Now That’s What I Call Public Anthropology! By Josh Connolly

In my previous blog post I examined Public Anthropology by focusing on its aims as a subfield of anthropology as well as what sets it apart from other fields. However a question remains: Why is public anthropology relevant now? Ryan Anderson touches on this issue in a post on Savage Minds:

“I don’t think we need to promote anthropology – we need to change it. Focusing graduate programs on training future academics is fine and all, but at some point we’re going to have to do something more. We’re going to have to rethink the end result a bit. We might need to diversify, and work toward really encouraging and fostering some different avenues for anthropology. I think this needs to happen in graduate school, I really do. We can’t keep pretending that teaching students how to do Powerpoints, write academic papers, and go to conferences is enough. We need to really work on writing–for a variety of audiences.  We need to dive into the possibilities of various media (video, film, online). We need to push students to get involved, to collaborate, to find ways to communicate and bring the ideas of anthropology to wider issues and conversations. That’s what we need to do.”

Anderson echoes one of the aims of Public Anthropology in that he promotes a changing of anthropology as a discipline. In this sense, what Public Anthropology can be good for is challenging anthropology and encouraging it to move in new directions. What this boils down to is a more fundamental question regarding the role of anthropology: what is it for? As anthropologists we often like to think of ourselves as, perhaps not quite saviours, but as being interested in and working for the common good. As anthropologists however, it is important to ask ourselves how we are doing this and how well we are doing this.

An everyday example of the tension that exists between academic anthropology and those that exist outside of this sphere can be experienced at some parties and almost every family occasion. Even for me, what one might generously call a ‘proto-academic’, there are times where someone will ask what I study to which I respond with “Cultural anthropology” almost inevitably there are follow-up questions. A useful response to such questions suggested by one of my lecturers is to say “I’m exactly like Indiana Jones” though I suspect this may set them up for disappointment down the line. However when they ask specifically what I’m doing at the time this can be a bit tricky, how do I explain to them Mol’s The Body Multiple? After all, I barely understand it myself.

These situations challenge us because, as Anderson observes, we simply aren’t used to having to explain ourselves to wider audiences. It’s easy to be dismissive and simply claim that this is just the way it is, after all it’s academia right? Well, as the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so”. Maximilian Forte reminds us that the insular nature of academic anthropology is very much a product of anthropology’s rapid expansion in the mid 20th century. During this time anthropology became more rigidly differentiated from other fields and thus became more insular as it was no longer required to speak outside of the discipline. This reminds us that the barriers that exist to separate anthropology from other groups such as the public are very much artificial ones that have come to be commonly accepted assumptions.

If anthropology wants to help people, the best way it can do this is by making itself more accessible to the people it aims and even claims to be of benefit to. Understandably though academics may be wary of such a route. After all wouldn’t engaging with the public require having to dumb themselves down? Again, I would say that this is not the case. Referring back to the party situation I described earlier, the issue is not that people are idiots, it’s that they’re just not as into it as I am. Explaining academia to someone outside of an academic community is a lot like trying to explain any niche interest to a person in that it requires very specific knowledge. As such, you have to explain it in a more accessible way (automotive mechanics in particular seem to be very good at this). Rachel Fleming addresses these concerns when she quotes Angelique Haugerud:

“Public anthropology is not about watering down or ‘thinning’ academic work; rather, it aims to translate complicated ideas into widely intelligible and engaging language” (Haugerud 2016: 586).

Public Anthropology proves itself to be especially useful in that it criticises the pre-existing assumptions of academic anthropology and seeks to change it as a discipline into one that is more easily accessible and therefore of more use to more people.

Haugerud, Angelique. 2016. “Public Anthropology in 2015: Charlie Hebdo, Black Lives Matter, Migrants, and More.” American Anthropologist 118(3): 585-601.