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An Anthropology for the People

Published onJun 01, 2023
An Anthropology for the People

Public anthropology is

an anthropology engaged with the public, real-life problems and issues. [It is] socially relevant, theoretically informed, and politically engaged [with set] academic standards, collaborative aspects, critical theory, problem-solving or policy prescriptions, and/or a genuine involvement and location in a public domain. [It] is thus an academic project as much as an applied one [which] works to relieve human suffering (McGranahan 2006:256).

Nevertheless, Anthropos-logos, originally meaning the study of (and not service to) humanity, has influenced the discipline’s greater orientation to academics than practice. How then can we realize — in actions, (not just words—the very real potential of anthropology to facilitate change that demonstrably improves other people’s lives in meaningful ways to them? In this paper, I delve into pedagogical issues, theoretical biases, disciplinary strengths, and other systemic and functional issues to address this question. I argue that revitalizing the discipline begins with revitalizing individuals to increase their political will (or, should I say, public will). First up, pedagogical issues.

Pedagogical Issues

Anthropology departments must move away from teaching academics to teaching change actors and torchbearers who solve global conundrums. When I did my undergraduate degree, agriculture students were proactively doing chicken and other agricultural projects. Political science students were involved in university politics and joined the youth structures of national political parties. Development studies students were registering grassroots organizations and seeking donor funding. Meanwhile, most anthropology students are either confused about their futures or their hopes lie in graduate studies, postdocs, and faculties. Anthropology is the least offered and enrolled program in developing countries because it neither promises lucrative jobs nor guarantees entrepreneurship. Yet the skills obtained from a study of anthropology (for instance, speaking, writing, relational, critical, analytical, cultural, observational, and organizational skills) are priceless assets with which anthropologists can penetrate various sectors or start global organizations. Notwithstanding the broad and lifetime-based anthropological lens of education, its curriculum must connect the discipline to actual practice for students to envision themselves as public workers.

Credit goes to initiatives such as the Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies (CADES) program run by KU Leuven’s Anthropology Department, which partners with Global South universities to train Global South students earmarked to serve in their countries of origin. The CADES curriculum puts development in conversation with anthropology toward addressing conundrums in poverty, health, conflict, gender, environment, and so on. Students have the chance to intern or conduct ethnographies in partner development organizations, making it possible to learn about the real needs of society and contribute to solving those problems. Their certificates and transcripts thoroughly explain to potential employers how graduates can be of use.

Theoretical Biases

Some theoretical doctrines and epistemological positions that promote othering and discourage public engagement need revision. I use the theory of animism as an illustration. Animism inherently seeks to “liberate objects from human ownership and control” but becomes nefarious for denying humans resource

Figure 1: KU Leuven’s diploma description.

ownership rights (Mawere and Nhemachena 2017:53). There is no way you will resolve resource-based conflicts in Africa with this doctrine or convince Robert Mugabe to distance himself from the land he got through the barrel of the gun. I concur with Franz Boas that sometimes we need to collect facts before theorizing or theorize correctly to avoid “bad theories” that limit social responsibility.

As a prototype, instead of citing grand theories or “genuflection by citation,” Carolyn Nordstrom has traced the genealogy of ideas she elaborated to her research participants in war zones (Brodkin 2011[2009]). She argued that their “theories of life are as vibrant as any scholar’s,” whose theory is sometimes “bloodless” and “missing its lifeforce” (Norstrom 2011[2009]: 35, 40). Nordstrom outlined vernacular philosophies lived and expressed by

Figure 2: AAA’s membership qualifications.

kids and other survivors on the frontlines of war. She argued that upon simplifying abstract theoretical concepts to them, they “talked back” to scholars such as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben on themes such as power, bare life, and sovereignty. They even echoed what “western epistemologies lack[ed]” (Nordstrom 2011[2009]40-1).

Some scholars dismiss Nordstrom’s theory as “unreal,” maybe according to Western standards of prestige and intelligibility, but it potently emerges from co-participation and collaboration with the public. The point here is that lived and practical experiences of our study communities must inform our theories in an inductive manner rather than us theorizing and forcing our ideas to their situations, thus predisposing the discipline to public rejection.

