In the past two years at the University of Guelph, I have led a graduate seminar course titled “Public Issues Anthropology” within our Master of Arts program. A pressing question, and one we frequently return to in classroom conversations, is “who is our public?” For the students, this question motivates discussions related to writing for a particular audience, including consideration of the potential readers beyond the faculty members who will evaluate their thesis projects. For all of us, this is an important question about the extent to which the work we do actually benefits other people outside of the academy. It’s a question about who benefits, and doesn’t, from our work, too.
This blog has questioned the public nature of anthropological research, and the need for a public orientation within our discipline. In “Why Public Anthropology,” Antonio De Lauri describes the impetus for Public Anthropologist, suggesting that we need “to reflect on the relationship and the tensions public anthropology holds with the idea and practice of a moral and ethical anthropology.” Also on the blog, Cecilie Baann asks who is our public in a post about Anthropology and Public Engagement. Baann argues that public anthropology is, among other things, an important platform for debate and engagement. Didier Fassin is mindful of this question too, wondering aloud in his recent book “that we know very little about who [the public] is and how it has received or will use the ethnography [anthropologists produce]” (Fassin 2017: 7). I hope to extend these important reflections about anthropology and its publics by asking how public our public anthropology actually is. In doing so, I ask about the scale at which our work becomes recognizable as public anthropology.
In her 2014 address accepting Canada’s top anthropology distinction, the Weaver-Tremblay Award in Canadian Applied Anthropology, Regna Darnell notes briefly a tie between applied and public anthropology. In the address, Darnell continues: “all anthropology is applied. It follows that everything anthropologists do is — or potentially becomes — anthropology. I conclude, therefore, that the applied part must be an oxymoron. How, after all, can we purport to study human life without engaging it?” (Darnell 2015: 4; emphasis in original). And, while applied anthropology doesn’t always produce public results, broadly speaking, I feel that everything we do as anthropologists has a public orientation to someone or to some group.
Indeed, a brief review of recent public and applied anthropology literature hints at the possibility that our publics and our works should be easily visible and widely accessible. Edward Hedican reviews the disciplinary threads that link public anthropology traditions back to big names like Malinowski (Hedican 2016: 36). Louise Lamphere draws public, applied, and practicing anthropology together, writing that anthropology is increasingly done “at home.” Lamphere continues, calling for increased collaboration with partner communities, greater public dissemination of results, and service to influence public policy. The interplay between academic and public worlds should not be exclusive (Lamphere 2004). James Peacock says as much in a 1997 address to the American Anthropological Association: “strength in the academy depends very much on a discipline’s salience outside it, just as, conversely, the profession cannot survive if its scholastic branch is weak” (Peacock 1997: 9). Peacock continues with the thought that anthropology “is everywhere yet nowhere” and struggles to be recognized as crucial to society. We must focus outwardly, says, Peacock.
The effect of these observations is that the “public” in public anthropology seems big. In class, when we look at the growing literature on Public Anthropology, or by public anthropologists, the expectations are daunting. We find ourselves asking: must my work be cited in the New York Times to be public? Obviously not and, yet, invisible (un-visible, not visible) public anthropology is surely oxymoronic. Fassin’s writings help in this regard. Fassin says that the public differs from “the people” (everyone!) because the public is a social entity that comes into being in specific sites, through particular mediations, as a result of interactions, and with a potential for critique (Fassin 2017: 324). Furthermore, the public is represented by those who interact with anthropological research after it is published (Fassin 2017: 324-325).
The authors I cite above show that anthropology has changed in its orientation to the public, in the styles of writings, and the peoples with whom anthropologists engage. I am optimistic about the goals of and needs for a public anthropology. I am convinced, too, that the public we speak to need not include “everyone.” Rather, our publics are defined for us by our existing engagements and relationships. In my case, that public is one Indigenous community in British Columbia – and that group of people can decide for itself how far the work we do together gets extended into the (wider) public sphere. Sure, generalizations are possible from specific and targeted work. But, the public I put first are the people who encourage, inspire, and support my work.
For these reasons, then, public anthropology is the work that benefits — does good, in Rob Borofsky’s terms – the groups of people who have shared with us their lives and entrusted us with their stories.
Darnell, Regna. 2015. Applied Anthropology: Disciplinary Oxymoron? Anthropologica. 57(1): 1-12.
Fassin, Didier. 2017. If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hedican, Edward J. 2016. What Is Public Anthropology? In Public Anthropology: Engaging Social Issues in the Modern World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 36-66.
Lamphere, Louise. 2004. The Convergence of Applied, Practicing, and Public Anthropology in the 21st Century. Human Organization. 63(4):431-443.
Peacock, James L. 1997. The Future of Anthropology. American Anthropologist. 99(1):9-17.