Defining Public Anthropology

A Personal Perspective (2007)

Rob Borofsky

In the late 1990’s, when searching for a name for the new book series Naomi Schneider and I were developing at the University of California Press, we considered various possibilities. We chose Public Anthropology because it seemed to best represent a key goal of the series: addressing important social concerns in an engaging, non-academic manner. Public, in this sense, contrasted with traditional academic styles of presentation and definition of problems.

To provide a context and direction for our use of the term, I wrote an article in the May 2000 Anthropology News entitled “Public Anthropology: Where To? What Next?” It gives a sense of what, at that point in time, I perceived the term I coined meant. It offers a baseline for reflecting on the degree, to which, Public Anthropology—as a vision and field—has changed.


Public anthropology is fast becoming one of Groucho’s magic words. Readers of an earlier era may recall Groucho Marx’s famous quiz program, “You Bet Your Life.” Whenever contestants used a special magic word, a duck dropped from above with money for the contestants. Public anthropology is not one of today’s expensive magic words such as “Foucault” or “globalization.” Still, it is gaining a certain cache.


Public Anthropology Defined

Which leads to a question: What does it mean? (In Groucho’s program you never had to define the word, only use it to get the money.) Having coined the term . . . and being co-editor for a series entitled “Public Anthropology”, it seems reasonable I might have some suggestions. Still, readers should realize the phrase is taking on a life of its own.


Public anthropology engages issues and audiences beyond today’s self-imposed disciplinary boundaries. The focus is on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns. Although some anthropologists already engage today’s big questions regarding rights, health, violence, governance and justice, many refine narrow (and narrower) problems that concern few (and fewer) people outside the discipline. Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing—if not necessarily always resolving—of present-day dilemmas. The hope is that by invigorating public conversations with anthropological insights, public anthropology can re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline.


Our Insular History

One critical issue public anthropology explores is the dynamics of our present predicament. Our general intellectual isolation and insulation from the world’s problems did not happen with a wave of a wand. And they will not go away if we all wish really hard in a Peter Pan sort of way. We need to grasp the hegemonic frames which box us in. Very little is said about demographics when anthropology’s insular nature is discussed. But the rapid expansion of the discipline in the 1960s meant that anthropologists were no longer forced to speak to those beyond the disciplinary pale. In writing We the Tikopia during the 1930s, Raymond Firth observes he envisaged an audience of which only a fraction consisted of professional colleagues. With the 1960’s demographic expansion, it became financially possible for presses to publish books aimed exclusively at anthropologists. By the 1990s, it had become the accepted pattern. The discipline Clyde Kluckhohn claimed had a poaching license to intellectually explore where and how it wanted, became more enclosed. Anthropologists no longer studied psychology, they studied psychological anthropology; no longer political economy but political anthropology and economic anthropology. Differentiating the discipline from others became the order of the day. And with that came pollution beliefs—regarding what anthropologists did and did not do, how they should or should not write—that separated us from others. It is not hard to do an anthropological analysis of the discipline’s present dynamics. (Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger would be essential reading.) The question is how—using an anthropological analysis of anthropology—to collectively dig ourselves out of our present predicament.


Facile Farces

Building on the theme of reframing imprisoning hegemonies, public anthropology dances an ambiguous minuet with applied anthropology. Reading the Society for Applied Anthropology’s mission statement, one is hard pressed to differentiate the two. Theory and application merge in both. But applied anthropology today tends to be depicted—often unfairly—as focusing primarily on concrete, practical problems that others have conceptually defined for them. A public anthropology resists the separation of theory from application. As Sherry Ortner made clear 16 years ago, practice and theory are entwined. Remember two of the headings in her famous article: “How does the system shape practice?” and “How does practice shape the system?” Public anthropology is theoretically-oriented in its sensitivity to hegemonies; practically-oriented in addressing real social problems. Rather than being drawn into other people’s framings, public anthropology challenges the framings that support particular definitions of a problem. A public anthropology thus questions applied anthropology’s low status within the discipline. It analyses the broader contexts involved—the intellectual frame of reference that give status to grand theory within the academy but, in the process, disempowers the academy in many public settings.


A public anthropology, in other words, resists the facile farces that draw anthropologists into emphasizing theory in one context and practice in another. It asks: Why can’t anthropologists be followers of Gramsci as well as Malinowski, Foucault as well as Boas, by generating not only field data but analyses of the framings that frame their collection?


