Public Interest Anthropology: A Model for Engaged Social Science

 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)    

 81 Essential Things to Do Before the World Ends: Memorize Shakespeare, cheer loudly at Wimbledon, start a wild Internet rumor, and a few dozen other things you need to do before it’s too damn  late.  Esquire Cover Article.  David Jacobson, Jan. 2003.


[Prepared for SAR Workshop, Chicago, 2003]

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?  Are we to work on behalf of an abstractly conceived humanity engaged in social processes about which we theorize?  Or, do we address identifiable social problems on behalf of specific populations in order to suggest and implement solutions?  Traditionally, academic anthropology engage largely in the former activity; applied and practicing anthropology mostly in the latter.   Today the lines separating the two are diminishing as anthropologists of all stripes take on a variety of critical social issues in the interest of promoting macrosocial goals of equality, peace, human rights, health, and social well being.

The specific research concerns are diverse: democracy, poverty, HIV AIDS, hunger, environmental depletion, the plight of refugees, genocide, ethnic conflict, racism, violenceagainst 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 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.

The following outlines a conceptual framework for engaging with critical social issues.  Labeled public interest anthropology (PIA), the approach merges problem solving with theory development and analysis in the interest of change motivated by a commitment to social justice, racial harmony, equality, human rights and well being. The concern with change means translating the anthropological point of view for public consumption in the public sphere of debate.   Although such goals are not new to anthropology, the approach outlined below offers a framework which synthesizes theory and concepts drawn from diverse sources.

PIA’s commitment to action is part of anthropology’s legacy from Boas to the present.   This legacy is well known.  For example, Dell Hymes (l999[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.”  George Stocking (2000:256) speaks of the “activist impulse” when he compares Tax’s “activist anthropology” to Franz Boas’s “anthropology as Kulturkampf” and  E.B. Tylor’s  “‘reformer’s science’ of ethnology.’”   Finally, there is the role of reflection and cultural critique.  Cultural critique means to join the study of the other with reflection on one’s own society so as to disrupt common sense and “reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions” (Marcus and Fischer 1986:1.)   In his call to anthropologists, Roy Rappaport (1995:292)  identifies reflection as anthropology’s unique contribution to action on behalf of the world when he speaks of “engaged anthropology” as “the only means the world has to think about itself.”

Today, there are many efforts to address critical social issues in the subdivisions that define the field of anthropology. [1]    Regardless of the subdiscipline – be it linguistics, archaeology, biological anthropology, medical anthropology, all the versions of cultural anthropology, along with applied and practicing anthropology —  there are some basic concepts and motivations that unite anthropologists interested in addressing and acting on the social issues of our times.   In the following I outline a general framework for PIA, leaving the specifics to those working within the various subdivisions to work out.  I do so as an engaged cultural anthropologist trained in the foundational anthropological paradigm rooted in the life and thought of Franz Boas.

Briefly, PIA’s core conceptual framework is shaped by the concept of culture and an appreciation for the meaning and implications of cultural diversity in the modern world.   Problem selection is guided by a focus on human social creativity as groups (publics) form to promote, reflect on, and act with respect to certain interests.   Data collection is grounded in the many techniques associated with ethnography and the study of discourse.  Data analysis includes considering the broader context, which means examining all sides of an issue so as to grasp meaning in terms of its public interest implications at many levels.

The many levels of data analysis range from the empirically grounded to the more generally philosophical and abstract.  Examples of the range 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; 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; and, 5. assessing the implications of the current state of the world for thefuture of the species.   With this brief overview, I begin by considering the roots of PIA in the context of a short history of engaged anthropology.


If    Hegel is right that “passion” and “will” are among the driving forces of history, then anthropologists must recognize that the passion and will expressed in what they choose to study and how they address their audience may be among the driving forces.  In Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, Hegel (l998:301) says “a  great mind even in the most unfortunate of circumstances, knows how to bring everything it encounters into relation with its passion.”  History is driven by “needs, passions, interests,” he asserts in Philosophy of History.  “[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.)

Hegel’s comments can be contrasted with the detachment that was characteristic of academic anthropology during the last decades of the 20th century rendering anthropology close to insignificant as a public social science at the beginning of the 21st century.   This was not the way anthropology started out.  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.[2]

Although many strands in l9th century thought gave rise to the concept of culture, Stocking argues (l996:4) that Franz 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.”  Anthropology grew and expanded in the U.S. due to Franz Boas’s engagement not just with the exotic other but with social issues debated in the U.S. public sphere.   The focus on studying the other in order to achieve objectivity about one’s own tradition is seen in Boas’s early experience in l883-4 doing ethnogeographic research among the Eskimos.  Here Boas formulated his ideas about the determining power of culture and the importance of cultural relativism.   At the same time he entertained the idea that “the path to truth” comes in rising above tradition, suggesting that although human beings may be constrained by culture they have the power to constitute it as well.

Boas communicated these foundational anthropological principles in a letter to his fiancé, written in 1883 from an Eskimo igloo about the people with whom he was staying:

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 that 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 macrosocial goal 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.   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 changed the way Americans 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.  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.)    As such Boas is an exemplar of the PIA goal of merging theory development with engagement in the interest of change.

Later in his life Boas compared the tension between the determining power of tradition and the emancipating power of human creativity.[3]  Vacillating between the notion of culture as both tyrannical and the source of freedom,  Boas pointed out that as much as people are subjected to “the tyranny of  custom” (Benedict 1943:33) they are also creative agents in history.   In an international radio broadcast over NBC in 1941, he issued a plea for using science not just in the search for truth but for change as well.   As he put it

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” (Boas 1969:2.)

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.”   “His object was the enlightenment of mankind through anthropology” (Bunzel 1962:6.)  In my view this is an early statement of the goals of PIA and comes from Boas’s passion for social equality and democracy.

Following  Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Sol Tax are prime early examples of anthropologists whose social passion and public engagement shaped anthropology and American culture.   Benedict and Mead shaped public views about the efficacy of culture through their writing: Mead on adolescence, Benedict on the patterning of culture.   Through his work with Native Americans and projects in Chicago (Tax 1988; Stocking 2000), Tax 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 involvement in anthropology and the public interest.

The power of the culture concept and the ethnographic method for shaping ways of seeing at home, which I learned from Margaret Mead while an undergraduate student atColumbia in the late 1950s, conditioned me to think about the uses of anthropology to change American values.  My passion for change came from Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for equality and civil rights in the l960s.   Standing at the foot of the podium from which King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, I felt the full force of his passion and hope.  It was a powerful experience, which I remember to this day.   I understand now that this speech put into words an inchoate passion of my own.   Then a graduate student in anthropology, the speech taught me that by having a dream for one’s nation and voicing this dream in public one could alter the course of history.   Looking back, I realize that for me Martin Luther King Jr. was both a revered American hero and a powerful model of/ for the human capacity to change society through the mechanism of a social movement.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in l968 I made the conscious decision to come down from the ivory tower and use anthropology to address public sphere issues on the subject of social equality.   The decision was based on an ethical choice.  The choice was between working to achieve recognition as a scholar, or, to address public issues so as to change American culture.   How, I was going to do this was by no means clear at the time.  The answer came with the publication by Arthur Jensen of a widely cited article in the Harvard Education Review the year after King’s assassination, entitled “How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?”

