Public Anthropology

Public anthro

Project Description

My work combines research with advocacy with policy engagement while aspiring to move beyond the limits of academic exchange. Whether working closely with indigenous movement activists in Bolivia or with the international human rights community, these are community-based collaborative projects that are also essentially dialogic. Intended as a critical catalyst to open space for addressing challenges created when local communities interact with external change agents, this is work pursued not by speaking for, or at, but with both the agents and the subjects of social change. My work complements advocacy with policy engagement to address the disparities between community goals and the assumed subjects – or “notional publics” – identified by policy makers. This is an effort of translating distinctly anthropological contributions among counterparts with often sharply different objectives, and while moving back and for across frontiers of power and of policy. Whether organizing public forums or writing about cultural rights, cultural heritage, cultural diplomacy, security, social scientific ethics, or another critical public issue, my work also addresses how policy making shapes the possibilities but also can – often inadvertently – create the problems communities face, while at the same time seeking solutions with counterparts.

Public anthropology, in this sense, is both a comunicational project of the public sphere and sustained reaching-out to the public sector. Conventionally public anthropology is understood to include effective media outreach, where the discipline’s signature message or story can compete better with, say, the prevailing narratives of the punditocracy. And transcending Ivory Tower insularity should be an important part of any project of public anthropology. I am, too, preoccupied with anthropology’s gradual withdrawal from public discourse, described by Thomas Hylland Eriksen as our self-imposed “cocooning.” And so, whether the subject is ongoing indigenous enfranchisement in Bolivia – where I have worked for two decades – the perceived increase in clashes of global cultural values, critique of problematic military uses of social science, or new applications of computational and social media tools among security experts, I have regularly interacted with print journalists, public radio, T.V. and the blogosphere, as a participant in ongoing and public discussion and debate.

But public anthropology conceived as better media intervention is not sufficient to the task. I depart from the conviction that anthropological knowledge – modeled by our stock-in-trade of ethnography as an extended interaction and negotiation with counterparts “in the field” – is essentially dialogically produced. To insist that a more effective public anthropology should competitively aspire to tell better or more accurate stories mistakenly adopts a goal of the unilateral projection of a unitary disciplinary “voice” with little accommodation for the plurality of voices of our consociates in conversation. At its worst, this is anthropology as monologue, talking to itself about itself.

At least as important as effective media intervention is a need to attend to the particular terms of reference of our counterparts. In short, rather than “representing” anthropology to others, instead we need to work to meet people where they are at and, often, in their terms. Rather than on “our own turf,” we need to be more attentive to the pragmatics of how our counterparts produce the knowledge they value. This underscores why working with the public sector – the policy community – is also crucial. Questions of public import and of social justice that we might aspire to address are, in fundamental ways, shaped by a policy process, often in local, national and global ways. How policy makers come to the knowledge they value – how it is generated, how it circulates, attention to institutional contexts, characteristic lexicons, definitions of “expertise,” and sanctioning processes – primarily informs the possibilities of dialogue. As a linguist might make the point, we are a speech community negotiating an ongoing conversation with multiple other speech communities. In addition to being story tellers, then, we need to be better listeners and to be prepared to move beyond our comfort zones in  pursuit of substantive dialogue.

As a public policy anthropologist, then, I have been particularly involved in “policy”-type dialogues. That is, they are about what happens when anthropology is made available for decision-makers and users in different applied settings, such as by human rights advocates and security experts. These are cases where the discipline of anthropology – its methods (e. g. ethnography) and key concepts (e. g. culture) – have been identified by others as a desirable capacity, asset, competency, knowledge or data source, and in ways often at odd angles to disciplinary sensibilities. This might mean working with human rights professionals to question the “strategic essentialisms” of human rights campaigns or with military program builders to suggest the limits of “culture doctrine.” I have organized numerous public forums at: the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, the Smithsonian Institution, National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American University’s School of International Service, and Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, in order to open up space for constructive critical engagement of this sort, and to build dialogues among academic, policy, and practitioner communities, as well as the representatives of local communities also negotiating with the effects of these diverse often global projects.


Media appearances and quotes:

Radio guest, February 3, 2012. Latin Pulse. Interviewed by Rick Rockwell. Topic: The state of indigenous movements in Latin America.

Radio guest, January 13, 2012. Latin Pulse. Interviewed by Rick Rockwell. Topic: Bolivia and the state of indigenous politics in the hemisphere.

Radio guest, December 11, 2009. Nebraska Public Radio. Interviewed by Fred Knapp. Topic: the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System program. Quoted in the Nebraska News program “Army Research in Iraq, Afghanistan: Saving Lives or Endangering Them?” (February 16, 2010).

Radio guest, July 15, 2004. New York Public Radio. For the Leonard Lopate Show. Topic: ongoing popular and indigenous protests in Bolivia. On the broadcast: “Underreported: Bolivia.

Television guest, October 23, 2009. Voice of America. For the Spanish-language program Foro Interamericano with Patricia Dalmasy. Topic: the meeting of ALBA nations in Cochabamba,Bolivia.

Television guest, December 4, 2009. Al-Hurra Satellite T.V. For the Arabic-language program The World Now. Topic: report by the American Anthropological Association on the U. S. military’s Human Terrain System program.

Interviewed, March 6, 2005. JB Online (Brasil). Topic: Social and political upheaval in Bolivia. Quoted in the article: “Mesa Desafia adversaries a governor” by Sheila Machado (March 8, 2005).