Infiltrating Workspaces outside Academia

Some anthropology graduates employed in “nonanthropological sectors” are peripheralized. For instance, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) considers them “associates” with fewer privileges compared to members (AAA 2015). Yet we need to recognize/celebrate graduates who diffuse anthropological influence into public spheres. Our workshops and seminars must not only dwell on grand theories and anthropological ancestors but unpack anthropological careers, recruitment, and development strategies. Departments must link up with different stakeholders and have their students intern or even get early career vacancies. Not just museums but government departments, NGOs, and the private sector. The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Anthropology invites students into job talks where candidates present on certain topics, and interact with the students, and these students are requested to send through their feedback and thoughts on all potential candidates. This allows students to have a grasp of the recruitment processes in the department and familiarize themselves with what an anthropological academic vacancy looks like. Such efforts must be extended to other nonacademic sectors through recruitment fairs and seminars organized in collaboration with anthropology departments.

We need to provide honorary qualifications, at the graduate level or otherwise, or any other form of recognition, to our former students that are making it big in other spheres outside the discipline to claim their successes and showcase that our discipline is outreach oriented. We must invite them to our rituals, ceremonies, and activities as primary guests (not “associates”) and see them as equally important to the public responsibility of the discipline. This way, “anthropology and anthropologists [can] effectively address problems beyond the discipline—illuminating the larger social issues of our times as well as encouraging broad, public conversations about them with the explicit goal of fostering social change” (Borofsky 2000:30-33).

Utilizing the Strengths of Anthropology

Anthropology does possess strengths and opportunities. I will discuss a few. As relational experts, anthropologists are equipped with the ability to implore locals’ absorption of exogenous knowledge. For instance, at a time when COVID-19 ravages the world, anthropologists are needed to conscientize the world about the disease and the vaccines amid perpetuated falsehoods and misinformation slowing down the progress of eradicating the pandemic. Of course, this needs to happen within a participatory framework of co-collaboration and not ethnocentrism (see next paragraph). Anthropologists should also contribute to cross-cultural transmission due to their cultural intelligence (Sillitoe 2007:158). They must be interpreters and explainers of exogenous cultures to local places and carriers of local cultures to outside places. Cross-cultural transmission can bridge the gap between science and society by alleviating COVID-19 conspiracies and mistrust in society and the frustrations of the medical fraternity on the low uptake of scientific approaches and initiatives.

Anthropologists’ intelligence in Indigenous knowledge/systems (IKS) must be used to deal with global challenges (Sillitoe 2007:157). Here, anthropologists must be facilitators as locals chart their paths. As researchers and development workers, anthropologists must not abuse privileged positions. Anthropologists paid the price for acting according to the parameters of colonial administrators; they became suspect colonial spies and sniffers. Anthropology must show “responsiveness [to real and not perceived local problems], critical awareness, ethical concern, human relevance, a clear connection between what is to be done and the interests of mankind” (Hymes 1974:7). The discipline can offer the best advice and advocate for local cultures against capitalistic vultures. David Mosse did this in India, becoming the central critic and researcher of the INDO-British organization he previously worked for (Mosse 2005).

There is a public engagement opportunity in “native or indigenous anthropology” and “doing anthropology at home.” These, to a degree, aid a better understanding of and trust from the locals and must be harnessed and advocated (Fahim 1982, see also Jackson 1987). They somewhat stand a far greater chance of utilizing IKS for the lasting solution of local problems. This also speaks to the devolution of centers of knowledge and practice (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012). Anthropology must support alternative discourses—for example, by deconstructing and criticizing straightjacket scholarship and initiatives or projects that exploit recipients (Cornwall and Eade 2010). The discipline must support bottom-up initiatives and knowledge by studying from the bottom up and from within. Robert Chambers says we must aim for the difficult—“putting the first last” instead of “putting the last first.” Here, “those who are powerful have to step down, sit, listen and learn from and empower those who are weak and last” to avoid “errors, omissions, delusions and dominance” (Chambers 1997:2).

Anthropology’s methods and approaches can be used to the public’s benefit. As an “all-inclusive human science,” using qualitative and quantitative methods, being attentive to all detail, and thickly describing situations can valorize governments and private entities (Ember et al. 1990:3; Geertz 1973). Our methodologies mean we can produce the best detectives solving serious crimes, the best marketers and advertisers selling products, the best NGO/government specialists doing research and providing solutions for different public issues, and yes, the best academics and so forth. Our methods and approaches must not be sold only to graduate students and other academics within the locus of the discipline but extended to these other disciplines and practices to contribute to the production of best policies, initiatives, and projects for the betterment of humanity.

