In keeping with the 2013 Annual Meeting theme—Future Publics, Current Engagements—we explore what is meant by the term “public anthropology.”  Since CoPAPIA focuses on practicing, applied, and public anthropology, we asked Gretchen Schafft, who is Public Anthropologist-in-Residence at American University, to comment on the distinctions and relationships among these various forms.

Even within a department like mine that offers a master’s degree in public anthropology, there has never been a clear definition of “Public Anthropology.”  Perhaps that is a good thing.  It leaves us some “wiggle-room” to place many activities and intentions within our realm of interest.  It leaves enough ambiguity to insure flexibility and inclusiveness.

Gretchen Schafft

Gretchen Schafft

However, it might also be helpful to look at related terms used to describe what we teach, learn, and engage in to see what the different emphases are within our field.  For instance, are applied anthropology, professional anthropology, practicing anthropology, and the praxis of anthropology the same?  Not completely.  Although there are many similarities, they have different roots and different traditions.

Applied anthropology developed during the Depression and New Deal and expanded during World War II when many anthropologists in the United States were able and often quite willing to put their training and theories into the war effort.  Anthropologists who were solidly based in universities wanted a forum to discuss their work outside the academic setting, to share their insights, and to gain recognition for their accomplishments.  They also wanted to establish a peer group with whom they could discuss issues that were of less interest to those remaining inside university structures.  The Society for Applied Anthropology was the result.

Professional anthropology was the term used by the early members of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA).  Still known as “Wapistas,” they very deliberately defined themselves as primarily those who earned their living outside of academia.  The organization was formed in the middle 1970s by Conrad Reining, a professor at Catholic University and a few of his graduate students, myself included.  Although we were all engaged in academics at the time, we had the intention of moving into a “professional” sphere as young anthropologists or retirees (Reining.)  In the Washington area, it was easy to gather a group of anthropologists working in government, industry, and the non-profit world of action.  Through networking, we soon had a large body of members who had already established their bone fides in non-academic work, and found that we appealed to faculty and students, as well as anthropologists outside of academe.  WAPA became a training ground bridging academics with non-academic work, encouraging a broadening of curricula.

Practicing anthropology makes no distinction between earning a living in the university or in the world of organizations.  It had no particular beginning or ideology, but evolved out of a desire on the part of some anthropologists to work in the world in a practical way.  It eventually became coterminous with professional anthropology, and many can no longer remember whether the P in WAPA belongs to one or the other. The National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA), on the other hand, includes practice in its title and has a national, rather than regional or local membership base, many of whom are employed full-time outside the university.

WAPA offers a “Praxis Award” to an anthropologist who has made a significant difference through the practice of anthropology.  Praxis was recently articulated very well by Dan Sayers at the 10th Public Anthropology Conference sponsored by the American University Department of Anthropology.  He reminded the audience of the Marxist roots of the word that refers back to a philosophy of action toward a goal of equality and justice.  Whereas practicing or professional anthropology may seek opportune moments to engage in research and action, those who are engaged in praxis look specifically for ways to further their pre-considered goals.

What all of these various iterations of the idea of using anthropology to examine, research, and teach about issues that affect the public have in common are intent, audience, and voice.  The anthropologist intends to use theory and method to address issues brought to her/him by some segment of the public needing this assistance.  In some cases, the anthropologist may be the initiator of the action, but in most, the action is brought to the anthropologist, asking us to address a pre-existing need.  The intent is to do good and certainly no harm to the “public” for whom the action is intended.

The audience for all aspects of public anthropology is a broad range of people who could use the skills and perspectives of our discipline.  In many instances, the audience is not used to working through their issues with an anthropologist; therefore, the public anthropologist must be aware and attuned to the norms of those seeking help.  There is much more collaborative work, from planning to execution of action, in public anthropology as opposed to individual academic research.

Finally, the voice one uses in public anthropology is inclusive and not privileged.  Spoken and written communication must be structured to fit the community in which one is working.  That may be a business community, a government agency, a non-profit organization, or a community action group.  Highly inflected language that might be used in our own discipline will not be welcome in a public anthropology setting.  To be maximally helpful, the public anthropologist must speak the language of the people, whoever they may be.

Public anthropology responds to the realities of the world today.  A career in academic anthropology has not been assured for graduates of our programs for decades, yet the need for anthropological skills has grown in that same time span.  Describing ourselves by our intent to work for the public good in and out of academia is the right thing to do.

Gretchen Schafft is Public Anthropologist-in-Residence at American University and founding member of Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists.  She has studied government program impacts on low income and minority populations. Her recent books include From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich and Commemorating Hell: The Public Memory of Mittelbau-Dora.

Barbara Rylko-Bauer is contributing editor of Anthropology Works, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology.

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