A Model for Public Interest Ethnography

[This is an English draft version of a paper published in Spanish in Revista de Antropologia Social , Vol. 22, pp. 199-232. (2013). Publicaciones Universidad Complutense de Madrid.]












We must do our share in the task of weaning the people from a complacent yielding to prejudice, and help them to the power of clear thought, so that they may be able to understand the problems that confront us all.  Franz Boas, 1941 Radio Address


Given humanity’s power to disrupt as well as construct, and domination of ecosystems it itself destabilizes, its responsibility can no longer be to itself alone but must be to the world as a whole.  If evolution, human and otherwise, is to continue, humanity must think not merely about the world but on behalf of the world of which it is a very special part, and to which, therefore, it has enormous responsibilities.  If this is true in some general sense for humanity as a whole it is particularly compelling for those, like anthropologists, whose profession it is to think about such matters. Roy Rappaport (1995:292)


Roy Rappaport’s call to address the “disorders” of our times, to think “not merely about the world but on behalf of the world,” raises a host of questions.  What does it mean for anthropologists to think on behalf of the world as opposed to thinking merely about the world?   How is “the world” to be defined by those working on behalf of it?  How do we conceptualize “humanity as a whole” in the context of evolutionary trends?”  These are questions anthropology as a four-field approach can address in the future once the answers to these questions are problemized in more specific terms.

In recent years anthropologists have turned from theorizing social processes to thinking on behalf of the world by focusing on a variety of social, environmental, and medical issues: democracy, poverty, HIV AIDS, hunger, environmental depletion, the plight of refugees, genocide, ethnic conflict, racism, violence against women, destruction of cultural heritage, militarism, market processes, social movements, and the litany goes on.   Such concerns are part of a broad paradigm shift in cultural anthropology in the last quarter of the 20th century away from the holistic study of society and culture in specific area contexts; away from the study of structure, function, social equilibrium, and meaning without comment on local social problems; and, more recently, away from an exclusive focus on the theoretical implications of data without comment on social impact or embedding strategies for change in writing for a broad rather than a strictly anthropological audience.   This shift moves beyond cultural relativism to think in terms of “the problems that confront us all” as Boas called for in his 1941 radio address (Boas 1945:1-2.)

There is as of yet little unity in the paradigm shift for many reasons, among which is the tendency for individual scholars to be pulled by the theoretical and disciplinary history in which they were trained.  The one commonality is engagement with the local in doing ethnography.  For anthropology as a field to make an impact in the public domain of the 21st century, it needs a more identifiably relevant approach.  If economics studies the market, political science studies politics—both still relevant in the contentious national and global spheres of today—rather than being identified as studying culture I suggest that anthropology is best identified as working on behalf of the world by diagnosing and responding to adaptive and maladaptive forces in local and global arenas.

In the following I outline a general framework for what I label Public Interest Ethnography (PIE) on the grounds that engaged ethnography will be crucial as anthropology turns to think on behalf of the world.  The approach ties theory, practice, and action to change.  The emphasis on change means interpreting social processes and cultural forms in light of historical trends and universal ideals in order to examine the discrepancy between the hegemony of self interest, such as seen in market forces, and interests that are more broadly defined.

I choose the phrase “public interest” because of the complexities this term connotes.   As problematized here the term “public interest” refers not just to broader interests—national, global, medical, and evolutionary—but also to specific interests aired in the public sphere of debate and action in any society.   Possessing multiple meanings and a multiplicity of possible interpretations, engagement at these levels catapults the ethnographer into the realm of shared and contested views.

Barth (1993(2000:151)) alludes to the complexity I have in mind in suggesting that ethnographers tackle “the task of building models that represent disordered systems, systems in flux, forms which are at once both diffuse and emergent.”  About the friction in modern sociocultural processes, he says

The diversity of positioning and multiplicity of views enlarge the field of contestation awesomely: We are faced not only with differences of interest, and the struggle and negotiation it generates; we must also acknowledge that such contenders are constructing different interpretations of the world and of each others’ acts and thus articulate oddly and often poorly with each other in their confrontations.

When he wrote this Barth (l993(2000:151)) was fully aware of the “theoretical discussion left to do before we know what this may entail and how it can be done.”  The following provides more discussion on both what this might entail and how it has been done in some prototypical ethnographies.

In codifying a PIE framework I am inspired by the Boasian legacy in which I was trained and by the concern with human well being illustrated in the work of engaged public-interested ethnographers of today.  Acknowledging different interpretations of the world and the disjunction between self interest and broader impacts is the point at which the ethnographers cited here enter contested domains.  All have change in mind by diagnosing and acting with respect to disorders in light of universal ideals or environmental and medical impacts.  All see culture and society as in flux, yet caught in the habitus of the cultural world and material concerns of local tradition even as new webs of significance are spun in response to the ferment of the times.  All “enter the fray” as Tsing (2005) describes her engagement in the environmental movement in Kalimantan.

As an anthropologist/ethnographer I enter the fray by merging the particulars of data with theory development and analysis in the interest of change.  For me, the concern with change means injecting ethnographic diagnosis and interpretation into the public sphere of debate and action as I did in responding ethnographically in the 1980s to incidents of party sexual abuse of women students on a number of college campuses.  In this work, I used ethnography as an agent of change by challenging the then widely-held evolutionary approach to human sexuality in order to instigate social action on college campuses (Sanday 1990.).   While some anthropologists back away from this form of cultural politics, others call it a form of cultural critique.

Engagement pushing cultural critique to the level of entering the fray raises the question of science versus politics, a question dogging cultural anthropology from the beginning of the Boasian tradition of engagement and cultural critique.  I examine this history as a prelude to raising the science versus politics issues as debated by D’Andrade and Scheper-Hughes (l995.)  I restate this issue for the 21st century by reference to the parameters of what Rappaport, citing Toulmin, calls “engaged postmodern science” in which the PIE framework fits.

To lay the groundwork for the PIE framework, I distill the commonalities in four ethnographies, which I take to be models of/for ethnography in the public interest.  Building from these commonalities and drawing on a lineage of engaged theorists and social activists from political science, sociology, and philosophy as well as anthropology I then suggest a conceptual framework and lexicon for doing public interest ethnography.    The major theme that cuts across these varied sources on which I draw is the intent expressed in Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  Change, I suggest, is one of the roots, albeit weak, of the Boasian legacy of engaged anthropology.


In his Philosophy of History Hegel argues that “passion” and “will” are among the driving forces of history.  In the challenge Rappaport issues for passionate engagement on behalf of the world, he implicitly suggests that it is time for the anthropological profession to step up and takes its place as one of the driving forces of history.   By seeking to influence change does anthropology thereby become more than science?  Such questions do not concern Hegel when he claims that.  “[N]othing whatsoever has been accomplished without the active interest of those concerned in it; and since interest can be described as passion….we can say without qualification that nothing great has been accomplished in the world without passion”  (Hegel: 1998:405;407.)

According to Parkinson (l989:291), quoting Hegel, by passion Hegel means “any human activity that is governed by … selfish intentions.”  The driving force comes from the conflict between passions that, arbitrated by “the cunning of reason,” become “the arm which serves the Idea.”  It is from the conflict and the “destruction of the particular that the universal emerges” (Parkinson 1989:291.)   If, as Hegel’s thought claims, social patterns are not destroyed by external forces alone but are pushed by the weight of “inner contradictions,” then by diagnosing the contradiction anthropologists enter the fray of change.