Devil in the Details

A public anthropology also reminds us of the discipline’s vaunted holism and asks: If not now, when? If not us, who? Specialization remains the order of the day. It conveys scientific authority. One need only explore the American Anthropologist from 1888 to the present to see how specialization has dominated the discipline through time. Few articles deal with the discipline as a whole; fewer still provide synthesizes of broad, public issues. If the devil dwells in the details, anthropology possesses a hell all its own—as details are piled upon details without clarifying how they fit together. A public anthropology considers the limits of specialization in making sense of the whole. It not only preaches holism but explores how we can move anthropology toward more holistic analyses—changing the narrow (and narrowing) ways we speak across our specializations, bringing back comparison, and addressing general questions in ways that foster broad conversations.


Challenges and Counter-Challenges

For public anthropology objectivity lies less in the pronouncements of authorities than in conversations among concerned parties. “Truth” does not reside in the exhortations of experts nor in the palaces of power. It develops gradually in the arguments and counter-arguments of people. One pronouncement by one expert does not suffice. What is required are challenges and counter-challenges. The broader and more comprehensive the challenges, the broader and more comprehensive the authority of the claims. This holds true for humanists as well as scientists, for interpretivists as well as positivists. Although many of us would be hard pressed to believe the deep economic disparities of capitalism or the intense ethnic violence of nationalism will soon disappear, we can still collectively converse about these problems in ways that help democratic electorates better understand them. And these conversations can lead, and have in times past led, to significant changes. Relying solely on experts may make the experts feel good, but it does not necessarily empower those involved nor does it necessarily solve problems as Scott has pointed out in Seeing Like a State. Sometimes—perhaps many times—the process of coming to terms with a problem is part of the solution.


A commentary like this cannot help but be vague around the edges. My goal is not to provide the definitive definition of public anthropology, but rather to foster further conversation about it. We need to address the problems that keep anthropologists from engaging broader audiences about broad issues. And we need to operate at both conceptual and practical levels at the same time to address the serious problems that collectively face people around the world regarding human rights, health, violence, governance and justice.


Public anthropology’s history, following Marx, still remains to be made. It seems appropriate to conclude, then, as Carl Sandburg did in The People, Yes: “Where to? What next?”

That was then—May 2000. How would I define public anthropology today, some 7.5 years later? In answering that question, let me address three issues that have gained particular salience in recent years: the field’s popularity, the tension with applied anthropology, and the fostering of disciplinary change.

The Current Wide-Spread Use of the Term

Beyond doubt, the term has caught on within and beyond anthropology. Here are a few statistics. Doing a standard Google search for “public anthropology” (the quotes mean the exact phrase is only searched for), brings up over 68,000 links. There are references to publications, departmental programs, websites, Wikipedia, and a recently held conference. A search using the Google Scholar (that searches scholarly/academic databases) lists 475 links. A Google Blog Search—it searches various blogs—lists 54 links. (One of them refers to “The Fourth Annual Public Anthropology Day.”) And the Google News Archive (which, by examining various public newspaper archives, provides a sense of public anthropology’s recognition beyond the academia ) lists 35 links. There are, to my knowledge, currently six formal programs in public anthropology: at the University of Oregon, American University, Duke University, Tufts University, the University of Pennsylvania (phrased as Public Interest Anthropology), and the University of Guelph/Waterloo (phrased as Public Issues Anthropology).

All in all, not bad for a term that only came into anthropological parlance 7-8 years ago. But why the popularity? Let me suggest two reasons and, in reflecting on public anthropology’s popularity, explore whether it represents a case, to use that famous French expression, of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same).

Certainly, one reason for the term’s popularity appears to be its vagueness. Public anthropology sounds engaging and dynamic without specifying important details as to who, what, how, or why. There is no canon of readings for public anthropology, no formally agreed upon definition, no single authority associated with it. There is, in other words, plenty of space for anthropologists with a range of agenda to make of the term what they will.

Take the six formal public anthropology programs. While they share certain interests, each department has its own, special sense of what public anthropology entails. Public anthropology at the University of Oregon is defined as: bringing “the issues, concerns, and insights of anthropology as broadly understood to both an academic and non-academic audience, striving to produce materials . . . that speak to a wide range of social sectors. Public Anthropology involves taking the theoretical, descriptive, and practical insights of anthropology and making them available in forms that are of interest to and accessible to a broad public. In part, this also implies a re-examination of what the priorities of anthropological investigations are, how projects are formulated, and most importantly how information about research results is disseminated.”

