Accepted Papers:

Anthropology and public debate: a call for engagement  


Jonathan Mair (University of Kent)

Paper Short Abstract:

Why do anthropologists, unlike colleagues in other social sciences, remain ‘invisible’ in public debates when their research, especially comparative/theoretical work, is so closely focused on matters of popular concern? The paper hazards an answer, reviews some exceptions and introduces the Thames Group, a new anthropology and policy initiative.

Paper long abstract:

Though anthropology has a long history of engagement with diverse audiences, anthropologists have tended to act as experts, providing what Strathern (2006) calls useful knowledge for consumption by NGOs and government agencies - rather than acting as public intellectuals, using their experience of other societies to comment on policy debates and current affairs at home. This is a pity because anthropologists have developed distinctive comparative and theoretical approaches to topics that are furiously debated in the media, including identity, integration, respect, crime and punishment, work and leisure, consumption and exchange, families and childrearing. The paper discusses the reasons that anthropologists have been reluctant to address this sort of issue in public arenas, and argues that in many cases reluctance may be due to unreflexive and incoherent relativism; other deterrents include a fear of being misconstrued by the media and fear of the stigma of populism. The paper reviews some recent work that does try to mobilise anthropological findings to contribute to public debate, much of which has originated in the United States, including a book that takes on conservative media pundits (Besteman and Gusterson 2005) and a travelling exhibition on race and identity. Looking to the future the paper concludes by introducing the Thames Group, a new initiative being developed by the author and his collaborators, which aims to bring anthropological knowledge to bear on questions of public policy in the UK and the rest of Europe.

panel P11
Engaging anthropology and archaeology: theory, practice and publics