PUBLIC INTEREST ANTHROPOLOGY: A MODEL FOR ENGAGED RESEARCH
Dept. of Anthropology
33rd and Spruce St.s
This paper presents a conceptual framework for a publicly engaged anthropology grounded in the Boasian legacy. Labeled public interest anthropology (PIA), the approach merges problem solving with theory and action in the interest of change. Public communication and dialogue are built into the conceptual framework as part of the action agenda. The elements of the framework are introduced through (1) an examination of the issues distinguishing PIA from allied efforts; (2) a review of the historical foundations; (3) an outline of the conceptual model framing research and analysis; (4) a summary of some examples of public interest ethnography.
Given humanity’s power to disrupt as well as construct, and its 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 is to think about such matters.
Roy Rappaport’s (l995:292) call for an "engaged anthropology" to address the “world's disorders," 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 engaged largely in the former activity; applied and practicing anthropology mostly in the latter.
Today the lines separating academic and applied anthropology are diminishing as anthropologists of all stripes address critical social issues motivated by a variety of goals such as working in the interest of local populations or on behalf of global issues. The specific research concerns are diverse: democracy, poverty, HIV AIDS, hunger, environmental depletion, the plight of refugees, genocide, ethnic conflict, racism, violence against women, destruction of cultural heritage, militarism, unfettered market processes, social movements, and the litany goes on.
Such concerns marked a broad paradigm shift in academic anthropology at the end of the 20th century toward an anthropology that (1) serves the needs of science and society by holding human welfare and the objectivity of science in balance (Sanday 1976); (2) is driven by a strong sense "that some current conditions are bad and a good many of them are getting worse" (Rappaport 1995:281); (3) confronts the political as part of the research process in the interest of correcting disorders; (4) works directly with (rather than for) public(s) in their interest; and, (5) addresses research findings to multiple audiences (Scheper-Hughes 1992a:172.)
This paper outlines a model for engaged research. I label the model public interest anthropology (PIA) because of its empirical focus on public(s) and interest(s) and its use of anthropology as a research framework for change. The idea for such a model evolved from my early public engagement with scientific racism (Sanday 1972) which led to an attempt to codify a public interest anthropology (Sanday 1976). The inspiration was the Boasian legacy of using anthropology for public enlightenment (Boas 1945.) The motivation was a desire to work on behalf of racial and gender equality.
broader effort did not evolve further at the time, I continued to stay publicly
engaged by addressing gender equality through research and communicating to
multiple audiences on the subject of the socio-cultural context of rape
cross-culturally and in the
In these efforts I encountered a general academic taboo against publicly engaged anthropology. This was not always true of anthropology. As Goldschmidt (1979:5) notes, "anthropology was, from its very beginnings, involved with public matters." The trend toward social disengagement began with the growth of academic anthropology in the 1940s and lasted until recently when a critical mass of publicly engaged anthropologists began to express themselves in books, articles, and symposia at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. The return to public matters was encouraged by various Presidents of the American Anthropological Association, beginning with Goldschmidt (l979) who edited a special publication of the AAA entitled "The Uses of Anthropology."
The model for an engaged public interest anthropology presented here is distilled
from these sources and from related work in sociology and philosophy. It is not presented as a replacement for other approaches, but as a framework for research and action that focuses on public(s) and/or interest(s) in the public sphere of debate and action. In the following sections of this article, I outline the approach in three parts. I begin with a discussion of the issues distinguishing PIA from other allied efforts. Next, I survey that part of the history of publicly engaged anthropology and social science that influenced my thinking. Finally, I summarize a conceptual model for engaged research and analysis, ending with some examples of contemporary practice.
PUTTING PIA INTO CONTEXT
PIA and the Science Issue
From the time of my early efforts to develop a publicly engaged anthropology I have been aware of the necessity for linking basic research and action on critical public issues in a coordinated scientific framework. This is a prerequisite if anthropology is to play a significant role in the science public sphere and thereby in the public domain. To play such a role, anthropology must resolve, or at least learn to live more comfortably with, the longstanding debate over the relationship between science and public engagement.
