Public Interest Anthropology: A Program for Research, Teaching, and Action

Planning Seminar



Planning Committee:
Frank Johnston, Julia Paley, Paula Sabloff, Peggy R. Sanday [faculty];
Abby Corrigan [graduate student assistant]


This preliminary statement grows out of a planning seminar held at the Dept. of Anthropology during the Spring Semester of l997. The seminar was funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation with the goal of exploring cross-cutting ties within the Department for the development of an undergraduate anthropology concentration in an intradisciplinary, four-field program in what we are calling “public interest anthropology.” The members of the Planning Group consisted of one physical, three cultural anthropologists, and a cultural graduate student. To expand our scope we also met with colleagues in the Department and the University.

This statement was prepared by Peggy R. Sanday in conjunction with Frank Johnston, Julia Paley and Paula Sabloff. The statement presents a preliminary outline of the nature and scope of public interest anthropology as we conceive of it at this point. We fully expect that the statement will change with the input of colleagues and students. We encourage you to think with us by e-mailing your response to any or all of us. [E-mail addresses are appended at end of the statement.]


Because of their training in the holistic approach and anthropological methods, as citizens and scholars anthropologists are well qualified to study public problems wherever they work and live. Anthropological methods–participant observation and seeing things from “the other’s point of view”–are especially applicable in multicultural societies like the U.S. characterized by cultural differences, competing interests, and a history of privilege for some members of the population and exclusion for others. In recent years the discourse of citizen and community participation together with that of multiculturalism and critical race theory has increasingly characterized public debate, demonstrating the growing ascendancy of multiple voices. At the same time pressures to expand citizen access to health, education, employment, and voting rights have raised expectations, if not opportunity, among members of traditionally disenfranchised groups in U.S. society.

As anthropologists committed to democratic goals and global human rights as universal ideals, each of the authors of this document has engaged in participatory research and action aimed at serving these goals through tackling specific problems. Johnston, a physical anthropologist, studies the relationship between nutrition, growth and development in low income populations in urban Guatemala and Philadelphia in order to facilitate healthy growth and development; Paley, a cultural anthropologist, studies political changes in Latin America in order to understand the relationship between urban social movements and political/economic transitions. Sabloff, a cultural anthropologist with a concentration in the U.S. and Mongolia, studies the new democracy movement in Mongolia in order to understand the parameters of participation in emerging democracies; and Sanday, a cultural anthropologist with a concentration in the U.S. and Indonesia, has studied the relationship between sexual culture and acquaintance rape in the U.S. to educate teachers, lawyers, and citizens about the ways in which sexual aggression is culturally programmed even if biologically determined.

We are also linked by a commitment to joining theory development, empirical research, teaching, and action so that each reinforces the other. Respecting the enduring legacy of Boas, we subscribe to a common research approach in holistic terms, including biological, cultural, social, linguistic, and historical approaches to the study of human population processes and interests. At a time when the four fields of anthropology are becoming increasingly specialized and separated, we respect the value of a four-field approach. Because we include action as an equal player in our intellectual and teaching endeavors we recognize that public interest anthropology straddles the line between basic and applied research, being at once neither but always both so that the boundary between basic and applied breaks down as does the boundary between research and action. One of the most important goals of public interest anthropology is to feed the results of the anthropological analysis of public interest issues and problems back into the public arena of negotiation, debate, and action.

As public interest anthropologists we are not disinterested observers or analysts but participants in the action in so far as we bring our expertise as anthropologists to the solution of specific problems and participate with actors in the implementation of solutions. The transition from research problem to action moves us into the realm of applied anthropology. As applied anthropologists, however, we work not for decision makers or government officials but for citizens–the public as we define the term. Our work is always in the interest of a “public” as opposed to the interest of the “state.”


It is easier to say what we do NOT mean by the term “public” than what we mean. By public we do not mean “public sphere” as defined by Habermas, although some of us find Habermas’s notion of the public as the discursive arena of rational critical debate relevant for specific issues and problems. By public we also do not mean “the people,” if by this term one refers to an abstraction or a homogeneous human population characterized by a united voice served by the nation/state. The heuristic value of the term public comes from defining it broadly so that, like the term culture, it has many meanings.

