4: Is a Public Anthropology Possible?

Is cultural anthropology up to the challenge of addressing major social problems? One the one hand, we saw in Chapter 2 that cultural anthropology certainly could address critical social concerns. On the other, as noted in Chapter 3, the field to date has generally preferred not to. It has leaned instead toward defining accountability in academic terms in which individuals and institutions compete for status through publishing prowess. This chapter considers whether cultural anthropology could move from defining accountability in academic terms to defining it in terms that serve the common good.

It might appear obvious that cultural anthropology should serve the broader society that financially and politically supports its research. But given the field’s lack of transparency, the larger society frequently does not grasp the academic agendas at work. It is not able to see behind the smoke and mirrors. The key question is: What will it take to remove the obscuring veils that prevent the larger society from understanding the dynamics involved and reframing accountability standards so they work for those beyond the academy as well as those within it?

This chapter begins with a discussion of public anthropology—the trend that hopefully will spearhead the change for a more socially oriented cultural anthropology. I emphasize two senses of the term. The first fits with common disciplinary usage: Public anthropology addresses public problems. The second emphasizes increased transparency—making more public the dynamics that draw the field away from effectively addressing important social concerns.

The chapter highlights three goals a public anthropology strives for. (1) It fosters accountability standards in which anthropologists are evaluated less by the number of publications produced and more by the degree to which their publications address social problems. (2) It embraces transparency—allowing the larger society to understand why to date the field has not lived up to its potential for serving the common good. And in line with the discussion in Chapter 1, (3) it calls for the revision of anthropology’s ethical code. Instead of focusing on “do no harm,” anthropologists need to embrace a standard of doing demonstrable good.

The chapter notes that there have been repeated calls for a more publicly engaged anthropology. But these efforts never appear able to transform the field. The current system, whatever its problems, seems comfortable enough for most anthropologists. The chapter asks: What will it take then to effectively challenge the structures subverting public engagement? The chapter concludes with three strategies for drawing cultural anthropology toward helping others beyond the discipline address important social concerns.