With this question, Jensen revisited the biological/cultural argument for racial mental ability and claimed to have solid evidence that inheritance explained the average difference between Black and White IQ scores.    Because Jensen’s argument was widely debated, and because no other anthropologist that I knew of responded,  I decided to reintroduce the anthropological point of view into the public discussion.  I approached the subject from the cultural point of view by demonstrating that the gap between black/white IQ scores narrowed over time in integrated schools.  I also critiqued Jensen’s “heritability” argument in a paper co-authored with a geneticist.  Later, when William Shockley, the Nobel prize-winning physicist whose research led to the development of the transitor, supported Jensen, I wrote against his argument as well (see Sanday 1971; 1972a, b; 1975.)   The articles, which appeared in scientific and popular journals, earned me an invitation to debate William Shockley on a popular national program aired on Canadian TV.   The experience gave me a taste not just for anthropology’s role, but also for anthropology’s public audience.

The academic climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s was not receptive to using anthropology to research and speak on public issues.  It was a time when scientism and social disengagement were trendy.   The atmosphere of the time is reflected in George Stocking’s (l968:149)  characterization of the “young Boas” as  intertwining “the political, the general intellectual, and the specifically scientific” so “that they are not easily separated.” Stocking’s labeling of Boas’s work as “a single left-liberal posture which…is at once scientific and political” alludes  obliquely to the generalized academic taboo against social action, which I  encounter to this day in some (not all) academic circles.

During the period of academic detachment, lasting from mid-century to the end of the 20th century when signs of change were increasingly evident, anthropologists who followed the activist part of the Boasian paradigm were either not rewarded or somewhat marginalized in the academy.  Tax’s (1988) account of his career trajectory beginning in l931 at the University of Chicago reveals the many roadblocks he encountered in moving from a research to a more activist orientation.  The lesson one derives from Tax is that dogged persistence pays off.   To go against the academic trend, one had either to be a mover and shaker like Tax, or they had to first establish a reputation for doing “pure” science.

A prime example of the latter was Dell Hymes who was well known for his path breaking work in American Indian languages and linguistics at the time that he published an influential book critiquing anthropology in l969.   The title of the book was bold – Reinventing Anthropology – as was the challenge Hymes issued in the Introduction.

This book is for people for whom “the way things are” is not reason enough for the way things are…who think that if an official “study of man” does not answer to the needs of men, it ought to be changed; who ask of anthropology what they ask of themselves–responsiveness, critical awareness, ethical concern, human relevance, a clear connection between what is to be done and the interests of mankind.   (Hymes 1999 [1969]:7.)

Hymes stated that reinvention becomes necessary when what goes on in academic departments is more “for the sake of perpetuating, extending, and propagating departments,” then it is “for the sake of mankind’s self-knowledge (let alone liberation.)” When anthropology becomes only “what anthropologists do,” “a hodgepodge of vested interests, in which those who care about the true interests of mankind will find little place,” he predicted that “not only will anthropology not be reinvented it will disappear” (1999[1969:7-8.])

With Hymes’ ideas as a model and an inspiration, in l973 I chaired a conference on the contribution of anthropology to U.S. public policy, which was funded by the Mathematical Social Science Board.   I titled the edited book that came out of the conference, Anthropology and the Public Interest  (Sanday1976.)   One of the main goals of this book was to serve “the needs of science and society” (p. xvi.)  Many of the chapters presented research on social processes in the U.S. public domain that work “for or against an egalitarian ideology” (Sanday 1976:xvii.)   The chapters were authored by  economists, political scientists, a historian, and policy scientists as well as by anthropologists because of my belief that anthropology must broaden its outreach to other disciplines in addressing social issues.   The specific issues addressed in the book are relevant today: the IQ/race issue in U.S. history and culture; cultural and structural pluralism in the U.S.; the cultural context of American education; gatekeeping encounters as a social selection process; theories of economic discrimination; the plight of the ethnic candidate; public policies related to poverty; the role of language in learning; and equal rights for all Americans.   The book was subjected to one hostile review written by an applied anthropologist who objected to my venturing outside of the prevailing applied paradigm, not recognizing that I did not conceive the work as applied anthropology.[4]

About the time this book was published, the American Anthropological Association began a sustained effort to publicize the uses of anthropology.[5]  At this time the AAA charged its Planning and Development Committee, chaired by the then President-elect Richard N. Adams with Walter Goldschmidt present ex officio,  to consider this subject.  I was a member of this committee and worked with Goldschmidt on part of the edited volume that resulted (see Goldschmidt l979 and Goldschmidt and Sanday 1979.) In his Introduction, Goldschmidt (l979:7) remarks on the ferment anthropologists raised as social critics before WorldWar II, which in the postwar decades diminished to be replaced by “a kind of ennui and an attitude of self-effacement if not actually self-denigration.”  The articles in the book provided a much  needed history of anthropology’s longtime engagement with public issues.

In the remaining decades of the 20th century, the AAA continued to act as a counterweight to the detachment of academic departments by encouraging and rewarding professional engagement with social issues.  In l988 the AAA convened a Panel on Disorders of Industrial Societies.  The impetus was provided by Roy Rappaport, who as President of the Association felt strongly that anthropology needed to respond to the increasing evidence of debilitating disorders in industrial societies.  As he put it in his contribution to the edited book published by the Panel:  “one doesn’t have to be…a rocket scientist, or political scientist, or…an anthropologist, to know that some current conditions are bad and a good many of them are getting worse” (Rappaport l995: 281.)

The volume  summarizing the Panel’s deliberations and presenting the research of some of its members was edited by Shep Forman (l995.)   The focus on equity and cultural diversity motivating the Panel’s work was stated in the Introduction: “all individuals and groups should be able to exercise fundamental rights of political and cultural expression, fulfill their aspirations and potential, and secure their physical and economic well-being.”   Accordingly, the Panel members selected as their “umbrella” theme:  “disorders ofU.S. society that impede the realization of democratic participation and cultural pluralism” (Forman 1995:3 emphasis in original.)  Thinking about correctives to social disorders was an important correlative of the Panel’s overall agenda.

In his contribution Rappaport (l995:253) outlined a model for a committed and “engaged anthropology,” one which participates in , engages with,  critiques and enlightens the members of its own society.  This model focused on the identification of contemporary social disorders, which Rappaport defines as maladaptive and in need of correction.   According to Rappaport, “the recognition and definition of social disorders is undertheorized in anthropology” (1995:261.)  Although he says that this is not the case in the other social sciences, such as economics, he is critical of economics for neglecting what he calls “the principle of contingency.”

The principle of contingency refers to the cross-cultural observation that all social systems (including economic systems) are “contingent on the existence of biological-ecological systems” (Rappaport 1995:266-67.)  The relationship of the former to the latter is “a relationship of the special, instrumental, and contingent to the general, fundamental and ultimate.”  Rappaport uses this example to identify a “common type of disorder,” caused by making ultimate values (like the environment, for example)  contingent on economic values.  Getting values out of order by violating the principle of contingency produces social as well as ecological disorders.   By way of example, Rapaport refers to the social consequences of deindustrialization which has produced the pathologies faced by cities and towns across the nation.[6]

A second panel initiated by Rappaport at this time was the AAA panel on Social Transformations in Pre-Industrial and Industrializing Societies.  This panel was chaired by Emilio Moran (l996.)   The book edited by Moran (l996:ix) was designed to address “the ways in which local communities are affected by global and national-scale processes and with how anthropologists have contributed to positive change in these communities.”  The titling of the book, Transforming Societies, Transforming Anthropology, makes a bold statement about the necessity of transforming anthropology in response to world wide social change.

