Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence

Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence

Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence

Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence


Engaging Anthropology takes an unflinching look at why the discipline has not gained the popularity and respect it deserves in the twenty-first century. While showcasing the intellectual power of discipline, Eriksen takes the anthropological community to task for its unwillingness to engage more proactively with the media in a wide range of current debates, from immigrant issues to biotechnology. Eriksen argues that anthropology needs to rediscover the art of narrative and abandon arid analysis and, more provocatively, anthropologists need to lose their fear of plunging into the vexed issues modern societies present.


Anthropology, the study of human cultures and societies, is exceptionally relevant as a tool for understanding the contemporary world, yet it is absent from nearly every important public debate in the Anglophone world. Its lack of visibility is an embarrassment and a challenge.

When, in early summer 2004, the cultural magazine Prospect presented its list of the top 100 British public intellectuals, not a single anthropologist was on it. This does not mean that university academics were absent - there were historians, sociologists, philosophers and biologists sprinkled among the broadcasters, essayists and critics. The absence of anthropologists should have had the discipline worried - after all, an important part of the social scientist's job in our societies consists in being worried - but there are good reasons to suspect that few cared much. After all, anthropology, whether it calls itself 'social' or 'cultural', hasn't been very public for some time. In fact, it has almost gone underground in the English-speaking world, 'hibernating in a difficult language', as Adorno said, knowing very well indeed what he was talking about.

This situation is puzzling. Anthropology is about making sense of other people's worlds, translating their experiences and explaining what they are up to, how their societies work and why they believe in whatever it is that they believe in - including their whispered doubts and shouted heresies. Anthropologists have an enormous amount of knowledge about human lives, and most of them know something profound about what it is that makes people different and what makes us all similar. Yet there seems to be a professional reluctance to share this knowledge with a wider readership. Translating from other cultures is what we are paid to do; translating for the benefit of readers outside the in-group seems much less urgent. Anthropological monographs and articles tend to be dense, technical and frankly boring, and in many cases they are preoccupied with details, allowing the larger picture to slip away from sight. Attention to detail is not itself a bad thing; professional specialization and the use of a specialized language may be necessary for knowledge to advance among the initiates, lest we all become journalists.

The problem is that all these fine analytic texts, often brimming with insights and novel angles, rarely build bridges connecting them with the concerns of nonspecialists. Also, they are far too rarely supplemented by writings aimed at engaging a wider readership. I have written this book, which tries to show how anthropology could matter to every thinking human being, as a result of several years of mounting frustration. I have spent most of my working hours since my mid-twenties as a . . .

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