According to Boas, “anthropology illuminates the social processes of our time and may show us, if we are ready to listen to its teachings, what to do and what to avoid” (Boas 1928[1911]:11). It can interpret world problems by telling us “how we got where we are and suggest how we might get out” (Bodley 2001:11). With project cycle management used as a vital tool for public action, it is only natural to see how anthropologists can make the best project formulators, implementers, monitors, and evaluators. We gain this strength from our theoretical rigor, ethnography, and location or positionality close to and among the marginalized. Therefore, Sondra Hausner says that “ethnography can tell programmers stories they did not know existed [and] demonstrate links and connections that no questionnaire could have dreamed up” (Hausner 2006:318-342).

Anthropological theories, when theorized right, carry so much potential to address public issues. Clark Wissler’s theory of diffusion explaining social change in North America became one of the most respected earlier theories (Wissler 1923). The importance of theory has continued through various theoretical turns to the present. As Gunnar Myrdal wrote: “Facts come to mean something only  as ascertained and organized in the frame of a theory. Indeed, facts have no existence as part of scientific knowledge outside such a frame” (Myrdal 1957:164). So, when the world is bedeviled with questions on happenings and existentialism, anthropology, with its available theories and theory-building abilities, must jump at the opportunity to supply answers.

Disciplinary/Research Communication

According to Francis Nyamnjoh: “Anthropology and its methods have certainly served to foster imperialist appropriation of Africa, but as a discipline, it has undergone critical self-appraisal and re-orientation that should be instructive for communication research, other disciplines, and fields of study . . . , especially in the age of flexibilities and contestations of essentialisms” (Nyamnjoh 2006:12). Why, then, does it seem like we are lagging? There is a need for better communication of our research and our discipline to the world.

Recently, the discipline has emphasized a culture of more elaborate, interesting, and simple writing styles that are easily accessible to laypersons (Brodkin 2011[2009]). The discipline must lure the public away from reading the New York Times on topics it has better acumen to communicate. At least there is an (in)disciplinary evolution toward a reduction of in-text citations and more emphasis on the presentation of fieldwork findings or stories rather than shrouding our writings with grand theories and difficult-to-read language and text. There is a need for the discipline to promote, for instance, vernacular ethnographies written in local languages—the Chinese are doing well to translate their works.

We need more of these to bring our work down to the grassroots level. Real-time blogging or podcasting of fieldwork results has helped in the provision of immediate communication of issues as they happen in their contexts. Equally impressive is the increasing uptake in visual and sensory approaches that incorporate innovative methods, not just writing, listening, and observing, but the use of (a) multiple (and social) media; (b) art and painting, documentary films, and photography; and (c) including those things people won’t say or anthropologists won't see (Pink 2015). With so many breathtaking stories we find in our fieldwork, we must be the frontline writers and producers of best-selling dramas and movies on Netflix and in Hollywood. Anthropology needs to shake off its reputation of somewhat “boring and actionless” documentaries stored away in museums and showcased to a handful of sympathetic spectators. We need to think bigger. We need to think entrepreneurially.

The tendency to belittle certain academic journals over others must end within the discipline. We have moved “from publish or perish” to “publish and perish” as so much anthropological knowledge gathers dust on shelves with or without attempts to publish due to demotivating stringent measures (Nyamnjoh 2004). On the contrary, it’s extremely exciting to watch how scientific disciplines have publicized their COVID-19 studies before peer review or official journal publication. No wonder vaccine production and rollout were swift, yet anthropology is still debating how to contribute to COVID-19 obliteration.

Similarly, the academic culture in 2022 must not favor tenure, professorship, and professional headway based solely on publication and teaching records, and allegiance to funders, deans, chairs, supervisors, and the academic community (cf. Borofsky 2019). As N. S. Jansen Van Rensburg declared, “anthropologists will not be allowed the luxury of evading their social responsibility [as they reinvent the discipline] as a humane science [and reiterate their] commitment to accountability and relevance” (Van Rensburg 1994:3).