Statements by participants in these panels suggest that if anthropology is to be “for” as well as “about the world,” the reinvention process must be continuous so that anthropology is a cumulative science in responding not just to new theoretical developments but to social and environmental changes as well.  Given the enormity of the changes since the time of Boas and his students,  much more than modifying/reinvigorating the old paradigm is in order.    Rather, it is necessary to codify relevant concepts and build new models for research, theory, and action.  PIA offers one such model, Moran’s and Forman’s books offer others.   The commonalities linking these largely independent effortshold  great promise for a transformed anthropology.


New models  in anthropology begin by sowing seeds from which ideas sprout.  This has happened many times in the history of the field, producing conceptual systems focused on particular types of research.  Culture and personality, psychological anthropology, cross-cultural research, ecological anthropology, semiotics, language and culture  are just a few examples.   The fact that PIA developed almost entirely independently of Rappaport’s and Moran’s efforts reflects the growing concern with social pathologies, disorders, and rapid social change at the end of the 20th century. [7]

The conceptual framework outlined below draws on a lineage of engaged social theorists who are alike in stressing 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.

Despite the lip service anthropologists pay to the power of  cultural constructionism – viz Ruth Benedict’s cup of clay or Geertz’s (ala Weber)  webs of significance — one rarely encounters an ethnography which demonstrates the construction process at work (but see below.)   PIA begins with the assumption that  human beings and groups are in a constant state of change and flux — contesting, adopting, abandoning and reflecting on past, present, and future norms in the process of developing new positions and adaptations.    Following Habermas as much as Marx, Boas and Bourdieu, PIA 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 how (and whether)  people join together to find common ground to resolve tensions and quality of life concerns.  Another major question concerns the cultural manifestation of ideas about shared substance, the common good, and well being in the face of social, cultural, and institutional diversity.

The focus on human social creativity does not rule out the insights to be gained from more deterministic approaches.  Returning to Boas’s  ideas about the “tyranny of custom,” it is interesting to compare his opinion about the necessity “of weaning people from a complacent yielding to prejudice” (Boas 1969:1-2)  with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about the necessity for doing so in the interest of change (see Boas 1969:1-2.)

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, Bourdieu sees humans as both imprisoned yet capable of freedom.  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.)  Like Boas, Bourdieu believes also that social science can be an avenue to freedom.   What he calls “reflexive sociology” 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.   He says that 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 lies in instilling the art of  reflexivity through sociology.  I take the following words as a model for a reflexive public-interest anthropology in the 21st century.

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.)

By studying inventive social processes, PIA aims to build a roadmap that deflects attention from the strictly deterministic to reflexivity and the construction of social solidarity in which bonds of mutual commitment are forged through discussion rather than imposed by necessity.    Following Calhoun (2002:148-9), PIA 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.”  Addressing the contexts in which people seek common ground by bridging all manner of differences is at the heart of PIA research, theory building, and public action.    However, in doing so it does not forget the lessons learned from anthropology regarding the “tyranny of custom” and from sociology regarding the mechanisms of social action, which Bourdieu  addressed so that humans could learn how “to dominate domination” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:51.)

The following is presented as a basis for discussion not as a fait accompli.  It should be taken as a programmatic outline of an evolving conceptual framework.  Like all such frameworks the newness is in the synthesis of ideas drawn from different sources.  The project includes the consideration of some basic philosophical and epistemological issues.   These include the ethical commitment to studying human social creativity motivating PIA, the development of a theory of interests under the PIA rubric, and the question of what kind of science is PIA.  Do we consider an engaged enterprise motivated by core values and assumptions regarding  social choice and generalizable human interests science or politics?   This  question raises the allied question of action.   How does PIA differ from the usual tendency in the academy to stop at the level of theory and avoid social action?   And, on what grounds is action justified?


PIA begins with ethnography and discourse analysis at various sites, ranging from groups of people meeting in the neighborhood, chat rooms on the internet, postings on theworld wide web, print and broadcast media to meetings on global stages.   In most cases, the concern is either with critical social issues wherever they arise in the world or with the impact of the various global flows that sweep through the world (see Appadurai  1996 for a discussion of the types of flows.)  Ethnography provides the basic data.  The conceptual categories guiding research and analysis include: civil society, public(s), interest, social imaginary,  public sphere,  public interest sphere, multiculturalism, metaculture,  and power. 

Beginning with civil society, it can be said that most 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 overlapping with both.   It is at these loci where publics form and from which social issues emerge as interests or needs.

In a democratic society, such as our own, civil society is based on macro‑social guarantees of freedom of association, self‑government, and the “rule of right based on equality.” 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 Taylorl995:208;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.)

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.)

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 that constitutes and underlies a social order and its institutions.    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  willformation  “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.)

The term interest has many referents as well.  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 (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, untilitarian 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, 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 J. 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 much  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 are 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.”

To summarize, 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 analyses of generalizable interests, about which it is assumed that many people will agree because the interest represents core 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 which 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, for example the need for a home (the homeless public), need for food, need for better nutrition, etc.  (See Fraser 1989:161-187 for an analysis of the politics of needs interpretation.)


Although not couched explicitly in the framework described above, there is a long ethnographic tradition of anthropologists investing in certain research problems in the interest of public enlightenment and/or social change.  Unlike more theoretically oriented ethnography, in which the interest may be purely scholarly, those working in this tradition frequently address public issues and get involved  in diagnosing ills, investigating dis-ease, and thinking about cures.  From Margaret Mead’s (l928)  Coming of Age in Samoa  to Catherine Lutz’s (2002)  more recent  Homefront one finds a common focus on defamiliarizing  the familiar in order to change ways of seeing by evoking public reflection and debate.[8]   Based on her Samoan fieldwork, Mead presented a view of adolescence, which changed the way Americans thought about its dramas.   Based on her study of a military community, Lutz (2001:9) helps us to understand the social impact of militarism at home.  In light of the impact she describes by way of the ethnographic and historical contexts of militarism in Fayetteville, North Carolina data, Lutz raises the question of whether there might be another way “when it becomes clearer how few really profit from the old.”

Taking a another tack in a different kind of community study, this one located in Queens, New York,  Roger Sanjek (l998) places himself in the community of Elmhurst-Cornoa in explicit recognition of the fact that we are all in this together, that what is at stake is “the future of us all,” the title he gives to his study of “civic activism” around “quality of life issues.”  The overarching goal of Sanjek’s study is to assess how diverse communities achieve “an integrated body politic” in which community members work together to find common ground in addressing community concerns affecting the quality of life for community members (Sanjek 1998:2.)

Across the world in India, Arjun Appadurai (2002:22-3)  speaks of the “politics of partnership” in his “preliminary analysis of an urban activist movement with global links.”  The study is of an alliance of housing activists in Mumbai in which very different partners are linked in social action.   According to Appadurai, of the various nonstate organizations working with the urban poor in Mumbai, “the Alliance has by far the largest constitutency, the highest visilibity in the eyes of the state, and the most extensive networks in Indian and elsewhere in the world.”  The net of social solidarity which this Alliance managed to weave across the social spectrum leads Appadurai to distinguish two broad trends among the many grassroots political movements in the “new global political economy.”

On the one hand are groups that have opted for armed, militarized solutions to their problems of inclusion, recognition, and participation.  On the other are those that have opted for a politics of partnership—partnership, that is, between traditionally opposed groups, such as states, corporations and workers (ibid. p. 22.)