At American University the “MA Program in Public Anthropology prepares students in archaeology and cultural/social anthropology for careers in public service, community organizing and social advocacy. Through coursework, research projects and internship experiences, students explore the workings of culture, power and history in everyday life and acquire skills in critical inquiry, problem solving and public communication.”

A Tufts University web page states “In public anthropology, we take anthropology out of the academy and into the community. Public anthropology includes both civic engagement and public scholarship more broadly, in which we address audiences beyond academia. It is a publicly engaged anthropology at the intersection of theory and practice, of intellectual and ethical concerns, of the global and the local.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s website indicates Public Interest Anthropology “is a four-field program of teaching, research and action within the Department of Anthropology for those interested in bridging the divide between the academic and the public. It draws on archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and biological anthropology for the public interest, to address social issues and to promote change.” A flash video presentation affirms “the social realization of change in the interest of expanding democracy is the central focus and ultimate goal of Public Interest Anthropology.”

A web page discussing the Public Anthropology Initiative at Duke University states the Initiative “aims to expand opportunities for department faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in three areas: (1) training in public communication skills and community-based research; (2) collaborations, volunteer-work and research designs to address social problems; and (3) forums for critically reflecting upon lessons learned from public engagement for both the field of cultural anthropology and for those working for social change.”

The Public Issues Anthropology joint program at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo, “explores the interface between anthropological knowledge and issues crucial to governance, public discourse and civil society. Students in the program [are] . . . encouraged to examine and understand the deeper insights into policy issues that can readily be gained from anthropological methods.” The description continues: “The main objectives of the program are to prepare students to enter doctoral programs in anthropology and to use anthropological knowledge in a wide range of other professional and public roles.”

A second reason for public anthropology’s popularity is a sense, among many anthropologists, that the discipline has become isolated from the broader society in detrimental ways. James Frazer’s Golden Bough, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture sold thousands upon thousands of copies. These books engaged a wide range of readers beyond the academy in stimulating, important ways. But, as noted in the above May 2000 piece, the need to seek audiences beyond the discipline—once central if one was to sell even a few hundred books—changed in the late 1960s with the expansion of student enrollments. Anthropologists are now able to write for reasonably sized audiences without having to reach beyond their discipline. Today, most anthropology books sell between 2–3,000 copies. The main purchasers are students required to read them as part of their course assignments.

In a February 2000 Anthropology News piece, I commented:

I am not sure if I should laugh or cry in describing American anthropology’s present public status. On the one hand, anthropology is wildly popular with the wider public. One reads about anthropologists in novels, sees them in movies. Anthropologists appear, for example, in Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life,” Isabel Allende’s “The Infinite Plan” and Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael.” And the references are often more than casual citations: Dillard refers to Godfrey Lienhardt’s work among the Dinka; Quinn takes note of Wovoka’s Ghost Dance and the John Frumm Cargo Cult. Moreover, the public seems to have massively embraced the concept most associated with the discipline—culture.


Yet, among anthropologists, all is not well. There is the intra-disciplinary turmoil regarding anthropology’s four subfields—to what degree they are able not only to peacefully co-exist but intellectually nourish one another. Nor are the citations of anthropologists in literature and the popular press always positive. They appear, as Shore notes, to often “reinforce negative and derogatory stereotypes” (“Anthropology Today” 12(2),1996, p 4). A “New York Times” report on the 1994 AAA Annual Meeting, for example, asked: “Who else has been studying colic and spiritualism, sex and field work, and redneck angst?” (December 11,1994, p 7). Also, for many years now anthropologists have played only a minor, supporting role in the intellectual debates that swirl around the cultural concept. A commentary in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” queried: “Why Do Multiculturalists Ignore Anthropologists?” (March 4,1992, p A52). And there is Peacock’s observation that should cause us to pause – the “anthropological ideas that are currently significant . . . [among the public] remain those that were developed prior to the [second world] war” (“American Anthropologist” 1997, p 12).

What we have today, in Micaela di Leonardo’s phrasing, is “anthropology without anthropologists.” Although anthropology and anthropologists are used as anti-structural grist for a host of intellectual mills, they are not themselves active participants in these discussions. They seem to lack agency—others frame and reframe the images that swirl around them.