The early history of anthropology was marked by a tradition of social passion and public engagement, which not only shaped anthropology but influenced American culture as well (see Goldschmidt 1979 and Stocking 1996.).  This changed at mid-century when cultural anthropology retreated into the academy and focused on the ethnographic chronicling of the world’s societies and cultures yielding a wealth of data sifted through various theoretical frameworks (see Ortner l984 and 2006 for some of these frameworks.)  It was only later in the 20th century that cultural anthropologists like Rappaport returned to the question of engagement in a manner designed to merge the study of public issues and change into anthropology’s paradigm.

The early history is reflected in Franz Boas’s engagement with the exotic other and with social issues debated in the U.S. public sphere.  In doing so Boas touched on the concept of culture and cultural critique in ethnographic practice.  Although many strands in l9th century thought gave rise to the concept of culture, Stocking argues (l996:4) that Boas paved the way institutionally and through his students “for the emergence of a more ‘anthropological’ (i.e., pluralistic, holistic, non-hierarchical, relativistic, behaviorally determinist) concept of culture.”

Boas’s early thoughts on the meaning of culture and his stance on cultural critique developed through observations made while doing ethnogeographic research among the Eskimos in 1883-4.  Writing to his fiancé from an Eskimo igloo about the people with whom he was staying, he alluded to two of the central tenets of his thought: the determining power of culture and the importance of cultural relativism.

The more I see of their customs the more I realize that we have no right to look down on them.  Where amongst our people would you find such true hospitality? Here without the least complaint people are willing to perform every task demanded of them…The fear of tradition and old customs is deeply implanted in mankind, and in the same way as it regulates life here, it halts all progress for us.  I believe it is a difficult struggle for every individual and every people to give up tradition and follow the path to truth…As a thinking person, for me the most important result of this trip lies in the strengthening of my point of view that the idea of a “cultured” individual is merely relative….All that man can do for humanity is to further the truth, whether it be sweet or bitter.  Such a man may truly say that he has not lived in vain (quoted by Stocking 1968:148.)

Boas also brought to his experience in Baffinland an intellectual and personal commitment to universal social ideals.  In another heartfelt diary entry addressed to his fiancé, he wrote:  “What I want to live and die for is equal rights for all, equal possibilities to learn and work for poor and rich alike!   Don’t you believe that to have done even the smallest bit for this, is more than all science taken together?”   (Jan. 24, 1884 cited by Cole 1983:37.)   This statement is striking for its prescient commitment to the ideal of racial equality which motivated Boas in his later research, writing, and speaking.

The commitment is seen in Boas’s debate with “evolutionary ethnology” such as found in the work of his contemporary, Daniel Brinton, and prevalent in U.S. popular culture (see Baker 1998.)  Boas disagreed with public discussions in the U.S. about “racial heredity” and mental traits and argued for the determining power of tradition and custom.   Although it was Boas’s  students who were responsible for elaborating the culture concept, Boas’s claim that culture not race or evolution is the foundation for human diversity challenged American thought about race as a scientific category.   Although he did not succeed in abolishing racial discrimination, Boas provided the framework which undermined its intellectual foundation.  In doing so he inserted the science of culture into the stream of historical debate.  To this day, the Boasian  framework competes with the racism and essentialism of modern times in its ability to shape public opinion, social thought and legal policy (see discussion in Stocking l968:231;233; and more recently Handler l998:458.)   Later in the century, I returned to the Boasian tenets regarding the power of culture to challenge evolutionary assumptions about the universality of rape (see discussion below.)

Boas’s commitment to cultural relativism and to universal ideals demonstrates a split in his thinking, as does his ambivalence about the relationship between science and public engagement. The ambivalence is expressed in a radio address aired in l941, the year before he died, in which he advised his “fellow scientists” to sacrifice public engagement in the interest of science:

We cannot give up our work as scientists without irreparable damage to our culture, no matter how remote our subject may be from the urgent, practical needs of our time.  The ice-cold flame of the passion for seeking the truth for truth’s sake must be kept burning, and can be kept alive only if we continue to seek the truth for truth’s sake (Boas 1945:1.)

Switching direction, Boas continued the speech by saying that the search for truth can no longer be solely a “privilege of the scientist.” We are faced with “a new duty,” he says. “We must do our share in the task of weaning the people from a complacent yielding to prejudice, and help them to the power of clear thought, so that they may be able to understand the problems that confront us all.” The power of clear thought in this case meant to think beyond the shackles of “traditional lore” in order to “recognize bias” and “become respectors of truth for truth’s sake” (Boas 1945:1-2.)

By locating truth both in the science of culture and in “the problems that confront us all,” Boas is caught in a contradiction.  If science means disengagement with “the urgent, practical needs of our time,” the idea of “weaning people from prejudice” means just the opposite.  Rabinow (l983:68;70) recognizes the inconsistency when he notes that Boas was “a profoundly political man,” who separated truth and power in order to “speak truth to power, focus truth on prejudice,” and, I would add, thereby separate the truths of universal ideals from the passion of prejudice.

According to Ruth Bunzel, by such statements, Boas demonstrates his belief “that man was a rational animal and could with persistent effort emancipate himself from superstition and irrationality.”   This point reflects Hegel’s notion that it is through “the cunning of reason,” that humans reflect on and change the course of history.   Clearly Hegel has scientists and philosophers in mind in this statement.  Boas’s reflections regarding the power of culture did change the course of history.  Bunzel notes that Boas’s “object was the enlightenment of mankind through [the rationality of] anthropology” (Bunzel 1962:6.)  In my view this is an early statement of the necessity of moving beyond cultural relativism to insert into anthropological arguments universal principles, what Rappaport refers to as “macroanthropological formulations” (see below), that join rather that separate human beings.

Boas’s references to “weaning people from prejudice” and instilling “the power of clear thought” is reminiscent of the development of the Frankfurt school of critical theory in the 1930s based on Hegelian and Marxian thought.  In 1937 Horkheimer described the major tenets of critical theory, saying that it had “for its object men as producers of their own historical way of life in its totality.”  According to Horkheimer, critical theory “is not just a research hypothesis which shows its value in the ongoing business of men; it is an essential element in the historical effort and powers of men…Its goal is man’s emancipation from relationships that enslave him (quoted by Benhabib 1986:3.)

“Critical” theory can be distinguished from “traditional” theory by its emphasis on explaining and transforming “all the circumstances that enslave human beings.”  For example, during the 20th century, critical theories emerged in connection with social movements identifying the varied dimensions of the “domination of human beings in modern societies” in order to identify the descriptive and normative bases aimed at “decreasing domination and increasing freedom” ( Bohman 2005: Critical Theory: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/).

Boas’ ideas of the late 19th and early 20th century prefigure those of Pierre Bourdieu at the end of the 20th century when he argued for the study of “public interests.”  One can compare Boas’ (l969:1-2) opinion about the necessity “of weaning people from a complacent yielding to prejudice” with Bourdieu’s ideas about the necessity for doing so in the interest of change.  Although not usually identified as a critical theorist, in the last decade of his life Bourdieu was outspoken in his engagement with “the public” and “the public interest.”  In writing and talking about “the public interest,” he freely uses concepts like the “public good,” the “collective interest,” “collective responsibility,” and “civic virtue” (Bourdieu 1998:4-7.)  He is blistering in his attack on intellectuals and politicians who “are terribly short of ideals that can mobilize people” (ibid., p.5.)

Like Boas, in his scientific career Bourdieu was at an earlier time committed to non-engaged social science.  In place of Boas’s “tyranny of custom,” he speaks of “social fields” which “necessitate the world.”  He says that he is “often stunned by the degree to which things are determined” and comments, “believe me, I do not rejoice over this” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:19-20.)  Later Bourdieu came to the conclusion that social science can be an avenue to freedom.   What he calls “reflexive sociology,” he said, opens “the possibility of identifying true sites of freedom, and thus of building small-scale, modest, practical morals in keeping with the scope of human freedom,” however narrow it may be.   Reflexive sociology teaches people to “know a little better what they are and what they do” by offering the means for people to think about themselves (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:198.)   These words are strikingly reminiscent of Boas’s plea in l941 for anthropology to teach “the habit of clear thinking” so that people can develop a more rational understanding of themselves and others (Boas l969:1-2.)