In my own work, which I entitled Fraternity Gang Rape to draw public attention to the legal definition of campus “gang bangs” (Sanday l990), I provide “I-witness” accounts of fraternity sexual rituals to defamiliarize the “boys will be boys” explanation for “gang bangs” on college campuses.  By contrasting these accounts with the legal definition of rape, I raise questions designed to encourage multiple publics – student groups, faculty members, administrators, and the general public — to reflect on where we draw the line between consensual and nonconsensual sex.   This work grew out of my development of the concept of sexual culture in the context of the anti-rape activism which began in the early 1970s (Sanday l981.)   From the start, the idea of sexual culture was controversial because of the prevailing commonsense belief that male sexual aggression was hormonal, hence universal, rather than culturally encouraged, hence controllable.  Because of the controversy,  I knew that a good deal of social time would be necessary for the arguments of the anti-rape movement to take hold.  I was prepared to wait for social change.  The patience paid off.  Whereas when I started the popular and legal definition of rape hung on “earnest,” “sufficient,” or “utmost resistance,” because of the broad scope of anti-rape scholarship and activism, today there is increasing evidence of a legal commitment to the view that “no means no” and that a rape defense must demonstrate affirmative verbal consent rather than the absence of resistance (see Sanday 1996:265-6.)

Although different in theoretical framework, style, and focus, these brief examples of ethnography in the public interest have a great deal in common.  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 human social creativity.[9]  With respect to the written product, these studies are also alike in communicating  to public as well as to academic audiences, either through the writing or the activism associated with the work.


Public interest ethnography shares these goals but pushes the action envelope further.  Strategies and modes for action depend on many factors: location, problem, and subfield.   As James Peacock (personal communication) stresses, location is key.   Location refers to whether one is based in an academic department, an academic institute, a research or action oriented institute outside the academy,  or is funded privately.  Also key is the social issue one pursues — be it medical, social, or environmental, for example — and the country in which one bases social action.   These are just some of the dimensions determining strategies for action.

Because the following discussion is written from the perspective of my location in the academy and from the vantage point of my career long concern with issues related to gender and racial equity in the United States, it is presented as a specific and not a general example of action concerns in public interest ethnography.

As a rule, academically-based public interest anthropologists engage in public action by speaking to broad public audiences, the media, consulting with lawyers on legal issues, and acting as an expert witness.[10]   Although I have engaged in all of these activities, my primary medium for action in recent years has been writing to change commonsense gender values by contesting their legitimacy in light of basic American rights and by examining how some values impede psychological well being for women.   In doing so, I operate under the assumption that anthropologists can both change and create core values.

In a study of American core values Peacock (l995:43-4) argues that anthropology must go beyond describing values, it must also “engage in the creation of core values.”  Peacock 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 reflected in the rights guaranteed by the  founding charters of U.S. society?  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 in their own country.

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 propose critiquing or creating core values and quite another thing to achieve it if one is not part of the game.  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,  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.  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.   This was a powerful formula and produced a transfiguration in race relations in the U.S.(see definition of transfiguration below.)

Following King’s example, I suggest that public interest ethnographers concerned with social justice at home examine the disconnect between constitutional rights and core cultural values expressed in daily practice.   In light of the many examples of the disconnect, PIA’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.    By pointing out how certain values and practices deny many Americans basic rights,  public interest action would be one of identifying unhealthy social practices (unhealthy because of their effect on the social performance of millions of Americans) analogous to standard economic analyses regarding healthy versus unhealthy market practices.[11]

This is the approach adopted by anti-rape feminists and scholars seeking to ameliorate the high incidence of acquaintance rape and the low incidence of reporting the crime.   When feminists started to argue in the early 1970s that rape laws, legal procedures and courtroom practice discriminated against rape complainants  they were greeted with sneers.    The basic message thrown at them  (often by male colleagues) was that because male sexual aggression is biologically based and rape is universal, women are at fault for not behaving according to the “boys will be boys” model of sexual behavior.   Anyone who got raped was “asking for it.”

For example, a great deal of scholarly effort has been put into arguments for and against the idea that rape is “an evolved  adaptation” favored by natural selection  because it increase[s] male reproductive success by increasing mate number” (Thornhill and Palmer 2000:59-60; see response from Travis 2003.)   The evolutionary argument, while persuasive to some, no longer sways legal thinking, at least in some courts.  For example in January 2003, the California State Supreme Court ruled by a decision of 6-1 that a man is a rapist if he continues to have intercourse with someone who says no, even if she initially consented to sex, but then changed her mind.[12] Evidence that the feminist argument has won the debate is also seen in the fact that rape laws have been changed in nearly all states to reflect gender equity in sexual culture.  A woman’s “no” is now taken seriously on college campuses, some of  which even go so far as to require “affirmative consent”  (Sanday 1996:272-77.)   Whatever the biological basis might be, more Americans now agree that we don’t live by biology, rather we live in a society that thinks about basic civil rights, not just for sexually aggressive men, but for women as well.[13]

Public interest ethnography addresses the race question by focusing on the public expression of thick racism in American society and scholarship.   I use the phrase thick racismto deflect attention from research that operates with a homogeneous concept of race to the social imaginary that exacerbates and reproduces racial inequality.   I do so on the grounds that we know all that we need to know about the relationship between race, poverty, health, the informal economy, and inner city violence.  Social scientists have been studying these issues for the past half century only to find in recent years that the problems are getting worse not better.   We need new approaches to investigating source and solution.  In addition to thick racism, which I suggest is part of the problem, we must also examine its legacy in the habitus of those who make their living primarily in the underground economy of the inner city, such as described by Bourgois (1995) and Anderson (1999.)  In the following, I limit my remarks to the expression of thick racism in theU.S. public sphere.

To understand thick racism, we must confront the reality that at the core of the American dream there has been a historical standoff between two powerful social imaginaries.   One is fundamentally racist and the other is fundamentally egalitarian.  Both claim to be democratic.  The first is grounded in relationships, normative expectations, and a foundational philosophy that fuels passionate dedication to maintaining white cultural purity by making the Western tradition not only the elite but the exclusive cultural standard.  According to the second equally passionate imaginary, racial diversity and cultural difference are part of the foundation of American society.  This view interprets the “self-evident” truth of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal,” as applying to all citizens, including those whose historical exclusion through slavery and then through segregation meant that they did not have the same access to opportunities for which the Government was instituted at the birth of the nation.

The racist imaginary is reflected in the set of events that removed Senator Trent Lott from his position as majority leader of the Republican party in 2002.  The smoking gun was Lott’s remark in December, 2002, made at Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, that the nation would have been better served had Strom Thurmond been elected president in 1948 when he ran on a segregationist platform (NYTimes, Dec. 14, 2002, A.1.)  Lott’s slip touched on the long time fantasy of protecting a purified white southern culture, on which Strom Thurmond’s candidacy was based.

The airing of the legacy of discrimination, segregation, and racial profiling associated with Trent Lott’s removal from his position as Senate majority leader so soon after the Republican sweep of the 2002 mid-term election raises a host of ethnographic questions.   Given that Lott had made the same remarks in prior years, why did they erupt into the public discourse now and not before?  Why was it safe to “out” the Republican Party’s legacy of racial discrimination in 2002?   What were the political stakes which led the Bush administration to use race as a trump card to unseat Lott? The discourse which brought Lott down revealed the degree to which Republican political campaigns rely on racial code words.  Yet, this issue was dropped after Lott stepped down.  Does this mean that having achieved the goal of putting their candidate into the Senate leadership, the Bush administration was ready to relegate racist practices once again to the closet?  The eruption of this incident into the public sphere of debate and action just after the Republicans gained control of the House and Senate also begs for explanation.  So does Clarence Thomas’s emotional outbreak in the Supreme Court hearing on cross-burning as free speech at about the same time.   A socially responsible and racially aware PIA would be prepared to speak on such topics as they arise in the public sphere.

