Suggested by Public Anthropologist – Contrarian Anthropology

Once in a while Public Anthropologist will suggest a new or recent book that we believe “everybody must read”. We start the “Suggested by Public Anthropologist” series with Laura Nader’s Contrarian Anthropology. The Unwritten Rules of Academia, which is a call to reinvigorate anthropology’s principal attitude: crossing boundaries.  As Nader puts it in the introduction of this rich collection of essays, “Anthropology has been called the ‘uncomfortable discipline’ and ‘an institutionalized train wreck caught between science and humanities,’ thus inherently contrarian. It is the anthropological perspective that sees what other disciplines often do not see, that makes connections that are not made elsewhere, that questions assumptions and behavior that is contrary to cultural expectations.”

With essays covering important areas of both anthropological inquiry and public debate – (in)justice, energy, gender, power, democracy, law – and written in the course of half a century effort in research and teaching, Nader’s book unravels professional mindsets (within and outside of anthropology) and solicits critical attention toward increasing hyper-specialization and narrow delimitation of knowledge production.

Commissioned Anthropology

The account of the history and current position/role of anthropology has effectively been co-opted by academics, at the expense of the many anthropologists who “choose instead to practise anthropology along career paths outside of academia: for example, in public service, NGOs or commercial organisations” (MacClansey 2017). One of the main employment arenas of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge – at least in the Nordic countries – has been in development and aid in the form of commissioned research and evaluations.

Academic anthropology has taken a very critical stand on development and aid along the past few decades (Escobar 1991; Edelman and Haugerud 2005; Crewe and Axelby 2013). The scholarly attention has mainly focused on the deconstruction of the global aid architecture and critique of the approaches and methods of aid interventions and their evaluations (Mosse 2005; Harrison 2015). Most applied anthropologists/practitioners of aid, on the other hand, argue that there is space for qualitative/anthropological insights and they want to contribute towards making development interventions as successful as possible.

For some of us, working as applied anthropologists and consultants is a matter of “political” choice and well within the confines of anthropology. The politics does not refer to the research process as such, which must adhere to normal academic standards, but to the choice of projects and the nature of dissemination of their findings. Doing commissioned work and consultancies entails an opportunity to target research findings at institutions and people who can make a difference – in government, among donors and in communities.

In some ways, applied anthropologists turn the “moral imperative” around: In a world of poverty and injustice anthropology has a unique contribution to make and there is room for such a contribution in development and aid.More anthropologists should aim to move out of their ivory towers – at least temporarily – in order to reach decision-makers and have a real impact rather than only write for the anthropological congregation.

I have myself combined academic work with commissioned research and consultancies for decades. An example of the former is the project ‘Reality Checks Mozambique’ carried out for Sweden in order to inform their development work in the country over a five-year period between 2011-2016 (Tvedten et al. 2016). An example of the latter is an evaluation of a Swedish higher education program in Rwanda, aimed at institutional development, research capacity building and broader impact of research at the University of Rwanda (Tvedten et al. 2018).

In 2010, Sweden commissioned a series of Reality Check studies (2011-2015) in the remote Mozambican province of Niassa. The explicit objective was to use anthropological/qualitative approaches and methods to monitor and evaluate development interventions done by the Government, Sida and other donors in agriculture, governance and private sector development ”from below” with a focus on poverty and gender.

A team of three senior researchers and six research assistants carried out the studies in three project sites, with fieldwork of three weeks per year in each site. The studies were based on a combination of official quantitative information; baseline and end line surveys; participant observation/household immersion; and a set of qualitative/participatory methodologies including wealth ranking. A key finding was the social marginalisation and exclusion of the very poorest from the development interventions, which made it necessary with alternative and targeted project components.

Three issues separate this project from a conventional academic anthropological study on poverty. One is the fact that it is commissioned, with Terms of Reference indicating a set of objectives, evaluation, research questions and deliverables. While this restricts “academic freedom” (which of course also has its own conventions), most progressive donors (including Sweden/Sida) are open to and appreciate academically based alternative approaches and points of view.

The second deviation is related to methodology. The limited time at disposal makes it necessary to develop alternative approaches, in this case combining qualitative/ participatory work with survey data. Qualitative approaches are key to understand the impact of interventions on the dynamics of poverty and well-being, but quantitative data are necessary to assess possible changes in consumption-based poverty over space and time.

A third and final difference lies is in style of writing and modes of dissemination. With a non-academic (development stakeholders) and often illiterate (target population) audience, the normal academic channels of publication and jargon will not do. The writing must be accessible in form and content, and be supplemented by workshops, briefs, community radio, local exhibitions/performances etc. in order to reach the target groups.

The purpose of the evaluation of Swedish support to the University of Rwanda was – according to its Terms of Reference – to “analyse, assess, generate knowledge and provide lessons” for the ongoing and possible future project periods with reference to the standard OECD/DAC evaluation criteria of relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability.

The programme is implemented in partnership between the University of Rwanda and its seven colleges and 12 Swedish universities. It includes PhD training, Master’s training, development of curricula, joint research projects and institutional capacity building. The overall objective of the UR-Sweden programme is to “Increase production and use of scientific knowledge of international quality at the UR that contributes to the development of Rwanda”.

Against this background, the evaluation is embedded in a context analysis of the political economy as well as higher education and research in Rwanda. It goes beyond studying outputs (such as number of PhD graduates, publications, citations etc. even though this is also done) to assess results at outcome and impact levels with focus on changes in research capacity and contributions to better policy making and improved products or services by the private sector and civil society organisations in Rwanda.

The evaluation uses a mixed method approach: document and programme data review including bibliometric information; semi-structured interviews with relevant UR/programme and external stakeholders; case-studies of specific research projects and their impact; and a tracer study of PhD graduates from the programme. Fieldwork was carried out over a period of two weeks, and involved four team members including from Rwanda.

In line with recent international trends (IDRC 2016), the evaluation gives special attention to defining and assessing the impact or benefit of research cooperation to society. This was found still to be inadequate. One of the main recommendations to accomplish this – related to UR’s decision to focus its research on a set of ten interdisciplinary research clusters – was to include a social science component in all of them including those dominated by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Both evaluation projects presented above relate to central anthropological issues such as the relation between structure and agency, the dynamics of social change and the impact of external interventions. For anthropologists doing this kind of work, there is a trade-off between the limitations inherent in being “commissioned” and the possibility to have influence on real peoples’ lives.

It should matter that the consultant doing commissioned work and evaluations is an anthropologist. Good applied work and consultancy must adhere to normal academic standards – but not to academic publications as genre as readers are less interested in for instance elaborations of theories and methods than they are in the research findings about impact.

The anthropologist as consultant should bring in academic insights and communicate those in a way that both the and target population can relate to; bring in new locally based perspectives; challenge the client by being explicit at critical points; and give clear recommendations that are manageable as points of departure for action.

In order to generate knowledge within the time frame and scope set by the funding agencies, the anthropologist/consultant needs to use innovative methodologies which can capture relevant issues over a short time frame. Also, in order to communicate well with policy makers and reach key decisions-makers, anthropologists need to adapt their style of writing and modes of research dissemination and publish in creative and innovative ways.

Commissioned work and consultancies are interesting and challenging. The extent to which they actually have an impact on the lives of the poor or other target groups depends on the ability to position ourselves as anthropologists in relation to central development actors and decision-makers and make anthropology relevant.


Crewe, Emma, and Richard Axelby. 2013. Anthropology and development. Culture, Morality and Poltics in a Globalised World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edelman, Marc, and Angelique Haugerud. 2005. “Introduction: The anthropology of development globalization.” In The anthropology of development and globalization, edited by Marc Edelman and Angelique Haugerud. Malden: Blackwell.

Escobar, Arturo. 1991. “Anthropology and the development encounter: The making and marketing of development anthropology.” American Anthropologist 18(4): 658-682.

IDRC (2016). A Holistic Approach to Evaluating Research. Ottawa, Canada: International development Research Centre.

Lewis, David. 2005. “Antropology and development: the uneasy relationship.” In A handbook of economic anthropology, 472-86. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

MacClansey, Jeremy. 2017. “Transcending the academic/public divide in the transmission of theory: Raglan, diffusionism, and mid-century anthropology.” History and Anthropology 28(2): 235-253.

Moss, David. 2011. Adventures in Aidland. The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. New York and london: Berghanh Books.

Tvedten, Inge, Minna Tuominnen and Carmeliza Rosário (2016). Reality Checks Mozambique. Final Report 2011-2015. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Tvedten, Inge et al. (2018). “Evaluation of the Sida supported research capacity and higher education development program in Rwanda, 2013-2017”. Sida Decentralised Evaluations [2018:1]. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Agency

Water Day 2018

On the occasion of the AAM Special Issue, MANAGING GLOBAL SOCIAL WATER , the editors Nadia Breda and Elena Bougleux will organize a debate on 23rd March 2018 at the University of Florence.

Practices, strategies and rituals related to water have been studied in depth by anthropologists. In our perspective, all the specific and disciplinary declinations of water are entangled in a social-water continuum that cannot be separated or split into fragmented elements. Global Social Water unfolds as a unique multiple concept. At the same time, the Anthropocenic approach meets and amplifies our need and desire as anthropologists to create a concrete occasion of dialogue.

