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December 2013 vol 29 no 6

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Catherine Besteman & Angelique


Haugerud 1
The desire for relevance

at

anthropology
today

Pat Caplan 23
An anthropologist among the filmmakers - A cautionary tale: Part 1. The
politics of production

Catherine Besteman 3
Three reflections on public anthropology CONFERENCES
Angelique Haugerud 7
Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp 27
Public anthropology and the financial
The future of ethnographic museums
crisis
BOOKS
Hugh Gusterson 11
Magnus Course 28
Anthropology in the news?
Andrew Canessa. Intimate indigeneities
Thomas Hylland Eriksen 14
CALENDAR 29 NEWS 30 CLASSIFIED 31
The Anansi position
Francisco Ferrndiz 18
Rapid response ethnographies in
turbulent times: Researching mass grave
exhumations in contemporary Spain
Director of the RAI: David Shankland
Editor: Gustaaf Houtman
Special Issue Guest Editors: Catherine
Besteman & Angelique Haugerud

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The desire for relevance


Guest Editorial by Catherine Besteman &
Angelique Haugerud
Scholars in many disciplines express ambivalence about
the label public whether it is public anthropology,
public sociology, public psychology or other fields.
Disciplines also construe their publics and the label
itself in quite different ways, motivated by contrasting
concerns. For example, the clinical relevance of public
psychology means it is understood mostly as a form of
practice in public institutions and as dealing with psychology within communities, a usage that is not quite
recognizable in disciplines without clinical settings.
Political scientists, by contrast, seldom give explicit
attention to public relevance in top-tier journal articles,
and indeed they may categorize writing in that area more
as service than as scholarship.
Among the exceptions is political philosopher James
Tully, who argues that political theory is political practice, and who regards his political philosophy as a
public philosophy (Celikates 2011: 266). In sociology,
Michael Burawoys call for reciprocity and greater societal engagement during his 2004 presidential address at
the American Sociological Association has sparked some
opposition but helped gather public sociologists under
the banner of public sociology, resulting in scores of
publications, including a Handbook of public sociology
in 2009.1
***
Why has anthropology seen a revival of the label
public anthropology in recent decades? Some might
assume its resurgence springs in part from disciplinary
concerns with self-preservation in a time of funding cuts,
or from a desire to burnish anthropologys image in the
wake of controversies such as those surrounding Patrick
Tierneys Darkness in El Dorado.
But ours is not the only discipline that might want to
polish its image. Economics, for example, was bruised by
the 2008 financial meltdown. Charles Fergusons critical
documentary about the financial crisis, Inside job, criticized academic economists who did not disclose financial conflicts of interest when writing about economic
policy, and who saw a crisis coming but continued to
serve as consultants or board members of large financial
corporations, often without disclosing such affiliations
on their CVs or in their publications. Fergusons film and
other fallout from the economic crisis led the American
Economics Association to develop conflict-of-interest
rules for the academic journals it sponsors, though many
members believe the field needs more explicit and wideranging ethical guidelines.
While the American Economics Associations consideration of possible professional ethical guidelines is
quite recent (and may already be fading), many of the
worlds professional anthropology associations decades
ago defined professional codes of ethics that are regularly reassessed and revised and that remain a subject of
lively debate. Assumptions about ethics in anthropology,
especially our obligations to those we study, help to constitute our notions of the public as bound up with concerns about accountability, responsibility, and knowledge
dissemination.
***
Michael Burawoys advocacy of public sociology
prompted opposition from some fellow sociologists
such as Jonathan H. Turner (2005: 27), who urged the

Celikates, R. 2011. Review of


Public philosophy in a new
key: Volume I: Democracy
and civic freedom / Volume
II: Imperialism and civic
freedom. By James Tully.
(Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2008).
Constellations 18(2):
264-266.
Jeffries, V. (ed.) 2009. The
handbook of public
sociology. New York:
Rowman & Littlefield.
MacClancy, J. 1996.
Popularizing anthropology.
In J. MacClancy
& C. McDonaugh
(eds). Popularizing
anthropology, 1-57. New
York: Routledge.
Mirowski, P. 2013. Never
let a serious crisis go to
waste: How neoliberalism
survived the financial
meltdown. London: Verso.
Turner, J.H. 2005. Is public
sociology such a good
idea? The American
Sociologist Fall/Winter:
27-45.
2

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SEAN WEISGERBER

This editorial is the


outcome of collaboration with
Gustaaf Houtman, whom
we thank for bringing to
our attention many helpful
references and ideas.
1. Jeffries 2009.
2. This sentence closely
paraphrases MacClancy
(1996: 17).