The affirmative action case argued before the Supreme Court on April 1, 2003, presents another example of the standoff between white cultural elitism and cultural diversity.   In this case, the racist imaginary morphed from the protection of white southern culture through segregation to the protection of educational standards in the elite law schools of the nation.

For example, consider Justice Scalia’s comment.  “Now, if Michigan really cares enough about that racial imbalance, why doesn’t it do as many other law schools do, lower the standards, not have a flagship elite law school, it solves the problem” (NYTimes, April 2, 2003, A14.)  Here Scalia reiterates a longstanding interest voiced by the Republican right in protecting the hegemony of a Western-based curriculum  and standards from multicultural contamination in higher education.

Marueen E. Mahoney, the lawyer defending the University of Michigan Law School’s program, replied to Scalia by suggesting that excellence does not rule out diversity.  “I don’t think there’s anything in this court’s cases that suggests that the law school has to make an election between academic excellence and racial diversity.”   Continuing, she proceeded to define the interest at stake for Michigan, but she was cut off in mid sentence by Scalia as she said, “The interest here is having a —–

Assuming that she was about to say that racial diversity was a compelling “State interest,” Scalia replied,  “If it claims it’s a compelling State interest, if it’s important enough to override the Constitution’s prohibition of racial distribution, it seems to me it’s important enough to override Michigan’s desire to have a super-duper law school.”

To which Ms. Mahoney responded by defining for Justice Scalia the interest as defined by the Michigan case: “Your Honor, the question isn’t whether it’s important to override the prohibition on discrimination.  It’s whether this is discrimination.”

Later, in response to questions raised by Justice Kennedy, Ms. Mahoney clarified Michigan’s conceptualization of the ultimate interest at stake.  “But Your Honor there is a compelling interest in having an institution that is both academically excellent and racially diverse, because our leaders need to be trained in institutions that are excellent, that are superior academically, but they also need to be trained with exposure to the viewpoints, to the prospectives [sic],  to the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds.“[14]  In other words, all Americans must be admitted to the circles of excellence, if American institutions are to be counted as excellent.

The references to the word “interest” in this exchange move across several analytic domains.  Bourdieu’s definition of interest as investment applies, but it is not investment in a game as much as it is investment in the values and relationships defining a social imaginary.   The debate is grounded in different social imaginaries buttressed by different core values regarding who can participate in the centers of power.   Scalia’s argument reveals the value he attaches to the Western cultural tradition.  Because his  argument takes for granted that this is the superior tradition,  his racism is thickly intertwined with his understanding of excellence and how it is maintained.   This kind of racism acts in the same way that “noblesse oblige” acts for the aristocrat.  As Bourdieu (l998:87) says about the aristocrat, he “cannot do otherwise than be generous, through loyalty to his group and to himself as a person worthy of being member of the group.”  The same applies to racism in the U.S.  Like noblesse oblige for the aristocrat, racism is embodied as disposition, grounded in habitus, and expressed in practices that oblige the racist to act to exclude those who do not have membership in the group which confers elite standing.

The magnitude of the stakes, the depth of emotion, and the very real consequences for people’s lives makes Scalia’s argument, along with the legacy it represents,  an example not just of the thick racism embodied in a habitus but of the deep racism so entrenched in American history that it can hold sway in the highest court of the land.  When Ms Mahoney answered Scalia’s argument by saying “this is discrimination,” I take her to mean that his argument perpetuates the legacy of discrimination.

The University of Michigan’s argument is grounded in a quite different American  tradition.  This tradition invests in the belief that “all people are created equal,” not just white men.  Michigan’s argument and its affirmative action policy is meant to enhance cultural diversity by strengthening the role it plays in American society and institutions.   Because the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action will affect millions of Americans, the contest between these social imaginaries is neither strictly ideological nor narrowly economic, but about conflicting moral orders with significant implications for practical reason, behavior, and social equity in institutions of higher education, the workplace, and the armed forces in the U.S. public domain for years to come.

To conclude, public interest action requires attention to the political, economic, and legal context of debate not just in the public sphere but in what might be called the sphere of public interests.  Public interest sphere refers to the discursive space in which public interest topics circulate and move through the world in discussion and debate in various academic, political and media settings (what Urban 2001 refers to as metaculture.)   The public interest sphere involves the assessment of core cultural values in relation to macrosocial guarantees.  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 not.


The multiplicity of issues raised above means that the analysis phase of public interest ethnography is better characterized as 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.)[15]  By this meaning, bifocality involves assessing local facts in terms of  wider theoretical models drawn from a number of sources.[16]

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.[17]  Another consideration might be the historical and social trajectory 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.   Here critical theory’s notions regarding transfiguration and fulfillment should be considered.

PIA must be prepared to answer many questions: Why at this time and not before? Why did Trent Lott’s fall come in 2002 when he had made similar comments before?  How do we explain Clarence Thomas’s emotional eruption at about this time during the 2002 Supreme Court argument over whether cross burning was to be protected as free speech?  Whereas in a l995 opinion he argued that in some instances cross burning might be protected, in 2002 he argued that cross burning is “a symbol of … terror” and is therefore about intimidation,  not speech (NYTimes, Dec. 15, 2002, Section 4, Page 5.)    Finally, how do we explain the broad public support for the University of Michigan in the 2003 affirmative action case?

The broader analytic question asks whether these incidents are examples of the fulfillment of the civil rights agenda.  Or, do they represent a significant transfiguration of this agenda embedded in a 21st century social imaginary reflecting new modes of sociability cross-cutting ethnicity and class?[18]   The outcome of the Supreme Court deliberation on the Michigan affirmative action case (not yet decided at this writing) will speak further to this question.  In all likelihood the decision will send a mixed message, as did the decision on cross burning.[19]

At the broadest level of analysis,  multifocality includes the identification of social, ecological, environmental,  and communicative disorders.   This level of analysis can refer either to the communicative models of critical theory or the evolutionary model of disorders due to breakdown in the principle of contingency proposed by Rappaport.     These can be thought of as  macroanthropological models for assessing the viability y of various forms of practice in light of the telos of cultural evolution and social change.   They do so by offering standards for assessing practice, identifying disorders,  and suggesting action.


Today, there are many ideas and many currents leading anthropology, amoebic like in many directions.  PIA is one of these currents, motivated,  like others,  by a common commitment to working on behalf of the world.[20]  PIA’s goals and scope are perhaps at once broader and more specific in the delineation of a conceptual framework designed to cut across the sub-disciplines of anthropology including applied and practicing anthropology.[21]   In doing so, PIA aims to reinvent anthropology by offering a new paradigm for the 21st century.

Reinventing anthropology involves building a community of scholars in which new questions are asked and in which answers “not necessarily the same for all, can freely be found” (Hymes l999 [l969:8].)  Transforming anthropology to include a public interest paradigm will involve building such a community.   As anthropologists know well, community building is essential to any kind of social transformation – in or outside an academic discipline.   While transformation begins with individual ideas vocalized in a particular socio-political-economic climate,  it takes hold in a community.