One sees this in respect to two recent, award winning books. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down deals with miscommunications between a Laotian refugee Hmong family and the medical staff of a Merced California hospital treating the family’s daughter. The book has received numerous honors—among them the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and A Best Book of the Year (People, Newsday, Glamour, and the Detroit Free Press). The book offers a nuanced, deeply anthropological perspective and is used in a number of anthropological courses. But the author is not an anthropologist. A reading of her website “bio” ( indicates she has had little, if any, formal anthropological training.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies uses an environmental/cultural/evolutionary perspective to explore how the West achieved the position it holds today in the world. The book won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and has remained on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for over 200 weeks—roughly four years. PBS has produced a documentary on it. Diamond may embrace evolutionary/anthropological perspectives but he, has little formal training in the field. Diamond, a Wikipedia article on him notes, is an “American evolutionary biologist, physiologist, biogeographer and nonfiction author.” ( He is a professor of geography at UCLA and, formerly, a professor of physiology there.

Public anthropology, I believe, became part of an effort to regain something many anthropologists felt they had lost—a sense of status and respect from the broader public. Public anthropology constitutes an effort to connect with those who, while embracing an anthropological perspective, feel alienated from anthropologists and their writings.

The question we might ask is: Are we succeeding in connecting with the broader public? In my opinion, that remains, at best, an open question. I perceive a pattern of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same). We dedicate ourselves to changing patterns of behavior within the discipline without changing the underlying hegemonic structures that perpetuate these behaviors. While striving to bring change, we seem to be creating a variant of the status quo. Let me explain.

No doubt many anthropologists ask interesting questions. But despite this fact, most readers turn to non-anthropological authors when they select their reading material. Our ethnographies mostly involve anthropologists speaking to anthropologists. Our ethnographies do not captivate readers beyond the academic pale. That is true even with the California Series in Public Anthropology. Only Paul Farmer and, to a lesser degree, a few other authors, have reasonable sales outside the discipline, outside of academia.

The solution to this problem involves more than writing in clear, accessible language for non-anthropologists. There is a larger context that shapes the context of anthropological writing. There are thousands upon thousands of books published each year. In 2002, the last year I have data for, the number of books published in the world came out to roughly one every 30 seconds? If we limit our sample to the United States, it was one every 4.3 minutes. Readers are overwhelmed with reading material. They cannot skim, never mind read, all the books that catch their interest.

What is needed to rise above the deluge of publications is to address the problems that most concern readers. It means moving beyond disciplinary defined problems to the problems of the world—the problems that interest others, rather than the problems that interest us as anthropologists. What would happen if anthropologists were judged not in terms of how many books they added to the academic pile, but in terms of the pragmatic effectiveness of their analyses—to what degree they influenced public debates, addressed and clarified serious social problems that interested the broader public? Evaluating anthropological works in these terms would attract readers beyond the disciplinary pale. These readers would have a reason to read anthropology just as they now have a reason to read Fadiman and Diamond.

The only way to be taken seriously by the broader public, I am suggesting, is to ask the questions readers beyond the academic pale ask, to answer the questions these readers long to know, to share experiences that add insight and meaning to these readers busy lives. This means forsaking the questions that absorb anthropologists and addressing the questions that absorb others. While many anthropologists talk about reaching out to the boarder public, it is far from clear these anthropologists, in fact, engage these readers on their own terms. For most anthropologists, dealing with the larger public’s interests in the broader public’s terms remains a bridge too far.

The Tension with Applied Anthropology

Initially, the criticisms some applied anthropologists voiced of public anthropology surprised me. They seemed to be making public anthropology into a straw man to criticize.

“Public Anthropology: Where To, What Next?” appeared in the Anthropology News in May 2000. In the September issue, Merrill Singer wrote a response entitled, “Why I am Not A Public Anthropologist.” He offered a two-fold critique of public anthropology: (1) I had ignored all the work that applied anthropologists had done to date in discussing public anthropology and (2) it could lead to a two-tier system where public anthropologists would become the higher status theoreticians and applied anthropologists would become the lower-status “grunts” who address concrete, practical problems of the world. He wrote, Public Anthropology should be included “as a subfield of applied anthropology concerned with mobilizing anthropological research, concepts, and approaches to inform public discussion of contemporary issues” (2000:6). Technically, I believe Singer was responding an earlier article I wrote in Anthropology News. But I thought it unfair not to refer to my May article—published well before his piece—when I clearly addressed the issue he was concerned with.