In such a framework, the processes and the crises implicated with water appear as the most urgent ones, and require complex visions. Water can no longer be understood by unrelated actors, and no local insight on water can stand independently from the multi-scale picture drawn within a global-social continuum. The authors contributing to the AAM special make solid references to their ethnographic research, localizing their reflections on very specific water-related grounds: from rivers in Southern India to the Anthroposophic Community in Italy, from the Venice Lagoon to Agro Pontino, from the sea and its coastlines to the water needed to make wine. At the same time, the authors project their visions into a wider cosmology of meanings and inscribe their discourses in the framework of the Anthropocene so their outcomes can be shared and discussed according to diverse competences and disciplines.

Through this set of papers, anthropologists have started a fruitful dialogue with climatologists, architects, marine biologists, botanists, economists and more, each bringing their specific contribution to our studies. The emerging vision mainly depicts the issue of water as a natural + social resource, where the natural and social dimensions always remain interconnected and interdependent, each requiring a local and a large scale perspective in a global and social approach.

For more info:

Genocide: A Conversation with Alex Hinton

Alexander Hinton is Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. He is Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark. He was previously President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and currently holds the UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention. His most recent book on an international tribunal in Cambodia is Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer; a companion volume, The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia, is forthcoming in the Spring of 2018. In 2013, Professor Hinton served as an expert witness at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Read the introduction of Man or Monster? here.

In this interview, Alexander Hinton discusses issues related to anthropology and genocide in the context of his work on Cambodia. The interview was motivated by my personal interest in genocide, the study of genocide and the issue of the “ordinary perpetrator”. Although my background is in history, I am interested in the multi-disciplinary nature of genocide studies, and wanted to establish what role anthropology can play in understanding genocide. Further, looking at the example of Cambodia, specifically the Duch trial, gave a contextual insight into the study of genocide.

Anna: Although a cross-discipline subject, genocide studies is perhaps synonymous with history or political science. What role does anthropology play in the study of genocide?

Alex: While other approaches offer important insights into genocide, anthropology is distinct in its insistence on deep contextual knowledge to understand the origins, dynamics, and aftermaths of genocide and other forms of political violence. Perhaps in part because of an uneasiness with the questions genocide raises about relativism, anthropologists long ignored this topic, though this neglect began to change in the 1980s and especially the 1990s with a surge of interest in political violence. Still, genocide hovers on the edges of anthropological interest as highlighted by the remarkable lack of work on the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, among other cases. I attended a panel on the Rohingya of Myanmar at the last AAA meeting and just a handful of people were in the large ballroom.

Anna: I find it interesting, and unsettling, that such events appear “on the edge” of the discipline. What new perspectives do you think can anthropology give to understanding mass atrocity?

Alex: Much of the literature on genocide and atrocity crimes tends to be more experience-distant and comparative. An ethnographic approach, much like a historical approach (and good genocide scholarship combines the two), demands in-depth, experience-near engagement with particular cases – even as anthropologists keep an eye on the comparative as well but only after deep, contextual understanding.

Anna: In your most recent book, Man or Monster?, you closely address the Duch trial in Cambodia. To provide some context, Duch was the first Cambodian leader to be tried at the special court, backed by the UN and established to try crimes committed during the Cambodian genocide. Duch was the commander responsible for the notorious S-21 camp. To me, your focus on Duch relates to what you said earlier about getting the deep contextual knowledge of a situation through an anthropological lens. Why did you specifically focus on this trial in your analysis? Was there something unique about this case, or did it simply provide a good example of such a trial at a criminal tribunal?

Alex: There is a bit of a backstory here. I actually had intended to write a book that focused on how Cambodians understood the global justice experiment that suddenly arrived in the mid-2000s. This first book project ended up being the focus of my second book on the tribunal, The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia, which is coming out with Oxford this Spring.

Duch was the first person to be tried and I became fascinated by Duch himself, his trial and what it revealed about the court, Duch’s relationship to the civil parties, and ultimately, what his trial means to all of us as human beings. The question in the book title, Man or Monster? is in a sense a riddle that is also an answer, almost an aporia.

Anna: Is there a benefit of focusing on a single case, rather than examining the tribunal as a whole?

Alex: Always – that’s the basis of good fieldwork in a sense as long as the research is aware of and keeps an eye on the multidirectional intersections of the single case. As I mentioned, deep, experience-near understanding lays the basis for the comparative. Also, amidst the ethnodrama of the book, there is a background conversation with other broader debates and key texts, especially Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Anna: In Man or Monster?, you use the term “banality of everyday thought” to distinguish from Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” I think this is an interesting distinction to make. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this phrase, and how it differs from Arendt’s work?

Alex: I have always been fascinated by Arendt’s book, which is admirable in so many ways even if it has been more recently critiqued for missing what some assert was Eichmann’s strong antisemitism. Regardless, her point about the banality of evil is important and does work that much scholarship today is afraid to do – venture into the realm of ethics and even speak of moral lessons.

At the core of Man or Monster? , then, is a “lesson” which is meant to echo Arendt’s “lesson” about the banality of evil. The etymology of “lesson” suggests moral edification, as in a Biblical lesson. Along these lines, Arendt was not just suggesting that Eichmann was a mindless bureaucrat as popularized versions of the banality of evil idea sometimes claim. Instead, her key “lesson” was Eichmann’s failure to think, his “sheer thoughtlessness” as she put it. His failure was a lesson to all of us about the importance of critical thinking, even if she didn’t phrase it in quite this way.

The “banality of everyday thought” takes up her insight about genocide and the lack of critical thinking while taking off in a different direction, even a bit of a reversal. If the action of perpetrators like Eichmann and Duch are “thoughtless,” the lack of critical thought is directly tied to the way we think – parsing our worlds in reductive terms as we navigate the dilemmas and anxieties of our human predicaments. Here the book draws on philosophy and psychology (Lacan, Derrida, and Levinas) in considering subjectivity even as the book recognizes the larger structural forces at play in producing subjectivity, a notion I discuss in part through the concept of the “thick frames of power.”

Let me conclude by saying that, while observing Duch’s trial, I saw direct parallels in the way meaning was articulated during torture at S-21 (the prison Duch ran), the KRT Trial Chamber / law, the psychological assessment, and so forth. A simple paradox is at work: by the way we think (our articulations) we redact complexity. At S-21, confessions produced an articulation of the enemy; at the ECCC, the juridical process produced the criminal (Duch was convicted). And so forth.

My book ends by calling for an ethics of afacement as opposed to the effacing convictions that propel not just genocide, but the way we operate in our everyday lives – thus the banality of everyday thought – amidst the thick frames of power in which we are enmeshed (discourses, disciplines, structures of power, including law, and so forth). And here the insights about Duch also bear upon contemporary issues such as the rise of bigotry and hate in places like the U.S.

Anna: We indeed live in a world where hate is on the rise. When reflecting on the development of mass atrocity, the notion of the “ordinary perpetrator,” or the idea that anyone can become a perpetrator of genocide, becomes disconcerting. I think that people like to distance themselves from the idea that they can become perpetrators and believe that they wouldn’t commit crimes, even if pushed to do so. But I suppose this isn’t the case, and it is true that anyone can become a perpetrator?

Alex: The easy answer – though perhaps unsettling to many — is that anyone can become a perpetrator. That said, the difficulty of explanation arises in explaining the paths to – and sometimes in and out of – participation in genocide and mass murder. If any of us might become a perpetrator, the book implicitly argues that those who are driven by effacing conviction may more readily be attracted to totalizing ideologies of hate, ranging from totalitarian sentiments to genocidal imperatives.

Perhaps this resembles Adorno’s search for a set of dispositions that may incline people to violence and hate – “the authoritarian personality” as he puts it. But I discuss the idea of “disposition” with great wariness, noting that our subjectivities are bound up with power and also deeply enmeshed with personal and social histories. The idea of a disposition can naturalize the fluid and historical, mask power, and thereby redact precisely the dynamic processes to which we need to attend.

Here is where the deep contextual knowledge issue arises – those who move too quickly to the comparative (or the natural) oversimplify and, to use the terms of Man or Monster?, render articulations of the perpetrators that redact their complexity and make them “other” than us. Indeed the word “perpetrator,” like “criminal,” “enemy,” and so forth, is dangerous in this regard since we emplot complex individuals in reductive categories and narratives. We can’t help but use abstraction and simplification but we can do so with varying degrees of reflexivity. To aface or efface? That is the moral question that we confront everyday as we decide to act in complicated worlds. It’s also the key ethical question Man or Monster? raises.

Anna: There are a number of tools used by leaders to initially incite hatred, and then to justify killings of “another” group. A common thread in the build-up to genocide is that the reality of the massacre disappears behind other words, phrases and justifications. A famous example is that of Rwanda, where the Tutsi were described as “cockroaches” and genocidal killings as “work” or “clearing.” In Cambodia, the reality of what was being perpetrated in prisons was sanitized by discussion of eradicating the ‘woodworm’ that would eat away at the healthy revolutionary people. How does this language develop, and how is it used by a regime?

Alex: Yes, for sure. There was pervasive ideological language that included metaphors exhorting people to work, purify themselves, and eradicate the enemy. Discourse helps constitute the “thick frames” that push actors to think and act in certain ways, including violent ones. This language of hate legitimates violence, making it not just morally more acceptable but even urgent.

Mary Douglas’s work on language, the body, and border provides one anthropological perspective for considering the motivating force of language and symbolism. As she suggests, the language and symbolism of violence, hate, and genocide don’t emerge out of the blue, but play upon what preexists and has bodily resonance (Turner highlighted the intersection of the political and felt dimensions of social action through his discussion of the sensory and ideological poles of meaning).

The Khmer Rouge, for example, banned Buddhism even as they drew upon Buddhist concepts such as the idea of renunciation (revolutionary renunciations paralleling Buddhist renunciation). There are many examples of this in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, ones that emerged in Duch’s trial but are also discussed in detail in an earlier book I wrote, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide.