The debate begins with Franz Boas who vacillated somewhat on the subject. For example, in a 1941 radio broadcast in the year before his death Boas begins by advising his "fellow scientists" to sacrifice public engagement in the interest of science. As he put it (Boas 1945:1):
We cannot give up our work as scientists without irreparable damage to our culture, no matter how remote our subject may be from the urgent, practical needs of our time. The ice-cold flame of the passion for seeking the truth for truth's sake must be kept burning, and can be kept alive only if we continue to seek the truth for truth's sake.
Concerned with the impact of Facist and Nazi ideology of the time, Boas continued the speech by saying that the search for truth can no longer be solely a "privilege of the scientist." We are faced with "a new duty," he says. "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." The power of clear thought in this case means to think beyond the shackles of "traditional lore" in order to "recognize bias" and "become respectors of truth for truth's sake" (Boas 1945:1-2.)
In this speech, Boas locates truth in the science of culture, and, power in the people. He seems to be suggesting that if only people could think like anthropologists the world would be a better place. As Rabinow (l983:68;70) notes in an analysis of anthropology's positions on the relationship between science and politics, Boas was "a profoundly political man," who separated truth and power in order to "speak truth to power, focus truth on prejudice, separate truth from passion."
More than a half century later, the debate between D'Andrade and Scheper-Hughes, aired in the pages of Current Anthropology, repeats some of the same issues and adds new ones. Reminiscent of Boas's call to separate science and politics, D'Andrade (l995:399) makes a passionate plea for anthropology to be based upon an "objective" as opposed to a "moral model of the world." D'Andrade (l995:400;402) characterizes an "objective model" as one "which tries to describe the object" in the search for "empirical truths about the world." He says that "the aim of a moral model is to identify what is good and bad to allocate praise and blame." Notably missing from D'Andrade's dedication to objective models is Boas's concern with using anthropology to speak to the people.
This is not true of Scheper-Hughes who makes a case for moral and political engagement. Scheper-Hughes (l995:409) claims that if anthropology "is to be worth anything at all, [it] must be ethically grounded." "Cultural relativism," which she labels "moral relativism," "is no longer appropriate to the world in which we live."
In making an argument
for an ethically grounded anthropology, Scheper-Hughes
(1995:410) goes beyond Boas's call to use anthropology
for enlightenment to imagine "what forms a politically committed and
morally engaged anthropology might take."
She suggests that anthropology should be used to help people find the
understanding and wherewithal to respond to matters of life and death. In the context of her ethnographic engagement
with sickness, hunger, and death in
In the context of PIA these approaches to the science/politics issue are not necessarily incompatible. In my research on rape, for example, I used all of them to develop a coherent theory of the socio-cultural context of rape that would reshape the American mindset about acquaintance rape. As such, mine would be labeled a moral model by D'Andrade. I agree, but would add that I entered the public sphere as a morally engaged scientist who rested her case on "empirical truths." The major difference separating me from D'Andrade is that my ultimate goal is not "truth for truth's sake." Like Scheper-Hughes, my goal is to use anthropology, as Boas (l945:2) said in the second part of his radio address, "to understand the problems that confront all of us." I classify such work as science, but it does not fit the ideal view of science that Boas enunciated in the first part of his address and D'Andrade espouses. It is "engaged postmodern science" which Rappaport adopts for engaged anthropology.
PIA and Engaged Postmodern Science
Rappaport's (l995:289-290) call for an "engaged postmodern science" introduces a flexible conception of science. By "postmodern" he does not refer to the "postmodernism" of late 20th century debate, but to Toulmin's (1982) use of postmodern science as an alternative to the detachment of "modern science." Passionate commitment to problems does not preclude "their dispassionate analysis," Rappaport points out. Adapting Toulmin's ideas to anthropology, Rappaport argues for linking science and action by engaging "with problems troubling the world--poverty, hunger, ecological degradation, inequality, racism, oppression—and their underlying causes" in order to develop solutions, which Rappaport calls "theories of correction." Because the engagement of "postmodern science" is not "value-free," Rappaport says it "will be candid about its value dimension." The value dimension is reflected in what Rappaport (l995:285) calls the "macroanthropological formulation" which he combines with "microanthropological research." The relationship between the two raises the subject of anthropology's holism.
