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About the Center for a

Public Anthropology

This website represents the public face of the Center for a Public Anthropology. The Center is a non-profit – or 501 (c)(3) in the U.S. tax code – that encourages scholars and their students to address public problems in public ways.  The Center encourages academics to move beyond the traditional “do no harm” paradigm of anthropology today to one that strives to serve the common good (as it is generally defined) and especially the communities anthropologists work with in their research.

The Center was founded by Rob Borofsky in 2001-2004. It grew out of two experiences.  The first relates to the Yanomami Project discussed under Past Projects. It involved a successful  effort to have American research institutions, especially Pennsylvania State University and the National Cancer Institute, return the Yanomami blood samples stored at their institutions to the Brazilian Yanomami. The effort made clear the importance of not only having a collaborative structure but having a structure that allowed for a campaign, such as this, to endure through time.  It could not be built simply on hope and enthusiasm.

The second relates to Borofsky’s fourth book, the edited Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History. The book sought to reframe the opposition between indigenous and Western perspectives on Pacific history. It suggested ways the two overlapped and, by taking advantage of this overlap, how the indigenous and Western historians could collectively build a more meaningful sense of history for those who write and live in the region. The book was well reviewed, had supportive praise from Natalie Zemon Davis and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and included an interview with Edward Said. But it had little impact. Pondering what would facilitate academic change, it also seemed clear that ideas per se were less powerful, less convincing, than ideas embedded in collaborative structures that pushed these ideas forward.

In a sense, the Center (and this website) might appear to involve a contradiction. It is an academically-oriented organization focused on reframing an academic discipline. How can the Center change a discipline of which it is a part? But this seeming disadvantage is actually a strength. Being part of the discipline, the Center is privy to the unspoken agendas and dynamics of anthropology. It can perceive what others, outside the field, may not: That despite the rhetoric of social engagement, most anthropologists feel comfortable with the status quo – conducting research and publishing for a small coterie of colleagues despite the fact that such research is funded by groups outside the academy and the anthropological research is dependent for on the communities they engage with during their fieldwork.

A focus on public engagement, on benefitting others, is not new to the discipline.  Since at least the founding of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 under John Wesley Powell, American anthropologists have sought to address problems faced by various groups of people. Prominent in those early years was the work of James Mooney, who described the Ghost Dance, a religion sweeping Indian tribes of the American West in 1889 and 1890 in response to American domination. He provided vivid details regarding a cavalry massacre of more than two hundred Sioux at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. The commitment to social engagement continued into the twentieth century, even as anthropology became institutionalized as an academic field within universities. As noted, Boas was very much an activist. He opposed racist theories popular in the United States and Europe during the 1930s. Anthropologists, moreover, were actively involved in the Allied war effort during World War II. Cora Du Bois served with the Office of Strategic Services. She was awarded the Army’s Exceptional Civilian Award as well as the Order of the Crown by Thailand. [1]

Margaret Mead noted that anthropologists coming out of the war years realized “their skills could be applied fruitfully to problems affecting modern societies and the deliberations of national governments and nation states.” [2] In the 1960s anthropologists such as Marvin Harris and Marshall Sahlins played prominent roles in establishing the first “teach-ins”—activist public discussions held at universities—opposing the Vietnam War. They wrote pieces in widely read publications such as The Nation and Dissent. [3]

In the late 1980s public engagement was once again popular in the discipline. In 1972, 88 percent of new PhDs were employed in academic settings, and just 12 percent were employed in nonacademic ones. But in 1988, 54 percent were employed in nonacademic settings. [4] This change in the job market both symbolized and encouraged increased engagement with those outside the discipline. In 1997, 71 percent of new PhDs were hired for academically related positions and 29 percent for nonacademic positions. [5] In 2016, roughly 80 percent held academic positions. The other 20 percent worked in nonacademic research, nonprofits, for-profits, the government, or were self-employed. [6] As we see, efforts at wider engagement often languish over time. The efforts of Boas, Harris, and Sahlins are still remembered, but only some emulate their efforts today.

In considering why a more engaged anthropology has not fully taken root in cultural anthropology, let me suggest three points. First, despite the institutionalized structures and hegemonic-like frameworks limiting public outreach (discussed in An Anthropology of Anthropology), public engagement seems to repeatedly return to excite the discipline. Why? Victor Turner’s concept of anti-structure offers an answer. Turner highlights “two alternative ‘models’ for human relations. One involves society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions.” [7] The other, termed “antistructure,” opposes society’s formal structures, emphasizing instead alternative, less conforming orientations. He writes that “there would seem to be—if one can use such a controversial term—a human ‘need’ to participate in both modalities.” [8]  Public engagement is not precisely the same as Turner’s anti-structure. Still, it emphasizes a different form of accountability from standard academic practice. It reaches out to others beyond the discipline. It supports a different style of prose. It focuses on actively addressing the world’s problems.

