importantly, applied anthropology is part of our discipline’s history; distancing ourselves from it is really to deny that our current knowledge is cumulative and we owe much to our predecessors. Borofsky points to Eric Wolf’s insightful comment:

“In anthropology we are continuously slaying paradigms, only to see them return to life, as if discovered for the first time . . . As each successive approach carries the ax to its predecessors, anthropology comes to resemble a project of intellectual deforestation.”

Trivialities in labeling aside, I do consider myself a public anthropologist because I agree with applied anthropology’s goals without the denigration of theory. I never understood the insistence between theory and practice. I conjecture that it’s somehow reactionary to postmodernism or perhaps perceived marginalization within the academy. My response is twofold. First, what is theory? Why is Foucault automatically associated with theory and not Thayer Scudder or Elizabeth Colson? By being reactionary, I think applied anthropologists are buying into the division between theory and practice and thus, privileging theory in ethnography. Second, supposing that we do associate certain types of works, language, and scholars with “theory,” why should it be excluded in applied work? I believe theory is absolutely critical to questioning, challenging and formulating solutions to social problems. One of my heroines, Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American activist and organic intellectual who received her Ph.D. in the 1930s and became involved in the Civil Rights movement and workers’ movements wrote in her autobiography that reading Hegel, C.L.R James and other theorists deeply informed her involvement in these movements and compelled her question their trajectories. It was her profound and critical engagement with theory as an intellectual that propelled her and her husband to start a community center in Detroit and attempt to make change at the grassroots level. Some of the academics I most admire are the ones who are well-versed in theory and are involved in activism and community work (as distinct from policy research) independent of the ivory tower. Thus, I do not see any sound reason to reject “theory” as an instrument in the anthropological toolbox to examine and analyze pressing social issues. More than ever, I think anthropologists of all “labels” should speak to each other and “with” each other about our respective research and its implications. On that note, I shall conclude this post with an uplifting quote from Noam Chomsky, which I have taken from the awesome neuroanthropology blog.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters — and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking TO, but WITH. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.

Divisions in Anthropology

Just like in any large family, members in the wide discipline of anthropology quibble. Theoretical anthropologists snub their noses at applied anthropologists. Applied anthropologists flaunt their professionalism at the ivory tower. Public anthropologists try to straddle both worlds. Debates center around the purpose of anthropology intertwined with issues of power and ethics. What no one wants to talk about, but cannot ignore, is that there is a dearth of jobs. Period. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue. If there were an abundance of money and jobs flowing into our discipline, fighting would be diminished. What might seem like ideological battles are really stakes in resource and financial control. Since all anthropologists share the cumbersome task of trying to legitimate *what* we do and the usefulness of our profession, we would be better off dialoguing and collaborating with each other rather than undermining the strengths of each niche.

Elizabeth Eddy and William Partridge (1987) contextualize the rise of applied anthropology in the post-war era. After World War II, America experienced prosperous growth and along with that, Americans were optimistic about solving domestic and international social problems. During this period, the discipline expanded and anthropologists were in high demand working for the government. It is important to note that British anthropologists trained under Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown considered themselves applied anthropologists who were also trained in theory. For example Lucy Mair who conducted research on social problems in Uganda argued against the distinction between theoretical and applied anthropology because they were concerned with issues of addressing problems with colonialism, land tenure, urbanization and labor. Some African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta trained with Malinowski. Thus, to reduce British anthropology to the “handmaiden” of colonialism is quite inaccurate and neglects history.

In the US, as higher education expanded, anthropologists were in demand in the academy and turned to what Margaret Mead called more abstract problems. Although the studies of modern peoples increased, fewer anthropologists sought practical uses for their knowledge. The most salient factor in the turn from applied to more “abstract” approaches is the high level of job and financial security within the academy at the time. Interesting fact — in 1947-48, anthropology bachelors masters and phds numbered 139, 26 and 24. In 1975-76, the numbers rose to 6008, 1078 and 445. In current times, funding for higher education has been cut to unprecedented levels. Academic jobs are difficult to find. Those within academia have to supplement their meager incomes with outside consulting jobs in order to send their children to school. Those who cannot find jobs in academia end up working where they are needed — NGOs, government, and military.

Why the quibbling? Of course there are substantive ethical issues. Project Camelot, Human Terrain project, and the use of data collected by anthropologists for unintended purposes are called into question. However, the real issue at stake, I believe, is the lack of demand for anthropologists. We continually have to legitimate ourselves as a useful discipline. What is it that anthropologists do that economists don’t? Is it the fieldwork approach? Sociologists like Michael Burawoy do long-term fieldwork. Is it our concern with social issues? The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an ethnography dealing with a significant social issue done by a journalist. It seems pointless for anthropology as a discipline to be so divided when we’re constrained by the same economic forces. Whether we like it or not, we have to be flexible with the job market and apply our skills that extend beyond the academy. Today, I received an email discussing an attempt by Republicans to cut funding for NPR and PBS. This is just the beginning…the survival of our discipline remains out of our control. However, what we can do is, as anthropologists, we can begin to productively dialogue with each other about the constraints we face and how to address them.