Indeed, intelligible publications are produced on public issues, but the summit of success should be turning these into social projects through the communication of results with relevant stakeholders (including study communities), especially using these findings and recommendations for policymaking and public action. Some anthropologists, like the late David Graeber, whose activism led to the Occupy Movement, are involved in public issues, but their actions are either isolated or marginalized in barometers of anthropological success. I don’t see how anthropologists can fail to participate as organizers or attendees in certain world programs like World Climate Day, Women’s Rights Day, Global Peace Day, and so forth, just to magnify our discipline and show that we are relevant to such issues. Credit goes to the subdiscipline of feminism, which fundamentally weaves academic scholarship into political activism, promoting a natural progression from theory to practice. We also need anthropologists in the public to join departments as professors to bring their wealth of public experience and links into academia.

Demystifying Myths about Anthropology

To say we are not doing anything as a discipline is a misrepresentation of a historical fact. The likes of Franz Boas (race) and Margaret Mead (socioeducational policy), among others, were already involved with public anthropology. Even our infamous involvement as researchers and informants for colonial governments was public. We are already contributing—just not well understood. We need to demystify the myths about anthropology so that our practice and ideas are more welcomed. It’s not just an academic discipline but a practical one, not just about ancient societies but modern, future, and nonhuman ones, not just about ethnography but other methodologies, not antiscience but a good collaborator of the natural sciences. As Carole McGranahan has summarized:

Romantic views of anthropologists as studying “lost” civilizations, esoteric rituals, and tribal peoples inadequately describe the discipline and what it has to offer. Contemporary anthropology is about the whole of human life, society, and culture—about stories and communities, problems and practices, the cultural logics and state structures that frame people’s everyday lives, and the myriad and cultural means by which people make their way in the world. It is as much conducted in urban locales as in rural ones, as familiar with analyzing advertising agencies as village communities, and insistent on analyzing the esoteric alongside the everyday. Anthropology explains culture, meaning, and practice in the past and the present, including a reckoning with the discipline’s own history (McGranahan 2006:255).

It’s just unfortunate that such information as this is only accessible by academics already in the discipline and not the general public out there. Perhaps there is a need for concerted efforts to campaign for the discipline and for more public and cross-disciplinary academic discussions to explain ourselves to the world. Perhaps someone may ask if we really need to do this, but we do because that’s the only way we can consciously create opportunities for contributing to public change. If politicians go out of their way to get the attention of the public, we certainly can do the same and more. Otherwise, we will remain closed in our bubble and externally misunderstood.

Conclusion: Revitalized Individuals Revitalize the Discipline

Finally, one can discuss pedagogy, theory, disciplinary strengths, communication, myths, and so on, but revitalizing the discipline begins with revitalizing individuals. Do anthropologists feel the urge to make a public difference? Anthropologists need to ask themselves uncomfortable moral questions about their practice. Will my research contribute to the betterment of society? In what ways? How can I make it more public? There is a need to fuel conviction among anthropologists so that these moral questions, together with pressing public issues, inform their research topics, field sites, and public programs as the discipline moves “beyond evangelizing public anthropology” toward “commitment” (Nyamnjoh 2015).

The question that remains is how, given the hegemonic-like structures that normally superimpose anthropologists’ functioning. I must say that recognizing anthropological works that contribute to the public is one way of motivating practitioners in the discipline. Recognition may or may not involve material benefits, but anthropologists need to be given a reason to focus on public issues. Seminars, conferences, campaigns, academic publication forums, and student competitions with themes related to public anthropology can also be good initiatives to sensitize anthropologists.

Nevertheless, over and above, an anthropologist must not need a “big push” or incentive to feel obliged to serve the public, nor should they hide behind the systemic complexities of the discipline. It must be a personal and inherent moral persuasion to help, as Borofsky decisively states that we always have “a choice regarding how tightly [we] embrace the current hegemonic-like system. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition. While adhering to it, you can also subvert it . . .

Individual anthropologists can embrace the public anthropology paradigm on a personal and departmental level—hoping that when they look back in later life, they can take pride in the choice made” (Borofsky 2019:230).


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Author Biography

Phillip Thebe is a PhD student in anthropology from Zimbabwe at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and is researching the transnational aspirations of Zimbabweans and other Africans in Hong Kong and Mainland China. He has published articles in respectable academic journals, presented at conferences, and holds both the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme and the Ernst Mach Grant. He is currently a visiting PhD fellow at the University for Continuing Education, Krems, in the Department for Globalization and Migration.

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