Bourdieu’s solution lay in instilling the art of reflexivity through sociology.  Sounding the theme of engagement, he stated:

I believe that when sociology remains at a highly abstract and formal level, it contributes nothing.  When it gets down to the nitty gritty of real life, however, it is an instrument that people can apply to themselves for quasi-clinical purposes.  The true freedom that sociology offers is to give us a small chance of knowing what game we play and of minimizing the ways in which we are manipulated by the forces of the field in which we evolve, as well as by the embodied social forces that operate from within us.  I am not suggesting that sociology solves all the problems in the world, far from it, but that it allows us to discern the sites where we do indeed enjoy a degree of freedom and those where we do not.  So that we do not waste our energy struggling over terrains that offer us no leeway (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:198-99.)

Following Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Sol Tax, among others, continued the Boasian legacy by expanding anthropology’s reputation as the science of culture and communicating to public audiences the role of culture in daily life.  Benedict and Mead wrote about the determining power of culture in a number of societies: Benedict on the relationship between personality types and patterns of culture; Mead on adolescence and gendered patterns in social behavior.  Through his work with Native Americans and projects in Chicago, Tax (1988; Stocking 2000) contested the American mindset regarding assimilation by introducing the value of culture difference and pluralism from the perspective of Native American culture.

The social passion that motivated these early anthropologists to speak to science and society inspired my early thoughts on an anthropology of/for the public interest as did the challenge issued by Dell Hymes (l969) in his edited book Reinventing Anthropology.  In the Introduction, Hymes (1969:7) lists the foundational dispositions motivating anthropology’s early engagement:  “responsiveness, critical awareness, ethical concern, human relevance [and making] a clear connection between what is to be done and the interests of mankind.”  At a time when scientism prevailed Hymes’s bold initiative stood alone for many years.  His challenge was later repeated in Rappaport’s call (1995:292) for “engaged anthropology” as “the only means the world has to think about itself.”  Rappaport played an important role in raising consciousness in the 1990’s in his capacity as President of the American Anthropological Association.  He instituted the AAA Panel on Disorders (Forman 1995) and played a role in Moran’s (l996) edited book on transforming anthropology.  James Peacock and Yolanda Moses, AAA Presidents during this period, took up the call as well.  Peacock (l997) laid out his vision of “the future of anthropology,” and, contributed to the Moran edited volume (l995) and to another volume also addressing the issue of transformation (l999.)  Moses is well known for her initiative on race (l998, 1999.)  These developments and others revealed a return to Boasian engagement with a renewed energy.

For those of us who had been working all along as engaged anthropologists, the change was welcome.  Although I had been involved in public interest issues since the early 1970s, editing a book entitled Anthropology and the Public Interest in l976, I did not find an audience for my concerns until the mid-1990s.  In a faculty seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in l997, Francis Johnston, Julia Paley, Paula Sabloff and I met to develop a program for research, training, and action in the public domain.   During this time we named the program we had in mind “public interest anthropology,” in part thinking of my earlier edited book but wanting to push the effort into the 21st century (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~psanday/public2.html). The following year we organized an AAA session in Philadelphia entitled “Defining a Public Interest Anthropology.”  Ours was not the only effort being developed along these lines.  About the same time Robert Borofsky (2000) launched a book series on “public anthropology.”

Many other efforts came to light at the turn of the century, demonstrating a movement toward the ethnography of social issues.  For example, Lutz’s (2002) ethnography of a military community examined the meaning and impact of militarism in the US;  Sanjek’s (1998) ethnography highlighted the impact of community action for local change; and Paley demonstrated how so-called democratic processes that developed in Chile mystified the workings of privilege and economic interests.  These ethnographies interpret the world in the interest of change and their authors enter the fray of change in their ethnographic engagement with local publics and through public appearances.

The tension between science and politics is aired during this period in the debate between Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Roy D’Andrade, published in  Current Anthropology in l995 more than a half century after Boas’s l941 address.  Scheper-Hughes’s response to D’Andrade may have delivered the final blow to academic anthropology’s obsession with scientism.


D’Andrade (l995:399) makes a passionate plea for anthropology to be based upon an “objective” as opposed to a “moral model of the world.”  D’Andrade (l995:400;402) characterizes an “objective model” as one “which tries to describe the object” in the  search for “empirical truths about the world.”  He says that “the aim of a moral model is to identify what is good and bad to allocate praise and blame.”  By leaving human agency out of his “objective” model and stressing “empirical truths” in the here and now D’Andrade bypasses Boas’s concern with using anthropology to speak to the people to encourage “clear thought” in the face of maladaptive trends.   His stress on empirical truths assumes a static view of cultural forms and human action leaving no room for flux, movement, and change.

Scheper-Hughes (l995:409) makes a case for moral and political engagement claiming that if anthropology “is to be worth anything at all, [it] must be ethically grounded.”  In a world beset by poverty, hunger, and violence, she says “cultural relativism,” which she labels “moral relativism,” “is no longer appropriate to the world in which we live.”  In making an argument for an ethically grounded anthropology, Scheper-Hughes (1995:410) extends Boas’s call to use anthropology for enlightenment by imagining “what forms a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology might take.”  She suggests that anthropology should be used to help people find the understanding and wherewithal to respond to matters of life and death.  In the context of her ethnographic engagement with sickness, hunger, and death in Northeast Brazil,  Scheper-Hughes (1995:410-411) locates truth in the tragedy of hunger and the daily struggle to survive, not in the results of disengaged research.  Her engagement is an effort to understand in order to help, just as a medical researcher confronted with the outbreak of disease seeks to understand its causes in order to find a cure.

These different approaches to the science/politics issue are not necessarily incompatible.  My research on “fraternity gang rape” on college campuses locates truth in the trauma of young women who are subjected to group sex when they are unable to consent due to being plied with alcohol, and, in the tepid response by college administrators when they report their experience. Moving further up the ladder of abstraction, I questioned the ideal of gender equity on college campuses where women students become sexual prey at parties in campus houses.  In developing a coherent explanation of the socio-cultural context of rape written to address campus audiences my goal was to reshape the American mindset about acquaintance rape (see Sanday 1981, 1990, 1996, 2007.)

As such, mine would be labeled a moral model by D’Andrade and defined as cultural politics.  I agree, but would add that I entered the public sphere as a morally engaged scientist who rested her case on interpreting “empirical truths” in light of  prejudice based on sexism.  The major difference separating me from D’Andrade is that my ultimate goal is not “truth for truth’s sake.”  Like Scheper-Hughes, my goal is to use anthropology, as Boas (l945:2) said in the second part of his radio address, “to understand the problems that confront all of us.”  I classify such work as science, but it does not fit the ideal view of science that Boas enunciated in the first part of his address and D’Andrade espouses.   Rather, it fits the more flexible scientific rationale for engaged anthropology Rappaport (l995:289-290) calls “engaged postmodern science.”


As conceived by Toulmin (l982) postmodern science does not refer to the “postmodernism” of late 20th century debate, but is presented as an alternative to the detachment of “modern science.”  Passionate commitment to problems does not preclude “their dispassionate analysis,” Rappaport  points out.  Adapting Toulmin’s ideas to anthropology, Rappaport argues for linking science and action by engaging “with problems troubling the world—poverty, hunger, ecological degradation, inequality, racism, oppression—and their underlying causes” in order to develop solutions, which Rappaport calls “theories of correction.”  Because the engagement of “postmodern science” is not “value-free,” Rappaport says it “will be candid about its value dimension.” The value dimension is reflected in what Rappaport (l995:285) calls the “macroanthropological formulation” which relies on “microanthropological research.”   The latter refers to ethnographic practice and other methods for studying the local; the former refers to making more abstract assessments about adaptive or maladaptive trends.  According to Rappaport (l995:282), one recognizes maladaptive forms (“structural disorders underlying symptoms”) through the process of diagnosis.

