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. As website’s logo affirms, the Center fosters accountability or more precisely social accountability in higher education. Phrased another way, the Center seeks to encourage academics to move beyond the traditional “do no harm” ethos of funded research to one that strives to do good, to one that focuses on helping others.

It is one thing to talk about social accountability; it is quite another to practice it. Because people tend toward more ethical actions in public than private, fostering accountability often means fostering transparency. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” for addressing social problems. That is why the Center is called “for a Public Anthropology” rather than “for Public Anthropology.” It emphasizes making the discipline’s dynamics more public. Quoting from the book that provides the intellectual framework for the Center – Why a Public Anthropology?:

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? . . .

[Why a Public Anthropology? emphasizes two senses of public anthropology.] 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 book] 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 . . . (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. . . .

[Why a Public Anthropology?] 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 [book] asks: What will it take then to effectively challenge the structures subverting public engagement?


In a sense, the Center (and this website) might appear to be based on a contradiction. It is an academically-oriented organization focused on reforming 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 made possible by groups outside the academy. This fact is frequently side-stepped or ignored within the discipline not out of malice but out of preference. It allows for the personal pursuit of status and affluence.

How does the Center “effectively challenge the structures subverting public engagement?” The Center currently supports four projects:

1. Encouraging Student Activism: Using the internet to draw thousands of students at more than sixty universities together into an intellectual community, the Community Action Project encourages students to consider ethical issues that lie at the interface of anthropology and the contemporary world. It also encourages them to voice their views, on these issues, to elected officials and members of the media. It has proved moderately successful at facilitating change.

2. Offering a Positive Model for Change: The California Series in Public Anthropology is published by University of California Press. It draws professional scholars from a range of disciplines to address major public issues in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them. Many scholars write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

3. Drawing on Political Forces Beyond the Discipline to Foster Change Within It: The Public Outreach Project ranks the public outreach of doctoral anthropology departments in the United States. It offers an alternative ranking to traditional academic ones that focus on publications, status, and funds obtained. It asks to what degree faculty in these departments – with their publications, status, and funding – actually help others beyond the discipline. Its rankings are widely circulated – to the media, state legislators, members of U.S. Congress and university administrators – in the hope that by making public which departments do (and do not) emphasize public engagement, other departments can be encouraged to move in that direction.

4. This website: The website highlights the Center’s goals and activities. Readers are encouraged to peruse it to gain a sense of what the Center seeks to achieve as well as to what degree it has been successful. The website publicizes the Center’s ideas and publications.

The Center was founded by Rob Borofsky in 2001-2004. It grew out of an experience with his 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 they overlapped and, by taking advantage of this overlap, how to build a more meaningful sense of history for those who write and live it 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 seemed clear that ideas per se were less powerful, less convincing, than ideas embedded in social organizations that pushed these ideas forward.