Public Interest Anthropology: Opening Statement



As citizens, many anthropologists from Boas to the present have had a significant impact on American culture and society. Yet, as James Peacock observes in his l995 Presidential Address to the American Anthropological Association, anthropology as a discipline remains virtually invisible in “the wider culture’s plan” ( l997:10.) Perhaps this is because the field does not reward those who turn their attention to that plan with the view of changing it. Anthropology is remarkably good at description and theory, but remarkably suspicious of relevance and change. While we chronicle examples of anthropologists engaging in public debate in our Newsletter, our research is rarely motivated by attention to “the central problems of society” (Harkavy, Johnston, and Puckett l996:16.) However, there is good reason to argue that this is changing because anthropologists across the sub-disciplines are increasingly turning to the challenges posed by local, national, and global social problems. We have come to the point where it is time to distill and synthesize some widely shared principles of practice which can reinvigorate if not reinvent anthropology. The following statement outlines a paradigm for practice, but does not suggest either that the approach which is outlined should substitute for others or that it is particularly new.*

Because of its focus on public issues in which specific publics with definable interests can be discerned, this paradigm is labelled Public Interest Anthropology. Generally speaking, two trends can be noted under the rubric of this paradigm: 1.)Merging problem solving with theory and analysis in the interest of change motivated by a commitment to social justice, racial harmony, equality, and human rights; and 2.)Engaging in public debate on human issues to make the results of anthropological analysis accessible to a broad audience. The commitment to social justice, human rights, and democratic ideals reflected in the goals of Public Interest Anthropology is one that many anthropologists hold but do not explicitly admit on the grounds that it biases objective analysis. The following discussion suggests that given anthropology’s commitment to participant observation this is a misplaced fear.

Public Interest Anthropology promotes change and advances knowledge through attention to the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘perplexities’ of our time as these are articulated in civil society, the arena where social issues circulate and people come together in pursuit of common goals. Civil society can be broadly defined as 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 are articulated and circulated. 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 Taylor l995:208;287.)

There are important parallels between the concept of democracy and the practice of Public Interest Anthropology. One of the major ideological processes defining democratic civil society is citizen participation. One of the distinctive methodological processes characterizing anthropology historically is participation/observation and seeing things from “the people’s point of view.” The importance of the bifocal approach—preserving the experience-near by grasping specific occurrences and gestures empathetically while situating local meanings in wider contexts—makes anthropology one of the more grounded of the social sciences (Geertz l983:55-72; Clifford 1988:34). The public-interest implications of this grounded-ness is reflected in the concept of culture as conceptualized by Frans Boas early in the 20th century. Boas’s attention to particularities, his privileging of human creativity, and his emphasis on the conditioning of cultural tradition replaced race and evolution as the privileged explanation for the puzzle of human social diversity. In the process, Boas not only changed anthropology he changed the anthropologist’s world (see discussion in Stocking l968:233; and more recently Handler l998:458.) Boas’s passion for change came from his reaction to discrimination as a German Jew in l9th century Germany. Thus, he acted from his own commitment to democracy.

A similar commitment and concern with human rights motivates Public Interest Anthropology. Throughout the 20th century anthropology codified ethnography, the quintessential methodological tool for a grounded approach. Paradigms for ethnographic analysis, ranging from structural-functionalism to semiotics and that mixed bag called post-modernism, guided the tacking between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of events (Clifford’s l988:34 metaphor for bifocality.) More recently, power and history were added to the analytic project (see Wolf l998 for the most recent discussion on culture and power.) From the perspective of a public-interest paradigm, understanding how interests shape specific public[s] represents one step; researching the historical and social trajectory of public[s] and interest[s] in relations of power is another.