An example of diagnosing disorders is reflected in Rappaport’s discussion of the principle of “contingency” (Rappaport 1995:266.)  A common type of disorder is caused when the relationship of contingency is reversed so that ultimate values related to environmental protection, for example, become contingent on economic values.  Getting values out of order by violating the principle of contingency, by placing economic values ahead of biological-ecological necessities, for example, produces social as well as ecological disorders.   Rappaport (l995:284-286) suggests that because it is possible to conceptualize disorders according to certain principles it is time to develop an “anthropological ‘theory of correction”‘ and “‘anthropologize’ public understanding.”

According to Rappaport (l995:285), the development of macroanthropological models to provide standards for diagnosing disorders is crucial if anthropology is to take its place in the “councils that matter…comparable in scope to those of economics and political science.”   He justifies his approach with the observation that “[h]umanity is not simply ‘suspended in webs of meaning’ as Geertz (l973) would have it, but is trapped between meanings that may be misunderstandings and laws that may be mysteries” (Rappaport 1995:287.)  The laws to which he refers are the broader physical and social processes to which local meanings may be related either as a cause or an effect.  Diagnosing the laws and mysteries, the imaginaries that enslave people, the universal ideals that are abandoned in the interest of market forces, terrorism, local politics, and the disinterest in global warming and its consequences is at the heart of the PIE framework, to which I now turn.


            To lay the groundwork for proposing general principles and strategies for research which both ‘anthropologize’ public understanding and engage with the interplay of micro and macro levels of change, I examine the commonalities linking four engaged ethnographies.  Taken in the order in which they were published, the ethnographies considered are: Fraternity Gang Rape (Sanday 1990(2007)); Death Without Weeping (Scheper-Hughes 1992); Friction (Tsing 2005); and Local Democracy Under Siege (Holland et. al. (2007.)  Although different in theoretical framework, style, and focus, each of these examples reflects ethical engagement with critical social issues; each is motivated by social passion to work on behalf of particular publics and universal ideals; each explores the interests around which people mobilize for action; each inspires reflection about social change; and each is concerned with how people find common ground in the interest of working for broader social goals.  As such, each displays the complex workings of human social creativity.  Each also speaks to multiple audiences.  A brief summary of each is presented next.

My ethnography of party culture on college campuses was sparked by an experience related to me by a student in one of my classes in l983.  Upon returning to class after being absent for several weeks she explained the reason for her absence.  Rolling up the sleeves of her sweater she showed me the bruise marks on her arms and said that she had been “gang banged” by six brothers after a fraternity party on campus.  Asking if she should report the incident I remembered the time, many years before, when I had been nearly gang raped as a young teenager.  Although I didn’t tell anyone then, because I didn’t know what to say or who to tell, I now had an answer.

The answer was based on a body of work I began in the early 1970s on the socio-cultural context of rape cross-culturally.  This work demonstrated that whatever the evolutionary bases of rape might be, culture makes a difference.  Surveying 95 societies  ethnographic case studies, I found that reports of  the presence of rape covaried with certain sociocultural and ecological variables so that one could speak of “rape-free societies,” in which rape is punished (47% of the sample) and “rape-prone societies” in which rape is frequent (18%) (Sanday 1981.)

Knowing that the women’s community on campus would support her, and that she would not have to face this alone, I encouraged her to report the incident.  As the case unfolded on campus, two publics vied for attention.  The fraternity members boasted about the party, calling the sexual event an “express,” referring to the common use of the term “train” on college campuses for a “gang bang.”  The public boasting ended when campus feminists and the editor of the campus newspaper decried what happened and called it “rape.”  In the aftermath, I discovered that similar incidents were being reported on campuses all over the country and that the response by campus administrators was either nonexistent or tepid at best.

In Fraternity Gang Rape, I aired the moral and social issues at stake by providing “I-witness” accounts of fraternity sexual rituals written for me by participants on a number of campuses.  The accounts defamiliarized the “boys will be boys” and “she wants it” explanation for “gang bangs” on college campuses.  The students reflected on how these cultural categories make women passive objects and men sexual agents in male dominance rituals.  By comparing the graphic descriptions of sexual bonding incidents involving drunk women too inebriated to consent with the legal definition of rape, I sought to disrupt the common sense view of this kind of sexual behavior (Sanday 1990; 1996.)

I demystified the mysteries inherent in these incidents by writing for a college audience, including students and administrators.   The book can be read by anyone, including fraternity brothers who commented on it over the years, approvingly and disapprovingly.  The book’s success—used in many classes to raise consciousness about campus sexual cultures and to challenge “taken for granted assumptions” about the equity of “hitting on women”—is reflected by its contribution to changing popular definitions of rape.  Almost twenty-five years after the incident on which the book was based, I can say confidently that the paradigm of “she asked for it,” “she wants it,” has been successfully challenged in favor of a clear cut definition of consensual sex now articulated on many campuses (see Sanday 2007.)

Drawing directly from the critical tradition of the Frankfurt school in her ethnography, Death Without Weeping,  Scheper-Hughes (l992) emphasizes the importance of working with citizens in acting with respect to the extreme poverty and child morality in certain areas of Brazil in the interest of change (see discussion in Scheper-Hughes l992:170; 1995:410-412.)   In her debate with D’Andrade Scheper-Hughes (l995:410) refers to this fieldwork describing her transition over a number of years upon confronting “nervous hunger” in Northeast Brazil from “‘objective’ anthropologist to politically and morally engaged companheira.”  This kind of engagement led her to the strategies of critical theory: “theory derived in the context of political practice;” reflection, cultural critique, and speaking to multiple audiences (Scheper-Hughes 1992b:227-230.)

Scheper-Hughes’ continuing concern with the anthropology of violence and death is repeated in her edited volume with Philippe Bourgois (2004) on war and peace and in her upcoming book on the global sale of body parts.  She continues to call for a new ‘ethics of the craft’, which she refers to as “an engaged and ‘militant anthropology’ based on ethical obligations to the body and survival of our informants through an activist and engaged form of ‘witnessing’” (http://ls.berkeley.edu/dept/anth/nsh.html).

The next two ethnographies demonstrate how the publically engaged ethnography of the 21st century addresses change in a world characterized by global connections isolating the weak from the strong through the huge disparities in wealth and the rape of land and people.  This is a world in which the ethnographer “enters the fray,” studies “friction,” and thinks in terms of “engaged universals” as Tsing (2005) does with respect to the destruction of the rainforest in Kalimantan.  Tsing’s engaged universals are reminiscent of Rappaport’s conception of macroanthropological formulations.  In her ethnography she traces global connections forged by environmental activists and develops an experience near understanding of the relationship between friction and change with a global reach.  Her’s is not a dispassionate account; her passion and on the ground specificity draws the reader into her complex argument.  As she puts it (2005:xii):

…the farmers and foragers whom I knew best…shaped my perspective.  I wanted to tell their story.  To do so, I concluded that I must put the question of distress center stage rather than trying to avoid it: to focus on the most distressed area, to write specifically about distress, and to use an ethnographic writing style to make its contours as vivid as I know.  If this is a story that should be told, it deserves an “audible” track.

