“Then What is the Point of Coming all this Way?” Anthropology and Public Engagement

“And then you will give recommendations to our government, no?” I had just explained the scope of my study to the person sitting next to me on the bus going to Kano. He had stared perplexed at this white lady in Nigerian clothing whilst entering the bus and it did not take him long before he introduced himself and asked what I was doing in Nigeria. I explained how I was conducting research for my master thesis in social anthropology, writing about the ways in which people meet and experience the Nigerian state, state agents and state power in their everyday lives. But no, I told him, I was not going to give recommendations to the Nigerian government. I think I even naively said something like “that is not really the point of anthropological research.” My fellow bus traveler then turned to me again and asked: “then what is the point of you coming all this way, and even sitting here exhausting yourself on this dirty and uncomfortable bus?”

The bus-ride was not that uncomfortable, but his question got me thinking. What is really the point of anthropological research? I have always found meaning in the idea that anthropologists explore social and cultural variations across the globe to de-mystify these and to make the world a safer place for human differences. But how is that practically done? By publishing books and articles in peer-reviewed journals? And; is promotion of ‘a shared humanity’ all that anthropology can contribute with? I am not the first student of anthropology to ask myself such questions, and over the years, highly experienced researchers have gone to new lengths to bring anthropology and anthropological research out of our books and institutions and back into public society.

Since the late-1990s, public anthropology has grown as a buzzword, with an increasing number of books, articles and even academic programs on offer. The Center for Public Anthropology, founded by Professor of anthropology Robert Borofsky grounds the idea of a public anthropology in social accountability; in how anthropological research should go beyond the ethics of doing no harm, to actually “do good”. To move towards public anthropology, then, is to dismantle the borders between the academic discipline and the wider public, by engaging researchers in public problems and to promote transparency on anthropological research by “making more public the dynamics that draw the field away from effectively addressing important social concerns” (1). On the Centre for Public Anthropology’s website, as well as in an article in Huffington Post , Borofsky implores us to challenge the formations through which anthropologists are valued for their publications intended for peer academics instead of accessible publications for wider audiences. That does not mean to stop writing academic texts, but it is rather closely linked with the ways in which we seek to overcome hegemonic definitions of current social, political and economic concerns. For, if we only talk to ourselves and our own, can we truly pride ourselves in being truly grounded and locally sensitive social scientists?

In an article (2) from 2016, Angelique Haugerud provides a good overview of some of the current debates and social problematics anthropologists have engaged with in recent years. From the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015, to the use of social media and hashtags like #Icantbreathe in the Black Lives Matter movement, from public debates on migration and asylum seekers in Europe, to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its colonial legacy. Within medical anthropology, several researchers have engaged in public and academic debates traditionally dominated by health personnel. Nancy Schepher-Hughes’ work on organ trade (3), Jonas Kure Buer’s PhD project on rheumatics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (4) and Paul Farmer’s extensive research on health inequalities (5) have all reached the wider audiences of both policy makers and health institutions. That being said, the anthropologist as a public intellectual is not new. As Jeremy Sabloff asks with frustration in his voice: Where have you gone Margaret Mead? (6) – with reference to Mead and other anthropologists of her time, who were not afraid to engage their voice publicly, and whose books were widely read by non-anthropologists. The call for a public anthropology, then, is the two-fold realization that anthropologists can and should engage in public debates with the extensive thematic, theoretical and methodological knowledges we have, and that the furthering of anthropology as an academic discipline will benefit from such engagements.

In 2016, the American Anthropological Association held at its Annual Meeting a roundtable discussion on “anthropological publics, public anthropology” (7). Sindre Bangstad opened the discussion with a reference to the recent election of Donald Trump as President in the US, and the increase of right-wing populism in European governments, as a starting point for why anthropologists are needed to defend a shared humanity in these “Dark Times”. This is an important ethical argument. However, many anthropologists go beyond the normative, to explore the dynamics of such political shifts that are taking place in the West. In France, Didier Fassin has studied the interactions between youth in Parisian banlieues and the police (8). David Price has written widely on the relationship between intelligence agencies and the US military and anthropological research (9), whereas Cathrine Thorleifsson has explored the growth of nationalist and right-wing politics in Europe (10), with special reference to Hungary, Norway and England.