In the United States, publics emerge and problems are articulated at all levels of society from the local community to the nation. The issues may develop from the bottom up as people bond around common interests or they may be articulated from the top down by scholars, public interest professionals working for the state, or by journalists. Whether bottom-up or top-down, world-changing public interest issues clash in the discursive arena of public debate. For example, the feminist and civil rights movements arose from grass roots citizen action but evolved as part of a national debate which included movement leaders, academics, professionals and journalists. The debate inspired a social climate which made people responsive to discrimination, deprivation, and inequality along lines of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. The contemporary discourse of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia emanates from the public interest sphere of national debate that grew out of this climate. The discursive arena where these and other social issues are debated and circulated constitutes a public-interest sphere which takes on a life of its own independently of the public[s] affected by the movements. Thus public interests associated with specific groups may evolve into nested spheres of action, conflict, and debate.

In a democratic, multicultural society public interest action may be temporary and peaceful or long term and revolutionary as different groups contest their share in common resources or engage in activities seeking systemic social change in the delivery of rights and resources. Understanding how conflicting interests are played out in any society requires a study of the trajectory of particular interests historically through the social hierarchy and an appreciation of the contemporary power dynamics in the political economy. Part of the project is understanding how things change, how change affects the overall mix of interests, and what action[s] facilitate change. The social realization of change in the interest of expanding democracy is the central focus and the ultimate goal of PIA.


Public Interest Anthropology is more than a focus for research; it is a paradigm for learning, teaching, research, action, and practice within the field of anthropology. This paradigm spans the four fields and is motivated by a number of foundational commitments and assumptions each of which has implications for academic learning and teaching on the one hand; and research, application, and practice on the other. To summarize some of its basic principles, Public Interest anthropology is committed to:

1.”democratization of knowledge” in research, practice, and teaching;

2.a problem orientation, so that research links theory to practice [including action] through the articulation of a specifically defined problem;

3.attention to problems affecting health, well being, social welfare, and quality of life in multi-cultural societies with histories of inequality;

4.advancing knowledge through attention to the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘perplexities’ of our time as defined by groups of people or whole societies; (see Dewey cited by Harkavy, Johnston, and Puckett l996:19);

5.focusing on the mechanisms by which knowledge is communicated, deflected, subverted, mythologized [which means examining a variety of communication fields such as language, ritual, force, cultural symbols, media, museums, transnational global processes, etc.];

6.change that expands the scope of democracy;

7.participatory/action research so that the population, community, or group whose interests are at stake in a PIA project play an active role in the project;

8.emphasizing individual agency, the aesthetics of daily life, and the uniqueness of local cultural forms in line with the Boasian emphasis on “human creativity” and cultural uniqueness;

9.looking to power and history as the screen against which the specific is projected in order to comprehend the possibilities and strategies for change.

Each of these principles has specific meaning when considering the pedagogy and practice of PIA. Pedagogy refers to PIA in the classroom; practice refers to conducting PIA outside of the classroom. Each should be considered separately, but both overlap in the emphasis on participatory-action in learning and research.


Practice refers to research, methods, applications, ethics, and action. In some senses there is nothing new in the practice of PIA; yet, the emphasis on multiplicity, bifocality, and collapsing traditional distinctions such as between research, theory, action, and application makes it post-modern. This does not mean that PIA is innovative or particularly new; rather, it is a paradigm that synthesizes elements of past practice and current theoretical debate in a focus on social change in contemporary national and global contexts. The advance in knowledge that comes from this focus may result from questioning grand narratives and proposing more context-specific frameworks for workable social change. Challenging grand narratives is often integral to social change, a lesson we learn from Boas’s excision of race and his substitution of culture to explain human diversity. Challenging the specifics of anthropological theory is also key. For example, the cyclical re-emergence of racial determinism in American thought, the success of socio-biology as an explanation for a wide-range of social problems ranging from race to rape, and the rooted-ness of beliefs supporting asymmetries of power—all of which undergird racial and sexual inequality at the end of the twentieth century—suggest that the public-interest arm of anthropology has not been entirely successful in changing the way Americans think.

