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 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 has written to Brazilian anthropologists asking if they would pressure the Human Rights section to respond.  But up until now, the  Human Rights section has not. How to proceed forward, given the current resistance, remains unclear.  The Center is open to suggestions.

The Center has had more success with the National Science Foundation (NSF). For many years, applicants requesting NSF funding have had to specify, in their research proposals, the likely impact and/or benefit of their research for others. They did not, however, have to provide follow-up statements after their research regarding the degree to which their research did indeed have the intended impact and/or benefit.  In January 2010, NSF instituted a new regulation that required those receiving research funding to complete a Project Outcomes Report.  The Report constituted “a brief summary, prepared specifically for the public, of the nature and outcomes of the project.”  In late 2010,  unaware of this new regulation, students from the Community Action Project forwarded to members of the U.S. Congress as well as the NSF Director over 15,000 faxes that paralleled the intent of the regulation.  The students requested follow-up outcome reports; the new regulation required one. Students asked that reports be publicly available. The NSF regulation specified that Project Outcomes Reports “will be posted on the NSF website.” The student’s faxes clearly attracted congressional attention. The topic of research benefits was discussed during NSF’s budget hearings.  Even though NSF was a step ahead of the students — in instituting the regulation students were requesting — the students faxes did have a positive impact. The faxes fostered a greater compliance with the regulation, well above the existing norm at the time. The current NSF Outcomes Report Project takes up where this earlier effort left off.

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.

From fall 2011 on the Community Action Project will turn to focusing 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

The California Series in Public Anthropology encourages scholars in a range of disciplines to discuss major public issues in ways that help the broader public understand and address them. Two presidents (Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton) as well as three Nobel Laureates (Amartya Sen, Jody Williams, and Mikhail Gorbachev) have contributed to the Series either through books or forwards. Its list includes such prominent authors as Paul Farmer co-founder of Partners in Health, Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard and United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti. To date, the California Series in Public Anthropology has enjoyed significant success. It has garnered much prestige within anthropology and its list includes among existing and forthcoming books, Margaret Lock, and Aiwa Ong to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Philippe Bourgois, and Carolyn Nordstrom. 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, and 282 in 2011. (Because the 2010 deadline was moved from October 1 to March 1, 2011 there was no competition in 2010.) The 2014 competition, while generating fewer submissions because of its narrower focus — INEQUALITY IN AMERICA — included a large number excellent submissions. There were four winners, the highest in the history of the competition.

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.

Building on this earlier effort, the Center brought online a new set of rankings based on faculty citations in the public media (in contrast to the standard focus on citations in academic publications)on October 8, 2013. The Project was based on over 50,000 search queries that involved more than 6,000 news sources relating to 12,777 professors at 94 universities in the social sciences (anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology). It examined the degree to which these faculty members are cited in the Google News Archive over a six year period (2006-2011). An article appeared on the Project in the Chronicle of Higher Education “The New Rankings Frontier: Media Mentions” (10/08/13). The Huntington Post published a blog statement “Making it Win-Win” (10/28/13). The Center hoped to build up a cumulative record overtime of department and school rankings overtime.

However, on Dec. 16, 2013, the Google News Archive — which constituted the data source for the rankings — was shut down. Despite repeated affirmations that it was to re-open (see it has not been to date. Since the shutting down of the Google News Archive meant that needed revisions, corrections, and updates to the Faculty Media Impact Project could not be made and given academic sensitivities to rankings, the Project has been shut down. The Project has been replaced by the NSF Research Benefits Projects (under the auspices of the Community Action Project) which also encourages faculty to share their research with the broader public.

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 revised 2011 website has been thoroughly redesigned and updated. Nicole Hayward did the major work of redesigning the website using a WordPress theme. 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.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new website is its ability to sell ebooks.