PIA's Relationship to Anthropology's Holism
Anthropology's holism makes it the social science most equipped for thinking about the world on behalf of the world as Rappaport (l995:292) proposes. Thinking about the world on its behalf requires the anthropologist to specify standards for assessing maladaptive and adaptive trends. Rappaport's (l995:285) analysis of holism in terms of "macroanthropological" formulations that rely on "microanthropological research" is one approach. The microanthropological level refers to ethnographic practice and the macroanthropological formulation refers to making assessments regarding adaptive and maladaptive forms. According to Rappaport (l995:282), one recognizes maladaptive forms ("structural disorders underlying symptoms") through the process of diagnosis.
An example of the process of identifying disorders is reflected in his discussion of the principle of "contingency" (Rappaport 1995:266.) A common type of disorder is caused when the relationship of contingency is reversed so that ultimate values related to environmental protection, for example, become contingent on economic values. Getting values out of order by violating the principle of contingency, by placing economic values ahead of biological-ecological necessities, for example, produces social as well as ecological disorders. Rappaport (l995:284-286) suggests that because it is possible to conceptualize disorders according to certain principles it is time to develop an "anthropological 'theory of correction"' and "'anthropologize' public understanding."
According to Rappaport (l995:285), the development of macroanthropological models to provide standards for diagnosing disorders is crucial if anthropology is to take its place in the "councils that matter…comparable in scope to those of economics and political science." He justifies his approach with the observation that "[h]umanity is not simply 'suspended in webs of meaning' as Geertz (l973) would have it, but is trapped between meanings that may be misunderstandings and laws that may be mysteries" (Rappaport 1995:287.) The laws to which he refers are the broader physical and social processes to which local meanings may be related either as a cause or an effect. This discussion raises two additional issues: PIA's relationship to public interest law and its relationship to applied anthropology.
PIA and Public Interest Law
The case of
As defined in the context of the Durban Symposium (l997:1-4), public interest law does not refer to a specific field of law but is a term that refers to a "way of working with the law and an attitude towards the law." It does not subscribe to a unitary "public interest" but seeks to foster change by working with many publics and interests. Although the particular version of public interest law in any given society is influenced by the legal and political culture in which the concept of "public interest" is grounded, a common goal is to use the law as "both a framework and a tool for change." The same can be said for PIA.
In addition to its aim of providing legal representation to unrepresented groups, public interest law also addresses unrepresented interests. When considering interests, public interest law aims to demystify the hidden in order to "promote critical thinking" about how certain interests work against the law (Durban Symposium 1997:3.) The demystification process is not carried on just in the courtroom; it may also include addressing multiple audiences and the media so as to circulate in the broader public sphere new ways of seeing. Both demystification and addressing multiple audiences are strategies employed in public interest ethnography. (For more on PIA's use of these strategies see discussion below.)
PIA's Relationship to Applied and Public Anthropology
One of the main goals of PIA is to merge research and action; to expand theory and change ways of seeing through participatory action research. In doing so it engages in a dialectical relationship between developing new knowledge and engagement. 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."
In his discussion of "action research" Toulmin (l996) suggests that because action research involves paying attention to context it improves our practices. He also points out that 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.) Human creativity in social change is the primary focus for public interest ethnography. Human creativity in partnerships for change is the focus of applied anthropology, not for the sake of research primarily but for the change itself. PIA sees this kind of engagement as essential to developing a body of knowledge as well as facilitating change.
In the long and troubled history separating academic and applied anthropology, to which I will return, I see PIA as falling in the intersection of the two fields. Singer's (2000) response to Borofsky's (2000) discussion of public anthropology illustrates the continuing unease. In response to Borofsky's (2000:9) claim that anthropologists mainly talk to other anthropologists, Singer (2000:6) is right to point out that "applied anthropologists are heavily engaged in public work and often comment on pressing issues." I also agree with Singer’s (2000:7) contention that what is needed is “strengthening, valuing, and more fully integrating applied/practicing anthropology.”