The call for public anthropology has not risen in a vacuum, and there is an on-going debate as to what public anthropology really is, or has, that other sub-disciplines, most especially applied anthropology does not. Robert Borofsky and the Centre for Public Anthropology argue how the low status of applied anthropology within the discipline as a whole has insulated anthropology from providing practical solutions to real problems. Nevertheless, salvaging applied anthropology is not enough, as Mayanthi Fernando pointed out during the AAA-discussion (7). Applied anthropologists have to a certain extent accepted the questions as framed by a given discursive frame, say ‘are Muslims terrorists – yes or no’, instead of challenging the structures that shape our research questions. Other labels have sprung up during the years, like Didier Fassin who has written on public ethnography (11), and Lila Abu-Lughod’s call for a “cross-publics of ethnography”(12). Furthermore, as Fassin, Fernando (7) and others have called to attention, the way in which we imagine the public – is the people with interest in the topic, those who might hear of the discussion on the radio, or is it an imagined collective political actor – will influence the texts we produce. Regarding publics, Fassin asks “towards whom should we feel obliged?” (11)

Who our ‘public’ is, how we can present our findings without losing our methodological integrity, as well as how we can bring back the experiences from engaging with a wider audience into the discipline, are ongoing debates. Currently, there are an increasing number of programmes, including an MA programme at the American University in Washington, as well as courses, like the one taught by Nancy Schepher-Hughes at UCL Berkley, on offer. Furthermore, journals like Anthropology Now and Anthropology Today, as well as the University of California Press Public Anthropology book series, provide platforms for these debates. The recent establishment of the journal Public Anthropologist specifically aims at creating the space for accessible anthropological reflections on issues of wider concern. Anthropologists are also reaching out through online media platforms. Blogs like Savage Minds, AllegraLaboratory and Sapiens, as well as podcasts like This Anthro Life, and personal use of social media, give anthropologists ample opportunities to reach out to new publics.

Engaging anthropological voices and concerns in public debates is not a straight-forward process, however. Lila Abu-Lughod (12) has pointed out that we may not always get the responses we expect and are prepared for. Sometimes, our informants do not agree with our portrayal of them. Other times, as Irfan Ahmad shows in the AAA-discussion (7), our research and arguments are misinterpreted and the discussion boils down to unproductive normative catcalling. Furthermore, to engage in a wider audience, we sometimes have to leave aside the nuanced, but also complex terms, used in the academic literature, to make our parole understandable to others. When Thorgeir Kolshus engaged in the public debate on ‘Norwegian culture’ in Norway, stirred up by politicians and social commentators, the discussion turned inwards as other anthropologists criticized his definitions of culture. When anthropologists do engage in public debates, there seems to be a widespread opinion that we don’t get enough time or space. The journalist cut my answer short…if I had only five more minutes. This, however, is an unproductive starting point, because as Didier Fassin (11) and Sindre Bangstad (8) points out, there are many opportunities to further nuance and provide corrections on a first interview or quotation. To withdraw from these debates because one is not given enough time to elaborate, will to not make these debates go away, but rather continue without us imparting our knowledge.

A public anthropology is a necessary platform where debates about the interrelations between theory and practice in anthropology, as well as how experiences from engaging anthropology in wider society can be brought back to the development of the discipline itself. As an increasing number of bureaucratic agencies, private businesses and NGO’s seek anthropological knowledge and methods, there is also an increasing demand for a platform on which these engagements can be explored, critically examined, and learned from. The dilemmas brought up by scholars are truly necessary opportunities for anthropology to maintain an ethical ground. If our informants criticize us, withdrawing to our office and library is like the ostrich hiding its head in the sand. “We live in perilous times,” Paul Stoller writes (13). He invites us to engage publicly, since “[g]iven the sorry state of the world, it is our obligation to do so.” To avoid getting carried away and losing our direction, however, it is also worthwhile to remember Angelique Haugerud’s words. She writes that public anthropology “relies on slow ethnography and fast responses to breaking news stories (2)”. To provide fast responses to current events, need not make us compromise on our methodological or theoretical ambitions. Instead, a public anthropology is a new arena for engagement, for debates about the practice and application of anthropology outside the discipline, and for in-discipline reflections on experienced made during public engagement.



  1. http://www.publicanthropology.org/about/. Accessed October 15th 2017
  2. Haugerud, A. (2016) Public Anthropology in 2015: Charlie Hebdo, Black Lives Matter, Migrants and More. American Anthropologist, Vol. 118, No. 3, pp. 585–601
  3. Schepher-Hughes, N. (2003) Commodifying Bodies. Sage publications
  4. Kure Buer, J. (2014) Origins and impact of the term ‘NSAID’. In: Inflammopharmacology Vol.22(5):263-267
  5. Farmer, P. (2003) Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. Sabloff, J. A. (2011) Where have you gone, Margaret Mead? Anthropology and public intellectuals. American Anthropologist, Vol.113 (3): 408-416
  7. https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau7.1.034/2842
  8. Fassin, D. (2013) Enforcing order: An ethnography of urban policing. Cambridge: Polity Press
  9. Price, D. (2016) Cold war anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon and the growth of dual use of anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
  10. Thorleifsson, C. (2016) Nationalist Responses to the Crisis in Europe: Old and New Hatreds. London: I.B. Tauris
  11. Fassin, D. (2013) Why ethnography matters: On anthropology and its publics. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 28, Issue 4, pp. 621–64
  12. Abu-Lughod, L. (2016) The Cross-Publics of Ethnography: The Case of “The Muslimwoman”. American Ethnologist Vol. 43 (4): 595–608
  13. https://www.anthropologymatters.com/index.php/anth_matters/article/view/473/606

Leave a Reply