The blurring of the line between action and theory in Public Interest Anthropology places a limit on both. While change may focus on particular publics, change is conceived with an eye to its effects on the larger social and historical context, which brings theory into the picture. However, contrary to our usual tendency to turn to theory for generalization, Public Interest Anthropology uses theory as a diagnostic device for concrete social problems. Theory is brought to earth to illuminate not generalize an issue. For example, gender and racial inequality all too often become the ground for leaping to a discussion of universal asymmetries of power. While asymmetry may be universal, the lines that divide people into unequal classes are not. Most interesting for social change is an analysis of how particular asymmetries arise in specific historical contexts and social arenas. The public-interest arm of such research involves making this knowledge easily accessible first to interested publics and secondly to the discursive arena of public-interest debate.

With respect to specific strategies for change, the point must be made that change is never pursued in a vacuum. Gain for one group must be considered in the context of costs to others. Part of the research task is to assess whether change abridges or expands the scope of democracy. This approach balances anthropology’s foundational commitment to “holism” with seeing things from “the native’s point of view.” Participant observation means becoming friends with people as well as finding out about their way of life; appreciating them as individuals not as manifestations of an anthropological category. The emphasis on participant observation or participatory/action research means that cultural and individual uniqueness are not sacrificed in the interest of theoretical labels. The opposition of part to whole neither masks nor mutes individual voices. All else being equal, Public Interest Anthropology is the anthropological version of the democratic commitment to “We the People.” Intelligent pursuit of this commitment makes anthropology not just the intellectual watchdog for democracy but the discipline best equipped to assess its limits and possibilities in particular economic, cultural, political, and religious frameworks.

*Note: This statement has benefitted significantly from many sources beginning with Hymes’ l969 edited book, REINVENTING ANTHROPOLOGY [particularly the articles by Laura Nader, William Willis, and Eric Wolf]; the authors who contributed to my l976 edited book ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST; the authors who contributed to Goldschmidt’s l979 edited book THE USES OF ANTHROPOLOGY. Most recently, the book DIAGNOSING AMERICA edited by Shepard Forman [l995] argued for public engagement also. My work on the subject of Public Interest Anthropology has benefitted in the intervening period since my edited book by discussions with Frank Johnston and Ira Harkavy as well as from a faculty seminar funded by Penn’s Center for Community Partnership, which involved Frank Johnston, Paula Sabloff, Julia Paley, and myself. This statement also owes a great deal to the students and guest lecturers in my experimental course, Defining Public Interest Anthropology, taught at Penn in the Fall of l998. Finally, I want to thank Robert Borofsky and the participants in the AAA Symposium, each of whom presented their vision for defining public interest anthropology: Elvin Hatch, James Peacock, Laura Nader, Anna Roosevelt, William Labov, Frank Johnston, Ward Goodenough, George Stocking, Clark Erickson, Paula Sabloff, Jennie M. Smith, Anna S. Agbe-Davies, Amy Rosenberg, Abigail Corrigan Romaine, and Dell H. Hymes


Clifford, James l988 The predicament of culture : twentieth-century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Forman, Shepard, ed. 1995 Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1983 Local knowledge. New York:Basic Books.

Goldschmidt, Walter ed. 1979 The uses of anthropology. American Anthropological Association, Special Publication.

Harkavy, Ira, Francis E. Johnston, and John L. Puckett l996 The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Community Partnerships as an Organizational Innovation for Advancing Action Research, Concepts and Transformation Vol. 1 No. 1 pp. 15-29.

Hymes, Dell, ed. l969 Reinventing anthropology. New York: Random House.

Handler, Richard l998 Raymond Williams, George Stocking, and Fin-de-si├Ęcle U.S. anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp.447-463.

Peacock, James L. 1997 “The Future of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 99(1):9-29.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves, ed. 1976 Anthropology and the Public Interest: Fieldwork and Theory. New York:Academic Press.

Stocking, George W. 1968 Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective, IN Race, culture, and evolution, pp 195-233. New York: The Free Press.

Taylor, Charles 1995 Philosophical arguments. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Wolf, Eric l998 Envisioning Power: Ideologies of dominance and crisis. Berkeley, CA:University of California Press.