Because PIA is a way of doing anthropology that cuts across the subfields and the various approaches to science, its integration efforts come in the research practice not as a subfield of applied anthropology as Singer (2000:6) suggests for public anthropology.
Public anthropology shares much in common with PIA. Borofsky (2000) developed the concept of public anthropology in connection with a book series with this title that he edits. The statement of purpose for the book series posted on Borofsky's public anthropology web site encourages anthropologists to speak more directly to the central issues of our time in a manner that inserts anthropology into ongoing public debates (http://www.publicanthropology.org.)
Borofsky (2000:9) is rightfully concerned about the absence of anthropology from contemporary intellectual debates on relevant social issues. For example, he notes that anthropology was largely absent from the debate on multiculturalism. Borofsky also mentions James Peacock's (1997:12) observation that the anthropological ideas that are significant today are those developed prior to the second world war. I believe this is more a consequence of the lack of unity and poor communication among anthropologists doing public interest work than it is due to the absence of this work. For example, anthropologists were writing about "cultural pluralism" and culturally targeted education programs long before the national debate erupted (see articles in Sanday 1976.)
Efforts like Borofsky's and mine will give anthropology a more coordinated public face both within and outside the discipline. PIA can be distinguished from public anthropology in its provision of a coordinated conceptual framework for engaged research and theory development. This framework is presented in the following, beginning with a summary of the historical foundations of PIA.
THE HISTORICAL FOUNDATIONS OF PIA
founding fathers of anthropology in the
The legacy of Franz Boas
Along with the other founders, Franz Boas played a key role in institutionalizing
anthropology as a body of knowledge in the academy. Anthropology grew and expanded in the
Boas brought to his experience in Baffinland
an intellectual and personal commitment to universal social ideals. In a heartfelt
diary entry dated
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?” (Cole 1983:37.)
This statement is striking for its prescient commitment to the 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
Today Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead are among the best known of Boas's
students to carry on his legacy. Benedict and Mead shaped public views about the efficacy of culture through their writing: Mead on chidrearing and adolescence; Benedict on the patterning of culture. They did so by addressing their anthropology to multiple audiences.
undergraduate student at
It was a difficult decision because the academic climate at the time was not receptive to using anthropology to research and speak on controversial public issues. To do so was interpreted as mixing politics with science. The taboo against engagement was reflected at the time 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 labeled the ideals motivating Boas’s science, like "equality" and "intellectual liberty," as “a single left-liberal posture which...is at once scientific and political.” This comment alludes obliquely to the academic taboo I encountered against research motivated by social ideals and aspiring to social change. The comment indicates that Stocking was writing in an academic context in which "politics [was] bracketed to save science" (Rabinow 1983:71.)
Sol Tax's account
of his career trajectory beginning in l931 at the University of Chicago reveals
the conflicts and roadblocks anthropologists faced who move from "pure
science" to what he calls "action anthropology" (Tax
1988:18;13.) Stocking's (2000) overview
of Tax's career at
A prime example of the latter was Dell Hymes who had an established reputation in linguistics when he published an influential edited book critiquing academic anthropology in l969. The title of the book, Reinventing Anthropology, was a bold statement of the challenge issued by Hymes and by the authors of the various chapters. Hymes (l999:7-8) stated that reinventing anthropology is 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.”
Aware of the academic taboo against
mixing politics with science, Hymes’s book gave me
the courage to chair an interdisciplinary conference on anthropology and the
public interest in l973. This conference
and the edited book that resulted (Sanday l976) was an outgrowth of my first
effort as a publicly engaged anthropologist.
