Public Anthropology Research Paper

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Public anthropology focuses the distinctive perspectives and methods of anthropology on public issues. Since the founding of anthropology as an academic discipline in the late nineteenth century, it has changed a great deal and divided into numerous specialties and schools of thought, but certain key features abide. Anthropology is comprehensive of space and time: it covers the entire world, and it treats humankind throughout its history and prehistory, including the present. It is also comprehensive in aspect, treating biological as well as cultural features of humans, and it tends to be holistic, considering how various aspects of life fit together rather than attending mainly to one aspect, such as economics or politics. Finally, anthropology relies strongly on fieldwork, whether archaeological excavation or participant observation of all manner of contemporary situations. Public anthropology deploys these characteristic approaches of anthropology to address public issues.

Some consider public anthropology to be an extension of an older field, applied anthropology, which is also termed practicing anthropology. That is a valid perspective, but public anthropology tends to focus less on specific problems than on the issues and policies that create the problems. Applied anthropology, for example, might aid a community in correcting a problem with pollution, while public anthropology might address the policies or culture that create the pollution. Among those practicing and defining public anthropology, emphases and terminologies vary. Public interest anthropology, for example, emphasizes that the issues the field is concerned with are defined by public bodies’ interests (Sanday), while Rob Borofsky would include the publicizing of anthropology—connecting public figures and public arenas to anthropology.

Whereas anthropologists generally attempt to understand and appreciate all human behaviors, a public anthropologist may conclude that some behaviors or situations should change. She or he may judge that some actions violate human rights and move beyond cultural relativism to take a position against torture, child slavery, or the oppression of women, for example, and then work to prevent those actions or even to change the situations and culture that support them.

Moving from scholarly understanding to advocacy and action, public anthropology may modify classic methods. Ethnographic fieldwork is excellent for in-depth analysis but may take too long to be a good way of investigating urgent problems. Holism offers breadth but can distract attention from a problem at hand. Anthropology as a discipline offers much, but the work of addressing public issues cannot be confined to a single discipline. Instead, it requires a combination of academic disciplines and necessarily reaches beyond academics to involve the entire community. Researchers may need to engage with or even become leaders, administrators, and advocates. Public anthropology welcomes such disciplinary intersections and forms of engagement (Peacock 1997).

Historically and in the early twenty-first century, a variety of anthropological efforts illustrate possibilities for public anthropology, though they are not always labeled as such. Lee Baker’s account suggests that the founder Franz Boas’s efforts to combat racism were an early example of public anthropology. Boas utilized careful research to demonstrate, for example, that the shape of one’s head is influenced by the environment. From this, he argued against racism on the ground that the environment, including culture, is a major factor in shaping physical characteristics that many of his contemporaries identified as being specific to race. Boas’s student Margaret Mead (1928) followed his lead by demonstrating through her fieldwork in Samoa that adolescence is culturally shaped and not merely biologically determined. After completing fieldwork in New Guinea and Bali, Mead went on to apply anthropology to a range of public issues, one of which was gender. She utilized her fieldwork to show how definitions of male and female depend on cultural context, and hence she argued for a more flexible understanding and acceptance of wider variation in the roles of both women and men (Mead 1949).

Early twenty-first century examples of public anthropology are diverse. Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist, practiced in Haiti initially and addresses public-health issues globally (Kidder 2003). Johnnetta Cole is an anthropologist who has served as a college president, first of Spelman College and then of Bennett College—both historically black colleges for women that Cole has shaped into institutions that nurture positive values. Other examples range from James Peacock’s (2007) efforts to build international concerns at a state university and in a regional context to the creation of a union of academics and activists (CIRA) and investigation of public issues in communities (Holland et al. 2007).

Among formal anthropological organizations, public anthropologists can be found in the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists and the Society for Applied Anthropology and among the thirty-plus sections of the American Anthropological Association (identified by specialty or cultural/ethnic focus) as well as in the Royal Anthropological Institute and many international organizations. Several universities offer programs in public anthropology, and there are publications focused on the discipline. The work also occurs in interdisciplinary and nonacademic organizations ranging from local legislatures to international bodies, such as the United Nations.

Public anthropology, then, is not easily defined by pinpointing a single organizational affiliation or any certification; one is not certified to practice public anthropology. It is best recognized as an approach or practice that utilizes anthropological training, knowledge, and perspectives in addressing societal issues.

In a global and diverse world, issues require comprehensive perspectives. More so than most disciplines, anthropology is comprehensive, encompassing a century of field experience in diverse global contexts. The challenge for public anthropology is to deploy that experience in active engagement to address pressing issues effectively. On the one hand, public anthropology must broaden its vision beyond its British and North American academic origins as diverse cultures and communities assume leadership roles; on the other, it must hone its methods to make an impact.


  1. Baker, Lee. 2004. Franz Boas Out of the Ivory Tower. Anthropological Theory 4 (1): 29–51.
  2. Basch, Linda G., Lucie Wood Saunders, Jagna Wojcicka Sharf, and James Peacock, eds. 1999. Transforming Academia: Challenges and Opportunities for an Engaged Anthropology. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
  3. Borofsky, Rob. 2006. Public Anthropology.
  4. Cole, Johnnetta B. 2003. Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities. New York: Ballantine Books.
  5. Hill, Carole E., and Marietta L. Baba, eds. 2000. The Unity of Theory and Practice in Anthropology: Rebuilding a Fractured Synthesis. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
  6. Holland, Dorothy, Donald Nonini, Catherine Lutz, Leslie Bartlett, Marla Frederick-McGlathery, Thaddeus Guldbrandsen, and Enrique Murillo. 2007. Local Democracy under Siege: Activism, Public Interests, and Private Politics. New York: New York University Press.
  7. Kidder, Tracy. 2003. Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. New York: Random House.
  8. Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: William Morrow.
  9. Mead, Margaret. 1949. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: William Morrow.
  10. Peacock, James L. 1997. The Future of Anthropology. American Anthropologist 99 (1): 9–17.
  11. Peacock, James L. 2007. Grounded Globalism: How the U.S. South Embraces the World. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  12. Sanday, Peggy. 2003. Public Interest Anthropology: A Model for Engaged Social Science. r.65.html.
  13. Sanday, Peggy. 2004. Public Interest Anthropology: A Model for Engaged Research.

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