Anna: The Duch trial is interesting because it represents the first trial of a commander at the tribunal. It also provides a good example of the notion of command responsibility, that the most responsible is the person in charge. However, Duch contended that he was acting on orders from the government and was not in a position to argue. This can raise the question of how responsible an individual is for their own actions in these circumstances and whether state responsibility takes precedence over self-agency.

Alex: That’s a complicated legal question. But perhaps the easy answer is that, when asked to violate international law, each person become culpable and is obligated to disobey superior orders. In other words, superior orders are preempted by international law even if, paradoxically, it may be illegal to disobey such an (internationally illegal) order within a domestic jurisdiction. Duch, for his part, claimed that S-21 operated long ago and that he knew little of international law – he claimed he just obeyed the dictates of his superiors, a classic “obedience to authority” defense, and followed Khmer Rouge law. Nazi criminals, including Eichmann, made similar claims — as have many others accused of genocide and atrocity crimes.

Anna: Although Duch claimed to be obeying his superiors, it can be argued that he did have his own agency and made conscious choices to commit the crimes he did. Here, the links between collective behavior and individual conviction are apparent. But can these collective actions prove the individual conviction or motivation for involvement in genocide?

Alex: No but it provides context, a marker of context — the thick frames of power — in which individual conviction may be transformed and accentuated in a manner that motivates genocide and mass murder.

Anna: Understanding motivation is clearly an important aspect in understanding genocide. There are a vast number of people in different roles involved in a genocidal regime – from those following orders and doing administrative tasks distant from the killing to those actively killing, or ordering others to kill. Do you consider there to be a difference in motivation, beliefs and the kinds of people that fulfil different roles within a genocidal regime?

Alex: There may be, but it is difficult to parse things in this way due to variation. Scholars now sometimes differentiate between the micro-, meso-, and macro- levels, but even these categories totalize things. The best approach is one that is processual and fluid, taking into account intersections of structure, power, and agency that ebb and flow in different ways across context. Performance theory is suggestive in this regard as perpetrator motivation may be disaggregated in considering the flow of experience, audience, and emotion.

Anna: International trials, such as that of Duch, have brought these perpetrators increasingly into the public eye and into discourse surrounding the conflicts. In some senses, these tribunals have provided a “face” of the conflict, a recognizable perpetrator. This must lead to the media and politicians framing these perpetrators differently.

Alex: Yes, though different actors appropriate the legal proceedings in different ways. There are often very different, and sometimes directly conflicting, stakes for the “international community,” government elites, civil society actors, and local communities. This has been true in Cambodia and other situations as the literature on transitional justice demonstrates.

Anna: Despite its successes in providing a historical record and providing some justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was divisive, it made some into heroes and further victimized others. There were some notable differences between the tribunal for Yugoslavia and that of Cambodia, not least that the Yugoslav tribunal was established before the end of the conflict whereas the Cambodian trial followed years after the genocide. Reflecting on the two tribunals, do you think that the Cambodian tribunal had the same issues that faced the Yugoslav tribunal?

Alex: I think this is the case for international justice in general. It is always politicized and leaves some more or less satisfied or dissatisfied.

One key difference in this case is that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is being held in Cambodia. The complicated hybrid structure and rules of the tribunal, which give the Cambodian government a great deal of influence over things, have made this one even more politicized with controversies over corruption and political influence.

Overall, and this is too sweeping a statement, I would say that the victims are more satisfied with the KRT even if the population is somewhat less engaged with it due to the amount of time that has elapsed, the fact that there is a degree of victor’s justice involved, and the on-going difficulties in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia that continue to amplify tensions. The situation is different in Cambodia.

Anna: Finally, I find it important within the study of genocide to reflect on what we can learn or take from previous experiences, as it can be easy to become disheartened that things won’t change. In this spirit, do you think there any lessons that the international community can take from the Cambodian case to apply to ongoing atrocities, such as that facing the Rohingya?

Alex: We return to lessons! I spoke earlier of the lessons of Man or Monster?, including the imperative of afacement. The Justice Facade similarly argues that we need to step aside from the transitional justice imaginary and focus on lived experience and on-the-ground understandings. Here are a couple of imperatives with which can perhaps finish.

Aface others — even those (like the Myanmar government) who appear to act in illegitimate ways.

Step behind the (justice, human rights, peacebuilding) facade. Understand conflicts from an experience-near, deeply contextual, historicized perspective. This is the first step in any sort of process of conflict resolution and prevention.

Humanitarianism and Security: New Berghahn Books series

General Editor:
Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute

Editorial Board:
Reece Jones, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
Chowra Makaremi, CNRS, Paris
Mark Maguire, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Vanessa Pupavac, University of Nottingham
Peter Redfield, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Tazreena Sajjad, American University, Washington D.C.

Amid the growing convergence between the politics of aid and policing, emergency and military governance, securitization and the production of collective fear, this series examines humanitarianism and security as both ideology and practice. To this end, it offers ethnographic and theoretical analyses that contribute to the development of critical approaches at the intersection of anthropology, sociology, geography, international relations, and other disciplines.

Formal submissions should be sent directly to Berghahn Books, however initial enquiries are encouraged and should be sent to Antonio De Lauri (, who will be able to advise and help you through the formal procedure. For more information on Berghahn’s manuscript submission procedure, please look at the Info for Authors section on the website:

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.


Academic Politics of Silencing

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Confronting Silencing, Antonio De Lauri

Unravelling the Politics of Silencing, Laura Nader

It Wasn’t a Tenure Case: A Personal Testimony, with Reflections, David Graeber

The Sounds of Anthropological Silence, David Price

Having Company: An Antidote to the “Politics of Silencing”, Susan Wright


Introduction: Confronting Silencing, Antonio De Lauri

The featured image for this discussion shows a closed door of a classroom at Kabul University. I took the picture in 2008 while doing fieldwork. In its purpose here, however, the geographic reference of the picture is not important. What matters is that it shows a door within a university. The small window is broken and it would therefore be possible to see inside the room. Yet the door is locked, and only those with the right key can enter. Ideally, that door should be always open, not simply to allow the knowledge produced there to radiate outside, but to allow access for everybody. It is a fact that the whole institutional universe in which knowledge is produced – not only universities, but also research centers, laboratories, etc. –remains alien to large parts of the world population for reasons that transcend the realm of “competence” and belong more to politics of inclusion/exclusion. This is the case not only where political regimes explicitly make it difficult to access knowledge, but also in Western democracies where knowledge is, in theory, available for everybody.

In a blog post on bourgeois knowledge, published on Allegra Lab a few years ago, I discussed some structural, latent mechanisms that tend to give continuity to both a predominantly class based compositions of departments’ faculty and a class based knowledge of issues such as social inequality and marginality. There are many ways that research institutions and the education system effectively reproduce power and hegemony. There are also many ways that some researchers are marginalized or silenced. Laura Nader’s paper and the three comments that follow by David Graeber, David Price and Susan Wright discuss the academic politics of silencing and confront the hidden instances that lie behind them.

Nader’s life-long engagement with contrarian anthropology can be seen as an effort against silencing. In her paper, she rightly points out that “indirect controls are most powerful because they are normalized.” Indeed, it is our responsibility to throw light on the shadows produced by hidden forms of control, and this often translates in opposing “trendiness” within academia. Graeber was excluded from the US university job market. From this experience, he creates a narrative that illustrates the role played by politics in the broader academic infrastructure and reminds us that these politics always have profound effects beyond the sphere of work  and on the personal life of researchers and academics. Price emphasizes that troubles often begin when we move from books and articles to actual action. He recalls some of the difficulties (e.g. obtaining proper funding) researchers meet when studying certain topics, but he opportunely concludes that “since silence is a problem, we need to make noise,” this means not limiting our intellectual efforts to traditional academic outlets.

Acritically joining the “chorus” and looking for company can be very different things. In fact, Wright reminds us that to confront silencing we indeed need company. There is still space, Wright says, “for exercising individual academic judgement but much more collective action – or keeping company – is required. There is a continuous challenge to analyse how our research, teaching, priorities and values are being influenced in organisationally embedded and often mundane ways, so that we can ensure our institutions enable us to fulfil our role as academics, not as an individual privilege, but as a social responsibility to act as the critic and conscience of society”.

Academic silencing is dangerous because it limits the intellectual and political freedom of researchers. However, it is also dangerous because it feeds the power machinery that, outside the departments and laboratories, normalizes domination, inequality and injustice.

Unraveling the Politics of Silencing, Laura Nader

Over the 50 years plus that I have been at Berkeley I have received many letters from fellow anthropologists and students of anthropology reporting silencing techniques. Such techniques are intended to directly or unknowingly perhaps to silence their voices. The complainants are often pushing the boundaries of an acceptable anthropology, an acceptability which to me defeats the basic purpose of our discipline – to challenge assumptions, in the face of evidence, and in the process to enlighten the public about the controlling processes in our lives. Sometimes the silencing comes from funding sources, or publishers, or the tenure review process.

A good example of how controlling processes work is Dimitra Doukas’s book published by Cornell University Press, Worked Over —The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community (2003), an ethnography that covered 100 years of regional capitalism in upper New York State. She dealt with the takeover by the big trusts thereby delineating a corporate capitalism and brought to my attention the need to recognize that there are many kinds of capitalism: regional capitalism, corporate capitalism and penny capitalism. It is not one big thing. Sol Tax’s work on Penny Capitalism in Guatemala (1953) made this point. Doukas taught in Canada for a short time, had temporary positions in the United States, but no serious job offers in the United States. Why? Don’t challenge the dominant power structure through the lens of a people’s history.