Responding to Arthur Jensen's (l969) reintroduction of the race and
mental ability issue, I reintroduced and updated the Boasian
article—"How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?"—was
a critique of the educational policy of the time which he argued was built on
the mistaken assumption that "environmental factors" are more
important than "genetic factors" in producing IQ differences (Jensen
l969:1.) In several articles I "demystified"
Jensen's "heritability" argument and embarked on a research project
on change in IQ over time in the
The goal of the 1973 conference and the edited book, Anthropology
and the Public Interest, was to bring together academics working on topics
related to social equity in the U.S. as a way to serve "the needs of both science
and society" (Sanday 1976:xvi.) This
work falls under the PIA umbrella because of the articles addressing public issues
like the history of racism, "cultural pluralism," "gatekeeping" in the schools, the reasons for the
Puerto Rican dropout rate, and social indicators of
The contribution of the American Anthropological Association
In the late seventies, the American Anthropological Association began a sustained effort to promote the public uses of anthropology. In pursuit of this policy goal, 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. In his Introduction to the edited volume that resulted from this initiative, Goldschmidt (l979:5-9) remarks on the ferment anthropologists raised as social critics and practitioners before World War II which in the postwar decades was replaced by progressive disengagement, while other disciplines like psychology and economics maintained their influence.
The magnitude of academic anthropology's disengagement is reflected in the unfortunate history that led to the institutional split between "applied" and "academic" anthropology in the formation of a separate association for applied anthropology in the early-1940s (Goldschmidt 1979:9.) Goldschmidt (l979:7) ascribes the increasing disengagement to the frustration anthropologists felt in government jobs and the new availability and prestige of academic jobs. In time, academic anthropology turned in on itself by emphasizing the teaching of theory over 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. To underscore the need for appropriate training, Goldschmidt and I (Goldschmidt and Sanday l979) provided an overview of the growing shortage of jobs for anthropologists in the academy and called for training programs to prepare students for nonacademic jobs. With the exception of a few notable programs today, there is no evidence that this call was widely heeded.
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: "One does not need 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 1995:281.)
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.” The Panel members selected as their umbrella theme
The Contribution of Critical Theory
Critical theory provides another source for engaged anthropology. For example, Scheper-Hughes's (1992a:135;171; 1992b;1995) moral and political engagement as well as the research strategies she employs in her various field sites are influenced by critical theory. “Critical theory,” Calhoun (1995: 13) explains, “was the name chosen by the founders of the Frankfurt School in the period between two world wars to symbolize their attempt to achieve a unity of theory and practice, including a unity of theory with empirical research and both with an historically grounded awareness of the social, political, and cultural problems of the age.”
According to Horkheimer, one of the founders, critical theory conceptualizes humans as "producers of their own historical way." A major goal is to emancipate humans "from the relationships that enslave [them]" (Horkheimer, quoted by Benhabib l986:3.) Emancipation used in this sense is defined not just in terms of finding the means to free people from oppressive social forces but also to free them from a worldview that narrows the realm of the possible (see discussion in Calhoun 1995:14.)
Critical theory illuminates the social and historical grounds for an oppressed consciousness by "defetishizing critique" (Benhabib 1986:9.) Calhoun (l995:20) compares this aspect of critical theory with “positivist social science” to demonstrate that while the former uses science for change, the latter accepts the world as it exists and precludes recognition of the possibilities for change. Critical theory is unique among the social sciences in privileging human freedom in its research practice. Marcus and Fischer (l986:1) have critical theory in mind when they suggest that the cultural critique of anthropology frees thought at home by "using portraits of other cultural patterns" to "disrupt common sense and make us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions."
The use of anthropology to free human thought is reminiscent of Boas's (l945:2) goal of using science to "engender the habit of clear thinking" so that people will be weaned "from a complacent yielding to prejudice" and "the love of traditional lore." This goal can be compared with the "reflexive sociology" of Pierre Bourdieu, who spoke of freeing humans from the necessities of social fields.
The Reflexive Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu
Like Boas, Bourdieu was a determinist and a firm believer in the benefits of science. In place of Boas’s emphasis on the lure of traditional lore, Bourdieu talked about “social fields” as "universes where things continually move" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:199.)
