PUBLIC INTEREST ANTHROPOLOGY
A PROGRAM FOR RESEARCH, TEACHING, AND ACTION
Frank Johnston, Julia Paley, Paula Sabloff, Peggy R. Sanday [faculty];
Abby Corrigan [graduate student assistant]
This statement was prepared by Peggy R. Sanday in conjunction with Frank Johnston, Julia Paley and Paula Sabloff. The statement presents a preliminary outline of the nature and scope of public interest anthropology as we conceive of it at this point. We fully expect that the statement will change with the input of colleagues and students. We encourage you to think with us by e-mailing your response to any or all of us. [E-mail addresses are appended at end of the statement.]
SCOPE OF PUBLIC INTEREST ANTHROPOLOGY
As anthropologists committed to democratic goals and global human rights as universal ideals, each of the authors of this document has engaged in participatory research and action aimed at serving these goals through tackling specific problems. Johnston, a physical anthropologist, studies the relationship between nutrition, growth and development in low income populations in urban Guatemala and Philadelphia in order to facilitate healthy growth and development; Paley, a cultural anthropologist, studies political changes in Latin America in order to understand the relationship between urban social movements and political/economic transitions. Sabloff, a cultural anthropologist with a concentration in the U.S. and Mongolia, studies the new democracy movement in Mongolia in order to understand the parameters of participation in emerging democracies; and Sanday, a cultural anthropologist with a concentration in the U.S. and Indonesia, has studied the relationship between sexual culture and acquaintance rape in the U.S. to educate teachers, lawyers, and citizens about the ways in which sexual aggression is culturally programmed even if biologically determined.
We are also linked by a commitment to joining theory development, empirical research, teaching, and action so that each reinforces the other. Respecting the enduring legacy of Boas, we subscribe to a common research approach in holistic terms, including biological, cultural, social, linguistic, and historical approaches to the study of human population processes and interests. At a time when the four fields of anthropology are becoming increasingly specialized and separated, we respect the value of a four-field approach. Because we include action as an equal player in our intellectual and teaching endeavors we recognize that public interest anthropology straddles the line between basic and applied research, being at once neither but always both so that the boundary between basic and applied breaks down as does the boundary between research and action. One of the most important goals of public interest anthropology is to feed the results of the anthropological analysis of public interest issues and problems back into the public arena of negotiation, debate, and action.
As public interest anthropologists we are not disinterested observers or analysts but participants in the action in so far as we bring our expertise as anthropologists to the solution of specific problems and participate with actors in the implementation of solutions. The transition from research problem to action moves us into the realm of applied anthropology. As applied anthropologists, however, we work not for decision makers or government officials but for citizens–the public as we define the term. Our work is always in the interest of a “public” as opposed to the interest of the “state.”
DEFINITION OF PUBLIC
At the simplest level of practical politics, the term public refers to the plurality of individuals residing in a country and regulated by a body of laws defining rights and duties. At the broadest level, the public is the social arena where macro-social questions concerning basic rights and the common good are negotiated, decided, and acted upon. At the more empirical level of daily life, the public is constituted by competing arenas of discourse, conflicting modes of participation, and strategies for social action. Power is always everywhere present in the constitution of these arenas because except in situations of extreme upheaval power brokers set the terms of the discourse, engage some and not others in participation, and decide who acts and who is acted upon.
In a multicultural society such as our own, the public is best seen, in the words of Geoff Eley (l992:306), “as the structured setting where cultural and ideological contest or negotiation among a variety of publics takes place.” According to Nancy Fraser (l992:126) “public life in egalitarian, multicultural societies cannot consist exclusively in a single, comprehensive public sphere.” Fraser contends (ibid) that “the idea of an egalitarian, multicultural society only makes sense if we supposed a plurality of public arenas in which groups with diverse values and rhetorics participate. By definition, such a society must contain a multiplicity of publics.”
A major anthropological question raised by the concept of multiple publics concerns how each is configured and interrelated to the broader social whole. This question can only be answered by long-term ethnography and sociocultural analysis which reinvent the traditional approach of social organization to apply to complex societies. This task raises a host of issues which cannot be fully addressed here. However, there is one issue that goes to the heart of the epistemological underpinnings of public interest anthropology. This issue has to do with how we come to know and incorporate competing public interests in our field research and how we identify arenas for action. The answer to this question depends on the vantage point taken in public interest research.