More recently, Brian McKenna writes in Counterpunch “How Anthropology Disparages Journalism” (March 2009). He asks, “Is there a career danger for an anthropologist wanting to be relevant, a publically engaged writer? … Too many academic anthropologists are marooned in the coffin-boxes of university classrooms, their pearls of wisdom echoing wistfully off of hermetically, sealed-walls.” McKenna refers to academic unwritten rules as a “type of border control.” In other countries such as France, Spain or Mexico anthropologists are more publically involved.

In a personal communication, Gary Downey (2012) notes that he believes that “academic scholarship is worthwhile only to the extent that it makes a significant difference beyond the academy. Seeking affirmation only from other academic peers is incestuous.” Downey is a professor of technical studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He is a mechanical engineer turned cultural anthropologist —a pioneer in energy related research. Most anthropologists probably never read his work, although it is especially important on issues of radioactive waste management. Anthropologists are sometimes not very nice to their innovators because of the dynamic of control, both social and political, direct and indirect. When I started work on energy for the National Academy of Science, the chair of my department instead of encouraging me said “Laura, you aren’t going to get promoted for this energy work in our department. Why don’t you drop it?” I was the only anthropologist of 300 scientists invited to work on the prestigious CONAES study – the Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Study because, as they said when they invited me, “We need an anthropologist on this study.” (See Energy Choices in a Democratic Society Nader 1980).

When it comes to students, the silencing strategies are often direct. Just read Anthropology’s Politics- Disciplining the Middle East (Deeb and Winegar 2016). Separate “academic” from the “political.” Emphasize anthropological knowledge as devoid of political stance. Social Science should be autonomous from political advocacy. The teaching of anthropology of the Middle East for decades taught me a good deal about what was and what was not acceptable anthropology. It is hard to believe that in 2017 some scholars still believe that some people are political advocates while others are not. What one doesn’t say is as political as what one says —it’s a matter of speech categories. All culture is full of politics. There is no such thing as apolitical.

The history of how such unwritten rules of silencing came about in the American academy was explored in depth by prize winning historian Mary Furner in her book Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science. 1865-1905 (1975). Public advocacy was considered important before the Civil War, but with the rise of the big trusts the move to objectivity over advocacy was increasing. Lack of objectivity was used to penalize advocates in academic freedom cases of the 1880s and 1890s, marking limits of acceptable behavior for academic social scientists, visible at least to a historian: the power of objectivity as control, fed by the big trusts.


— Read the full article on



It Wasn’t a Tenure Case – A Personal Testimony, with Reflections, David Graeber

First of all allow me to remark how touched and honored I am to be put on the same list as James Mooney, who I’ve always admired, and Edmund Leach, who may have been the man who most inspired me to take up an anthropological career. Leach for me always been a model of intellectual freedom.

I hadn’t heard that Dimitra Doukas hasn’t been given a proper job and am outraged to hear it; the fact that she hasn’t it seems to me also answers the question with which the essay ends, of why US anthropology didn’t foreseen Trump, since her work is specifically about using ethnographic tools to understand right-wing populism. I was myself writing about similar issues—in Harpers, since Anthropology didn’t seem much interested—around the time I too was being effectively expelled from US academia, though mine were mere musings in comparison.

There are many mysteries of the academy which would be appropriate objects of ethnographic analysis. One question that never ceases to intrigue me is tenure. How could a system ostensibly designed to give scholars the security to be able to say dangerous things have been transformed into a system so harrowing and psychologically destructive that, by the time scholars find themselves in a secure position, 99% of them have forgotten what it would even mean to have a dangerous idea? How is the magic effected, systematically, on the most intelligent and creative people our societies produce? Shouldn’t they of all people know better? There is a reason the works of Michel Foucault are so popular in US academia. We largely do this to ourselves. But for this very reason such questions will never be researched.

Since my own case features prominently in the text, I might as well say what really happened at Yale. I think it’s important to do so, in part, because it illustrates that one way that tactics of bullying, silencing, and other abusive structures of power operate is by the insistence on the part of the bulk of the academic community that things like this cannot possibly happen. Consider the circumstances. In my case, American anthropologists were confronted with the information that an untenured “out” anarchist scholar had been dismissed from his job at a prominent university, in a highly irregular fashion (it was not a tenure case and what sparse media coverage there was noted this), despite a strong publication record and student support. No official reason was given. American anthropologists were asked to decide between two options:

(1) politics played a role

(2) he must have been dismissed for some other reason, just the department for some reason didn’t say what it was

Judging by the response when I then applied for jobs, the overwhelming majority appear to have chosen 2.

So here’s a narrative of the principle events:

In 2000 I had passed my first reappointment review with flying colors and was assured I was proceeding exactly as I should as a junior prof—though warned to stay out of politics, I was encouraged to think I had a strong chance at tenure if I followed this advice. In fact I was aware that the Yale tenure rate was roughly 7% so tenure struck me as unlikely, no matter how well I played my cards. Therefore, when the Global Justice Movement picked up and I felt I was uniquely positioned—and therefore had an historical responsibility—to contribute, I effectively told myself “well, it’s not like I’d have gotten tenure anyway” and jumped on board. I soon became convinced the tools of ethnography could be useful to those trying to create new forms of direct democracy and took a sabbatical year (2001-2002) to pursue this idea. In the course of that sabbatical year I also made press statements as a member of various direct action-oriented and broadly anarchist groups involved in the protests that successfully halted the Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty and other neoliberal trade initiatives. When I returned in the fall of 2002, several previously friendly members of the senior faculty – people I had not been in contact with at all during my sabbatical – refused to speak to me. They did not return my greetings and walked by as if I wasn’t there.

I should clarify the Yale socio-cultural anthropology department was, at that time, in an unhappy state. If they were known outside New Haven for anything, at that time, it was for their unique institutional culture, epitomized by the habit of some members of the senior faculty of writing lukewarm or even hostile letters of recommendation for their own graduate students—students who, I might note, were on average of a clearly higher intellectual calibre than the faculty, but lived in a climate of fear and intimidation as a result. (Needless to say it was the same clique who wrote the hostile letters who suddenly stopped speaking to me.) Matters were complicated by a grad student unionization drive that met with unrelenting hostility from this same dominant clique: union organizers had been screamed at, received abusive emails, been object of all sorts of false accusations, even been threatened with police; there were multiple outstanding student grievances and complaints against such behavior and even one pending NLRB case. At the same time the students themselves were deeply divided about the merits of the union. Junior faculty were caught in the middle. For my own part, I made the strategic decision to avoid internal Yale politics, and focus on larger targets (such as the IMF). In New Haven, I concentrated my efforts on teaching, and on mentoring and protecting my own students—who, I am proud to report, are almost all now pursuing successful academic careers.

In the end, I was not allowed to remain neutral.

When the time came in 2004 for the normally routine promotion to “Term Associate” (an untenured position that would lead in four years to tenure review), this same handful of senior faculty tried to deny me reappointment, despite uniformly positive external reviews (one by Laura Nader) and strong student evaluations (I had taught some of the most popular courses in the department’s history). They told the dean I had not done enough committee work—but when challenged were forced to admit they had not given me any. Informed they couldn’t simply fire me without warning, they solicited, and were granted, special permission to review my case again after a year—and this time, at their insistence and as far as I know in violation of all precedent, without external or student input.

At the very least this procedure was highly irregular.

The next year the same clique attempted to pressure out perhaps my most talented student, a brilliant Asian-American woman who was also an organizer in the graduate student unionization campaign, before a major student strike—on obviously fabricated grounds. (The Director of Graduate Studies had written her a negative letter of recommendation for an AAA grant application, then accused her of “ethical violations” for not using or returning it, and demanded she leave the program, despite a complete lack of any actual grounds for expulsion.) This was of course primarily an attempt to intimidate the union organizers, but partly also meant to test my loyalty. I failed the test spectacularly by defending her (she was an excellent student, with good grades and strong support across departments). Afterwards I was—this is actually true—accused of “intimidating” the DGS by taking notes in the meeting where the DGS tried to pressure the student to resign, leaving me later to remark that Yale was the only place I knew of where a representative of the senior faculty can tell a student “you’re no good, get out of the program!” one junior faculty member dares to say “surely we can work something out,” and he’s the one who gets accused of “intimidation.” (Incidentally, she did not resign, did get the grant, and is now pursuing a successful academic career.)

After that my dismissal was a foregone conclusion. All that remained was to find a pretext. This however proved difficult, since I did not have a drug or drinking problem, had never been accused of plagiarism, unethical academic practices, or sexual or any other form of harassment, had never been convicted of a crime, never slept with students, had no history of clinical mental health issues, and never been the object of student grievances or complaints (in fact, it’s quite possible I was the only member of the socio-cultural faculty at that time of whom none of these things could be said.) I was also by then doing quite a bit of service work and had contracts for two forthcoming monographs in addition to the two books already out. Some students told me they were pressured to bring false charges but refused. Many wrote unsolicited letters of support. The best the other side could do was to get one foreign student, who was told she was in danger of flunking out and being deported, to write a letter complaining about the overly democratic way I had organized a seminar (!). This however allowed them to claim the students were not unanimous, and the student letters weren’t entered into evidence anyway. Some brave and wonderful colleagues fought hard to defend me, but in the end it was to no avail. (Most also left in frustration soon after.) In the end, I was told my contract was not being renewed but no reason was given—other than a newfound concern with the supposed weakness in my academic work.