Questions of relevance drove the development of the


applied branch of the discipline and the expansion of
anthropologys research topics and units of analysis from
small-scale communities to discourses, processes, transnational networks and large organizations. The 1970s
disciplinary self-critique in response to challenges from
feminists, political activists, native anthropologists, and
others, expanded anthropology to consider arenas outside
the savage slot, to develop a critique of Western imperialism as well as anthropologys complicity with colonialism
and other forms of domination, and to rethink disciplinary
assumptions about authority and representation.
Recent writings champion the power of critical ethnography to document and explain structural violence
and to trace the effects of programmes and policies that
harm people and the environment. Anthropologists offer
counter-narratives to dominant discourses of militarism,
neoliberalism, imperialism, counterterrorism, nativism,
and so forth. Furthermore, neoliberal currents have pushed
universities toward a consumerist, market-driven approach
to education in which knowledge is privatized and academic departments must validate their value in market
terms. For some, demonstrating anthropologys ability
to analyze and perhaps even help to solve contemporary
problems and thereby attract research funds and political
recognition might ensure a profile beyond that of a service discipline for undergraduates.
***
Anthropologys popularization was accomplished in the
19th and early 20th centuries mainly through visual means
such as museums and international exhibitions, then from
the 1920s to the mid-1970s through books and articles, and
in the last decades of the 20th century increasingly through
television and film.2 Today the term public has multiple
valences, and certainly with the ease and multiplicity of
publication channels, every scholar, indeed every person,
now can go public. But go public with what?
The Sisyphean task is to reach wide audiences while
breaking through conventional media-friendly frames such
as exoticism; or orthodox trust in neoliberal markets; or
violent outbreaks of putative ancient tribal hatreds; or an
ostensibly startling new discovery of a fossilized human
ancestor or a remote gold mine or a supposedly isolated
tribe living out a stone-age existence in the modern era.
In social gatherings in Britain, writes MacClancy (1996:
15), saying one is an anthropologist usually leads to some
jokey comment about naked apesters partly because
post-War ethologists in the United Kingdom and United
States were more willing than many social anthropologists
to popularize their work.
Today a desire for relevance in public affairs entices at least
some scholars in nearly any discipline, though the stakes and
aims vary enormously. Many social and cultural anthropologists would be delighted if the label anthropologist provoked
fewer jokes about naked apes and stimulated more questions
about the financial crisis, refugee resettlement, hydraulic
fracturing, climate change, or corporate personhood. l

DAVID COMPTON / SEAN WEISGERBER

Angelique Haugerud is
Associate Professor of
Anthropology at Rutgers
University and Editorin-Chief of American
Ethnologist. Her email is
haugerud@rci.rutgers.edu.

discipline to tone the moral debate down, avoid ideological fervor, and instead develop an engineering mentality in addressing issues, problems, and concerns of
publics in present-day societies. Morality and ideology,
however, are embedded in any approach, and rather than
attempt to tone down internal disciplinary debates, their
very vibrancy can be an asset in the public sphere. Indeed
it is precisely the rareness of informed public discussion of
alternatives to dominant assumptions that can be harmful
to the public good.
Economist and philosopher of science Philip Mirowski
(2013: 224), for example, argues that the entrenchment
of neoliberal theory in economics during the past several
decades sets up a treacherous dynamic interplay between
the economics profession and the general public, awkwardly brought closer to the surface by the [2008] crisis.
The crisis exposed the possibility that markets can break
down and cannot necessarily be trusted as superior information processors, though some economists believe that
crises reveal market flaws that only the economist can be
trusted to rectify (Mirowski 2013: 225). The scale of the
2008 financial meltdown, however, appears to have caught
many orthodox economists by surprise, and early warnings
of crisis did not come from the disciplines centre.
By contrast, the public philosophy developed by James
Tully is non-foundational and opposes a monological and
consensus-oriented approach, in favour of one that is dialogical and conflict-oriented. Though political discourses
and practices are, and should be, governed by norms, these
norms and the (constitutional, for example) framework
they establish cannot be removed from political struggle
and negotiation. In politics, the rules of the game too are
subject to change. And in this game the theorist is only one
player among others.
Tully holds that the primary task of the theorist is to provide political actors with a theoretical toolkit that opens
up new and alternative ways of acting and thinking and
thus allows them to problematize hegemonic practices and
discourses. Tullys philosophy views all citizens as participant-philosophers, which makes him very different from
political scientists who conventionally work with elites
(who are already presumed to be in the public sphere).
However uncertain the political effects of such engagement, scholars in political science, sociology, and other
fields who move toward such everyday processes, themselves become concerned individuals for whom both ethics
and public matter deeply.
For anthropologists, these are long-standing concerns.
Tullys emphasis on a return to working with ordinary citizens in a process that does not offer a priori prescriptions
or assume outcomes, where public entails dialogue and
issues of ethics and methodology, already sits at the core
of anthropology. So too his argument that in order for the
world to be safe for difference, we need to be less concerned with grand theories of identity or justice, but instead
engage in and build upon practical reciprocal work with all
parties engaged in struggles over recognition.
***
While some anthropologists are wary of attempts to
popularize their works, fearing its simplification or misuse,
anthropology has always been public in the sense that our
disciplinary forte is ethnography and we value perspectives
that carefully probe the views of our research interlocutors, as well as methodologys ethical contours. In earlier
decades, the desire for relevance in European anthropology
took the form of engagement with and resistance to colonial encounters between agents of empire and indigenous
peoples. In the United States, relevance included administrative undertakings with native Americans, scholarly
contributions to the war effort, and Boass battles about
cultural constructions of race.

SEAN WEISGERBER

Catherine Besteman is
Professor of Anthropology at
Colby College. Her email is
clbestem@colby.edu.

ISSN 0268-540X
April 2009 vol 25 no 2

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