1: Cultural Anthropology’s Challenge

Cultural anthropology has the potential to change the world. It can bring institutional accountability, facilitating transparency in political and social matters. It encourages “big picture” understandings that allow us to appreciate important problems in deeper and broader ways than we might otherwise. It possesses tools that anyone, anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike, can use to bring social transformation.

The problem is that today cultural anthropology operates within certain contexts that limit this potential. The field’s potential still remains to be realized.

The challenge facing cultural anthropology is whether it can rise above these contexts to realize its potential as a field. Why a Public Anthropology? deals with the tension between what is and what could be within cultural anthropology. It argues that the field’s present dynamics work for some—anthropologists involved in the pursuit of academic status—but not for the larger society that makes anthropology possible. As you will see, cultural anthropology could potentially be of enormous benefit to the larger society. It could not only enrich our collective understandings of people around the globe but also transform the quality of many people’s lives. The book asks: Is cultural anthropology up for the challenge? Can the field rise above its present limitations to serve the common good?

Chapter 1 sets the stage for exploring these questions. It starts in Section 1.1 by describing cultural anthropology’s primary tools for collecting and analyzing data—the tools anyone can use to bring change. Section 1.2 then highlights how certain anthropologists have used these tools to facilitate social change. The message is that if these individuals can bring social transformation, so can others. Chapter 2 will lay out in specific detail how, using these tools, we can address such problems as Third World development, international conflicts, and the cost of higher education.

This chapter next turns to the social structures limiting the discipline’s potential. It considers in Section 1.3 the academic politics that discourage anthropologists from challenging the status quo. And it examines in Sections 1.4 and 1.5 the departmental structures that draw anthropologists to define their discipline in particular ways. This discussion lays the foundation for Chapter 3, which discusses at length what cultural anthropology—embedded in the academic/ departmental structures discussed in Sections 1.4 and 1.5—has accomplished. Clearly it has produced thousands of publications. But has it done something more, something for those in the wider world beyond the academic/university environment?

Chapter 1 concludes with a case study in Sections 1.6, 1.7, and 1.8 relating to how the tension between cultural anthropology’s current practices—focused on serving the needs of anthropologists—and its hopes—of helping others—plays out in the discipline’s code of ethics. We are led to ask: Is “doing no harm” enough when others spend time and money helping to facilitate anthropological research? Should anthropologists be focused on career advancement or should they be striving to do something that makes a difference in the lives of others?