At the time, it honestly never occurred to me that I would not be able to find a job elsewhere in America. Letters of support were pouring in from seemingly everywhere – Marshall Sahlins to Laura Nader to Mick Taussig to John and Jean Comaroff. Outraged students asked me if they could protest my dismissal. This was a hard one. I had already decided not to sue, despite receiving more than one communication from people connected to the Law School suggesting I do so—and it’s true I knew if I had sued, I’d have had almost uniquely well-positioned (one student, for example, was willing to testify that one of the profs leading the charge against me had actually called her parents to warn them that their daughter was taking courses with a dangerous radical!) It occurred to me suing might damage my future prospects. Still, the anthropology students had been very much divided over the unionization drive, and many told me the only thing they all agreed on was that what happened to me was wrong—they were even putting together protest committees, each carefully balanced with one pro- and one anti-union student. I felt I could hardly tell them not to. In retrospect I realize this was my undoing.

The Chronicle account that Laura Nader mentions describes me as failing to land a job despite 17 attempts (by the end I think it was well over 20). This substantially understates what happened. Failure to win a position despite 20+ attempts might still be attributed to bad luck in a difficult job market. In fact, in 20+ attempts, I failed even once to even be considered for a job. Not only did I not make any short lists, I failed to make any long lists. Not a single university asked me for my letters of recommendation. That means that in every single one of those 20+ applications I was eliminated at the first cut. In contrast, before my firing from Yale, I had made at least the first cut in virtually every job I applied for, and what’s more, afterwards, I continued to be considered in the same way everywhere else in the world other than the United States. I was receiving regular feelers and even offers from departments from Paris and London to Shanghai; but in the US, suddenly no one would look at me. It is almost impossible to attribute this to statistical coincidence.

Now I must admit this outcome did surprise me. The Yale department was as I mentioned famous for its poison-pen letters. No doubt they’d be spreading rumors but who would take them seriously? And after all, as I often told myself, I only needed one job. Yet none materialized.

I did get insider information about what happened in a few instances. As most readers will be aware, at the first round in job searches, committees are often faced with an overwhelming deluge of applications and are desperate to cull. If anyone raises a strong objection to an applicant that applicant is usually eliminated without further discussion. The effect is much like black-balling in a social club. In my own case, too, matters were complicated by the student protest. I was labeled a “trouble-maker” who would turn their students against them (a silly idea, as my subsequent history attests). So in many cases at least, the moment one person raised any such objections, my application was instantly rejected. I was also told this also happened in at least two cases where I was considered as a target of opportunity—in one case the one objection came from a faculty member, in the other from administration. But always, one objection was enough.

I’ll stop the narrative here, and just underline a few relevant lessons:

1. There is a near total gulf between the way many (most?) anthropologists view situations in their field areas, where they tend to identify with the underdog, and in the academy, where they tend to instinctually take the side of structures of institutional authority. There is little doubt that most of my detractors would have come to exactly the opposite conclusion about what must have “really happened” in my case had I been a young scholar and political dissident in Indonesia or Mozambique who was dismissed from his job with no reason being given.

2. A widespread sense of guilty discomfort about this discrepancy often sparks resentment at anyone whose active political engagement might been seen as drawing attention to these contradictions. To this day, I occasionally encounter colleagues who, on learning I have a history of activism, instantly assume I must be sitting in judgment of them for sins of hypocrisy which, in almost all cases, would never in a million years have occurred to me had they not brought them up.

3. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of social class. I was told by one ally at Yale that my problem was that owing to my proletarian background and general comportment, I was considered “unclubbable.” That is, if one is not from a professional-managerial background, one can be accepted by one’s “betters,” but only if one makes it clear such acceptance is one’s highest life aspiration. Otherwise, ideas or actions that among the well-born would likely be treated as amusing peccadillos—such as an embrace of anti-authoritarian politics—will be considered to disqualify one from academic life entirely.

4. In extremely hierarchical environments, being nice is often seen as impertinent or subversive—at least, if one is equally friendly and sympathetic to everyone.

5. In academic environments where most people were first drawn to their careers by a sense of intellectual excitement, but feel they then had to sacrifice that sense of joy and play in order to obtain life security, it is extremely unwise to be seen as visibly enjoying oneself, even in the sense of being excited by ideas. This is viewed as inconsiderate.

6. The term “collegiality” often operates in a deeply insidious way to disguise the workings of points 4, and 5. If one hears that someone is “uncollegial” one typically assumes they are rude, contentious, nasty, unsociable, or otherwise a jerk. In fact the term is never applied to superiors for abusing inferiors, but is almost invariably used for people lower down in a hierarchy for acting in way that others (often but not only superiors) disapprove of. It is thus perfectly possible to be too nice to students, and too enthusiastic about sharing ideas, and be denounced as “uncollegial” – thus raising in the minds of all those unfamiliar with the specifics of the case the assumption that one’s behaviour was exactly the opposite.

7. Children of the professional-managerial classes, as Tom Frank recently pointed out, tend to lack any ethos of solidarity. Solidarity is largely a value among working class people, or among the otherwise marginalized or oppressed. Professional-managerials tend towards radical individualism, and for them, left politics becomes largely a matter of puritanical one-upmanship (“check your privilege!”), with the sense of responsibility to others largely displaced onto responsibility to abstractions, forms, processes, and institutions. Hence frequent comments from ostensible leftists that, in protesting my irregular dismissal, I was revealing an arrogant sense of entitlement by suggesting anthropology somehow owed me a job in the first place (I got similar reactions from some academic “leftists” when I was evicted from my lifelong family home at the instigation of Police Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, after Occupy Wall Street. “Oh, so you think you have some kind of right to live in Manhattan?”) I find it telling, for instance, that of the few who did reach out in practical terms in the wake of my dismissal, and ask if there was anything they could do to help me find employment, the majority were African-American: i.e., people who came from a tradition of radicalism where people are keenly aware that sticking one’s neck out could have severe personal consequences, and that therefore, mutual support was necessary for survival. Many of elite background offered public moral support, but few if any offered me practical help of any kind.

8. The (tacitly authoritarian) insistence on acting as if institutions could not possibly behave the way the anthropology department at Yale did in fact behave leads almost necessary to victim-blaming. As a result, bullying—which I have elsewhere defined as unprovoked attacks designed to produce a reaction which can be held out as retrospective justification for the attacks themselves—tends to be an effective strategy in academic contexts. Once my contract was not renewed, I was made aware that within the larger academic community, any objections I made to how I’d been treated would be themselves be held out as retroactive justification for the non-renewal of my contract. If I was accused of being a bad teacher or scholar, and I objected that my classes were popular and my work well regarded, this would show I was self-important, and hence a bad colleague, which would then be considered the likely real reason for my dismissal. If I suggested political or even personal bias on the part of any of those who opposed renewal of my contract, I would be seen as paranoid, and therefore as likely having been let go for that very reason… And so on.

9. The truth or falsity of accusations is often treated as irrelevant. There seems a tacit rule not just of the academy but almost all aspects of professional-managerial life that if a superior plots to destroy an underling’s career, this is considered disagreeable behavior, certainly, but consequences are unlikely to follow. If the victim publicly states this happened, however, this is considered unforgivable and there will be severe consequences—whether or not the accusations are correct. Similarly if accusations are directed against an underling, even if they are proven false, the underling is usually assumed to have done something else to have earned the rancor of the accuser. So in a way the veracity of the accusations is again beside the point and making too much of a fuss about it is considered bizarre.

10. Prejudice in favor of institutional authority also allows authorities to easily get away with indirect forms of dishonesty aimed at falsifying the facts. To this day, most academics who have heard of my case appear convinced I was simply denied tenure, which of course makes my protests of political bias seem bizarre and self-serving, since most junior faculty are denied tenure at Yale. Almost no one knows that in fact it was a highly unusual non-tenure procedure where rules were changed for my case and my case only. Why? One reason is because Yale authorities kept making statements that implied, but did not quite state, that it was a tenure case. For instance when the New York Times ran an article about my dismissal, the author mentioned in passing it was not a tenure case, but also included a quote from an ally of the senior faculty which basically would have made no sense had it not been one (she said it was telling that I “personalized” the case rather than seeing it as being about Yale tenure policy). The ploy was effective and most of those who read the article appear to have been left with a false impression of what happened. But this was only possible because of their own bias: for all the leftist posturing, most American anthropologists, presented with a confusing Rorschach-like welter of evidence, appear to have decided it was more likely that an activist scholar had unreasonably politicized a routine academic decision, than that a notoriously conservative department could possibly have changed the rules to get rid of radical who was actively engaged in organising direct actions to disrupt trade summits and discomfiting the powerful in other actual, practical, ways.

In the end, I was not silenced. I made a new career in the UK, published widely, and continued to make interventions in public life. What the Yale brass did ensure was that all this came at enormous personal cost. My two remaining close family members (brother and mother) both, as it happened, faced prolonged terminal illness while the drama at Yale was unfolding—I found myself dashing back between being care-giver to first one then the other in New York and dealing with the latest machinations of the senior faculty back at Yale—which meant I had to indefinitely postpone my own plans to start a family. My own marriage ultimately buckled under the strains of exile, leaving me, for a while profoundly isolated. As one might imagine all this took no small emotional toll. Throwing myself into work I accomplished a good deal; but to this day the reaction of American anthropology continues to hurt me. I felt I had made important contributions not just to the discipline, but to political causes almost all my fellow anthropologists claimed to share—indeed, in many cases, built academic careers claiming to interpret and represent. Yet the main response seems to have been an eagerness to give credit to even the most transparent attempts at character assassination.

