Public Anthropology in Changing Times

Public anthropology, a term initially coined by Robert Borofsky for a book series at the University of California Press, became popular in the late 1990s. Ithas been both endorsed and criticized. Endorsements have emphasized the need for a shift in scholarly attitude toward society at large, while criticism has pointed out the potential overlapping with the notion of applied anthropology or the inalienable diversity of the discipline. While public anthropology has become increasingly popular, the concerns it builds on have been intrinsic to social and cultural anthropology since its early beginnings. Prominent figures across continents and periods who helped develop the public presence of anthropology include James Frazer, Henry Lewis Morgan, Franz Boas, Gladys A. Reichard, James Mooney, Edgar Roquette-Pinto, Manuel Gamio, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Pearl Primus, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Bronislaw Malinowski, Fei Xiaotong, Ernesto de Martino, Siegfried F. Nadel, Fredrik Barth, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and Eduardo Mondlane, to name but a few. Each of them, in their own ways, conveyed important anthropological insights to a wide public audience. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough was widely influential, especially in the first half of the 20th century – being drawn on by a host of poets (e.g.  Robert Graves, T.S. Elliot and William Butler Yeats), writers (e.g. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence), scholars (e.g. Sigmund Freud, Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia) and philosophers (e.g. Ludwig Wittgenstein) for inspiration. Henry Lewis Morgan was a prominent figure in the founding of American anthropology. Besides actively supporting the Seneca in their fight against the Ogden Land Company (which the Seneca ultimately won), he was a New York state legislator in 1861, 1868 and 1869. (He twice unsuccessfully applied to head the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.) Gladys Reichard is one of the most prominent scholars to have studied Native American languages in the first half of the twentieth century and a collection of her notes on Navajo society and language is still held by the Museum of Northern Arizona. Franz Boas, another key figure in the establishment of American anthropology, was widely known for his opposition to racism and fascism. In 1936, Boas appeared on the cover of Time, which called his book, The Mind of Primitive Man, “the Magna Carta of self-respect” for non-Western peoples. James Mooney provided a public record of the Wounded Knee Massacre in which more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the U.S. 7th Calvary Regiment. Margaret Mead was a cultural icon. In her time, she was one of the most widely known and respected anthropologist in the world. At her death in 1978, there were tributes from both the president of the United States and the secretary-general of the United Nations.

Bronislaw Malinowski’s books on the Trobrianders reached a wide public audience as did his 1930s bbc talks on science and religion. He was the academic mentor to Jomo Kenyatta, an anti-colonial activist – even while at lse – who became Kenya’s first president. Pearl Primus was a pioneer dancer, choreographer and anthropologist whose work addressed the challenges of black life in America and promoted the richness of African dances. Her fine capacity to explore and perform the complexity of African dances has widely influenced both scholars and practitioners alike. Fredrik Barth did ethnographic studies in eight distinct sites aimed at facilitating broader understandings of how people operated in their  decision-making and, because of such work, was honored with a special Norwegian state scholarship. He also engaged in applied anthropology in Iran (for unesco) and Sudan (Darfur, for fao). He became a public presence in Norway and beyond writing numerous newspaper articles, participating in a range of interviews, and having various programs about him. Nirmal Kumar Bose was a  leading Indian anthropologist who was also active in the Indian freedom struggle with Mahatma Gandhi and was imprisoned in 1931 during the Salt Satyagraha. A prolific writer, he was the editor, from 1951 until his death, of the journal Man in India, the director of the Anthropological Survey of India from 1959 to 1964 and President of The Asiatic Society in 1972. Claude Lévi-Strauss was a world-renown anthropologist. No other anthropologist has represented his government abroad as a cultural attaché, been the subject of a Susan Sontag essay and a Robert Lowell poem, or been cited in an Agatha Christie mystery. LéviStrauss’s hundredth birthday was a national occasion for celebration in France.

Eduardo Mondlane was an anthropologist by profession. He began working in 1957 as research officer in the Trusteeship Department of the United Nations but soon resigned that post to focus on political activism. He became an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University and helped develop its East African Studies Program. But again he resigned that post and moved to Tanzania to take the lead in developing a movement for national liberation, the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique or frelimo. He was assassinated in Dar es Salaam in 1969. The main university in Mozambique is named after him. Eduardo Mondlane University boasts one of the largest departments of anthropology on the African continent.

This listing, though incomplete, reminds us of the discipline’s prominent past. It makes evident the ability of anthropologists to engage in key issues of social life in a variety of significant ways. Amidst the diversity of traditions and perspectives, a basic definition of public anthropology relates to the capacity (and to some extent the duty) of anthropology to effectively address (not only in terms of publications but more broadly via different outputs, events, teaching, action and  participation) problems beyond the discipline. Public anthropology emphasizes the anthropologist’s role as an engaged intellectual. It continues anthropology’s commitment to being an ethnographic witness, to describing, in human terms how life is lived beyond the borders of many readers’ experiences. But it also adds a commitment, through ethnography, to reframing the terms of public debates – transforming received, accepted understandings of social issues with new insights, new framings – and fostering social and political change that benefits others, especially those anthropologists work with. However, there is no univocal definition of public anthropology, no univocal profile of the public anthropologist. The lively literature produced in the past two decades and the difficulty in establishing an agreed upon definition, suggest considering public anthropology as a process more than a clear concept, a collective aspiration shaped by generally shared values and intentions within significant sections of the discipline. The impetus behind the creation of the journal Public Anthropologist originates in this realm of ongoing discussions and actions inspired by the idea of pushing engagement and participation beyond academic borders.

The full article is published in Vol. 1 Issue 1 of the journal Public Anthropologist. To access the article click here.

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