What is Public Anthropology?

I have had the pleasure to revisit the pages of the Public Anthropology program launched by Professor Robert Borofsky. I will not be adding any commentary below, just cutting and pasting some key sections from “Defining Public Anthropology–A Personal Perspective (Rob Borofsky)“, and refer back to these in related posts in the future. Incidentally, his writing as posted on that site has recently been updated…first written in 2000, it has been revised in the last three weeks.

The following are Dr. Borofsky’s words alone, apart from the section headings, with my emphasis added within each passage (this will be important for later discerning the differences between open anthropology and public anthropology). These sections are the abridged version of the original:

Defining Public Anthropology
Public anthropology engages issues and audiences beyond today’s self-imposed disciplinary boundaries. The focus is on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns. Although some anthropologists already engage today’s big questions regarding rights, health, violence, governance and justice, many refine narrow (and narrower) problems that concern few (and fewer) people outside the discipline. Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas. The hope is that by invigorating public conversations with anthropological insights, public anthropology can re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline.

Against Insularity/The Invention of Academic Anthropology
One critical issue public anthropology explores is the dynamics of our present predicament. Our general intellectual isolation and insulation from the world’s problems did not happen with a wave of a wand. And they will not go away if we all wish really hard in a Peter Pan sort of way. We need to grasp the hegemonic frames which box us in. Very little is said about demographics when anthropology’s insular nature is discussed. But the rapid expansion of the discipline in the 1960s meant that anthropologists were no longer forced to speak to those beyond the disciplinary pale….With the 1960’s demographic expansion, it became financially possible for presses to publish books aimed exclusively at anthropologists. By the 1990s, it had become the accepted pattern. The discipline Clyde Kluckhohn claimed had a poaching license to intellectually explore where and how it wanted, became more enclosed. Anthropologists no longer studied psychology, they studied psychological anthropology; no longer political economy but political anthropology and economic anthropology. Differentiating the discipline from others became the order of the day. And with that came pollution beliefs–regarding what anthropologists did and did not do, how they should or should not write–that separated us from others. It is not hard to do an anthropological analysis of the discipline’s present dynamics. (Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger would be essential reading.) The question is how–using an anthropological analysis of anthropology–to collectively dig ourselves out of our present predicament.

Regarding “Applied Anthropology”…
Building on the theme of reframing imprisoning hegemonies, public anthropology dances an ambiguous minuet with applied anthropology….A public anthropology…resists the facile farces that draw anthropologists into emphasizing theory in one context and practice in another. It asks: Why can’t anthropologists be followers of Gramsci as well as Malinowski, Foucault as well as Boas, by generating not only field data but analyses of the framings that frame their collection?….

Public anthropology differs from applied anthropology in two significant ways. First, public anthropology emphasizes in the strongest terms, public accountability. It seeks to expose private dynamics and claimsOpening up projects to public view restricts the degree to which a power elite can manipulate problems and solutions to their personal advantage…. to the cleansing antiseptic of public light in democratic societies. Making the private public allows broad democratic constituencies to better understand and, through that understanding, to more effectively address a problem. It also allows others to evaluate the degree to which those doing a particular task are (or are not) successful.

Second, public anthropology is concerned with understanding the hegemonic structures that frame and restrict solutions to problems as a way of more effectively addressing these problems.

3 thoughts on “What is Public Anthropology?

  1. Hello, great blog, enjoy it very much. I have an interest in anthropology although have not studied it to much depth – just through buying books at the local bookstore on anthropologically-related topics, and through a few anthropology courses at the undergrad level.

    Public anthropology seems to remove anthropology from the ‘ivory towers’, which I find very attractive. I admit I was turned off a bit from anthropology earlier since it seemed like too much ‘navel-gazing’ to me, and the overall ‘insular’ attitude of my anthropology professors put me off as well – and of course I did not want to be a part of that ‘insularity’ by further studying the discipline ‘professionally’.

    But this is more engaging, and I feel it to be much needed. A ‘new generation’ of anthropology, so to speak.

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