Project Updates

Keeps readers informed as to how the Center’s four projects are progressing.

Encouraging Student Activism

Each semester the Project involves thousands of students from a range of schools across North America. Beyond doubt, it has offered a valuable educational experience for students. Participating in the Community Action Project helps them improve both their critical thinking and writing skills. By actively addressing important ethical concerns, it provides students with a sense of engagement involving the broader world. It also offers practice in active citizenship. The Project encourages interested students to send their views to elected officials and members of the media.

The Project’s efforts at facilitating social change have proved mixed. The effort of encouraging American researchers to return the Yanomami blood samples stored in their laboratories has been partially successful. Both Penn State and the National Cancer Institute are now willing to return their samples. This commitment, at least in part, I believe stems from students sending their views on the topic to the media and elected officials, especially in Pennsylvania. The delay in returning samples now centers on gaining the consent of Sr. Carlos Eduardo da Cunha Oliveira in the Human Rights section of the Brazilian Foreign Office in Brasilia. Repeated efforts – especially by the Brazilian Embassy in Washington D.C. – to gain this consent (or even a response) have failed. The Center for a Public Anthropology will be contacting members of the Federal Senate of Brazil in the hope of pressuring Mr. Oliveira. Exactly how this will be done remains to be decided.

The Center has had more success with the National Science Foundation. Before November 2010, applicants for NSF funding had to specify the likely impact and/or benefit of their proposed research. But they did not have to provide a follow-up statement, after their research, as to the degree to which their research seemed to have a broader impact. Grantees were only required to submit project reports that provided “NSF program officers . . . with information on the progress of supported projects and the way these funds are used.”

In fall 2010, students in the Community Action Project considered this issue. Interested students forwarded their views to the members of the U.S. Congress controlling the NSF’s budget. Over 15,000 faxes were sent. Copies of the students’ faxes were also forwarded to the Director of the National Science Foundation. The students varied opinions collectively highlighted the issue while offering alternatives for addressing it. Shortly after the November 2, 2010 elections and prior to NSF’s budget coming up for approval in the 2010 “lame duck” session of Congress, NSF changed its policy. Many students had requested a follow-up outcomes report. According to the NSF website, grantees now have to complete a Project Outcomes Report which includes “outcomes or findings that address the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the work as defined in the NSF merit review criteria.” Students had asked that the report be publicly available. The NSF website notes: “This report serves as a brief summary, prepared specifically for the public, of the nature and outcomes of the project. This report will be posted on the NSF website.” The student’s faxes clearly attracted congressional attention. The NSF reported that the topic of benefits was discussed during its budget hearings. (To see the revised regulations, click here.)

The Community Action Project has proved reasonably successful in highlighting the Project’s value to participating schools. In a recent semester, for example, over half the teachers involved in the Project had a story about them in their local newspapers and/or a congratulatory note from a senior administrator. Two teachers were invited to meals with their university presidents as a result of the Project.

In fall 2011, the Community Action Project will focus on Institutional Review Boards at the national level. The hope is to encourage the national organization to move from a bureaucratic focus on rules toward a more contextual understanding of ethnographic and collaborative research. Rather than having the IRB review be a burdensome, bureaucratic process on the “front end” – of what is required, submitted and promised before research ever starts – the goal might be to document at the completion of research the degree to which a project proved beneficial to a research community as well as others.

Offering A Positive Model For Change

To date, the California Series in Public Anthropology has enjoyed significant success. It has garnered much prestige within anthropology. Many prominent scholars—from Paul Farmer, Margaret Lock, and Aiwa Ong to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Philippe Bourgois, and Carolyn Nordstrom have or, will soon, be publishing in the Series. And some of the authors, such as Paul Farmer, have not only sold well beyond the academy but their writings have helped re-shape how particular public problems are addressed.