To bring the various branches of anthropology together in the context of a coherent model for public interest research is part of PIA’s community building effort.  Success along these lines will necessitate engaging in the “politics of partnership” on the homefront within the discipline of anthropology.  The partnership is essential if anthropology is to develop the common ground necessary for the discipline to be heard in the public domain on a level equal to economics and political science.[22]  The goal is to devise an anthropological approach that speaks to the public sphere so that any  member of the public interested in critical social issues can gain ready access to relevant anthropological findings through the media, websites, or the local bookstore.[23]   This will mean healing the breaches of the past so that anthropology presents itself as a coherent voice addressing critical public issues, particularly issues having to do with human well being, finding common ground, and appreciating cultural diversity.

In its concern with change, PIA is linked to action anthropology, including practicing and applied anthropology.   However, there is an important division of labor separating PIA  from its applied and practicing versions, a division which is useful to both and which can be likened to similar distinctions found in the fields of economics and political science.   The division should not be framed in terms of “applied” and “pure,” but in terms of the immediacies posed by solving and attending to specific problems in the here and now as opposed to the necessities posed by studying the dynamics of long term social trends and culture change in the interest of theory building.   Both are necessary and should be linked as Singer (2000)  and Rappaport (l995:257) argue.

I prefer to think of PIA as falling under the rubric of action research, rather than on one side of the split between “academic” or “applied” science.   I am in sympathy with those who believe that the latter distinction is not only unsound but misleading.  To divide the field along these lines has done more harm than good to anthropology as a cumulative science. [24]  I concur with Sol Tax’s view, described by Stocking (2000:190),  that those anthropologists who interpret their findings in the interest of solving practical problems “ought simply to be called an ‘anthropologist.’” I am also persuaded by the argument that action research can enhance the scientific efficacy of research due to fact that its“interest lies not in abstract conceptual systems…but in local, timely knowledge of concrete situations” (Toulmin 1996:58.)[25]

In line with critical social theory, PIA attempts to clarify the dilemmas and perplexities of our times in order to find a resolution.    As Braaten (1991:10-11) says, citing Hegel and Marx, critical theories seek to clarify “the struggles and wishes of the age  in such a way as to guide those struggles.”  They do so by identifying “deep conflicts, or potentials for society-wide crises, inherent within the social, political, and economic institutions of modern capitalist societies.”  By taking the world as its stage and relinquishing the Western focus on modern capitalism, PIA goes much further to identify the moments of choice, the resolution of conflict, and the construction of solidarity in many other contexts so as to give some notion of the range of human possibilities.

PIA is well aware of the disorders produced by globalization.   Like medical research devoted to understanding the bases for health and finding cures for disease, PIA studies the social and cultural processes by which public actions enhance or threaten the common good in an increasingly destabilized world marked by environmental depletion, the tyranny of the market, and a host of divisive social, economic and political issues.   The aim is to assess what does and doesn’t work; what needs to be promoted or changed by pointing out the long range consequences of exacerbating  social and environmental disorders.

PIA is holistic in that it has at its disposal the various dimensions defining anthropology: the biological, the linguistic, the cultural, and the sensitivity to long term processes along with the role of material culture and understanding of the time depth offered by archeology.   The  holism goes beyond the analysis of local cultural logics, common to all ethnographic analyses,  to consider more abstract global issues along the lines of  Kluckhohn’s (1959 quoted by Hymes 1999[1969]:12) idea that “the ultimate concern of the anthropological tradition…is with both ‘common humanity and diverse cultures.’”  Examples of the dual level analysis include the assessment of local actions in terms of peace versus conflict, environmental depletion versus conservation and sustainability,  democratic inclusion as opposed to discrimination and prejudice, the  spread of disease versus its control.   The identification and operationalization of such teleological processes in a manner that respects plurality of interests and local cultural differences is one of the goals of the PIA paradigm.

Thinking in these terms means that PIA is not a  neutral social science.   But, then, as Bourdieu and others say, there is no neutral social science.  According to Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Wacquant l992:51),  “[t]he idea of a neutral social science is a fiction, and an interested fiction,” which acts to maintain the established order.   Bourdieu suggests that when social science focuses only on the social mechanisms which maintain this order without critiquing the order,  “social science necessarily takes sides in political struggles” (ibid. emphasis in original.)  He believes that the aim instead should be to uncover the laws and means of domination so as to know better the “means to dominate domination” (ibid.)[26]  This goal fits the aims of PIA.

Although anthropology offers the intellectual tools for studying the means for dominating domination, anthropologists have not been successful in communicating their knowledge to the public.   There are many reasons for this.  A generalized taboo against engagement continues to exist.  Tenure requirements require that younger anthropologists  publish primarily in refereed journals, which do not necessarily share the goals of engaged anthropology.  Moving from the narrowly professional to the more broadly public is not an easy transition to make even after the tenure hurdle is surmounted.

The public interest anthropologist whose career is academically based has to maintain a split subjectivity in addressing two audiences – social science and the world.    While the requirements for addressing social science are taught in academic programs, ideas for addressing the world are not commonly addressed.  Hannerz ’s (2002:69-70) study of foreign correspondents provides some provocative suggestions for addressing the latter.  He speaks positively about the international prominence of a kind of writing which straddles “the borderland between anthropology and journalism” and he mentions some of the scholars working in this genre.  It is clear that those who do so are more likely to be heard around the world.   The question is whether they are heard because they reduce the issues to fit public ways of thinking or because they are more cosmopolitan in the way they address public culture.   If reductionism is a problem for scholars writing for public audiences, abstraction is the bane of academic writing.  The goal of public-interest writing is not to navigate between the two, but to address public issues directly in the interest of enlightenment and change.  To return to Hegel, it is the passion for change that counts, not speaking to one’s discipline or inserting one’s name into the public domain.[27]

Engaged anthropology lives comfortably with a split subjectivity by consciously adopting public enlightenment as one professional goal and building theory as another.   Boldness in both quarters will result in the revitalization of anthropology.  Boldness means keeping the public informed.  Anthropology needs to go virtual.  It needs to step out on the stage of the world wide web and speak directly to the world.    An anthropology news website should be designed to provide up-to-date information on critical social issues in “hot spots” around the world.  Such a website would report activities and “discoveries” in all of the subfields.   Postings could be contributed from anywhere in the world by anthropologists and those they work with.   Informing the public in this way would have a powerful impact on anthropology’s public face.   It would also have powerful impact on uniting a fragmented anthropology around a common goal.

To conclude, PIA is a hopeful science.   Just as humans have built the market in the interest of gain, based on the principle of competition and conflict that goes back to Hobbes and Darwin at least, PIA assumes that humans can build other structures in the interest of consensus, cooperation, and altruism in the global community.   Although there is no evidence today that these are dominant macrosocial goals, there is plenty of evidence that these goals are circulating in the global public sphere.   By entering this arena as an engaged science, PIA answers Rappaport’s call for anthropology to “think not merely about the world but on behalf of the word.”


The fact that what I and others call public interest anthropology (PIA) developed almost entirely independently of the other efforts to reinvent anthropology at the end of the 20thcentury suggests that as the 20th century closed there was a growing interest in speaking once again to public issues, which, as Dell Hymes, Walter Goldschmidt, and George Stocking remind us, was the foundation on which the edifice of anthropology was constructed.