Like Boas, Bourdieu stated (later in his career) that social science can be an avenue to freedom. What Bourdieu called “reflexive sociology” could be applied by people
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 within us (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:198.)
On the issue of science versus politics, Bourdieu takes a position very different from Boas in saying the two are always intertwined. According to Bourdieu: "[t]he idea of a neutral social science is a fiction, and an interested fiction," which acts to maintain the established order. He suggested 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" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:51.) In his later work especially (see Bourdieu 1998a), Bourdieu was guided by a passion both for social engagement and for using his science "to uncover the laws of production of science" so as to provide "not means of domination but perhaps means to dominate domination" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:51.)
A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR PIA RESEARCH
PIA's core conceptual framework is shaped by focusing on the dialectical relationship between order and freedom. Taking Geertz's (l973:5) concept of culture as "webs of significance" in which humans are "suspended" but which they also spin, freedom refers to the spinning and order refers to the being suspended. Both are tied to the structure of the web formed by social fields that are upheld and legitimated by historical cultural meanings justifying values and norms. PIA identifies the moments of choice, the resolution of conflict, and the construction of solidarity which yield new webs of meaning supporting new, previously unimagined possibilities for social relations.
Freedom as opposed to order begins when existing social relations or situations are contested as people challenge the determinism of social fields or the tyranny of custom in responding and seeking correction to the disorders that confront them. The basic approach is to study the cultural and social mechanisms of human social creativity as groups (publics) form to promote, reflect on, and act with respect to certain interests. Data collection and analysis are grounded in ethnography, the study of discourse, cultural critique, and the use of reflection.
Cultural critique and reflection work at several levels. For example, there is the critical reflection of citizens thinking about and acting with respect to social issues in the interest of change that Scheper-Hughes (l992:170; 1995:410-412) participated in as an engaged fieldworker. There is also the reflection of the anthropologist who uses anthropology to "think on behalf of the world" and act accordingly as Rappaport (1995:292) proposes. For example, by reflecting on and researching potentially destructive evolutionary trends set in motion by maladaptive social, economic, demographic, and environmental trends, anthropologists may issue a scientifically based call to respond to social and cultural processes which are identified as either causing harm or having the potential for doing so. Reflection in this sense might lead to endorsing someone's "moral model of the world" so as to correct disorders. It might also lead to statements about the relationship between global warming, environmental degradation and evolutionary extinction.
PIA data collection and analysis ranges from ethnography and close engagement with specific issues to more general studies of population trends, health patterns, environmental depletion, and evidence of global warming. Analysis and interpretation range from the empirically grounded to the more generally philosophical and abstract. Examples of the range include: 1.clarifying the particulars of human social creativity as a field of action; 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 macrosocial expectations (such as those grounded in constitutional guarantees); 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 the future of the species.
By studying inventive social processes, PIA 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.”
Public Interest Ethnography(PIE): The Microanthropological Level of Analysis
When ethnography provides the basic data, the conceptual categories guiding research and analysis include: civil society, public(s), public sphere, interest, social imaginary, public interest sphere, metaculture, power, and multiculturalism.
Beginning with civil society, most publics in modern states mobilize in civil society.1 The term public has cascading social referents, ranging from broad notions of the public to small group interaction in civil society in pursuit of the realization of common goals. The definition of public is closely related to Habermas's notion of "rational-critical debate" in the public sphere (Calhoun 1992:1.) Drawing on Habermas, Taylor (l995:259) defines the public sphere [as] the “common space in which the members of society meet, through a variety of media (print, electronic) and also in face-to-face encounters, to discuss matters of common interest; and thus to be able to form a common mind about those matters." The key question for PIA raised by these ideas concerns the social conditions under which rational-critical debate about public issues in the public sphere determines policies rather than the pressures exercised by political, economic, and cultural elites.
Fraser (l992) expands the social domain for the term public by stressing the importance of thinking in terms of "multiple publics" so that "subordinate groups" are included. She proposes (l992:123) to call the latter "subaltern counterpublics in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs." (See Warner [2002:49-50] for a typology of public(s) under conditions of "modernity.")