To end with a sociological reflection on silencing, then, I would invite the reader to consider the following. I agreed to write this because I have no intention to apply for an academic position in America in the foreseeable future. There is probably not a single paragraph in this essay that I would not have self-censored had that not been the case.


The Sounds of Anthropological Silence, David Price

Laura Nader’s essay draws on her half century of participant observation of the controlling processes governing academic life at American universities, and she provides important context to consider how anthropology silences itself. Her analysis appears during a period of new crises on our campuses, even as decades of structural attacks reducing tenure lines built particular silences.  Many of the means of silencing inhabit our bodies in ways that make the silences appear as if they are just personal preferences, but as Nader shows, the structures of silencing are built into the institutions where professors teach, research, go through the motions of shared governance, strive for tenure, and where students learn certain things in certain ways.

When Nader observes that “sometimes the silencing comes from funding sources, or publishers, or the tenure review process,” she identifies three significant controlling processes governing the development of anthropology. In informal discussions with colleagues, conversations sometimes drift to consider what are the most interesting questions we might be asking if left completely to our own devices; not having to worry about things like funding, tenure, or publications. In most cases, these become research roads not taken, as interests become circumscribed and dreams deferred.  Careers advance in the usual ways with other work that becomes interesting and significant in its own way, and we often do not notice that these were choices made along the way—mostly because we don’t see the choices we actually have about publishing and funding.

Vast silences obscure the ways that funding shapes anthropology. The discipline never really confronted the impacts of something as basic as the Rockefeller Foundation’s once routine practice of vetting grant applicants by making sure awardee’s names did not appear on governmental subversive lists generated by Joseph McCarthy, the Jenner Committee and others. And as Inderjeet Parmar’s important work shows, foundations established by American elites significantly shape the questions we ask and answers found, though such acknowledgements make many uncomfortable, I suppose because this implies about intellectual constraints (Parmar 2012).

Given the freedoms that can come with tenure, it remains disappointing that more academics do not use its protections to break disciplinary silences. In theory, anthropologists could use tenure to pursue the publishing venues giving them the most freedom, or to ignore the silences imposed by only pursing research that can be funded by traditional grants and fellowships. That so few among us do this is remarkable, and I believe tells us more about where we think the boundaries of possibility lie, than where they actually are.

The lessons of self-censorship and harmonizing (Nader 1996), learned on the way to tenure can root deep enough within academic hearts that once tenure is granted, paths of inquiry are narrowed to a point that these silences sound normal. Whatever promises to oneself of pursuing controversial work after tenure are easily forgotten. Graduate students often notice the sort of disciplinary gaps Nader describes, but should they begin dissertation projects bridging these silences, they are frequently counseled back to the straight and narrow, being advised that such inquiries are not good career builders—this was certainly my experience as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, when I wandered into the silence surrounding anthropologists’ contributions to the Second World War, and was dissuaded from undertaking such work, because four decades after the war, disciplinary discomfort remained too great.

To be sure, we have colleagues calling attention to disciplinary silences. Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar’s work disrupts silences about the institutionalized political hurdles facing anthropologists writing about the Middle East (Deeb & Winegar 2015). New voices are focusing critical attention on sexual harassment within the discipline (Gibbons & Culotta 2016), and Nader’s examples of contemporary academic noise makers are good company to keep—David Graeber, Max Forte, Brian McKenna.  Their work and career paths exemplify what it means to use academic freedom, and (mostly) using tenure as a path of freedom for inquiry unhooked from fundamental concerns about funding sources of publishing outlets (1).

In discussing the consequences of being an oddball breaking silences, Nader wonders “what happens if you don’t have company?”—and she then makes historical nods toward contrarians from three centuries, in which Mooney, Leach, and Graeber broke silences protecting established relations of inequality. I suppose one of the consolations of history is that we learn we are not alone, that others before us broke silences, sometimes doing things that might now seem fundamentally unradical, because the silences they broke never returned.

 On Not Knowing What We’re Not Hearing

Laura Nader’s point that Professor Graeber’s working class roots helped shape his critique is an important observation—one that has largely unexplored importance for our understanding disciplinary silences. Michael Shott once observed that archaeologists’ professional societies track things like gender inequality, but fail to map something as profound as class bias; and that “archaeology as a course of study appeals much more to students from the upper class than it does to those from the working class, resulting in domination of the profession by the upper class” (Shott 2006:24).

Nader’s description of Yale’s treatment of Graeber exemplifies the sort of harmony policing universities routinely undertake. Such policing functionally broadcasts warnings throughout the discipline and academy, marking boundaries; showing others the narrowness of the corridors of acceptable behavior for professors.  While there were sustained efforts to protest Graeber’s firing, and some attention in the mainstream media, there were enforced silences about these events were discussed in public venues.

Nader pointedly asks about Graeber’s treatment, “what unwritten rules did he violate, if any? Was it about decorum? Intolerance of political outspokenness? Contentiousness? The power elite?” I assume it was each of these, but the most significant factor was that he did not stop with a theoretical analysis of the world (something university administrators have learned to tolerate), but that he moved from critique to action. The main lesson I learned researching McCarthyism’s impact on American anthropology, was that the FBI and governmental committees driving McCarthyism cared less about academics’ ideas than they did about the behaviors of activism (Price 2004).

But one of the products of silences is that we often don’t know what we’re not hearing—and I think this point complicates Nader’s important observation about anthropologists’ disengagement with the media. I want to raise one example from The Parable of The Graeber illustrating how media frames limit what can be said about these silences in very particular ways, and that shows there are limits to what impacts anthropologists can have on these set narratives in the media.

Back in 2005, after a significant online protest campaign grew supporting David Graeber, even the New York Times could no longer ignore the story. Times reporter Karen Arenson contacted me in December 2005 for comments on the story, in my response I tried to push beyond the narrative of a brilliant professor failing to gain tenure, towards a narrative of the structural confines of knowledge and action.  In reply to Arenson’s queries I wrote that,

David Graeber’s work is exceptional. He is a rare scholar who is able to grapple with complex social theory in a very straightforward way, but it seems that it was his decision to not let theory simply be theory that lead to his leaving Yale. I am sure that had Professor Graeber been satisfied with only writing books and articles for other academics on the problems of pay inequities and globalization he could today be sipping a dry martini within the secure confines of the Yale Faculty Club. But moving beyond theory to action is seldom welcomed on university campuses when one is studying inequality.

I think that self-proclaimed anarchists can fit into an establishment university, so long as their anarchism is limited to the written and spoken word–universities can and do welcome people espousing all sorts of beliefs; it is just when professors and students behaviorally challenge power structures either off or on campus that trouble begins. It would seem that Professor Graeber’s activism both on and off campus is what put the kybosh on his tenure application.  Another way of looking at this is to say that activism matters–matters so much in fact that those who engage in it must be marginalized.

…You ask if this incident is related to McCarthyism. Yes and no. No, there were no loyalty hearings, blacklists or public degradation ceremonies. Professor Graeber’s treatment was “procedurally clean”—sort of a bureaucratic equivalent of beating someone with a rubber hose so that no marks are left behind. But, yes: just as in the McCarthy period, the treatment of Professor Graeber sends clear messages advertising non-activism to other professors who are watching from the sidelines. (DP to Karen Arenson 12/12/05)

I received an enthusiastic reply from Arenson, liking the rubber hose image; and then the story was published without any of this analysis, instead following the narrative of Graeber as marginalized radical. I realize that journalism’s word limits always necessitate cuts, but it is also true that when consulted views fall outside of the larger narrative frame they are the easiest to trim in the interests of keeping the storyline coherent. I don’t care that I wasn’t quoted by the Times (in fact, I’m always happy to not be quoted by the Times), my point is only that even when our media reports on such silencings, the media’s frame requires particular silences. It isn’t hard to give news outlets like the Times the sound bite they want and get it in the story, but such quotes map of the edges of the silences described by Nader.  I don’t disagree with Nader or McKenna that anthropologists need to work with journalists, and as journalists, but we need to go into this understanding that the silences we find in journalistic narratives have boarders as strong as any found in academia, and these silences exist for reasons.

There are many other dynamics that contribute to our disciplinary silences. Among these are anthropologists’ increasing reluctance to explore, much less even provisionally state, relationships of cause and effect in the social phenomena we study. Some of these silences are natural outgrowths of postmodernism, while others grow from the cautions of career care (Healy 2017). As a graduate student I once heard a bright positivist professor say in a lecture that it was worse to make a type one error, than to make a type two error (2).  Believing that I did not adequately understand what type one and two errors were, I press him further on this, arguing that both type one and two errors were equally errors and each of no greater value than the other. He conceded that I was essentially correct, but what had ignored that the career consequences for type two errors were much less significant than making a type one error; in fact, he estimated that something like a third of the research articles in a given anthropology journal were making type two errors, and that these were far easier to get into print than those making type one errors.

I suppose this is another form of silencing: an implicit bias erring towards reporting nothing is going on or seeking the safety of critique that complicates nuanced analysis beyond hope of correlations. Such silences of causation have dire impacts in a world ruled by plutocrats and where openly fascist views enter mainstream discourse. There are consequences for all when, as Professor Nader points out, the “indirect controls are most powerful because they are normalized,” and when our colleagues know when to keep their mouths shut.

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Having Company: An Antidote to the “Politics of Silencing”, Susan Wright

Laura Nader’s paper exposes some of the ways boundaries have been maintained around an “acceptable anthropology” during her intellectual lifetime and the techniques and politics of silencing “irreverent researchers”. In the process, she also weaves in an account of the development of her own research and how she has struggled to avoid its silencing. She defines the basic purpose of our discipline as “to challenge assumptions, in the face of evidence, and in the process enlighten the public about the controlling processes in our lives”.  She describes how isolated she felt in pursuing this aim, until a number of “contrarian” anthropologists came together in Del Hymes’ Reinventing Anthropology (1972).  As she says, “silencing was not part of the project” and, with the publication of that book, “we were not odd-balls, single irreverent researchers – we had company”.