The overlap between PIA and other efforts suggests that we all speak to an underlying foundational paradigm, one guided by social passion and engagement evident in the work of Franz Boas and his students.  My efforts along these lines has been shaped and supported by many sources.   Very early in my career, Ward Goodenough provided both inspiration and needed support.  Dell Hymes’ Reinventing Anthropology gave me the courage to think seriously about anthropology and the public interest.   Eugene Hammel played a significant role in the publication of my edited book on this subject in l976.   The encouragement of Walter Goldschmidt when we both served as members of the AAA panel on the Public Uses of Anthropology in the late 1970s was also important.  At the University of Pennsylvania, Frank Johnston was supportive from the beginning.  He helped me gain financial backing for a Penn faculty seminar convened to revisit the subject l996.  This seminar was supported by Ira Harkavy’s Community Center Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.  I am grateful to the intense discussion of this seminar which included Julia Paley, Paula Sabloff and Frank Johnston.  More recently, James Peacock, Yolanda Moses, and Paula Sabloff have worked tirelessly with me to develop a supportive community for PIA.  They read several drafts of this paper and supplied many helpful comments.   They kept me going when I wanted to give up.

For theoretical inspiration, I have benefited from reading and talking with Julia Paley, Greg Urban, Craig Calhoun, and Ulf Hannerz.  Other colleagues whose support is gratefully acknowledged is that of Kathy Hall and Guatam Ghosh.  Their work strives for the goals that bring anthropology back to its foundation.   Finally, I am grateful for the careful historical work of George Stocking together with his helpful comments in connection with the first symposia on PIA in l998, which  provided the record I needed  to grapple with anthropology’s roots.

The enthusiasm of graduate students must also be mentioned.  Amelia Rosenberg and Megan Tracy expanded my understanding by surveying the literature relevant to public interest concerns in anthropology for their orals statements.  Along with Donna Kirschner they helped with the design of the first course on PIA.

Most recently, I acknowledge with gratitude Richard Leventhal, President of the School of American Research, who thought enough of PIA to fund a workshop on the subject to coincide with the 2003 AAA meetings in Chicago and an SAR seminar on the subject for 2004.  Yolanda Moses, James Peacock, and Paula Sabloff  must be mentioned once again in this connection because of their participation in the proposal that inspired SAR’s interest in this topic.

To all these individuals and to those whose work has been faithful to anthropology’s legacy of public engagement, I want to acknowledge their dedication to the vision that framed anthropology not just as a unique social science but one that responds both to the diversity and to the humanity that unites us all.


[1] Currently the American Anthropological Association lists 36 different sections.  For example, there are eleven divisions representing various aspects of cultural anthropology; one division representing linguistics; one division representing archaeology; several divisions falling more or less in the traditional sub-field once called physical but now increasingly labeled biological anthropology; one division which refers to environmental issues; seven divisions representing special interests; and, one division representing education.  One division represents practicing anthropologists and the rest represent  various areal interests.  In light of this diversity it is obvious that this paper cannot speak to the public interest concerns that each may have.

[2] Goldschmidt notes (l979:5) that although from its beginnings anthropology was “involved with public matters,” as the discipline moved into the academy it turned away from the consideration of public issues.  He describes the flight from Washington in the 1940s, due to the frustration anthropologists felt in government jobs and the new availability and prestige of academic jobs (1979:8.)   Academic anthropology turned in on itself by emphasizing the teaching of theory and neglecting the teaching of methods which would prepare students for nonacademic jobs.  Receiving no encouragement or actively discouraged, students were inadequately prepared to work outside of the academy.See Goldschmidt and Sanday (l979) for an account of the effect on practicing anthropologists of the absence of adequate training.

[3] Boas’s idea about emancipation is reminiscent of the Frankfurt school of critical theory.  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.)  See Marcus and Fischer’s (l986:122) discussion of the relationship of the Frankfurt school to cultural critique and demystification of cultural forms in relationship to market economies and mass-society politics.

[4] Despite its appreciation of culture and cultural diversity, and its understanding of the necessity for diversity and adaptation in human evolution,  anthropologists show an amazing tendency to dig themselves into narrow, dogmatic niches and to exclude those whose work does not fit the requirements of the niches, which mostly involve dialoguing with certain theorists or speaking to anthropological ancestors.   I have encountered this tendency throughout my academic career and long ago gave up addressing a primarily anthropological audience (either academic or applied) on the grounds that doing so buries the issues in academic jargon, and as such, is inimical to the task of public enlightenment.  In some quarters, anthropologists have constructed a formal theoretical language, which seems primarily designed to keep the uninitiated out and produce intellectual hierarchies.   Although theoretical development and argumentation  is essential to any viable social science,  that alone is not enough to sustain anthropology, especially given its roots.

[5] See Goldschmidt (1979:7-9)  for an account of a time when the AAA was not so welcoming to addressing the uses of anthropology outside the academy.

[6] See Newman (1995) for a detailed examination of the consequences of deindustrialization in urban communities.

[7] PIA developed in the context of a faculty seminar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Dept of Anthropology  in l996. The goal of this seminar was to find ways to  join research and action, to cut  across the subfields of anthropology, and to bridge teaching and community action in service learning programs.The seminar was initiated by Julia Paley, myself, and Paula Sabloff.  It was supported by Francis Johnston, who also attended the seminar.  Funding came from Ira Harkavy’s Center for Community Partnership.  The  paper summarizing the seminar’s conclusions can be read at

Among many other subjects, we discussed the possibilities for anthropologizing public interests, which we labeled public interest anthropology.  Regardless of the subdiscipline, anthropologists who address public issues must deal not just with specific publics motivated by certain interests or characterized by definable needs but with contested interests as well.   In the context of the seminar we addressed many issues: nutrition in West Philadelphia; democracy in Chile and Mongolia; the role of descendents in archaeological projects; museums as a tool for education in cultural diversity; discourse circulation as a vehicle for change; and teaching reading through local language.

More anthropologists got involved in the discussion in the context of  AAA Symposia presented  in Philadelphia 1998; San Francisco 2000; and New Orleans 2002.  For the names of some of the anthropologists involved in these early developments,  see Acknowledgements.  Some of the  papers associated with the Symposia can be read at the webpage already cited.

[8] See Mead and Metraux (1970) on ways of seeing.  See Marcus and Fischer’s important discussion of ethnography as a form of cultural critique, which “disrupts common sense” (1986:1)

[9] For another example of human social creativity that could be mentioned here, see Paley’s (2001) provocative ethnography of postdictatorship Chile which includes a focus on the activism of the grassroots health group she studied in a poor community in Santiago, Chile.  The study is particularly interesting for the way in which Paley uses her ethnography of the transition to democracy to teach the members of this group to reflect on the government impinging on their communities.  The educative function in this case included teaching the members of the group how to do ethnography to gain the information and the knowledge base for lobbying the government.

[10] In its more applied and practicing faces, public interest ethnography will entail a great deal more.  This is a subject about which I am not qualified to speak since my work has been primarily concerned with public enlightenment through research, speaking, and responding to the media.

[11]  This approach recognizes that values are politically and socially grounded in relations of power, as Peacock notes.  However by shifting the focus to considering ways to change values,  the approach accepts the strategy of critical social theory regarding emancipating humans from the stereotypes that enslave them (see Benhabib 1986:3.)

[12] Reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 12, 2003, Editorial Section, Pg. D5.

For a similar opinion in the New Jersey Sumpreme Court in 1992,  see Sanday 1996:265-6.

