Public anthropology and anthroplogy in public

Public Anthropology and Anthropology in Public

Owen Wiltshire has a very thought provoking blog at that shares his research project on anthropological collaboration through new media, anthropological blogging, and the decolonization of anthropological practice. It is a very unique and innovative research project that is essentially an anthropological study of anthropology itself. The guiding principle of his work is reflected in the blog title and URL: no divide.

Owen’s writing has provoked a number of thoughts. I wonder if much of what we as anthropologists engaged in blogging are in fact engaging in is public anthropology, or simply anthropology in public. I will not be naming names, and take the charge that I am criticizing a “straw man”, to avoid any unnecessary skirmishes (I have enough battles on my hands already)–from what I have seen, most anthropology bloggers are in fact writing for an audience of anthropologists online, and the discussions, even when vibrant, retain a private quality. Sometimes the posts that are published fit in with narrow professional concerns that they could only be of very limited interest to a wider audience, apart from members of that audience who are curious to gain insights into academic professionalisms. We are not generally communicating anthropology to non-anthropologists, or drawing on non-anthropological blogs in our own conversations, or producing an anthropology that is less self-consciously anthropological because it is too immersed in the give and take of a public debate to pause and ask aloud: “I wonder what Ralph Linton would have said about this?” Some of us seem to be too busy trying to impress professional, even senior colleagues, as if blogging were a shortcut to professional prestige previously gained through print publications, knowing the “right people” and having the “right pedigree”, and lots of hand shaking at conferences. The tone of assessments can resemble that found in the comments of anonymous peer reviewers in print journals, that is, sometimes rather elitist and haughty: “overly simplistic”, “spurious argument”, “specious”, “outmoded dichotomy”, not a good way to invite dialogue. In other words, it’s as if “work” has followed me “home” when I read some of the blogs, when in my case I often seek a break, a refuge, and a space for doing something different, or something that goes against the norms of the workplace. Otherwise, the question I would be directing to myself is: what’s the point of blogging when there’s beer and television?
What I do not want to do is to tell anyone what they should be doing, especially as I myself am not too clear on what I am doing with this blog yet. I think there is room for all sorts of variations of public anthropology and anthropology in public, anthropology from the public, publicized anthropology, and so on. What worries me more is that so far we are not seeing a tremendous variety across the spectrum of possibilities, and that anthropologists talking among themselves (in public) may lead to the creation of a new paradoxical form of closed access anthropology.
UPDATE#1:A discussion pertaining to this post has been opened up thanks to people at Savage Minds. If anyone wishes to add anything, please click here to contribute to what, at the moment, is an ongoing discussion. I will not be revising this post here given that the discussion has been carried over to SM.
UPDATE#2:It is difficult to draw out any firm conclusions from the discussion that took place on Savage Minds about the original post above–there are a variety of aims and interests for each of the bloggers and respondents in question, different views on the history of publicly known anthropologists, a number of constructive suggestions, and in one instance perhaps a bit of defensiveness and an attempt to turn the discussion into a contest. As I suggested above, blogs have also been a way for some anthropologists to charge up their disciplinary credit as stout promoters of this discipline, with some self-congratulations and high-fiving along the way–as my aim is explicitly not to defend the discipline as we know it, but rather to hasten the exit of much of what we have known as “anthropology”, clearly there will be various forks in the road that force even likely comrades to part ways. (One lesson to learn: never use the words “beer” and “work” in the same piece if you don’t want to experience the kinds of recombinations of your terms and intended meanings that seem to have become the norm in (North) American public discourse.) The choices that remain open, and the assumptions that go with them, remain serious ones.
As I explained, I did not create this discussion because I thought I occupied a superior position, but precisely because I am aware of the lack of clarity in my own work online, with this blog. In fact, my comments pertain only to work done on this blog, and not on The CAC Review, which has indigenous collaboration, and a clear public audience and specialized constituency with fairly well articulated interests and demands.
From the outset I was aware of the multiple functions of the Open Anthropology blog. One of these is clearly “anthropology in public” (though I believe one person at SM feels that I should be upbraided and taught to respect this option, an option that in practice has actually been the primary one defining the nature of my work here). Let me call this simply “AP”. I am conscious of the fact that what I produce here are often takes on discussions internal to anthropology, that I produce notes from readings, summaries of news reports, and various other forms of scrap booking–the way one would otherwise use Google Docs, or Zotero, or some other qualitative database management system. It is done “out in the open” and in this sense alone it can be “accessed”–it is not direct engagement of course, it makes no attempt to intersect with a particular constituency, it lacks a consciousness of the public that might be reading, or one day reading, those materials. Interestingly, it is precisely my batches of notes and scraps that seem to attract some of the most attention from readers so far, according to the statistics produced for this site, but they choose to remain silent. So this is not what one would expect of public anthropology, but it still fits under the heading of open anthropology–and in time I will more clearly articulate the differences between the two, but this is one of them.
I have also been conscious that a number of the materials are meant in the spirit of “public anthropology” (PA), direct engagement with issues of public importance beyond the confines of the discipline, with an attempt to bring to bear what I have learned from anthropology, and to engage wider frames of reference and experience. Almost all of my essays on this blog on the work of anthropologists in counterinsurgency has been along those lines–and not from a smug sense of the superiority of anthropologists, but precisely from a sense that this is a discipline that has tended to get much more than just the seat of its pants dirty.
What will cloud the discussion, and already has to a limited extent (and I must end here for lack of time) is if one attaches a moral valence to one or the other position. I was not doing this, but I gather that some practice anthropology in public, defend it, and do not wish to be told that it is not public anthropology, which they simultaneously seem to hold as both dubious and promising. Ultimately, the double-bind between theory and practice is what is at work here. The question remains as to how much of a difference, in actual practice and feedback, is there between AP and PA?

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