At the simplest level of practical politics, the term public refers to the plurality of individuals residing in a country and regulated by a body of laws defining rights and duties. At the broadest level, the public is the social arena where macro-social questions concerning basic rights and the common good are negotiated, decided, and acted upon. At the more empirical level of daily life, the public is constituted by competing arenas of discourse, conflicting modes of participation, and strategies for social action. Power is always everywhere present in the constitution of these arenas because except in situations of extreme upheaval power brokers set the terms of the discourse, engage some and not others in participation, and decide who acts and who is acted upon.

In a multicultural society such as our own, the public is best seen, in the words of Geoff Eley (l992:306), “as the structured setting where cultural and ideological contest or negotiation among a variety of publics takes place.” According to Nancy Fraser (l992:126) “public life in egalitarian, multicultural societies cannot consist exclusively in a single, comprehensive public sphere.” Fraser contends (ibid) that “the idea of an egalitarian, multicultural society only makes sense if we supposed a plurality of public arenas in which groups with diverse values and rhetorics participate. By definition, such a society must contain a multiplicity of publics.”

A major anthropological question raised by the concept of multiple publics concerns how each is configured and interrelated to the broader social whole. This question can only be answered by long-term ethnography and sociocultural analysis which reinvent the traditional approach of social organization to apply to complex societies. This task raises a host of issues which cannot be fully addressed here. However, there is one issue that goes to the heart of the epistemological underpinnings of public interest anthropology. This issue has to do with how we come to know and incorporate competing public interests in our field research and how we identify arenas for action. The answer to this question depends on the vantage point taken in public interest research.

To ask how multiple publics are configured and interrelated leads us to the social characteristics which act either to merge individuals in common identities (interests) or separate them along fault lines of difference (conflict). Parameters of identity and difference will change depending on one’s analytic vantage point. For example, the vantage point of metacultural discourse can be contrasted with that formed by “the native’s point of view.” Taking the U.S. as the example, metaculturally speaking, gender, race, and class are often proposed as forming the major lines of difference dividing U.S. publics. Yet, when addressed from the vantage point of individuals (the native’s point of view) there are enormous differences separating individuals within each of these putative publics. Because of anthropology’s grounding in ethnography and participant observation, this example demonstrates that the public anthropologist will find cascading affiliations and identities at the intersection of public domains of discourse and action and individual domains of choice and experience. Because what may be public and political may not always be private, metacultural categories like race, class, and gender in U.S. discourse are always to some extent empty cultural categories viewed from the vantage point of the individual. It is the task of the PUBLIC anthropologist–that is, one who is not concerned with specific interests attached to specific publics–to show how such empty categories can become filled with meaning in the process of their reification through public action and metacultural commentary. It is the task of the PUBLIC INTEREST anthropologist to point out that metacultural categories lumping people according to biological attributes such as race and gender or according to their income may reinforce rather than efface historical inequalities. Thus, egalitarian goals may come into sharp conflict with a metacultural public discourse that draws lines of identity and difference and defines interest according to immutable characteristics such as race, sex, and class. Yet, on the other hand, these same reified categories may be deployed by particular groups in what Kay Warren refers to as “strategic essentialism” to advance their interests with respect to specific goals. Thus, there is always the possibility that biological or ethnic-based categories do serve the interest of equality and inclusion.


The question of the term interest, its definition and meaning, will change as the paradigm we are proposing evolves. As a starting point, we conceptualize interest in terms of goals developed by or for a particular social collectivity to enhance or preserve its common good. The public interest anthropologist attempts first to understand and then to act with others who have either articulated specific goals or whose interests remain unformulated yet pertinent to the goals of equality and inclusion. This raises the question of the grounds on which the public interest anthropologist chooses particular public interest problems. From our point of view the choice is never relativistic because interest will always be defined in reference to the universal ideals of democracy and human rights.

However, since interests defined according to these ideals often conflict it is essential for the public interest anthropologist to articulate in relation to whom interest is defined and to understand the ramifications of competing interests with respect to a specific problem and course of action. This is not to say that the anthropologist will serve all interests, but that serving one interest often implies considering another. For example, the anthropologist working in the interest of the anti-pornography movement must research the impact and social meaning of pornography on American sexual behavior which means considering the pro-pornography side of the debate. Such an approach is essential because state action vis-a-vis pornography will ultimately be determined by the outcome of public debate on the social impact and meaning of pornography. Thus, the anti-pornography anthropologist must subject the libertine argument that pornography is speech that frees rather than restricts sexual behavior to empirical and theoretical analysis along with the argument voiced by anti-pornography advocates that because pornography subordinates women and encourages sexual aggression it interferes with women’s rights to equality and freedom from sexual abuse.