I came to realize there was a deeper dynamic at work. For a number of applied anthropologists, there is almost a visceral dislike of public anthropology—independent of what it means or strives to do. It grows out of a feeling that academic anthropology has shunted applied anthropology to the status margins. What irritates these applied anthropologists is that now, with the call for more public engagement, the discipline is finally recognizing applied anthropology’s importance. But just when applied anthropology should be arriving at its hard-earned place in the sun, this recognition is being assumed, within the academy, by public anthropology.

Let me make explicit what was implicit in the May 2000 article. While many might concur that applied anthropology has been shunted to the status margins, I would suggest this marginality has little to do with something intrinsic to the field itself. Applied anthropologists are caught up in a broader, epistemological framework, a framework I suspect is cross-cultural and one that is certainly pervasive in the American academy. Addressing concrete problems in concrete contexts tends to be viewed as less intellectually significant than thoughtful syntheses that draw several concrete cases together at a more abstract level. These syntheses are often perceived as embodying more competence and, hence, more status than explications of specific, detailed, cases. The problem with applied anthropology’s status, in other words, does not have to do with the field per se but with a tendency among some practitioners—though certainly not all—to focus on concrete solutions to concrete problems and leave it at that. By downplaying the interaction of broader (and, yes, abstract) hegemonic dynamics as they interact with and shape concrete problems, these practitioners get placed on the lower rungs of the status system. It is one of the epistemological rules of the American academy.

I would note public anthropology shares applied’s concern with developing solutions to concrete problems. But it does not necessarily accept the frames of reference that frame these problem. It often sees these framings as hegemonic constructions that need be analyzed and, by making them public, to subvert their power to frame particular problems—thereby opening up the possibility of alternative, more productive, framings. To quote from the May 2000 article, public anthropology “questions applied anthropology’s low status within the discipline. It analyses the broader contexts involved—the intellectual frame[s] of reference that give status to theory within the academy but, in the process, disempowers the academy in many public settings.”

From my perspective, the anthropological criticisms of applied anthropology as a handmaiden of the power structure seem a bit unfair. What such criticisms ignore and/or deny is that anthropology, as a whole, has also been the handmaiden of these same power structures. Scapegoating applied anthropology does not dissolve the broader discipline’s culpability in this matter.

Hopefully, the above discussion helps readers understand why, in selecting a name for the California Series Naomi Schneider and I were creating, we did not choose applied anthropology. It had—in my view, however unfairly—acquired negative connotations. What we were seeking was a new term that had a certain “pizzazz” that would draw anthropologists into rethinking their connections to the broader society.

Using Rylko-Bauer et al’s recent “Reclaiming Applied Anthropology: Its Past, Present, and Future” (2006) let me briefly discuss how I perceive applied anthropology intersects with public anthropology. Hopefully, this will clear the air a bit.

To begin with, public anthropology shares the Society for Applied Anthropology’s aspiration “to promote the integration of anthropological perspectives and methods in solving human problems throughout the world; to advocate for fair and just public policy based upon sound research” ( That is to say, it shares applied’s concern for addressing, concrete problems facing real people using the best knowledge at hand. When Rylko-Bauer et al write “practitioners use theoretical and conceptual frameworks from anthropology and other disciplines to shape their questions, design methodology, and link knowledge with policy, program development, or action” (2006:184), they could, in my opinion, be speaking for public anthropology as well.

Public anthropology differs from applied anthropology in two significant ways. First, public anthropology emphasizes in the strongest terms, public accountability. It seeks to expose private dynamics and claims to the cleansing antiseptic of public light in democratic societies. Making the private public allows broad democratic constituencies to better understand and, through that understanding, to more effectively address a problem. It also allows others to evaluate the degree to which those doing a particular task are (or are not) successful. Opening up projects to public view restricts the degree to which a power elite can manipulate problems and solutions to their personal advantage.