The audible track propels the reader, not just drawing them into the details of the environmental degradation but into the conceptual framework relating “encounters across difference” to “models of cultural production” and of the importance of friction (a multidimensional concept reaching beyond that of resistance) for “defining movement, cultural form, and agency” (2005: 3, 6.)

Across the world in the US, Holland and her colleagues have produced an in-your-face account of how democracy doesn’t work in five North Carolina counties.  Aptly titled Local Democracy Under Siege (2007), this ethnography produced by a team of ethnographers demonstrates how privilege and neoliberalism squash the so-called American Dream and the “dramas of contention” that result in reaction.  Pursuing dramas of contention as one of their primary ethnographic methods, the authors examined “conflicts and differences of opinion that captured public attention” (Holland et. al. 2007:14.)   Connecting the relevance of media coverage to the workings of local democracy, the authors identify the matrix of connections across the terrains of their study and conclude that “plutocracy, not democracy, best describes the American political system at all levels” (2007:190.)

The weight of plutocratic rule on lives of ordinary citizens is extraordinarily heavy.  It goes far toward explaining the peculiar stance of many Americans who appear to show reflexive pride in American democracy, celebrating it as a model for the rest of the world even as they themselves show a deep everyday cynicism about political life and have turned away from voting and participation in large numbers.

How plutocratic rule prevails and how it might be changed is among the many contributions of this detailed ethnography.


Although different in focus and coming from different parts of the world, these four ethnographies yield a body of related concepts and relationships for thinking in terms of  public interest ethnography for change.  The focus is on “public interests” on the grounds that action is always “in the interest” of some publics in contrast to or in outright conflict with other publics or with the state.  The conceptual framework draws on a lineage of engaged social theorists whose research focuses on the power of human social agency to affect the future through reflection, social engagement, negotiation, consensus building, and political action.   The theoretical issues evolve from the basic assumption that if humans constituted their world they have the capacity to change it even though lodged in the habitus of the cultural world they have constructed.

PIE assumes both continuity and change in human society, although more of one than the other may be noted in given time periods.  In today’s world, change is more apparent than continuity given the evidence that human beings and groups are contesting, adopting, abandoning and reflecting on past, present, and future norms in the process of developing new positions and adaptations.   PIE ties interests to norms and values, hopes and dreams for the future, as well as to relations of production and systems of domination.  The major question is not how populations are oppressed, but why, whether, and how people join together to find common ground to resolve tensions and quality of life concerns.  With respect to the question of whether people can respond one must ask about the local and global trends set in motion in response to famine, poverty, ethnocide, and other disorders.

PIE’s core conceptual framework focuses on the myriad ways human groups find to solve the problems that face them along with the imaginaries that guide problem solutions passed down through the generations.  The focus is on human social creativity as groups (publics) form to promote, reflect on, and act with respect to certain interests either promoted by perceived needs or a shared ideology.  Data collection is grounded in the many techniques of analysis associated with ethnography and the study of discourse, material culture, and the products of the imagination.  The primary focus orienting analysis is the description and mapping of ethnographic particulars so that the immediacies of human thought, behavior, action, and production are in the forefront.  Theory is generated by engagement with the details of practice in a style that emphasizes resonance with the actors with whom one is engaged (see Wikin 1992 for more on the empathy entailed by “the power of resonance” in ethnographic practice.)

Because daily practice is at the forefront of the PIE project the ethnographer does not assume a shared experience of culture, which reliance on the concept of culture too often introduces prematurely.  As Barth asks (2000:147-148)  in his critique of the traditional concept of culture—“how can we model the processes of interaction, communication, and meaning constitution in such a way that they both give a plausible account of social life as it unfolds and show how such processes reproduce their own preconditions?”

PIE’s recognizes the dialectical relationship between order and freedom inherent in Geertz’s (l973:5) concept of culture, which he defines in terms of “webs of significance” in which humans are “suspended” but which they also spin.  Freedom refers to the spinning and order refers to the being suspended.  Both are tied to the structure of the web formed by social fields that are upheld and legitimated by historical cultural meanings justifying values and norms.   PIE identifies the moments of choice, the resolution of conflict, and the construction of solidarity which yield new webs of meaning supporting new, previously unimagined possibilities for social relations.

With respect to “meanings,” these are assessed by reference to practice on the grounds that all meanings are contestable (Barth 2000:147-48.)   In addition, the practices which carry meanings may be known to some but not others.  Until I was nearly gang raped as a teenager I had no understanding or knowledge of the concept of women as objects which I discovered later still ramifies through certain adolescent male subcultures.  I went into this experience thinking I was a respected equal.  Based on this experience and long term ethnographic research in three very different settings—West Sumatra, Indonesia; an Aboriginal community in the Australian Western Desert; and on college campuses, I agree with Barth’s suggestion (2002:1) that the distribution of knowledge should be the focus of attention.

Knowledge provides people with materials for reflection and premises for action, whereas “culture” too readily comes to embrace also those reflections and those actions….Knowledge is distributed in a population, while culture makes us think in terms of diffuse sharing.  Our scrutiny is directed to the distributions of knowledge—its presence or absence in particular persons—and the processes affecting these distributions can become the objects of study.

This emphasis on the specificity of knowledge along with the constraints inflecting its differential distribution calls for an open-ended ethnographic strategy in which engagement means beginning with practice.  “Because all concepts are embedded in practice,” Barth says (2000:148), “their definition and thrust can only be determined in the context of that practice.”

Placing practice at the forefront means that the analysis phase is marked by induction.  Facts on the ground are not framed by theory; rather facts generate concepts either fitting or challenging existing theory.  In their study of local democracy Holland et. al. define their ethnographic approach as one that “relies on the comparatively open-ended strategy of analytic induction” because it is “useful for, among other things, identifying new and emerging social practices and cultural forms” (2007:199.)  Focusing on “activist groups” and “dramas of contention”  in their North Carolina field sites, they discovered not just the usual hierarchically organized civic groups, like the PTA and the Elks Club (such as the ones Putnam 2000 wrote about in his study of community groups) but also a number of  “small, grassroots groups” emerging in response to current concerns (2007:199.)

Holland et. al. (2007:202-203) note how activists “effected change not only through electoral politics…but also through contentious behavior in the public sphere” by engaging in “cultural as well as conventional politics.”  Citing the work of Alvarez et. al. (l998:7) cultural politics is defined as

the process enacted when sets of social actors shaped by, and embodying different cultural meanings and practices come into conflict with each other….[W]hen movements deploy alternative conceptions of woman, nature, race, economy, democracy, or citizenship that unsettle dominant cultural meanings, they enact a cultural politics.

The emphasis on cultural politics is related to the assumption that the stasis of order is always in threat of being disrupted when existing social relations and meanings are contested as people challenge the determinism of social fields or the “tyranny of custom” in responding and seeking correction to the disorders that confront them.  The basic approach is to study the cultural and social mechanisms of human social creativity as groups (publics) form to promote, reflect on, and act with respect to certain interests and in so doing construct bonds of mutual commitment.

PIE looks for this construction in the public sphere, which Calhoun sees as “a setting for the development of social solidarity as a matter of choice” where “[n]ew ways of imagining identity, interests, and solidarity make possible new material forms of social relations”  (2002:148-9.)  Increasingly, as Tsing (2005) demonstrates, the local public sphere also ties in to global connections.


The above discussion has alluded to a litany of terms: public sphere, public(s)/ interest(s,) metaculture, dramas of contention, friction, engaged universals.  These and other terms are presented next as guides for ethnographic method not as unyielding staples for framing the ethnographic approach.   Many (not all) of the terms come from the work of critical theorists of all stripes—sociologists, philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists—who would agree that

“social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach…permits [the research] enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense.  [The goal is] not merely…to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather [referring to Horkheimer’s claim] seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research (Horkheimer 1993)”  [quoted from Bohman 2005.]

