Academic journal article Human Organization

Going Public: Responsibilities and Strategies in the Aftermath of Ethnography

Academic journal article Human Organization

Going Public: Responsibilities and Strategies in the Aftermath of Ethnography

Article excerpt

This paper examines professional responsibilities following the fieldwork and writing stages of anthropological work. After reassessing Boas's public anthropological stance with respect to Native and African Americans, it identifies an alternative history that includes Morgan, Cushing, Wilson, Goldschmidt, and recent practitioners of advocacy anthropology. It then discusses the author's experiences with public audiences and media following publication of an ethnography of political change in a multiracial Queens, New York, neighborhood. It concludes with an overview of anthropological approaches to engaging "society as a whole."

Key words: professional responsibility, Boas, advocacy, media, public engagement, New York

Engaging the public with its perspectives and findings is much on the agenda of contemporary anthropology.1 While exhortations to do so are plentiful, and individual examples are readily identifiable, analyses of how public engagement actually works are few. How can we disaggregate "the public sphere," "society as a whole," or acting "on behalf of the world" into the actual pathways of audiences, sites, media, and roles that anthropologists encounter and navigate? And how do these forays into action, advocacy, applied, popular, or public interest anthropology articulate with a half century of attention to our ethical and professional responsibilities to those we study, as well as to "society at large"?

These are complicated questions. To begin, let us consider an insight from British anthropologist Sandra Wallman (1985:80-81):

It may be helpful to think of an anthropological enterprise as composed of stages in the movement of information.... Collecting information [is] the first stage; then there's the writing-up of the information; and a third stage is "applying" the information when asked to do so-these three stages are all within the purview of the most cautious and traditional academic anthropology. But crossing over [into advocacy] one may push the inference of the information when not asked: "Listen, I've found this out and you people should know about it!"

Following Wallman's scheme, an ethnographer confronts one cluster of responsibilities while doing fieldwork, a second during the writing process, and a third in the aftermath of fieldwork and publication. This ensemble of responsibilities can be inventoried more closely by using the Society for Applied Anthropology's Statement of Ethical and Professional Responsibilities as a yardstick. (The statement is available in full on the society's Web site , Human Organization 62:86, and is reproduced and discussed in van Willigen [1986:52-54]). The statement defines six sets of responsibilities, the first five being to the peoples we study, to the communities affected by our work, to our professional colleagues, to our students and fieldwork team members, and to our research sponsors. Each of these sets pertains to all three stages of an anthropological enterprise. The sixth set of responsibilities, in contrast, arises principally in the third postfieldwork and postwriting stage: "To society as a whole we owe the benefit of our special knowledge and skills in interpreting sociocultural systems. We should communicate our understandings of human life to the society at large."

Communicating anthropological ideas to "society at large" is nothing new, and Franz Boas, whose career lasted from the 1880s to the 1940s, recently has been lauded (Lewis 2001; Pierpont 2004; Sanday 2003) as the discipline's foundational practitioner of public engagement. For this reason I begin with an appraisal of Boas's ethical and professional stance toward the peoples he studied and wrote about. I then present an alternative genealogy of public anthropological engagement that begins with Boas's predecessors Lewis Henry Morgan and Frank Hamilton Gushing, includes the mining and farm industry ethnographies of Godfrey Wilson and Walter Goldschmidt in the late 1930s and 1940s, and extends to the emergence of "advocacy" approaches (Singer 1990; Van Esterik 1985) in the 1970s. …

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