Let me offer an anthropological example. Rylko-Bauer et al observe that Sol “Tax emphasized the idea of self-determination, with the role of the action anthropologist being to assist in providing communities with ‘genuine alternatives from which the people involved can freely choose’ while avoiding ‘imposing our values’ (from Tax 1960:416)” (2006:181). Sounds good particularly if we use Tax as the judge of Tax’s own work. Foley, who has had a chance to evaluate Tax’s work independently of Tax, has a different assessment that should be taken into account as well. Foley writes: “None of the project’s cooperative economic and social programs, popular media materials, and educational programs survived their departure . . . and only the scholarship program had a lasting impact. Moreover, the action anthropologists were not as collaborative as they claimed, and their power-brokering with whites may have added to Mesquaki political dependency” (1999:171). Why such limited results? Foley notes, first, ”the project never received a systematic independent evaluation. Tax and his students defended the lack of a formal evaluation with the claim that a clinical project’s goals were too diffuse, open-ended, and developmental to capture” (1999:177). Moreover, “the Fox project was marked by less daily collaboration and shared leadership than theorized. Project anthropologists usually planned, initiated, and administered their actions projects . . . the tribe actually had little stake in most of the action projects, and therefore these projects died out” (1999:183). What allows others to understand the dynamics of the Fox project then – especially what it did (and did not) accomplish—are not Tax’s claims, but the back and forth, publicly open, publicly accountable discussions, regarding the project (such as Foley’s Current Anthropology article and the commentaries following it).

Second, public anthropology is concerned with understanding the hegemonic structures that frame and restrict solutions to problems as a way of more effectively addressing these problems. Hegemonic structures are not perceived as secondary, intellectual digressions that take one away from addressing a problem. They are seen as central to addressing it. Efforts of good will and intention often come up empty if these structures are not addressed—openly and publicly. While public anthropologists need start with the problems as people themselves define them (or as the hiring organization defines them), they should NEVER stay with those framings. As we saw, the way many public anthropologists are seeking to connect with publics beyond the discipline appears, at times, to perpetuate permutations of the status quo—hence the phrasing, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same). One needs to step outside such framings to change them.

Let me offer an example of the need to challenge the hegemonic structures that shape the contexts in which anthropologists work in. In the post-World War II period, the Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology (CIMA) represents “the largest research project in the history of American Anthropology (Kiste and Marshall 1999:dust jacket). It involved roughly 10% of the American Anthropological profession in fieldwork for the U.S. Navy who, at the time, administered Micronesia for the United States. The goal was to help decision-makers make better decisions. On the one hand, both CIMA and the Scientific Investigation of Micronesia (SIM) which followed it, had a profound impact on the anthropological profession. Marshall concluded that roughly 6% of all anthropology Ph.D.’s granted from 1948 to 1994 derive directly or indirectly from CIMA and the Scientific Investigation of Micronesia (SIM) project which followed it. On the other hand, CIMA and SIM had much less impact on Micronesia and Micronesians. Kiste observes, for example, “that anthropology had little influence on the development of health care and legal systems in the trust territory” (1999:449). This derived from a disconnect between anthropologists and administrators. The relationship between the two groups mostly revolved around each doing their own specified tasks without seriously engaging with the other’s perspectives, the other’s modus operandi. As a result, important decisions regarding Micronesia were made in Washington—in some cases, before the anthropological research occurred that was suppose to inform the decisions. While anthropologists were consulted subsequently, particularly in relation to education where funding was limited, they were significantly less involved in questions of health, medicine, or the judiciary. Citing Judge King remarks, Kiste comments, “there was never any dialogue between anthropologists and the judiciary in regard to fundamental questions about the nature and role of the courts in Micronesia” (1999:450). Caught up with their own concerns, anthropologists rarely reached beyond them to effectively question the broader contexts of the American power elite and the way it governed Micronesia.

Having discussed where public and applied anthropology seemingly converge and diverge, let me mention two areas I am uncertain about. The first involves objectivity. I would argue we cannot place our faith in a single expert—be that person an anthropologist, lay person, or lawyer. There is always a self-serving rhetoric to the presentation (as we saw with Tax). It is only by anthropologists engaging in open, public debate with others of divergent perspectives that we move toward a clearer, more objective understanding of a problem. Reading through Rylko-Bauer et al, I sense a concern as well for open, public discussion. I concur with them that one need not separate advocacy from research. But the other part of the equation—that is essential—for objective, effective solutions, is public discussions of divergent perspectives, different data, within a single forum. What I would hope to see, from applied anthropologists, is an appreciation of the post-modern concern for the constructions of knowledge and how truth is negotiated through public discussions. I may be wrong, but I have not seen applied anthropologists taking the lead in publicly addressing divergent views of a problem, seeking to publicly, effectively converse back-and-forth with others, who differ from themselves, so that democratically-organized citizens can decide for themselves what actions to take.