The terminology drawn from these sources is presented in the interest of developing common ground for an interdisciplinary study of the trajectory of public interests, social, and historical change at a time when the world is becoming in many senses one community.

a.Public(s) and Counterpublics.  The term “public”  has cascading social referents, ranging from meta-cultural discussions of the public interest in terms of assumptions regarding the public good,  social wellbeing, the commonweal, etc. –what  Taylor (2002) refers to as the social imaginary—to grassroots concerns which mobilize people around certain issues or interests.   In an important article, Michael Warner (2002:49-50) distinguishes between “a public” and “the public” and associates both with the development of modernity.  “The public is a kind of social totality,” in the sense that “whenever one is addressed as the public, the others are assumed not to matter.”  A public, on the other hand, is less total and more transitory, yet united momentarily “in common visibility and common action.”  A third sense of public defined by Warner is the kind “that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation—like the public of this essay.”

Warner (2002:50-82) outlines the social dimensions characteristic of  publics: they are “self-organized”; “a relation among strangers”; and, engage in personal and impersonal public speech.  Publics are also “constituted through mere attention”; inhabit “the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse”; and “act historically according to the temporality of their circulation.”  The speech performance addressed to a public may also be “poetic, world making.”

In delineating the different types of publics, Warner (2002:84-85) notes that “[t]here are many shades of difference among publics as there are in modes of address, style, and spaces of circulation.” One of these styles might be to mobilize specifically against “any general or dominant public…[in which] members are understood to be not merely a subset of the public, but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public”  Here, Warner refers to Nancy Fraser’s influential article in which she critiques Habermas’s concept of the public sphere by introducing the concept of “alternative publics,” or “counterpublics.”  The latter are formed by “members of subordinated social groups—women, workers, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians” (Warner 2002:84-85, quoting Fraser 1992:122-23.)

b.Interest(s) and Disinterestedness.  Despite the dominance of neoliberalism in the world tying interest to market forces, the concept of “interest” has many other referents.  At the level of the nitty gritty of intersubjectivity and social interaction, Bourdieu (1998:76) says that “social agents do not engage in gratuitous acts.”   He includes interest, along with habitus and field,  as one of the basic concepts which he sees “as indispensable for thinking about reasonable action” (l998:85.)   He defines interest in terms of “investment” in the “games” of life.  Interest is to ‘be there,’ to participate, to admit that the game is worth playing and that the stakes created in and through the fact of playing are worth pursuing; it is to recognize the game and to recognize its stakes (l998:77.)

Bourdieu opposes this conception of interest to that of “disinterestedness” and indifference.   Disinterest is a form of investment which evolves from habitus rather than from the rational calculation of the stakes existing in a certain game.   For example, Bourdieu (l998:87) refers to “well-constituted societies of honor” where “the habitus-field relationship is such that, in the form of spontaneity or passion, in the mode of ‘it is stronger than me,’ disinterested acts can be carried out.”  Thus, “[o]ne can be interested in a game (in the sense of not indifferent), while at the same time being disinterested” (1998:77.)   Indifference, on the other hand, involves no investment whatsoever.  “The indifferent person ‘does not see why they are playing,’ it’s all the same to them; they are in the position of Buridan’s ass, not making a distinction.”  Such a person finds “everything the same, is neither moved nor affected” (l998:77.)   Interest  (including disinterest) viewed as investment in the game—be  it specifically ideological, cultural, economic, religious, political, more broadly social on behalf of a social imaginary, or on behalf of the self—is key to the issues confronted in public interest ethnography.

Taking a rather different, more economic, utilitarian approach, Marshall Sahlins (l981) defines interest by reference to “the sign in action.” By this he means that interests do not arise sui generis but are attached as values to the system of signs. These values are instrumental in that they help the actor to achieve something socially (like serving filet mignon instead of hamburger for dinner.)    The actor deploys the signs according to a system of conventional values which have a history as part of an “intersubjective relationship of signs, different in quality and mode of existence from personal experience” (l981:68-9.)

Throughout his work Habermas locates interests in the system of normative expectations when he says that normed expectations appear  concretely as interests because  norms embody and incorporate  common interests.    Habermas’s concept of interest gives more room to human creativity than seen in Bourdieu’s or Sahlins’s treatments.   While Bourdieu locates interest in the system constituted by the “game,” and Sahlins locates interests in the conventional values which constitute the “system of signs,” Habermas locates interests in the social reality he calls “communicatively rational action,” achieved by humans through consensus building (Braaten l991:13.)

According to Braaten’s (1991:30) succinct discussion of Habermas’s (l993) book, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Habermas speaks of “valid norms” as those resting on “consensually defined ends–ends that are identified as genuine common interests and express a ‘common will.”’ Habermas says that the validity of norms is justified through consensus building.  This process includes a discussion of “the consequences and the side effects” of particular norms for all those who are affected (Braaten 1991:31 quoting Habermas 1993:65.)  Justification involves evaluating interests on a scale from the individual to the more generally social in order to establish the validity of norms.   In Habermas’s view personal interests are not sufficient grounds for validity claims.   Reflection about normative validity must transcend the consideration of personal interests to consider “generalizable interests,” that is, “the interests of a ‘general’ will achieved in a consensual situation” (Braaten ibid., see also Habermas 1993:63.)   According to Braaten (l991:32), “[t] he discovery of generalizable and acceptable interests is the result of a collective effort–a process Habermas calls discursive will formation.”

  1. Public Interest and Metaculture. The term “public interest” is a metacultural construct often put into discursive play when people, who are either at odds or who are responding to social needs, make reference to the necessities of social well-being. In the United States, public interests are expressed in a wide variety of ways in local, state, and national governance concerns.  Often these concerns are articulated by the media.    They may also be expressed by small groups that form in given communities to act in behalf of shared interests.  Whenever two or more people gather to express a concern, need, demand, or articulate an action a “public” can be said to have formed.  The interests motivating their continued association are both particular and general; particular in defining action based on certain wants and needs,  general by reference to “universalizing rhetorics of rights and justice” (Tsing 2005:5.)  (See also the discussion of “counter experiments for democracy” promoted by “dramas of contention” (Holland et. al. 2007:199-231.) )

As defined by Urban (2001) metaculture is “culture about culture,” that is, reflection, commentary, and sometimes cultural critique by citizens by reference to foundational rights and duties. With modernization and globalization the rhetoric of rights moves through the world so that, for example, the democratic movement in newly developing nation states, such as Indonesia, becomes a discursive source in mounting protests at the local level.   Tsing (2005) points out that reliance on universalizing rhetorics of rights and justice is a way of making a case to the world.  Her study of the friction motivating the environmental movement in the Meratus Mountains of the Kalimantan rain forest is one example of reaching from particular issues confronting villagers—the destructions of orchards and old community sites—to the universals that forge the local link into a chain of global connections in the environmental movement (Tsing 2005:xi, 7.)

With respect to the public interest, which they also refer to as the “public good,” Holland et al (2007:237) identify a number of dimensions—specific and general, individual interests as opposed to the common welfare.   They point out that in the discourse of change the public good is greater than individual interests in a diverse population.  The public good can refer to health, the environment, basic rights, or to other issues when faced with various disorders.  With respect to the environment, for example, Holland et al. describe how citizens may work to expand local definitions of the public good to include environmental devastation.

Those committed to the public good for example, value preserving environmental quality for future generations over protecting the monetary interests of those who stand to gain in this generation by ignoring the accumulating injuries due to global warming” (ibid.)

