Public Anthropology

What is Public Anthropology :

Public Anthropology has gained prominence in anthropology journals and departments in the last ten years. However, it seems elusive as different people define it in very different ways. According to Robert Borofsky, “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.” (see the public anthropology website for full article).

In my opinion, the pressing need for a Public Anthropology is obvious when one considers the relative unimportance of Anthropology for everyone except anthropologists. Anthropology as a discipline has offered fascinating insight like studying the urban underground drug economy, daily violence in viking society or amazonian aborigines medicinal plant knowledge. There are few facets of the human condition that cannot be investigated with an anthropological lens. However, the lack of presence of anthropologists in the public sphere when it comes to addressing past, present and future problems is quite startling. Why are so few public experts and policy advisers anthropologists?

The answer is that our questions are usually too narrow to be relevant and to abstruse to be understood. In my own research, I try my best to avoid jargon and complex sentence structure. Yet, I admit writing precisely about complex ideas while remaining clear and interesting is a skill I still have not mastered. The point is that anthropologists are not trained to become good writers but rather develop their writing styles by emulating eminent scholars in the discipline. Furthermore, the pressure to specialize in order to avoid overstepping the increasingly narrower boundaries of one’s expertise produces research on topics that can say very little about larger problems.

Using Public Anthropology as a template, I propose to rethink the role of anthropology in today’s world. Here are five suggestions that in my view could help the discipline of Anthropology:

  1. Explore broader topics of research that go beyond the scope of a narrowly defined problem.
  2. Communicate in a clear, accessible and entertaining way to people in and outside the discipline.
  3. Taking an active role in helping the communities and the people we study.
  4. Welcome the contribution of people outside our discipline and outside academia.
  5. Play a large role outside academic circles and with the public at large.

This blog was in part created to respond to these concerns. Weekly postings to Chanko will be dedicated to this endeavour.

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