The social imaginary is tied to publics and interests and refers broadly to the way a people imagine their collective social life. It gives people a sense of who they are, how they fit together, and what they might expect of one another in carrying out their collective practices (Gaonkar 2002:10.) Taylor (2002:91-2) points out that what may begin with a new conception of the moral order of society held by a few can in time grow into a social imaginary that propels a social order and its institutions.
The term interest is complex with many referents. Fraser (l989:161-183) locates social interests 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. Fraser's discussion raises the important issue of the social scientist addressing the interests of others.
Bourdieu defines "interest" “as indispensable for thinking about reasonable action” (l998b:85.) He defines interest as investment in the “game.” "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" (l998b:77.)2
Throughout his work 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 analysis of interest along these lines gives much more room to human creativity than seen in Bourdieu’s treatment. While Bourdieu locates interest in the system constituted by the “game” or the "habitus," Habermas locates interests in the social reality he calls “communicatively rational action" achieved by humans through consensus building (Braaten 1991:13.) An important component of consensus building is justifying norms by identifying "genuine common interests" that express a "common will" (Braaten 1991:30.) 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."
The emphasis that Habermas places on discourse and talk, suggests that
attention must be paid to what might be called the sphere of public
interests. The public interest sphere refers to the discursive
space in which public interest topics circulate and move through the world in
various public (including media) settings (what Urban 2001 refers to as metaculture.) The public interest
sphere may include the assessment of core cultural values in relation to constitutional
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 contested (see discussion of affirmative action below.) The democracy movement in
The term multiculturalism comes at the end because the public sphere in many national contexts is frequently fragmented by multiple webs of significance involving many publics with conflicting interests and core values. In a multicultural society, public interests range from the particular to the general, from what motivates groups to invest in group goals and core values to conflicting social imaginaries that polarize public sphere debate with ramifying social consequences. In multicultural societies interests are grounded in conflicting visions of macrosocial charters. Differences may be expressed in the politics of recognition and in legal and/or political battles over the social implications of competing core values.3
UNITING THEORY AND ACTION: THE MANY FACES OF PUBLIC INTEREST ETHNOGRAPHY
From Margaret Mead’s (l928) Coming of Age in Samoa to Nancy Scheper-Hughes's (l992) Death Without Weeping, Roger Sanjek's (1998) The Future of Us All, and Catherine Lutz’s (2001) Homefront there is a tradition of engaged ethnography written for public enlightenment and/or social change which can be contrasted to the more hermetically sealed ethnographies in which the primary engagement is with theory.
Scheper-Hughes (l995:410) describes her transition over a number
of years confronting "nervous hunger" in
Sanjek's engagement and intellectual inspiration in studying civic activism around quality of life issues in New York City came from "the ideas of the social theorists Fernand Braudel and Anthony Leeds" (Sanjek l998:10.) Sanjek placed himself in the community of his study 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 prize winning ethnography.
ethnographic and ethnohistorical study of a military
Although different in theoretical framework, style, and focus, each of these examples reflects ethical engagement with 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. Each also speaks to multiple audiences.
My work on the socio-cultural context of rape takes a still different approach, part ethnographic, part reflective, and part cultural critique. The body of work I produced over the years on this subject was explicitly designed to change the American mindset that male rape is natural, hence universal (Sanday 1981; 1990; 1996; 2003.) It began in the mid-1970s with research on the socio-cultural context of rape in a cross-cultural sample. It moved to another front when a student of mine reported that she had been "gang banged" while drunk at a fraternity party. As the case unfolded on campus, two publics vied for attention. The fraternity members boasted about the party, calling the sexual event an "express," referring to the common use of the term "train" on college campuses for a "gang bang." The public boasting ended when campus feminists and the editor of the campus newspaper decried what happened and called it "rape." In the aftermath, I discovered that similar incidents were being reported on campuses all over the country and that the response by campus administrators was either nonexistent or tepid at best.