Interviewed, November 30, 2005. JB Online (Brasil). Topic: Ongoing social and political upheaval in Bolivia. Quoted in the article: “Temor de golpe assusta bolivianos” by Sheila Machado (December 2, 2005).

Interviewed, April 15, 2007. New York Times. Topic: The clash of global cultural values. Quoted in the article: “When a Kiss is More than a Kiss” by Paul Vitello (May 6, 2007).

USINFO, U. S. Department of State. Topic: Anthropology and the military. Quoted in the article: “Study of Culture Increasingly Important to U. S. Military” by Jim Fisher-Thompson (April 23, 2007).

Interviewed, November 28, 2007. Chronicle of Higher Education. Topic: Anthropologists working for the military. Quoted in the article: “Panel Releases Report on Anthropologists’ Work with the Military” by David Glenn (November 29, 2007).

Interviewed, October 7, 2008. USA Today. Topic: Relationship between the social sciences and the military. Quoted in the article: “Should Anthropologists Work alongside Soldiers?” by Dan Vergano and Elizabeth Weise (December 9, 2008).

Interviewed. December 17, 2008. Times Higher Education magazine (UK). Topic: Anthropology, the military, Human Terrain System and Minerva Initiative. Quoted in the article: “The Support Troops are Getting Flak” by Jon Marcus (January 15, 2009).

Interviewed. December 22, 2008. Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, NY). Topic: The work of anthropology for the military. Quoted in the article: “Anthropology Debate Heating Up” by Sarah Rivette (December 24, 2008).

Interviewed. January 12, 2009. The Christian Science Monitor (Boston,MA). Topic: Possible social and political repercussions from ratification of Bolivia’s current draft constitution. Quoted in the article: “Bolivia Sets New Global High Mark for Indigenous Rights” by Sara Miller Llana (January 26, 2009).

Interviewed. December 2, 2009. The Boston Globe. Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Report on the Human Terrain System Program. Quoted in the article: “Use of Social Scientists in War Criticized” by Richard Lardner, Associated Press (December 4, 2009).

Chronicle of Higher Education. Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Report on the Human Terrain System Program. Subject of the article: “Program to Embed Anthropologists with the Military Lacks Ethical Standards, Report Says” by David Glenn (December 4, 2009).

Inside Higher Ed. Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Report on the Human Terrain System Program. Quoted in the article: “Anthropology and the Military” by Steve Kolowich (December 4, 2009).

Science Magazine (AAAS). Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Report on the Human Terrain System Program. Quoted in the article: “Anthropologists Slam Using Social Scientists in Mideast Wars” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (December 4, 2009).

School of International Service News (American U). Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Human Terrain System Program. Subject of the article: “The Gun or the Pen? An SIS Professor Examines the Role of Anthropology in Counterinsurgency” by Annie Lyons (December 18, 2009).

Allvoices. Topic: American Anthropological Association’s Human Terrain System Program. Quoted in the article: “Anthropology Shoots at Military Program for GI Jones to Track Cultures in Combat Zones” by Howard Wolinsky (December 21, 2009).

The Dominion: News from the Grassroots. Topic: Counterinsurgency goals and social scientific participation in Canada and the U.S. Quoted in the article: “The Ethnography of an Air Strike” by Cameron Fenton (April 12, 2010).

Interviewed, September 22, 2010. Topic: Computational Social Sciences and the U.S.Department of Defense. Quoted in the article “Web of War” by Sharon Weinberger (Nature, Vol. 471, March 31, 2011).

Interviewed, September 27, 2010. Topic: The US Military’s Minerva Initiative and Computational Social Science. Quoted in the article “The Pentagon Goes to College” by Stephen Glain (The Progressive, July 2011).

Interviewed. September 27,  2011. The Christian Science Monitor (Boston,MA). Topic: Indigenous TIPNIS protest and march against Bolivia’s indigenous government. Quoted in the article: “Bolivian Indigenous Struggle to be Heard – by Indigenous President Morales” by Sara Miller Llana (October 5, 2011).

Interviewed. October 13, 2011. Topic: IARPA’s open source indicators automatic analysis program to predict social change. Quoted in the article “Spies to Use Twitter as Crystal Ball” by Sharon Weinberger (Nature, published online October 17, 2011).

Interviewed. June 14, 2012. USA Today. Topic: The significance of the “big data” trend as a means of making sense of different kinds of sociocultural information. Quoted in the article “Big Data Disguises Digital Doubts” by Dan Vergano (published June 17, 2012).

Interviewed. January 3, 2014. Topic: Science Diplomacy and US-Iranian Relations. Interview published as “Science Diplomacy Can Pave the Way Between Iran and the US,” Azadeh Eftekhari, interviewer (published January 25, 2014).

Interviewed. June 3, 2014. Inter Press Service News Agency. Topic: Significance of the launch of Bolivia’s first satellite. Quoted in the article “With its Own Satellite, Bolivia Hopes to Put Rural Areas on the Grid” by Gustav Cappaert and Chris Lewis (published June 23, 2014).

Interviewed. July 25, 2014. The Sacramento Bee. Topic: The relative effectiveness of hip hop diplomacy and comparable cultural diplomacy programs. Quoted in the article “These U.S. ‘diplomats’ wield fiddles and dance moves, not briefcases” by Maria Recio (published August 1, 2014).

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