[13] To take another issue which is related to the “she asked for it” discourse, one can raise questions about the marketing of pornography in this country.  Although I have not studied this subject ethnographically, it is interesting to examine the pro- and anti-pornography arguments.  Both refer to core American values.   The pro-pornography argument is phrased in terms of free speech; while the anti-pornography argument is framed in terms of gender equality.  Ethnographic research is an ideal method for throwing more light on this debate.  Either pornography is protected speech because no relationship can be found linking pornography to gender inequality and violence against women; or, pornography is hate speech because of evidence that makes this link.   If the latter argument is supported, public action involves communicating the results to the public and taking steps regarding the free market distribution of hardcore porn on the grounds that it violates the constitutional rights of women.

A similar critique applies to the value the gun lobby places on the right to bear arms.  So far, no research (to my knowledge) has been conducted regarding the relationship between the American obsession with the right to bear arms, such as articulated by members of the National Rifle Association, and interpersonal violence in the U.S., one of the most violent nations in the world.   This is a prime subject for PIA ethnography and commentary.  There are a number of hypotheses which cry out for examination ethnographically,  such as those articulated by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine regarding the “culture of fear” as an explanation for the obsession with guns and related violence in the U.S.   The hegemony of the right to bear arms as compared with the failure of efforts to control gun sales to protect the lives of children again brings to mind Rappaport’s discussion of “disorders of our own.”

[14] Transcript of Grutter v. Bollinger,  April 1, 2003.

[15] Clifford (l988:34) uses the metaphor of bifocality when he  refers to tacking between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of events.

[16] Ortner [l994(l984)] describes the models that have been regnant since the sixties.    For example,  symbolic anthropology, cultural ecology, structuralism, structural Marxism, political economy, and practice theory overtook the earlier ethnographic paradigms such as the particularism of Boas, Benedict, and Mead and  the structural functionalism of Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown (see Sanday l979.)

[17] Seen in this way,  multifocality has much in common with Nancy Fraser’s (l989:2) definition of bifocality as a tool for merging theory, action, and engagement.   Fraser states that her intellectual project is “bifocal in nature, responding simultaneously to political conditions and to intellectual developments.”  For example, as a participant in the feminist movement she wants to hold “new theoretical paradigms accountable to the demands of political practice.”  As a “critical social theorist,” she tries “to assess the viability of alternative forms of practice in light of the results of theoretical reflections.”

[18] Benhabib (l986:13) refers to the “politics of fulfillment” and the “politics of transfiguration” in her discussion of the foundations of critical theory.   She defines fulfillment as “the culmination of the implicit logic of the present” or the realization of “the implicit but frustrated potential of the present.”   Transfiguration refers to “the emergence of qualitatively new needs, social relations, and modes of association, which burst open the utopian potential within the old” (p. 13.)  Transfiguration applies to emancipation efforts that  bring about “a radical and qualitative break with some aspects of the present” (p.41.)  These are interesting propositions about the trajectory over time of particular public interests which are central questions to be posed in PIA research.

[19] The court’s decision claimed that when cross-burning is purely symbolic, it is protected speech.  When intent to intimidate can be established in a court of law, it is not protected and is therefore legally actionable.   Interestingly, Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion claimed that cross-burning should be treated as conduct and not speech because it is nothing but “an instrument of intimidation.”  [NYTimes, April 8, 2003, A17.]   The public interest anthropologist would agree with Thomas on the ethnographic grounds that because symbols serve both as models of/for behavior, cross burning in certain contexts acts not just as a symbol of intimidation, it incites it as well.

[20] For examples, see Borofsky’s (2000) “public anthropology;” Escobar’s (1995) well known study of “social movements;” Scheper-Hughes’ (l992; 1998 with Carolyn Sargent) well known efforts on behalf of children and her more recent intervention in the global sale of body parts; Nader’s career-long commitment to equity and justice (see Nader 2001); Peacock’s (1997)  vision of “the future of anthropology and his contribution  (l995; 1999) to two important edited volumes together with his internationalization of anthropology in the context of his university; and Moses’  initiative on race (1998, 1999.)  See also the discussion above about the AAA Panel on Disorders (Forman 1995) and Moran’s (1996) edited book on transforming anthropology.  Another important source of current trends is Hymes’ (l999:xxi-xxiii) summary of the trends that sprouted after the publication of his edited book, Reinventing Anthropology.  Finally, Paley’s (2002) review of the anthropology of democracy is rich with additional sources, demonstrating the scope and breadth of anthropological interest and involvement in public sphere processes world wide.  This short summary only touches the surface and should not be taken as exhaustive.

[21] Singer (2000) contends that the relatively recent idea of a “public anthropology” (referring to Borofsky’s (2000) statement)  is a device for reestablishing the hierarchal division between applied and academic anthropology.   I agree with Singer’s (2000:7) contention that what is needed is “strengthening, valuing, and more fully integrating applied/practicing anthropology.”  However, I disagree with his comment to me that naming PIA as a separate model reestablishes the division (personal communication.)   Unlike “public anthropology,” PIA represents a specific a model for research and action, guided by a particular set of concepts and theories.  It would be unethical and misleading to refer to PIA as a form of applied or practicing anthropology because it is not exactly either.  Indeed, my experience has been for some time that my work straddles the fence between so-called “academic” and “applied” anthropology.   In my view, PIA is a type of action anthropology with a specific theoretical and methodological program.

However, Singer’s point is important.   Unfortunately, for the wrong reasons, applied/practicing anthropology developed as autonomous arms of the discipline.  Goldschmidt (l979:7-9) describes the historical development of this development, which he traces to the early 1940s when anthropologists began to leave government jobs in Washington D.C.for the academy.  According to Goldschmidt (l979:9) when a group calling themselves applied anthropologists applied for affiliation with the AAA they were turned down and they organized independently.  To make matters worse, the academy pretty much abandoned applied/practicing anthropology  in their training programs, discouraging those who wanted to work outside of the academy and not providing them with the proper education (Goldschmidt 1979:8.)

[22]Both Goldschmidt (l979:7) and Rappaport (l995) mention that economics and political science retained their influence and involvement in public affairs and did not repeat anthropology’s general disengagement.

[23] For example – speaking fancifully – one hopes that eventually anthropology will produce indices of gross national happiness or common global agreement to compete with the current hegemony of economic indicators.   One would also hope that anthropologists would begin to take their place in greater numbers among those counted as public intellectuals.

[24] For the relationship between “academic” and “applied” anthropology see fn 21.

[25] As Hill-Burnett (l987:124-5) points out “[k]nowledge is tested in use; when found wanting, it must be further developed or clarified.”   This means that “applying knowledge entails not only adding to it but transforming assumptions, manipulating categories, shifting paradigms, and coming to grips with the human consequences of using given conceptual schemes.”

A similar argument is presented by  Toulmin (l996) who suggests that because action research involves paying attention to context it improves our practices.  Because action research grounds change in participatory action, this type of research is more democratic, giving people a chance to have their say and hence enhancing the grounds for human creativity in social change (Toulmin 1996:61.)   To this one can add that the researcher’s participation with those she studies and the relevance of the data for social action increases the level of responsibility vis-à-vis data, analysis, and recommendation for action.

[26] This quotation is a translation by Loic Waquant (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:51) fom an article by Bourdieu that appeared in 1980 in Questions de sociologie.  Paris: Editions de Minuit.

[27] For examples of public-interest writing see Mead, Lutz, Sanjek, Appadurai, and my work, discussed above.  These examples provide some models for public-interest writing.   Many other models will follow once anthropology gives itself permission to break out of its rather prim, somewhat puritanical and often dogmatic mold. Hannerz  cites(2002:70)  Lutz and Nonini (l999) idea that ethnographic work  should emulate “fine investigative journalism.”  For more examples of public interest writing see Footnote 20.


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