I aired the moral and social issues at stake by providing “I-witness” accounts of fraternity sexual rituals written for me by participants on a number of campuses. The accounts defamiliarized the “boys will be boys” and "she wants it" explanation for “gang bangs” on college campuses. The students reflected on how these cultural categories make women passive objects and men sexual agents in male dominance rituals. By comparing the graphic descriptions of sexual bonding incidents involving drunk women too inebriated to consent with the legal definition of rape, I sought to disrupt the common sense view of this kind of sexual behavior (Sanday 1990; 1996.)
I wrote for a college audience, including students and administrators. The books can be read by anyone, including fraternity brothers who have commented over the years, approvingly and disapprovingly. In the interest of getting a broader debate going, I gave speeches to groups of undergraduates and administrators on campuses across the nation. Additionally, there was quite a bit of press coverage of my work over the years.
In the more scholarly articles, I contested the theory that rape is an evolved adaptation favored by natural selection (see articles in Travis 2003 for this theory) by presenting evidence supporting the alternative hypothesis that sexual behavior is culturally framed and hence controllable. In addition to the initial cross-cultural research that demonstrated significant differences between the more rape-free and the rape-prone societies, the argument was supported by different kinds of empirical studies: ethnographic engagement in a society (West Sumatra) where rape is rare; observation of a rape trial in which jurors overlooked evidence of rape in favor of the "boys will be boys" hypothesis; research on the relationship between legal codes and the social history of sexual attitudes in the U.S.; and, examination of the co-variation of sexual attitudes and reports of nonconsensual sex in a large sample of college students from many campuses (see Sanday 2003 for a summary this work.)
The potential for public interest anthropology to bring about change is demonstrated by the success of the anti-rape movement of which my work was a part. When I started the project in the mid-1970s the legal definition of rape hung on "earnest," "sufficient," or "utmost resistance" and few campuses had sexual assault policies. Due to the cooperation between researchers and activists in the intervening period, today most campuses have such policies and 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 (Sanday 1996:265-93.)
The model outlined above is offered in the spirit of developing a coordinated conceptual framework for uniting theory and action in addressing critical public issues. The model is conceived as an umbrella conceptual framework, which builds on a general trend in one corner of contemporary social science in a specifically anthropological way. The framework represents one of many ways of conceiving science and doing anthropology. As such, it seeks to expand, not diminish anthropology's pluralism.
Grounded in the Boasian legacy, PIA draws from critical theory, Bourdieu's reflexive sociology, applied anthropology, and the engaged postmodern science that Rappaport describes. PIA is not designed as a subfield or presented as a unified theory. Although it may develop into a more coordinated framework in the future, at present PIA represents an attitude about using anthropology to serve society in which the research focus is on public(s) and interest(s) in the local and global public spheres. Like public interest law, PIA is a flexible approach which seeks to serve. Public communication through the media and addressing multiple audiences are important strategies for disseminating research. The research results may involve contesting public understandings in order to change public ways of seeing. The theoretical arguments engendered through engagement are tested so as to expand a body of knowledge as well.
To conclude, PIA is a hopeful science that rests its case on empirical truths. 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 little evidence today that these are dominant macrosocial goals in specific national contexts, there is ample evidence that these goals are circulating in the global public sphere. By entering local, national, and global arenas as an engaged science, PIA answers Rappaport’s call for anthropology to “think not merely about the world but on behalf of the world." As he says (l995:254):
…we cannot contribute to the formation of a pluralistic—and therefore more comprehensive or even holistic—public discourse by talking only to ourselves about issues that also matter to others.
Acknowledgements. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Roy
Rappaport in acknowledgement of his friendship since our
student days at
1. For examples of analyses of civil society in other countries see J.L.Comaroff and J. Comaroff (1999), articles in Calhoun (l992), and Keane (l988.)
2. See Bourdieu (l998b:86-7) for two related concepts in his discussion of interest: “disinterest” and "indifference." See Sahlins (l981:68-9) for a different, more utilitarian approach to "interest," which defines interests as values attached to "the sign in action"
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