The second area of uncertain intersection concerns boundaries. I quoted Rylko-Bauer et al above regarding their openness to non-anthropological perspectives. But, there is a sense, if the authors are trying to affirm applied anthropology’s value vis-a-vis other areas of the discipline, that they are, indeed, to some extent concerned with boundary maintenance. I would prefer, to avoid delimiting intellectual boundaries in any precise way. Public anthropology, applied anthropology, whatever. Who out there, beyond the discipline, really cares? The important issue, whatever we call ourselves, is doing whatever it takes—short of the unethical—to solve the social problems at hand. The goal is helping those in need over the long-term, not delineating you from me or me from you. From my perspective, the distinction between public and applied is not something that should take up a lot of energy. The California Series in Public Anthropology was named as such for the reasons specified above. Might we leave it at that and move on?

The Challenge Ahead: Bringing Real Change to the Discipline

How do we transform anthropology in to a more publicly, engaged discipline in the sense discussed here—moving beyond “talking the talk” of change to making a real difference, as a discipline, in the broader world? Let me offer three points for consideration.

First, reflecting on recent efforts at significant disciplinary change—others as well as mine—it seems, despite the supportive rhetoric for change, there have been few significant structural changes. As a result, I am skeptical that the discipline itself can bring forth change. Too many anthropologists have grown too comfortable with the status quo while, at the same time, obscuring their stasis by rhetorically talking of change. Once I placed much faith in anthropologists understanding the need to change. I now lean toward change coming from outside the discipline—through the broader society’s (i.e. funders and legislators) demands for accountability within the academy.

What has kept public accountability at bay within anthropology is the mystification surrounding what anthropologists do and especially to what degree their work benefits others. The mystification of the discipline has allowed anthropologists to keep in tact their autonomy—their freedom to frequently do as they wish—while marginalizing themselves from public discourses beyond the academy. As noted, few beyond the academy seem interested in what anthropologists have to say.

Increasingly today calls for academic accountability are being emphasized within the broader society. Witness, for example, the “Spellings Report” of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The Committee called “on higher education to shed some of its mystery and fundamentally prove the value it delivers” (Basken, 2007:A20). It emphasized there should be “new ‘accountability measures’ that allow comparisons of . . . performance” (2007:A20). “We are in the infancy in American higher education,” Spellings herself observes, “of being able to describe to our publics—whether they are state legislatures, Congress, parents, philanthropists—what we’re doing, and to what effect . . . we all have a responsibility to answer that question.” (2007:A22).

The trick, for bringing public accountability to anthropology—showing how it helps others beyond the discipline—is to catch this wave of broader calls for accountability. To that end, I will be conducting in 2008 a second assessment of public outreach at the leading American anthropology graduate departments. The first assessment had solid faculty participation—1428 of 3551 (or 40.21%) full-time faculty. Because the first assessment was a preliminary one, its results were distributed solely within the academy to university presidents, graduate deans, and departmental chairs. The second, more refined assessment, will be widely distributed—to state and national legislators as well as local and national newspapers. The hope is that those, beyond the academia, will draw anthropology and anthropologists into clarifying, in specific ways, how they benefit the larger society—either through carrots (extra funding) or sticks (threats of reduced funding).

Turning to the second point, many anthropologists question whether the discipline really produces cumulative knowledge in any serious, meaningful sense of that phrase. There is Geertz’s famous statement: “Anthropology, or at least interpretative anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other” (1973:29). Or there is Wolf’s (1994:220) comment: “In anthropology we are continuously slaying paradigms, only to see them return to life, as if discovered for the first time . . . As each successive approach carries the ax to its predecessors, anthropology comes to resemble a project of intellectual deforestation.” We might quote as well Salzman (1994:34): “A well known and occasionally discussed problem is the fact that the vast multitude of anthropological conferences, congresses, articles, monographs, and collections, while adding up to mountains of paper (and subtracting whole forests), do not seem to add up to a substantial, integrated, coherent body of knowledge that could provide a base for the further advancement of the discipline. L. A. Fallers used to comment that we seem to be constantly tooling up with new ideas and new concepts and never seem to get around to applying and assessing them in a substantive and systematic fashion.”