1972 was the year when I started my anthropological training and Laura Nader, and especially her article in that book, “Up the anthropologist – Perspectives gained from studying up” has been my company throughout my academic career. Thank you Laura (if I may). I’d like to highlight some of the themes in her “politics of silencing” paper that have been especially formative not just for me, but for the discipline over 45 years.

Laura Nader makes the point that “There is no such thing as being apolitical”. In 1972, this seemed to me to be an obvious implication of the basic approach to anthropology I was taught at that time: if every activity has a political (and also an economic, kinship, social and cosmological) dimension, then no action could be apolitical. But the impression I gained when I attended the ASA’s 1973 decennial conference at Oxford was of a discipline spiralling into more and more esoteric language focused on ever more minute niceties of symbolic analysis, with scant regard to political meanings in the society studied or for the contribution anthropology could make to understanding how the world worked. It seemed equally obvious when I was doing doctoral fieldwork in pre-revolutionary Iran, that if anthropologists are participants as well as observers whilst doing fieldwork, then they are part of the action, so everything they do in the field also has a political dimension. On my return from fieldwork, by the mid-1970s, feminism gave me a term for this: one is always a positioned actor.

How was a British anthropologist to position herself, and how did the discipline position itself, in the post-colonial period of the 1970s? British anthropology seemed to have hunkered down, still focused on artificially closed and isolated “peoples”, despite the Crisis of Community Studies (Bell and Newby 1978). Talal Asad’s (1973) introduction to Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter gave a (mildly) critical insight into anthropology’s positioning in a system of government and power. That reflexive critique was countered by the LSE’s publication, claiming anthropologists were well-intentioned, and labelling Asad as “acrimonious” (i.e. committing the sin of rocking the boat). That approach avoided what, for me, studying how tribally organised people in Iran were organising themselves in relation to a modernising state, were the crucial questions: how were people trying to understand and position themselves in a changing world? And how could anthropology study ethnographically how people, in their everyday lives, acted within worlds as big as nation states and international oil economies?

Two articles from the U.S. widened the field of anthropology from just studying a “people” to the economic, social and political “systems” in which they are located. At the height of the Vietnam war, Kathleen Gough’s (1968) “Anthropology and Imperialism” argued that when western anthropologists researched communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America it was important to find ways to study the local within international systems of imperial domination. Laura Nader argued that we should not just “study down” to those who are weaker and marginalised, but “study up” – the industries, regulators, legislators and professional bodies. Motivated by indignation over, for example, children being seriously burned because their night clothes were not fire-proof, she started with the people affected and traced upwards through layers of bureaucracy and corporations to find out the reasons for the problem (Nader 1980). She studied how people’s lives in the USA were shaped by “hidden hierarchies” of industrial and state power and aimed to enable citizens to make such systems more democratic. Her article gained even more relevance when I turned my attention to studying the transformations of British society under Thatcherism. Whereas Nader studied up, my study went up and down. It was located in three sites: central government and how the figure of the “enterprising individual” emerged in legislation and became key to  the Thatcherite reshaping of Britain; a local government that attempted to resist the roll back of the state and competitive individualism by reviving notions of “the public” and “community action”; and people in a village whose heavy industry had closed down  – what happened when their conceptions of “individual” and “community” encountered the local authority’s ideas of community action and the central government’s reforms for self-management of social housing and public schools? In trying to fathom the fast-moving transformation of British society, I focused on “policy” as not only the instrument that central and local government were using to try and make changes, but also methodologically as a way to trace how events in the three sites were partially connected and how people contested their meanings. Theoretically, I conceptualised policy as a space of contestation where differently positioned people across these sites, albeit with different access to resources and forms of power, were all active participants in reshaping British society.

Besides Nader’s writings, I had three kinds of “company” in trying to uncover the workings of Thatcherism. First, Cris Shore and I brought together our different ethnographies to develop the anthropology of policy as a new field of political anthropology (Shore and Wright 1997, 2011), which was the inspiration for the AAA’s Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP). Second, students on my 3rd year BA course, “Policy and Power” kept me company by doing excellent investigations into how a range of government policies tried to re-envisage and shape people as enterprising individuals and competing citizen-consumers. In particular, a PhD student, Susan Reinhold (1994), developed Nader’s ideas into an approach called “studying through” – tracing across sites and through time how a policy emerges, is contested, becomes authoritative and maybe hegemonic, and in the process how key organising concepts of citizen, family, nation become transformed (Wright and Reinhold 2011). Third, from 1987-91 I also chaired a voluntary organisation, Group for Anthropology in Policy and Practice (GAPP), later renamed Anthropology in Action (AinA). This was a network of about 300 British anthropologists who were employed in, or researching, different parts of the public sector. We were intent on using anthropology to understand and work out how to act on changes to the welfare state and international development (Wright 2005).

This kind of public anthropology was silenced in a way not discussed by Nader. AinA depended on a few tenured academics using some of their research time, or at least their Sundays, to keep the organisation and network going. But from 1986, British universities were audited through a “Research Assessment Exercise”. The publications of academics in each discipline were assessed and the departments ranked, and by 2000, it was clear that government would fund universities differentially according to their departmental rankings. Academics became bad citizens if they did not put all their time and energy into academic publishing (with only a small reserve for teaching), and in some departments academics were explicitly instructed to drop all “outside” activities. Under this pressure, AinA was dissolved.  The silencing of public engagement through such coercive audit, which measures and rewards specified performance and outputs and does not “count” others, is prevalent in the UK and widespread in Europe (Shore and Wright 2015, Wright 2014).

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Applying Anthropology: Glimpses from Bergen. Past and Current Relevance

An experience involving Fredrik Barth (who established the anthropology department at the University of Bergen in 1963) was for several years seen as indicative of the official attitude to anthropology in Norway, according to Signe Howell (2010). When the Norwegian government embarked on their first aid project in 1952 through a fisheries project in Kerala, Barth, who was 25 at the time, offered his services, along with Professor Guttorm Gjessing at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Oslo. They were both turned down, but Barth was offered a clerical position where he could “collect anthropological material in the evenings and week-ends” (Kjerland 1999: 322). He declined.

This event has been part of a narrative about the relationship between anthropology and Norwegian aid, more prevalent, I believe, in Oslo than in Bergen. It deals with our struggle to be heard and used; about the uneasy relationship between aid and anthropology, in many ways about our marginality.

According to Howell, anthropologists came to be “among the most critical of Norwegian development policy and the implementation of projects” (Howell 2010: 270). In Oslo, Arne Martin Klausen wrote his PhD thesis on the Kerala project and remained, as the senior professor in the department, a critic of Norwegian aid. The gist of his criticism (and that of several colleagues) was that proper account was not taken of local and social institutions and cultural values.

In Bergen, Fredrik Barth also wrote and spoke about how societies must be understood on their own terms (Barth 1968, 1972). Then, in the early 1970s, he convinced Norad (the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) to employ Georg Henriksen, later to become a professor in the department, to do research among the Turkana pastoralists in Kenya who were subject to massive Norwegian aid efforts including attempts to make them into fishermen. They did not like what he wrote (Henriksen 1974), about the failure to build development efforts on the human resources of this large region characterized by pastoralism.

However, from about the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, there was a new emphasis on popular participation and empowerment, integrated rural development programs and the idea that “small is beautiful”. It provided a window of opportunity for anthropologists (as well as NGOs). Several Bergen anthropologists received modest funds from Norad’s research office (including students and researchers going to Turkana and southern Sudan) or were hired as consultants in different countries both for baseline studies and monitoring of projects. I myself got a telefax message from Norad when I was teaching at the University of Khartoum, asking me to join a Norad delegation on Lake Nasser in Egypt. This was in early 1977 and Knut Frydenlund who was our Foreign Minister at the time, wanted to provide aid to the Egyptians as a gratitude for signing the Camp David Agreement with Israel; and what was more natural for Norwegians to do than fisheries assistance behind the Aswan Dam?

Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), which had established a development research program in 1965, based on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and with close ties to Harvard University, hired its first anthropologist in 1974 (Gunnar Haaland). For several years, starting in 1976, Haaland was also Senior Social Scientist at the International Livestock Center in Africa (Addis Ababa), joined by Johan Helland of the CMI, and later on the board of that center, Fredrik Barth and then myself.

The University of Bergen established a Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in 1986, (when the Brundtland Commission was about to complete its report on environment and development), based upon a memo from the department, and most of its research staff were anthropologists including myself as director. CDS carried out a number of assignments funded by Norad or the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including evaluations of Norwegian aid to Tanzania and Sri Lanka and a review of how the socio-cultural dimension was taken account of in development projects.

Several Norwegian anthropologists (Melhuus, Stølen, Bleie, Ask) were also in the forefront when it came to promoting the role of women in development. It resulted in Norad drafting an Action Plan and funding a special research program on “women and development”.

These types of engagement formed the basis for a second narrative about aid and academia, less concerned with our struggle to be heard and used, but more about the methodological and other challenges involved in applying anthropology to practical problems.

I was reminded about this a few months ago when I attended the birthday party of Norad’s former Director of Communications, Halle Jørn Hansen. He turned 80 and introduced all his guests around the table. When he came to me, he said he first met me when I gave a talk in Oslo on “generative planning”. He was so impressed by this that he tried for several years to push the idea in Norad – without much success, I believe.