This interest is in contrast to neoliberalism’s assertion that “the common welfare is no more than the sum of the interests of self-interested individuals,” and that the market is the only means for ensuring that the interests “of the individuals who compose it.”  On the other hand,

Democracy’s counter claim is that the common welfare—the group interest in question, whether of a community or a nation—is greater than the sum of the material interests of the individuals who form that collective and this common good can only be achieved through the ‘rule of the people,’ that is the collective effort of citizens working together, not through the competition between individuals that market rule requires (ibid.)

d.Civil Society.  In a democratic society such as the US claims to be despite its plutocratic tendencies, publics mobilize in civil society.  Civil society is broadly defined as the arena where social issues circulate, non-governmental organizations form, and people come together in pursuit of common goals.  Defined in this way, civil society articulates with what Habermas calls the lifeworld in referring to the intersubjectivity of knowledge and of shared social reality.  Civil society can also be defined as a social system in terms of the social loci falling between the state and the private sphere but possibly overlapping with both.   It is at these loci where publics form and from which social issues emerge as interests or needs.  Within this context the sphere defined by public interests is not just “a medium of democratic politics” but a force which may check the political process (see discussion in Taylor 1995:208;287.)  According to Taylor, civil society exists “where society as a whole can structure itself and coordinate its actions through such free associations” so as to “significantly determine or inflect the direction of state policy” (Taylor 1995:208.) However, as Holland et al (2007: 189-91) demonstrate in their discussion of the force of US plutocracy in a political terrain privileging neoliberalism, Taylor’s claim, at least in this case, seems somewhat utopian.

e.Social Imaginaries and the Public Sphere.  Taylor’s notion of the social imaginary demonstrates the inseparability of publics, interests, and debate.   The social imaginary refers to “the way a given people imagine their collective social life,” giving them a sense of identity as to who they are, how they fit together, their combined history, and what they might expect from one another in carrying out the “collective practices that are constitutive of  [their] way of life” ( Gaonkar 2002:10.)   The social imaginary is more than an idealization, it is part of  the moral order formulating universal ideals.   Taylor (2002:92) describes the evolution of the moral order on which Western modernity is based from ideas voiced by influential thinkers to the development of the social forms of today: “the market economy, the public sphere, the self-governing people, among others.”

As defined by Taylor (1995:259) drawing on Habermas, the public sphere is the “common space in which the members of society meet, through a variety of media (print, electronic) and also in face-to-face contact to form a common mind…”  Habermas’s idea of the public sphere refers to the ways in which new forms of subjectivity and  will formation  “arise in and through circulation of discourses  in multiple genres,” including novels, magazines, and newspapers as well as through public debate in a variety of settings (Gaonkar 2002:2.)   The formation of publics and the evolution of interests in such societies (according to this view) unfolds in public space where “praxis unfolds.”  The idea is that people are in control of their destiny to the extent that they “are caught up in praxis.”  Even though “praxis is fragile and frustrating,” only in praxis, that is through debate and action in the public sphere,  “can one grasp and experience what it is to be autonomous” (Gaonkar 2002:8.)

f.Public Interest Sphere and Engaged Universals.  The emphasis that Habermas places on discourse and talk, suggests that attention must be paid to what might be called the sphere of public interests.  The public interest sphere refers to the discursive space in which public interest topics circulate and move through the world in various public (including media) settings (another dimension of Urban’s  concept of metaculture.)   The public interest sphere may include the assessment of core cultural values in relation to constitutional guarantees.

If this discussion appears too abstract, Tsing’s (2005:8-10) discussion of “engaged universals” is useful for charting the relationship to change.  Core cultural values embedded in constitutional guarantees don’t necessarily mobilize people, although they may remain part of the social imaginary.  “The knowledge that makes a difference in changing the world is knowledge that travels and mobilizes, shifting and creating new forces and agents of history in its path.”  Engaged universals mobilize people “within particular historical conjunctures that give them content and force.”   It is through friction that universals become practically effective.

An example from my near experience of gang rape as a young teenager illustrates how engaged universals can mobilize people at some and not other moments in history.  I did not see myself as a member of the subordinated sex when one day a few male friends pushed me menacingly against a wall in a gym where we were playing basketball.  I had no idea what they were planning, but I could tell from their faces that it was nothing friendly.  Fortunately, I escaped in time.  Ducking under their outstretched arms, I ran and didn’t look back.  I told no one about the incident, because I didn’t know what to say who to tell.  For the first time in my life (I was fourteen at the time) I realized that I had to be careful around boys because they did not think of me as deserving of respect.  Many years later when my student told me about being gang banged at a fraternity party on campus I realized that the historical conjuncture for reporting was at hand.  The anti-rape movement had begun in the mid-seventies, data on the widespread occurrence of acquaintance rape was available, and the feminist movement on campus was available to support her.  Based on my cross-cultural research on the sociocultural context of rape, which had received attention in the US, European, and Australian media, I was able to make the argument in the campus public sphere (in a rally protesting the incident) that culture, not genes, encourages rape.  Moving to universalizing rhetoric at this rally I also raised the question of sexual equality on campus.

g.Power.  Power comes into the picture as one examines the life history and circulation of the interests reproducing certain values in order to ascertain why some interests (like those associated with the market) circulate while others (like those associated with equity) often do not; or, why some interests are implemented in social action and others are contested while still others remain out of consciousness.  People do not mobilize for action until there is some awareness of their rights, however abstract this sense may be, and there is a strong sense of the potential payoff. “Through friction,” Tsing (2005:8) notes, “universals become practically effective.”  Friction allows universals “to spread as frameworks for the practice of power” (ibid.10.)

The civil rights movement and the feminist movements in the US are good examples of the relationship between grassroots action and the ideal of equality embedded in the metacultural charter of the US Constitution.  The friction played out in these movements—from the time of the emancipation proclamation to the present, from the first meeting in Seneca Falls for women’s rights to the current debates echoed in the 2008 presidential campaigns—demonstrates both the stasis and change in friction’s payoff (the more things change the more they stay the same.)

h.Multiculturalism. One issue that anthropology must face concerns the relationship between multiculturalism and the concept of culture.   Does multiculturalism mean many cultures in one nation?  The terminology—“many cultures”—reifies the concept of culture by making it synonymous with social groups marked by certain distinctions, such as ethnicity, race, and/or language. This kind of confusion of society and culture comes from anthropology’s out of date focus on culture as shared meanings, rituals, language, etc.

The older term “cultural pluralism” (see Sanday 1976a) referred to nations in which the public sphere was fragmented by historically unrelated or hostile groups, speaking different languages, and cast into one nation in the post-colonial period.  The conflation of ethnic identity with culture in these cases assumed that difference in identity meant difference in culture. Indonesia’s “unity in diversity” is a good example of how a pluralistic nation was constructed from many separate groups by its first president.  In this case groups differing in language, religion (in some cases) and a long and separate history before and after the colonial period meant that the common people as opposed to the educated elites in these groups were guided by historical cultural forms.   This describes the diversity, but it does not mention the unity.

In the U.S. the question of prejudice leading to exclusion of some groups (women and people of color) raises different issues.   In this case, structural differences—differential access to opportunities leading to claims of prejudice—are expressed in the politics of recognition and in legal and/or political battles over discrimination.  This kind of pluralism is addressed in Gutmann’s (l992:3) introduction to Taylor’s (l992) discussion of the “politics of recognition” that appears in a book titled “Multiculturalism.”

Public institutions, including government agencies, schools, and liberal arts colleges and universities, have come under severe criticism these days for failing to recognize or respect the particular cultural identities of citizens.  In the United States, the controversy most often focuses upon the needs of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, and women. Other groups could easily be added to this list, and the list would change as we moved around the world.  Yet it is hard to find a democratic or democratizing society these days that is not the site of some significant controversy over whether and how its public institutions should better recognize the identities of cultural and disadvantaged minorities.  What does it mean for citizens with different cultural identities, often based on ethnicity, race, gender, or religion, to recognize ourselves as equals in the way we are treated in politics?  In the way our children are educated in public schools?  In the curricula and social policy of liberal arts colleges and universities?