Since anthropologists tend to be ensconced in departmental structures, one might suspect many periodically long for greater social engagement and public recognition. They tire of the narrow, inward-looking academic structures that pervade the field. They reach out, seeking to engage the public on its own terms, not theirs. But their efforts usually do not last—they lack the structural support that would allow these efforts to be more than momentary bursts of enthusiasm against the hegemonic-like structures of the academy. In this context, anthropologists’ attempts at stronger social engagement are momentary defiances of the established academic order. With time, most anthropologists are drawn back into the professional grind centered on academic standards of accountability and pursuing their separate interests in their separate ways.

Second, applied anthropology has an ambiguous relationship with main- stream academic anthropology. On the one hand, applied anthropologists should feel proud that they have resisted the academic structures of the discipline better than any other well-established group in the discipline’s history. They have their own formal association (the Society for Applied Anthropology), annual meeting, and journal (Human Organization). Applied anthropology is often described as a major disciplinary subfield (along with cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics). On the other hand, applied anthropology has succeeded by adopting certain academic structures. Despite a determined effort to engage those outside the academy, a sizable number of applied anthropologists hold university positions. There are a few reasons for this. To become a certified applied anthropologist, one needs a graduate degree. The field can only reproduce itself if a number of applied anthropologists remain in universities to train new generations of applied anthropologists.  Also, given that applied anthropology is now very much a part of the discipline, anthropology departments are a prime source of paid positions. Many of the applied anthropologists who attend the Society’s annual meeting and publish in its journal are academics. They give the meeting and journal an academic feel while, at the same time, claiming to be distinct from mainstream anthropology.

Third, if the public anthropology paradigm is to avoid the fate of earlier efforts—that is, to not get drawn back into the university-based hegemonic-like structures it is resisting—it must reflect on how to shift the discipline’s focus. It needs to reframe the underlying hegemonic-like structures that repeatedly limit public engagement. This means rethinking what cultural anthropology does and how it does it. In An Anthropology of Anthropology, Borofsky suggest four strategies that emphasize the paradigm-shifting intent of the public anthropology paradigm.

  • Benefitting others. Moving beyond the currently espoused “do no harm” ethos to striving to benefit others, especially the broader society that supports anthropological research.
  • Fostering alternative forms of faculty accountability. Moving beyond judging faculty primarily by the number of academic publications produced to emphasizing the social impact of their work.
  • Transparency. Not only uncovering the underlying patronage systems that dominate hiring and publishing in the discipline but also allowing other researchers to investigate how a work’s conclusions were reached—thereby offering a means to assess that work’s value and validity.  Justice Louis Brandeis famously states: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” [9]
  • Collaborating with others. Moving beyond primarily working alone to working with others beyond the academy to facilitate significant change.

1. Fowler, Glenn
1991 Cora DuBois, Harvard Professor of Anthropology, Is Dead at 87 (Obituary).
New York Times, April 11. obituaries/cora-dubois-harvard-professor-of-anthropology-is-dead-at-87. html?scp=1&sq=cora+dubois&st=nyt (accessed October 5, 2017).

2. Mead, Margaret
1973 Changing Styles of Anthropological Work. In Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 2. B. J. Siegel, A. R. Beals, and S. A. Tyler, eds. Pp. 1-2. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, Inc.

3. Sahlins, Marshall
2005 Culture in Practice: Selected Essays. Pp. 229-260. Zone Books: New York.

4. Givens, David, and Timothy Jablonski
2000 American Anthropological Association Survey of Anthropology PhDs. (accessed October 5, 2017).

5. Givens, David, Patsy Evans, and Timothy Jablonski
1997 AAA Survey of Anthropology PhDs (personal copy of data provided by D.
Givens). (accessed October 18, 2000).

6. Ginsberg, Daniel
2016 Anthropologists in and out of the Academy. Anthropology News (November–

7. Turner, Victor
1969 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Pp. 96. Chicago: Aldine.

8. Turner, Victor
1969 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Pp. 203. Chicago: Aldine.

9. Brandeis, Louis
2014 Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It. Pp. 92. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.