Public Anthropology: Engaging Social Issues in the Modern World

When I met Margaret Mead in the 1970s I felt like I was in the presence of a superstar. Here was an anthropologist with an international reputation who was willing to put her career on the line by criticizing the war in Vietnam, supporting the campus protests of university students, and promoting the rights of women. While she was known for her fieldwork in Samoa, her book Culture and Commitment is a classic text which outlines the basic principles of today’s public anthropology.

When I became a university professor myself, I wanted to devote my career to promoting the initiatives that anthropologists like Mead, Boas, and Malinowski had begun so many years before. They devoted their work to combating racism, promoting cultural tolerance, and instilling the idea of cultural relativism into the discipline of anthropology. In my own career, I have spent many years supporting Indigenous rights. My research has taken me to the northern parts of Canada where I lived with Aboriginal peoples who continue to hunt and fish in their traditional manner and who live in log cabin communities without cars or trucks. Yet, even in these apparently remote places, people are connected to each other by satellite communications, cell phones, and the internet. More recently, I appeared as an expert witness in Canada’s federal court in support of a land claim by the Algonquin First Nations in the Ottawa River area of Ontario.

I thus felt the need to write Public Anthropology: Engaging Social Issues in the Modern World (Toronto University Press, 2016) to explain to students how contemporary anthropology research becomes public research. So while the book offers an overview of disciplinary discussions about becoming more relevant to the world beyond the academy, it is also about many other areas of research in today’s world that students are interested in. For instance, forensic anthropology builds on students’ interest in the popular television series CSI, and so research on the identification of missing persons in South America and mass graves in Iraq is explored in the book as a way of showing how forensics can contribute to important public issues. The internet and media are also discussed, such as the role of social media during protests in Egypt, as well as discussions about web-based phenomena like YouTube, and whether or not such “virtual realities” are actually “culture.”

Beyond dealing with interesting research, the book outlines the way anthropology engages with important and pressing social issues, like the role of racial discourse in modern society and how it has been expressed in the context of the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Anthropological research into environmental influences on culture, especially in terms of explanations concerning the ascendency of European societies, is made apparent through a critique of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Award winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Food security in Southern India, and elsewhere in the developing world, is a topic especially germane to any discussion of the ways anthropologists are working beyond academic settings. Finally, the book looks at Truth and Reconciliation hearings taking place in various parts of the world, with specific reference to the recent Canadian TRC hearings.

What this research demonstrates is how anthropology has become well immersed in the public issues of our time.


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