To ask how multiple publics are configured and interrelated leads us to the social characteristics which act either to merge individuals in common identities (interests) or separate them along fault lines of difference (conflict). Parameters of identity and difference will change depending on one’s analytic vantage point. For example, the vantage point of metacultural discourse can be contrasted with that formed by “the native’s point of view.” Taking the U.S. as the example, metaculturally speaking, gender, race, and class are often proposed as forming the major lines of difference dividing U.S. publics. Yet, when addressed from the vantage point of individuals (the native’s point of view) there are enormous differences separating individuals within each of these putative publics. Because of anthropology’s grounding in ethnography and participant observation, this example demonstrates that the public anthropologist will find cascading affiliations and identities at the intersection of public domains of discourse and action and individual domains of choice and experience. Because what may be public and political may not always be private, metacultural categories like race, class, and gender in U.S. discourse are always to some extent empty cultural categories viewed from the vantage point of the individual. It is the task of the PUBLIC anthropologist–that is, one who is not concerned with specific interests attached to specific publics–to show how such empty categories can become filled with meaning in the process of their reification through public action and metacultural commentary. It is the task of the PUBLIC INTEREST anthropologist to point out that metacultural categories lumping people according to biological attributes such as race and gender or according to their income may reinforce rather than efface historical inequalities. Thus, egalitarian goals may come into sharp conflict with a metacultural public discourse that draws lines of identity and difference and defines interest according to immutable characteristics such as race, sex, and class. Yet, on the other hand, these same reified categories may be deployed by particular groups in what Kay Warren refers to as “strategic essentialism” to advance their interests with respect to specific goals. Thus, there is always the possibility that biological or ethnic-based categories do serve the interest of equality and inclusion.
THE DEFINITION OF INTEREST
However, since interests defined according to these ideals often conflict it is essential for the public interest anthropologist to articulate in relation to whom interest is defined and to understand the ramifications of competing interests with respect to a specific problem and course of action. This is not to say that the anthropologist will serve all interests, but that serving one interest often implies considering another. For example, the anthropologist working in the interest of the anti-pornography movement must research the impact and social meaning of pornography on American sexual behavior which means considering the pro-pornography side of the debate. Such an approach is essential because state action vis-a-vis pornography will ultimately be determined by the outcome of public debate on the social impact and meaning of pornography. Thus, the anti-pornography anthropologist must subject the libertine argument that pornography is speech that frees rather than restricts sexual behavior to empirical and theoretical analysis along with the argument voiced by anti-pornography advocates that because pornography subordinates women and encourages sexual aggression it interferes with women’s rights to equality and freedom from sexual abuse.
Another example of competing interests comes from the practice of genital mutilation in Africa. In this case, traditional cultural interests may conflict with those of young women who seek to free themselves from forced marriage and the physical encoding of a restrictive sexuality. As they move toward more Western modes of sexual and marriage relationships, more and more are rejecting the practice of genital mutilation for themselves. Health issues are also increasingly discussed with respect to genital mutilation because of the increased risk of AIDS to women who have been genitally wounded.
On the other side, if we accept Mary Douglas’s claim that the body is a symbol of society, the public interest anthropologist will recognize the sociocultural forms that are ritually processed through the practice of genital mutilation. More importantly, from the public interest point of view, are the African women’s groups who are themselves making the argument in favor of genital mutliation for specific cultural reasons of ritual, rite of passage, continuity, nationalism, etc. There are also African women’s groups who are both against genital multilation and trying to preserve culture, identity, ritual, and freedom from foreign intervention in determining the outcome of this issue. This is not to argue for the status quo, only to point out that because acting in a public’s interest means analyzing all sides of an issue there will be times when the public interest anthropologist adopts a “hands-off” policy in deference to the competing interests of particular publics and the inevitable resolution through the normal historical process.
We do not pretend to have answers to the questions raised by genital mutilation in Africa or the pornography issue in the U.S. except to point out that these issues comprise arenas of action and discourse. The job of the public interest anthropologist in these and other cases is to enter these arenas only after weighing the consequences of competing proposals for action. This is a little like the economist who never makes predictions or gives economic advice without first investigating all possible angles. Yet, we also know that economic advice is often formulated according to one of several competing interest paradigms: stimulating free enterprise as opposed to providing for social welfare are two well known examples.
Such considerations raise a host of questions that have long been debated in anthropology and will be addressed by the community of public interest anthropologists. At this stage, we neither have answers nor do we pretend to know all the appropriate questions.
In its teaching mission public interest anthropology adopts the pedagogy of problem-based learning. In this approach, learning occurs by focussing on a specific human problem, the solution of which is in the interest of a particular public. An awareness and grasp of anthropological theory grows out of identifying, defining, and conceptualizing the problem, as well as by developing methods — rooted in participatory action research –to contribute to its solution. Students grasp more easily the relevance of anthropology to the world as well as the interrelationship among theory, practice, and research. Rather than being specifically separated from it, anthropology comes face-to-face with contemporary society and the issues with which its members must deal.
THE NEXT STEPS
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- Paula Sabloff email@example.com
- Julia Paley firstname.lastname@example.org
- Peggy R. Sanday email@example.com
- Abby Corrigan firstname.lastname@example.org
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