The way to move toward a more cumulative knowledge base beyond the trends, fads, and fragmentation of recent decades, is to use a transparent, comparative standard for evaluating one set of results against another. An obvious, and certainly one of the most relevant, standards is the degree to which a set of anthropological results effectively addresses a problem in the world beyond the academy—in other words, a pragmatic theory of truth, does something work. There are certainly enough problems. You can almost take your pick—endemic poverty, violence, and disease, violations of human rights, oppressive governmental systems, mismanaged projects of aid, you name it. My point is that once anthropologists start focusing on a set of common problems—the problems of the world—there can be assessments of to what degree various research results lead to effective solutions in which contexts and, that in turn, can provide a foundation for building a more cumulative body of knowledge that also has the benefit of serving the broader good.

Finally, the Center for a Public Anthropology is currently involved with two projects—besides those noted above—that suggest directions for changing the discipline. The Center, in association with the University of California Press, is initiating two book competitions, one for graduate students and one for mid-career faculty. The California Series in Public Anthropology will offer publishing contracts to an individual in each category based solely on the researcher’s proposal. Neither the research nor the manuscript need be completed when the award is made. The competition hopes, by catching anthropologists early—before they have committed themselves to repeating the status quo in book form—to draw them to dealing with major social problems in significant ways using the lure of a book contract. (Often the manuscripts the Series receives have broad implications but are narrowly framed and appeal only to a small coterie of specialists who have the time to wade through a host of details to discover the implications.) The hope is the competition will draw many anthropologists out of the narrowly framed ways they write books to take on major issues in important ways that attract public attention.

The other project is the Center’s Community Action Website. It draws on undergraduates as a force for changing the status quo. Why undergraduates? Unlike many faculty and graduate students who, despite their rhetoric, often feel comfortable with variations on the status quo, undergraduates are frequently excited by the possibilities of change. The initial project—having Penn State, return the Yanomami blood stored in their laboratories to the Yanomami via the U.S. Brazilian Embassy—is well on its way to success. Another project—making public the benefits anthropologists provide their research communities—has made less progress to date. The Community Action Website failed to get anthropologically associated funding agencies to require their grantees to publicly specify in a few sentences the ways their research benefitted the communities they work in. As a result, the Community Action Website has turned its attention to the Federal Office of Human Research Protections (in the Department of Health and Human Services), and, through it, university Institutional Review Boards. The hope is that these groups will do more than insist that anthropologists specify how their research will benefit their research communities. The hope is that they will require anthropologists, when they return from their research—that is, when they have actual data in hand—to publicly specify how, in fact, their research has (or will) benefit the research community. Making the benefits public not only reduces the risk of negative rumors (i.e that anthropologists give little in return), but also offers others, interesting in checking the claimed benefits, the data to validate anthropologists claims. It allows—as we saw in the case of the Fox project—a way of moving to greater public accountability. Specifying benefits is already a required part of most IRB proposals. But few IRBs follow up on the hypothetical statements made in research proposals to see what, in fact, an anthropologist actually provided in terms of benefits.

In summary, I have tried to set out what I view as the central concerns of public anthropology as well as how it does (and does not) intersect with applied anthropology. But, as emphasized, public anthropology has developed a life of its own—beyond the meaning I once gave it—with different people using it in different ways for different ends. Might we judge these diverse efforts at changing the discipline by the pragmatic standard suggested here: To what degree do they make a difference in the lives of those beyond the academy?


Basken, Paul. 2007. A Year Later, Spellings Report Still Makes Ripples. The Chronicle of Higher Education September 28:A1, A20-22.

Borofsky, Robert. 2000a. To Laugh or Cry? Anthropology News 41, 2:9-10.
________. 2000b. Public Anthropology. Where To? What Next? Anthropology News 41, 5:9-10

Foley, Douglas E. 1999. The Fox Project: A Reappraisal. Current Anthropology 40,2: 171-191.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Kiste, Robert C. And Mac Marshall, ed. 1999. American Anthropology in Micronesia: An Assessment. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Rylko-Bauer, Barbara, Merrill Singer, and John Van Willigen. 2006. Reclaiming Applied Anthropology: Its, Past, Present, and Future. American Anthropologist 108, 1: 178-190.

Salzman, Philip Carl. 1994. The Lone Stranger in the Heart of Darkness. In Assessing Cultural Anthropology. Robert Borofsky, editor, Pp. 29-38. New York City: McGraw-Hill.

Singer, Merrill. 2000. Why I Am Not a Public Anthropology. Anthropology News 41, 6:6-7.

Wolf, Eric R. 1994 Facing Power: Old Insights, New Questions. In Assessing Cultural Anthropology. Robert Borofsky, editor, Pp. 218-227. New York City: McGraw-Hill.