Saturday, October 1, 2011

Who is anthropology for?

I wish to start this short article with the assertion that the notion that anthropology should engage with wider audiences is uncontroversial. The case is made, not least by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2006), and practiced all over the world by many people with education in Anthropology. My question, instead, is which audiences anthropology should be engaging with. A short typology of audiences for anthropology helps to shed some light on the idea that anthropology and its audiences are a movable feast. One can quite quickly come up with a short list of possible audiences, for example:
  1. research participants directly engaged in a specific research project or programme;
  2. a ‘general public’ exposed to media of different types (newsmedia, magazines, TV, film, radio, digital networks, etc.);
  3. policy actors (in a wide range of fields from welfare to medicine to migration);
  4. legal contexts (such as those requiring ‘expert’ testimony or evidence);
  5. medical contexts, from pharmaceutical research companies to field paramedics;
  6. commercial actors;
  7. Specific ethnic, national, geographical or political groups;
  8. NGOs and other 3rd sector organisations, community groups, etc.;
  9. Different anthropological milieu – including associations, students, readers of academic journals;
  10. Broader academic or intellectual forums - our colleagues and peers across the Academy;
Each of these categories describes a field where anthropologists have been and continue to be engaged (see Pink 2006 for examples). The list could go on, and become increasingly specialised, but one needs only to go through each one and ask what kind of anthropology would be attractive or appropriate for each category of audience, to see that the answer in each case might be different. I should not expect to rehearse the finer details of detailed anthropological theoretical debates with readers of popular magazines, yet I might well wish to discuss kinship patterns with lawyers working on property inheritance (and hope to do so in the near future).

If anthropologists are already at work in a diverse array of settings, we can be content that anthropology has many and varied audiences. Anthropology is itself an interdisciplinary field, and its adherents hold widely varying viewpoints and areas of special knowledge. If this is the case, then perhaps the question that bothers those who wish to see a higher profile for the discipline is whether we need or desire a coherent presence across all these diverse fields. That is, is there a legitimate reason to sustain a single persona, ‘The Anthropologist’ and what might such a persona consist of? This is a question that I feel lies behind frequent complaints about the low media and policy profile of anthropology in some countries, yet the ‘public intellectual’ is only one vehicle to bring anthropology to wider audiences.

Over more than a century, anthropology has gone in and out of popular fashion in different forms and in different places at different times, but only during the establishment of university disciplinary departments did the idea of a profession of ‘anthropologist’ emerge (see Mills 2008).

It helps to be reminded of this point, because it is too easy to take for granted the link between a body of knowledge and practices we know as Anthropology and a cohort of ‘practitioners’ we call Anthropologists. The very question ‘who is Anthropology for’ goes to the heart of this relationship, by suggesting that Anthropologists do not, and should not have a monopoly of anthropological knowledge. Unlike medics who sign up to the Hippocratic Oath, we do not sign up to any political or moral position on completing a degree in anthropology, even if we mainly agree to share an ethical code of practice. Nor do we enter an exclusive rights-giving institution of Anthropology with permits us to legally practice the discipline (unlike Engineers or Lawyers) from which we can be ‘struck off’ for malpractice. Critical histories of anthropology, and more recent exposés about the activities of people with anthropological credentials gives the lie to myths of good-doing ethical actors. We do have to admit that some anthropologists have been engaged in very dubious or downright unpleasant practices.

Both factors suggest that we might rightly question whether or not Anthropology is actually a profession. And if not, what is it and what are ‘Anthropologists’? What are the specific skills that Anthropologists might offer? I have often felt uneasy at describing myself as ‘an Anthropologist’, not because of reservations about the subject, but due to persistent questions about the identification of a body of knowledge with the individual. Am I a living representation of anthropological discipline, or a person who has shared some part of a broad body of anthropological knowledge? Defining persons as affiliates of a particular discipline lends authority and legitimacy to their position – it is part of the politics of creating space and employment within universities and other organisations. In order to maintain and institutional discipline, we require exclusivity – anthropology should be taught by qualified anthropologists in an anthropology department. So while anthropology is not a fully constituted profession, we talk about anthropologists as though it were, and this implies exclusivity.

Yet to broaden anthropological knowledge, we require inclusivity – everyone can and should understand at least some anthropology! Great steps have been made in bringing to our attention the many areas where anthropology has been taught, discussed and applied, and the many different audiences who have encountered anthropology. Our problem is in reconciling conflicting needs, for exclusivity and inclusion. We need a context for erudite and intellectual debate, and we need qualified and legitimate experts in its specialise fields to fit into the socio-political contexts of our own everyday life. But we also need accessibility, if only to recruit a new generation of people inspired by anthropological research. Popular media might be a help in this regard, but they are by no means our only tools. Authors writing for online audiences, ethnographers engaging research participants in exhibitions, in theatrical productions, and in artistic projects, consultants advising policy-makers and politicians, practitioners mediating medical interventions, teachers in schools, colleges and universities.

Anthropologists are already ‘engaged’ in other fields, almost by definition. Our debate could usefully turn to thinking about how to support people developing Anthropology in different contexts, and how to train new anthropologists to bring anthropology into other domains. How can we sharpen anthropologists’ abilities to present robust and attractive arguments outside the field? Should we train anthropologists and lawyers together – if an anthropology student can present an argument that stands up to the dissection of a lawyer, they could be confident of their ability to present coherent evidence. Should we train anthropology students in dramatic arts? Communication is a crucial skill, and one that benefits from specialised training. Or should this training be something we seek once we move into practice, whether that be as researchers, lecturers, teachers, activists, etc.? There are questions here for students and teachers alike, and a need for creativity in straightened circumstances. In my view, at least, the question is not whether anthropology can reach wide audiences, but how we can best approach those different audiences in appropriate ways.

Simone Abram
Editor, ASAonline
Culture and Planning


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2006. Engaging Anthropology: The case for a public presence. Oxford: Berg.

Mills, David. 2008. Difficult Folk: A political history of Social Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn.

Pink, Sarah (Ed.) 2006. Applications of Anthropology: Professional Anthropology in the twenty-first century. Oxford: Berghahn.


Michael E. Smith said...

Nice post. Something you don't mention, however, is that in any given fieldwork setting, there are far more than ten relevant audiences or public. Many of our actions toward one or more of these publics will be perceived by members of others as contrary to their interests. I discuss one example in:

Smith ME. 1997 Working Together: Archaeology in the Middle of Political Conflict in Yautepec, Mexico. SAA Bulletin 15(4), September 1997, pp. 12-14 (Society for American Archaeology).

Simone said...

Well, yes, of course, this list was merely a 'starter for ten'. It was meant to open a debate (rather than offer a final comment) on different forms of engagement, and broaden the range of activities included.
I would also be interested to hear examples of different kinds of training offered to anthropologists at all levels, or cases of institutional support for forms of engagement.
We have some great examples of moves towards open discussion, such as the Open Anthropology Cooperative, Anthropology Today's Ning site, both of which aim to open up our audiences. And we have consultancy groups that have worked incredibly imaginatively to make anthropological methods and findings relevant to commercial and policy actors. What kinds of institutional or intellectual support do they still need? How far is this a debate about anthropology or one about academia? And if one needs the other, how do we open that relationship up to be flexible and accessible by and to different audiences?