This second narrative does not assume a priori that the world would have been a better place if we were listened to. Rather, as Barth wrote in 1981, applying anthropology to social affairs is challenging and may often reveal that our scholarship is “incomplete and unworkable” (Barth 1981).

It was Ottar Brox who first wrote a paper on generative planning in Norwegian, in 1971. This was the age of “stensiler”, papers that had been handwritten, given to a secretary to type, presented at conferences or seminars, then not published further but circulated by individuals, each getting a hard copy from friends and colleagues. In Oslo, there was a well-known “stensil” by Jorunn Solheim that was critical of Barth’s writings (about Barth standing on the shoulders of Radcliffe-Brown and Firth). In Bergen, there was the paper by Brox and then an influential paper by Barth with a rather boring title: “Sociological aspects of integrated surveys for river basin development’ (a lecture given at a UNESCO seminar in 1970). Some of us still have now yellowish copies.

Ottar Brox had his basic training in rural sociology and was a Research Fellow (stipendiat) at the Department when I joined as a student in 1968. He was almost the same age as Barth, already famous for his book on Northern Norway (1966), and later joined the new University in Tromsø in the early 1970s as Professor. For some years, he was also a member of the Norwegian Parliament, for the Socialist Left Party.

While not being an anthropologist himself, Brox has always said that his entire tool box came from anthropology as it was practiced and taught during the 1960s in Bergen. In a book he published entitled “Practical Social Science” (in Norwegian), there are seven references to Fredrik Barth’s works.

Barth never worked for Norad, but UNESCO and FAO were among his first employers, in Iran and Sudan, and he ended his career by doing consultancies for UNICEF in Bhutan and the World Bank in China. In fact, his excellent monograph on the Basseri nomads in southern Iran (Barth 1961: Nomads in South Persia) and his most quoted publication (Barth 1969: Ethnic Groups and Boundaries), came out of his engagement in applied anthropology, the first directly, the latter indirectly.

In Iran, he was asked by UNESCO to give advice on how to settle nomads. He ended up writing a report advising very much against it, praising the freedom and living conditions of the Basseri, which he deemed superior to those of most settled people in the adjoining rural areas.

In 1963-64, he served as UNESCO Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. During his stay there, he was asked by FAO to make an inventory and analysis of human resources in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur as a basis for formulating a development plan. Darfur was then a rather unknown place, much later (2003/4) to come into the international spotlight because of an enormous humanitarian crisis, serious conflicts, accusations of genocide and the subsequent indictment of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir by the International Criminal Court. Out of this work, focused on livelihoods, came a report submitted to FAO, Human Resources in Darfur (Barth 1967a), and a much quoted paper, Economic Spheres in Darfur (Barth 1967b).

All anthropology students in Bergen knew about Darfur, also because of a paper by Gunnar Haaland on changing ethnic identities (he was Barth’s research assistant) which inspired Barth towards the pioneering work on Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, one of the most quoted books in the social sciences, not just in anthropology.


What was the message?

First, one message was that in order for social science to be “applicable”, not necessarily “applied” (which happened rarely), it has to be decision-oriented, not just conclusion-oriented. In the words of Brox, applicable social science must explain conditions in society with the help of categories that contain possibilities for action. If you are paid by the county of Finnmark to find out how they can be better at keeping their youth from migrating southwards, you have to search for variables that they can do something about and influence. You may of course find that there is not much you can do about it, for example that those with the best grades in school leave Finnmark, but that is an empirical question.

This means that in order to be applicable, we have to construct models where we try to trace unintended consequences of alternative interventions (which should be a main task), we have to make explicit statements on the interrelationships between (a) interventions and (b) the decisions and behavior of identified actors. This calls for conceptual models that allow for the formulation of conditional hypotheses, that is, we need models that allow us to deduce what behavioral responses are likely to follow from specific empirical conditions. As Barth wrote: the more the anthropologist’s methodology takes the form of simulation models, the more adequate will be the analysis (Barth 1970).

Barth also wrote that it is unrealistic to hope that we can build an analytic model that includes all the relevant factors and provides a firm basis for evaluation of alternative interventions: “We must be satisfied with something much more pragmatic: the accumulation of data that provide a basis for improvement and correction of policy” (Barth 1970). Or, as Gunnar Haaland wrote a few years later: Our main contribution is to limit the margin of error in project formulation, to state what we cannot or should not do (Haaland 1982). In the same vein, Brox, inspired by Karl Popper, stated that we cannot construct happiness but we can recognize and identify the opposite, that is, misery or unhappiness, or what should be avoided, eliminated or reduced (Brox 2013). Similarly, Barth wrote, how can we identify and support trends that move in the right direction and help undermine trends that move in a negative direction? (Barth 1970).


Is all this still relevant?

The first narrative will tell us that the current aid paradigm gives a very limited role for anthropologists. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, “getting politics right” and a concern with democracy, human rights and good governance gave an important role to political scientists, a position which has largely been maintained as foreign and development policies increasingly merge, seen today in the preoccupation with security, fragile states and peacebuilding. In addition, small is not so beautiful any longer.

If it was ever the case, you do not get promoted in the aid bureaucracy today because you know something about the Bemba in Zambia or the Oromo in Ethiopia.

Added to this, it might be argued (as Thomas Hylland Eriksen has said) that people nowadays (including politicians, decision makers, even aid bureaucrats) are simply less curious. For Barth, anthropology was about “watching and wondering” about things. The atmosphere these days seems less receptive to this kind of attitude.

However, the second narrative will say yes, our role has changed but applicability does not depend on being asked or paid to deliver commissioned reports or working in project contexts. If we look at today’s burning issues such as war and peace, climate and environment, or migration, there has never been more need for our knowledge and analysis than at present.

However, in order for us to be applicable, we need to further develop our models. In particular, we have to improve our ability to (a) pursue chains of causation (or ‘entanglements’) that cut across the boundaries of different disciplines, by increasing cooperation with colleagues from other disciplines and, sometimes, becoming historians or political scientists ourselves; and (b) to address issues of scale, that is, to trace trends and processes within and between regions, ecological zones and different sectors of economic and social activities.

In Bergen, we were particularly alert to the issue of scale since Barth’s paper and the book Scale and Social Organization from 1978. The point is that events and developments in places where we do our research must be understood in the context of a number of factors at different scale levels. Our challenge is to integrate different levels of analysis and one way of approaching this is to define the different (micro and macro) contexts that are relevant for understanding real life processes at local levels. This raises the issue of how we most fruitfully define and delimit social, economic and political systems in different local settings. The scale at which an analysis is pitched, will tend to affect the type of explanations given. There is clearly no “correct” scale for an investigation of say conflicts in Darfur, but there may be an appropriate one for answering different questions.

The need to construct chains of causation through what Andrew Vayda (1983) calls “progressive contextualization”, in order to make our models workable, is particularly crucial in applied research assignments. Such assignments will often require that we are able to identify where crucial decisions are made that make a difference to people’s lives. While our instinct and training as anthropologists may easily make us propose enhanced local participation and empowerment, it is often the case that key entry points for interventions that make a positive difference for the lives of local populations, will be found elsewhere, be it in a capital city or even abroad.



Barth, Fredrik (1967b), ‘Economic Spheres in Darfur’, in Raymond Firth (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology. ASA Monographs 6. London: Tavistock, pp. 149-174.

Barth, Fredrik (1968), ‘Muligheter og begrensninger i anvendelsen av sosialantropologi på utviklingsproblemene’. Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning 9(2):311–325.

Barth, Fredrik (ed.) (1969), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1970), ‘Sociological aspects of integrated surveys for river basin development’. Presentation at 4th International Seminar, ITC-UNESCO Centre for Integrated Surveys.

Barth, Fredrik (1972), ‘Et samfunn må forstås ut fra egne forutsetninger: U-landsforskning i sosialantropologisk perspektiv’. Forskningsnytt 17(4):7–11.

Barth Fredrik (ed.) (1978), Scale and Social Organization. Oslo: Norwegian University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1981), ‘Introduction’, in Fredrik Barth, Process and form in social life. Selected essays of Fredrik Barth: Volume I. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Brox, Ottar (1966), ‘Hva skjer i Nord-Norge?’. Oslo: Pax.

Brox, Ottar (1991), ‘Praktisk samfunnsvitenskap’. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Brox, Ottar (2013), ‘Fra «anvendt» til anvendelig forskning?’

Barth, Fredrik (1961), Nomads of South Persia’. Oslo University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (1967a), ‘Human Resources: Social and Cultural Features of The Jebel Marra Project Area’, Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology 1. Bergen: University of Bergen.

Haaland, Gunnar (1982), ‘Problems of Savannah Development: The Sudan Case’. Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no. 19. Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Henriksen, Georg (1974), ‘Economic Growth and Ecological Balance. Problems of development in Turkana, North-Western Kenya’. Bergen Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no.11. Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Howell, Signe (2010), ‘Norwegian Academic Anthropologists in Public Spaces’. Current Anthropology, Vol. 51, No.52, pp. S.269-S277.

Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker (1999), ‘Kampen for å bli hørt og brukt: forholdet mellom antropologene og den norske utviklingshjelpen frem til 1987’. (‘The fight to be heard and used: the relationship between the anthropologists and Norwegian aid until 1987’). Historisk Tidsskrift 3, pp. 322-346.

Vayda, Andrew (1983), ‘Progressive Contextualization: Methods for research in human ecology’. Human Ecology, Vol.11 (3), pp. 265-281.

“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. 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
  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