Public Anthropology as a term and concept originated in the 90s as the title of a new book series developed by Borofsky and Schneider for the University of California Press who define it as having a focus “on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns.” Its theoretical concerns however can be traced back further into the depths of the 80s and to what is described as anthropology’s ‘crisis of representation’. Essentially this was a period of time where a bunch of anthropologists got together, as anthropologists tend to do, and decided that everything they knew was a lie (well, kind of). It marked a period where anthropology became more self-critical, questioning previously held assumptions ultimately becoming more reflexive and focused on interpretive theories rather than grounded theories. In this way anthropology shifted towards post-structuralism. It is then not so surprising that within this context and the questioning of pre-existing models that criticism of the ‘ivory tower’ of academia resulted in a desire for, and emergence of, a more accessible anthropology.
Public Anthropology is often criticized on a number of grounds however it seems that these criticisms often come from a place of misunderstanding. As a subfield I like to think of Public Anthropology as the Miley Cyrus of the anthropological world. To explore and explain this criticism I offer an analogy:
Imagine you’re on a road trip, maybe you’re with a family member, or maybe you’re with a friend. It isn’t particularly important whom you’re with, what is important is the fact it’s not your vehicle and therefore, in accordance with what some may refer to as ‘human decency’, the music that is playing through the car’s stereo is not yours. Now, you love this relative or friend, you really do, however when it comes to music the two of you have what could diplomatically be referred to as ‘a difference of opinion’. This in itself is not especially a cause for alarm, this sort of thing happens, it’s just music, the company is worth it. However, something that does strike you as particularly odd is the fact that despite being only six songs through an album that is twelve songs in length you could swear the music is repeating itself. You look at the display and despite your certainty otherwise it assures you that there has been no repetition. For some people, this is Public Anthropology.
For some people Public Anthropology might as well be the ninth track on Miley Cyrus’ commercially successful 2013 album Bangerz in that to them it may be indistinguishable from other forms of anthropology that came before it. Other forms of anthropology that Public Anthropology is often conflated with or criticized as being identical to are Applied Anthropology, Engaged Anthropology, and Open Anthropology. Certainly these different anthropologies are related but I would argue that to suggest they are the same is reductive.
While the minutiae might be a bit dry Public Anthropology can be set apart from these other subfields as it is less prescriptive than Applied and Engaged Anthropologies. It also addresses a broader audience than Open Anthropology which is concerned with online communication with the public regarding the creation of anthropological knowledge. Public Anthropology as it exists is not so much a list of things to do as it is a set of ideas, frameworks, and strategies that are meant to guide the research process.
Essentially, if I had to choose a scene from the 2004 movie Mean Girls to describe Public Anthropology (and let’s face it, I do) it would be this one:
Public Anthropology aims to engage issues of broad public concern in ways that are accessible and useful to those outside of the discipline and in doing so it seeks to challenge the ‘ivory tower’ and transform anthropology.