Still, the Series remains a work in progress. Books in the Series tend to sell better than the standard 1,000–3,000 norm of most university presses. But many have not escaped the gravitational pull of the academy. The Series is still struggling to move beyond traditional academic audiences and styles.

To strengthen this effort, the Center for a Public Anthropology in association with the University of California Press now sponsors an annual international competition that awards a publishing contract for the best book proposal (or proposals) submitted—independent of whether the author has completed (or even started) the proposed manuscript. The hope is to encourage more authors to move beyond narrow niche studies of limited social significance and write broadly comprehensible analyses on important social problems. Overall, the response to the competition has been positive. There were 189 submissions in 2008, 88 in 2009 one, and 282 in 2011. (Because the 2010 deadline was moved from October 1 to March 1, 2011 there was no competition in 2010.) The Center and Press expect to continue these competitions for the foreseeable future.

It remains uncertain, however, whether this strategy of modeling positive examples will work. Given the size of the email blasts announcing each competition, it is clear only a minority of academics – roughly 10% – seem interested in the competition. The hope is that books produced through the Series will offer new models for anthropological writing and analysis. But given the discipline’s present comfort with narrow niche publications of limited public interest, it remains uncertain whether such models will motivate significant change.

Drawing On Political Forces Beyond The Discipline To Foster Change Within It

In the spring of 2006, the Center for a Public Anthropology conducted an assessment of public engagement among doctoral granting anthropology departments. Using the National Research Council’s 1993/95 report as a model, it assessed each department’s outreach programs as well as the outreach activities of its full-time faculty. The rankings were done by full-time faculty in the discipline. Public outreach was defined in the Public Anthropology Assessment as addressing social concerns in the broader world beyond the university. Assessors were provided with three categories of information: (1) the number of programs associated with a department that focused on public issues; (2) the number and types of public outreach activities that individual faculty members within a department chose to describe; and (3) the degree to which individual faculty members within a department were cited in prominent printed media.

On the positive side, the assessment provided a rough idea of which departments did and did not emphasize public outreach. I would note of the 3,551 anthropologists asked to participate in the assessment, 1,428 (or slightly more than 40%) did. This is a significantly higher participation than in the American Anthropological Association’s surveys (which usually involve, at best, 25% participation). Certain departments which did well in the rankings put their ranking on their websites. One department, according to its chair, gained a new faculty position as a result of its ranking.

But the assessment was far from perfect. It involved an enormous amount of labor to set up and conduct. Also in retrospect, the criteria for assessing public outreach appeared less than perfect. They were too diffuse. A number of senior administrators took notice of the survey (most notably Derek Bok, then acting president of Harvard University, and Robert Dynes, then president of the University of California system). But I suspect many administrators simply stored the ranking away in some filing cabinet.

In 2011-12, the Center is conducting a new assessment of doctoral departments drawing on lessons learned from the 2006 assessment as well as the 2010 National Research Council’s (NRC’s) rankings. Following the 2010 NRC’s example, it will focus on a data-based assessment of public engagement. The 2011-12 assessment will be sent to state and federal legislators as well as members of the media and senior administrators at each university. The primary criterion for ranking departments—the degree to which faculty are cited in the media—intentionally parallels a concern at most universities for public recognition. Senior administrators and public relations departments often publicize their faculty’s achievements.

Publicizing the Possibilities

The Center’s initial website was created in 2000-2004. The website was regularly updated through 2006 but not significantly after that (as the Center’s focus shifted to

As will be clear to those who visited the earlier website, the current 2011 website has been thoroughly redesigned and updated. Nicole Hayward did the major work of redesigning the website using a WordPress theme. (Nicole also did the design/layout for Why a Public Anthropology?). The new website provides a clearer sense of the Center’s projects. It now includes, for example, a Project Updates section – this section here – to assist those who wish to know how one project or another is progressing. The Blog section includes commentaries from the previous website. It is hoped in the future to use the blog section as an platform for the public circulation of thought pieces. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new website is its ability to sell ebooks.