Another example of competing interests comes from the practice of genital mutilation in Africa. In this case, traditional cultural interests may conflict with those of young women who seek to free themselves from forced marriage and the physical encoding of a restrictive sexuality. As they move toward more Western modes of sexual and marriage relationships, more and more are rejecting the practice of genital mutilation for themselves. Health issues are also increasingly discussed with respect to genital mutilation because of the increased risk of AIDS to women who have been genitally wounded.

On the other side, if we accept Mary Douglas’s claim that the body is a symbol of society, the public interest anthropologist will recognize the sociocultural forms that are ritually processed through the practice of genital mutilation. More importantly, from the public interest point of view, are the African women’s groups who are themselves making the argument in favor of genital mutliation for specific cultural reasons of ritual, rite of passage, continuity, nationalism, etc. There are also African women’s groups who are both against genital multilation and trying to preserve culture, identity, ritual, and freedom from foreign intervention in determining the outcome of this issue. This is not to argue for the status quo, only to point out that because acting in a public’s interest means analyzing all sides of an issue there will be times when the public interest anthropologist adopts a “hands-off” policy in deference to the competing interests of particular publics and the inevitable resolution through the normal historical process.

We do not pretend to have answers to the questions raised by genital mutilation in Africa or the pornography issue in the U.S. except to point out that these issues comprise arenas of action and discourse. The job of the public interest anthropologist in these and other cases is to enter these arenas only after weighing the consequences of competing proposals for action. This is a little like the economist who never makes predictions or gives economic advice without first investigating all possible angles. Yet, we also know that economic advice is often formulated according to one of several competing interest paradigms: stimulating free enterprise as opposed to providing for social welfare are two well known examples.

Such considerations raise a host of questions that have long been debated in anthropology and will be addressed by the community of public interest anthropologists. At this stage, we neither have answers nor do we pretend to know all the appropriate questions.


The first “public” confronted by the academic anthropologist is comprised of students. Serving the interest of students means considering the goals of teaching. Do we teach anthropology as a disinterested discipline, concentrating mainly on theory development and history or do we teach anthropology as a tool that prepares students to lead more productive professional lives in service to the public good? Public interest anthropology opts for the second goal of teaching under the supposition that by training students to serve the public interest anthropology makes a contribution to society. In this goal we are in agreement with Fox’s (l995) characterization of “Going Public with Anthropology” and join company with anthropologists like Sol Tax who is said to have “practiced an anthropology based on civic responsibility, public participation, and radical humanist principles” (Fox l995).

In its teaching mission public interest anthropology adopts the pedagogy of problem-based learning. In this approach, learning occurs by focussing on a specific human problem, the solution of which is in the interest of a particular public. An awareness and grasp of anthropological theory grows out of identifying, defining, and conceptualizing the problem, as well as by developing methods — rooted in participatory action research –to contribute to its solution. Students grasp more easily the relevance of anthropology to the world as well as the interrelationship among theory, practice, and research. Rather than being specifically separated from it, anthropology comes face-to-face with contemporary society and the issues with which its members must deal.


We are at the beginning of a new program for teaching, research and action. In this document we lay out the foundation for this new approach as it developed during a productive semester of discussions among ourselves and with our colleagues. Much remains to be done. Our next step will be to propose a symposium on Public Interest Anthropology to be held at the American Anthropological Association Meetings in Philadelphia in l998. Another step will be to develop an undergraduate cluster of courses in public interest anthropology which we plan to initiate by the Fall of l998. We hope to draw students into anthropology through this program who will also be interested in service learning. From our cluster of courses and those listed by the Center for Community Partnerships we hope to see a pre-professional undergraduate track emerge that will prepare students to be engaged citizens who are receptive to discerning the public interest as they practice their professions.


Response is invited to the above draft statement, which will continue to be developed in the upcoming year. Responses can be addressed to any one of us by e-mail:

  • Frank Johnston
  • Paula Sabloff
  • Julia Paley
  • Peggy R. Sanday
  • Abby Corrigan

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