In my view the politics of recognition is not illustrative of multiculturalism, it is illustrative of structural pluralism.  Structural pluralism reflects differential access to resources based on coded signs, not cultural difference (see Sanday 1976a.)  The challenge for anthropology will be to critique the term “multiculturalism” without confusing society with culture.   I raise the topic here only because the term so often crops up in public debates.

Summary. Interest talk ranges from the particular to the general, from what motivates individuals to invest in group goals and the group to invest in consensus formation, to metacultural commentaries on generalizable interests, about which it is assumed that many people will agree because the interest represents universal values.   Institutions operate in terms of interests with respect to serving some public goal, such as reducing crime or setting standards for measuring and pricing.   Political systems and social movements are chartered by interests that are specified in terms of macro-social guarantees or consensually derived goals shared by people mobilizing for social action.   At a broader level, interests define the values of social coordination and group identity based on ways of seeing self and other.

Interests are also located in needs interpretation, whereby one group defines the needs of another—a topic not dealt with here, because it deserves lengthy attention.  For example, scholars who are attuned to the many needs of the poor and other populations who cannot help themselves, for whom organizing is not always possible, have contributed in important ways to this topic.  For an excellent study of needs, which she calls the politics of needs interpretation, see Fraser (1989:161-187.)

The many levels of data analysis range from the empirically grounded to the more generally philosophical and abstract, including a consideration of macro-social and metacultural processes.   The issues and processes may be studied anywhere in the world: from Aboriginal Australia to Native America.  Examples of the range of topics include: 1. treating human social creativity as a field of action (using Bourdieu’s sense of the term);  2. grounding contested social issues in the local logic of cultural diversity as well as in regimes of power and prejudice; 3.critiquing contested social issues by reference to metacultural definitions of macrosocial guarantees and expectations;  4.raising issues with respect to generalizable human interests  as these are related to the quality of life, the common good, and human and social well being; 5. examining the issues that mobilize people to action; and, 6.assessing the implications of the current state of the world for the future of the species.


The PIE framework is an initiative that examines change and/or inertia in the public domain of debate and action in local and global spheres.  The complexity of the change, or lack thereof, is reflected in the ethnographies examined here.  Despite the differences in and the global scope of the ethnographic problematics cited here—the US campus sexual culture; poverty, illness, and death in Brazil; environmental devastation in the Kalimantan rainforest; and local democracy in North Carolina—certain commonalities can be noted.  Each reflects ethical engagement in critical social issues; each is marked by the author’s social passion; each focuses on particular publics; each explores the interests around which people mobilize for action; each inspires reflection about social change; and each is concerned with how people find common ground in the interest of working for broader social goals.  As such, each displays the complex workings of the historical and social constraints on human action as well as the moments when the light breaks through and change happens.

These studies are also alike in communicating to public as well as to academic audiences, either through the activism associated with doing ethnography and/or with disseminating the results of the work.  The academically-based public interest anthropologists surveyed here have their sights on change by speaking to broad public audiences, the media, consulting with lawyers on legal issues, or acting as an expert witness in addition to consulting with agents of change in the local setting.  A number of these ethnographies use the writing itself as the primary medium for changing values and ways of seeing the world.  In doing so, anthropologists both change and create core values.

In a study of American core values Peacock (l995:43-4), makes a strong argument for anthropologists to join politicians, philosophers, religionists, economists, and planners who have no qualms about creating “normative formulations.”  “Why,” he asks, “should anthropologists stay out of this process?”  I agree, and ask why if the religionists refer to core Christian values, economists to market values, and politicians to their vision of all the factors that contribute to the political common good, then why don’t anthropologists refer to the core values and interests mobilizing people for action as opposed to the indifference that immobilizes them.  Given anthropology’s expertise in delineating the core values of the webs of significance guiding daily life, one might expect public interest anthropologists to examine the degree to which foundational rights are breached in legally sanctioned behavior, market practices, or educational opportunities.

This said, I want to pose a challenge by asking how anthropology or any other social science can succeed in playing the values game if it retreats from the game altogether.  It is one thing to critique core values and the apathy of populations and quite another thing to mobilize people for action if one is not part of the game; refuses to enter the fray as Tsing might put it.  Being part of the game means that anthropology must take its place on the stage of expert opinion and normative musing that Peacock mentions.  Following Bourdieu and remembering Habermas academic cultural anthropology must learn to play by the rules of public sphere discourse and be  prepared to make discursive moves that catch the public’s attention.   This means entering the public sphere with an argument.

How might this be done?  To take an example, consider the strategy pursued by Martin Luther King Jr.  His strategy rested on discursive will formation through consensus building and nonviolent activism in the public sphere.  His argument was in part constituted by outrage over the mismatch between the rights inscribed in the U.S. Constitution and the values expressed in the context of legally sanctioned behavior segregating blacks and whites.   Unfortunately, this mismatch was all too evident in the violence and death meted out to those fighting for their rights as American citizens.

In light of the many examples of the disconnect, PIE’s role at home involves entering the stage of public debate in order to point out the many ways in which constitutional rights are denied either in the context of legally sanctioned behavior or through adherence to common sense understandings.    In their ethnography Holland et. al. provide a provocative and detailed account of how the plutocratic tendencies of local governance deny Americans basic rights.  The nature of the American plutocracy in the area of their study is one of the major empirical truths revealed.  Another empirical finding demonstrates how mobilizing for action through “dramas of contention” or through “public-private partnerships” can in some cases alleviate this trend.  By identifying unhealthy social practices (unhealthy because of their effect on the social performance of millions of Americans) their ethnography is the anthropological equivalent of economic analyses regarding healthy versus unhealthy market practices.

The multiplicity of issues raised here means that the analysis phase of public interest ethnography is multifocal rather than bifocal.  Bifocality refers to the practice of tacking between the “the experience-near,” the particulars of ethnography, and what Geertz calls “the experience-distant” (Geertz 1983:55-72.)  By this meaning, bifocality involves assessing local facts in terms of wider theoretical models drawn from a number of sources.

Multifocality, on the other hand, addresses the local and the global, the theoretical and the political, the moral order and the social imaginary, along with strategies for action.  The analysis phase may also address macrosocial guarantees, metacultural discourse, and the future in terms of generalizable human interests like social justice and human rights.   An important theoretical consideration concerns the historical and social trajectory of the clash of public[s] and interest[s] in relations of power.  Observing the patterning of such trajectories provides the base line for building theoretical models of the social life of specific interests.   The point is that, although change moves slowly down a fractious path, anthropologists are in a position to significantly channel the flow of change by inserting their historical and cross-cultural knowledge into history’s stream.

Anthropology’s cross-cultural, global reach, its ability to bring the natural, the medical, the biological, the cultural, and the evolutionary together, puts anthropologists in a unique position to influence public understandings.   With the exception of a few well known individuals working on behalf of specific topics—Paul Farmer and Nancy Scheper-Hughes come to mind—for reasons that are not altogether apparent, the discipline of anthropology is not widely visible in public circles.   My answer to this dilemma is to reach for the commonalities underlying the different ways anthropologists examine the problems that confront us all.  PIE answers Rappaport’s call to work on behalf of the world and to anthropologize public understandings.  It also answers Fischer’s (2003) challenge to renew the ethnographic and anthropological voice in the 21st century by responding to the “new forms of globalization and modernization [that] are bringing all parts of the earth into greater, uneven, polycentric interaction.”


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