Public Anthropologies

In this first installment of our “public dialogues” series, Daniel Goldstein and Keisha-Khan Perry discuss their approaches to public anthropologies. They share their trajectories and influences, and discuss the relationship between public, activist, “engaged,” and decolonial approaches to anthropology as well as the politics of the field, the written page, and the classroom.


Daniel M. Goldstein (DG): Do you want to tell me a little about your project, since we are both working on projects that fit the description of public anthropology? I think both of us feel the rubric of “public anthropology” may be a bit confining.

Keisha-Khan Y. Perry (KP): Maybe I should talk a little bit about who I am and where I’m coming from. I was trained as an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin at a time when the department actually had a vibrant activist anthropology program. There were actually two tracks that were pertinent to what I was working on. One was the activist anthropology track within sociocultural anthropology, and the other was the African diaspora program. Leading the former was Charles R. Hale, who has written a significant essay on activist anthropology. Edmund T. Gordon was one of the main architects of the African diaspora program in anthropology and was my principal advisor. There was Maria Franklin, an archaeologist who did a lot of work around public archaeology and public history. There was Sheila Walker, a public intellectual in her own right and a feminist. There was Asale Angel-Ajani, feminist and diaspora scholar, who was probably one of the best ethnographic writers of our generation. Those were the people I was working with, people who were very much invested in working within anthropology and working closely with political organizations to advance the issues of black and indigenous peoples in Latin America, in particular.

Gamboa de Baixo neighborhood at the center of Dr. Perry’s research. (Courtesy of Ana Cristina da Silva Caminha, neighborhood activist)

I started my graduate work around issues of urban land rights. Several people at the school were working on land rights—especially struggles for autonomy for black people, and for indigenous peoples in Central and South America. My first book, Black Women against the Land Grab: Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, was on black women’s struggle in neighborhoods in Salvador for land rights and against police brutality, which I saw as being intricately linked, and for better housing. I put black women at the center of the analysis. I really didn’t start graduate school with the intention of working on these topics. I wanted to work on the cultural connections between Brazil and Jamaica, but while working in a political organization in Bahia, I ended up doing the dissertation and doing research in collaboration with that organization. That’s an example of how a political organization can set the terms of research. What black women activists considered important in Brazil became the subject of my dissertation and book. It’s not that the book was only in the service of that organization, but the book itself generated ideas around gender and race, ideas that the activists were already talking about and practicing in the social movement. We included collaborative mapping and census making as part of the project that became part of the politics of the organization. With graduate training in these particular skills, I was able to take them to that organization and do the work. So that’s my previous work.

In my next project, I’m hoping to do a follow-up of all the stuff that was left out of that book about what it means to be deeply political. I didn’t want my first book to be about what it’s like to do anthropology. But in this next book, I want to talk about what it means to do ethnography that is political and at the service of the community. That’s what this idea of anthropology for liberation is about: this work that we are doing has to have some political aim. It has to take a stance on issues of inequality and push for the agenda of especially African diasporic people. So that’s a brief introduction to my work.

“That’s what this idea of anthropology for liberation is about: this work that we are doing has to have some political aim. It has to take a stance on issues of inequality and push for the agenda of especially African diasporic people.” – Keisha-Khan Perry

American students and residents of Loma Pampa in Cochabamba, Bolivia work together to build a community center in their neighborhood. (Courtesy of Daniel Goldstein)

DG: Well we have different backgrounds but I think our trajectories are kind of converging in a way, because I’m working on a project that is similar in that I’m interested in questions of ethnography and service to community. I keep running into people from the University of Texas at Austin who are trained in activist anthropology and I’m a little jealous because I’m completely self-taught, in a way. My training in anthropology at the University of Arizona was in four-field anthropology, though that department had a very strong applied component in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA). I did some work for them as a graduate student and I also worked in the interdisciplinary Office of Arid Lands Studies, where I helped to edit an international journal of agricultural research. But the applied dimensions were always kept very separate from the more “academic” work that most scholars in the department were doing, and it was clear from the beginning that applied and academic anthropology were two distinct tracks within the field. As I went along, I decided that my real interests were in academic research, and I gave up the applied work completely. So for me, from the beginning, working outside the academy just seemed like something I wasn’t prepared to do. This sense of a divide between academia and the world is something I have to work against in my own mind. And, too, I have had to struggle against the disciplinary stance that implies that engagement and activism are in some way illegitimate and not real anthropology. So I published around it—kind of what you said about your first book. I didn’t include any discussion of it in my first book. I didn’t do too much engaged work in my first project. The book that came out of that work, The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia, looked at the ways in which members of an urban indigenous community struggled with poverty and insecurity, and worked to perform a public identity for themselves and their community, positioning themselves as central (rather than marginal) to the national culture and society. But then as I went on in my subsequent two projects in Bolivia (Outlawed and Owners of the Sidewalk) I became aware of the necessity of being engaged, not only of the ethical necessity of being engaged but a practical necessity. The people in communities where I worked wanted my project to mean something for them if they were going to participate, and so I geared my research towards that. And then when I stopped going to Bolivia a few years ago and started working in the United States with undocumented immigrants in New Jersey, I started from the get-go to design my project around local needs, around issues that were on people’s minds. So, interestingly, the research itself turned out to be about issues that we don’t read too much about in scholarly research: work accidents and wage theft. Most of my study was about the vulnerabilities that undocumented people experience—the abuses they suffer as workers, rather than as immigrants. This came to my attention through talking to local people in the study community—workers, activists, and so on—and asking them what their principal concerns were. For them, deportation was a real concern, but even more central to their daily lives (this was before Trump, mind you) were the kinds of harms they experienced on the job, like having poor equipment and no training to do a job properly, or working for days or weeks and in the end not getting paid for it. And you read about this stuff in passing quite often but there aren’t a lot of studies focused on those issues even though they are so critical to people. So that is what I was working on, but from the very beginning trying to make my ethnographic work part of this struggle.

KP: I can definitely see the convergence of our interests in our ongoing projects. I should back up and say that I was introduced to anthropology through a critique of anthropology. I read anthropological texts in women’s studies classes that critiqued anthropology and its role in empire building, and what anthropology meant for colonialism, empire, indigenous and African-descendant peoples, and so forth. That’s how I was introduced to the field. In reading scholars like Faye Harrison and even W. E. B. Du Bois I learned how ethnography could be in service of a liberation project, especially for African diasporic people. That’s what got it started, that’s what I could also do here, right? So understanding who I am as a person, what I’d actually like to do, and how I loved to speak with people and do ethnographic work and understand what is happening on the ground, I saw anthropology as a field very differently. And I think that’s very important for me. I think in deciding to work with an organization initially and then to see what they think are the important issues (or issues of the day) completely transformed what I thought my role would be.

Gamboa de Baixo protest on Contorno Avenue circa 2010. (Courtesy of Ana Cristina da Silva Caminha, neighborhood activist)

For example, I never intended to write about domestic workers as activists. I was not introduced to them as workers, and it was only later that I learned that most of these women did some form of domestic work. And I learned that their work as activists and workers came together in key moments, and how they had a unique vantage point working in predominantly white households, wealthy households, with access to information, since they would overhear conversations. They understood white supremacy and hegemony in a very different way from black men in their communities, being the lowest-paid workers and going on service elevators and going through back doors. They had a different vantage point. So it has forced me to say that that domestic work is important and needs to be highlighted. And in doing the community census you ask the people what are the important issues and let them set the terms. “What do you want us to write about in this report?” And they say, “Well, police brutality.” I never intended to write about police brutality or thought that it would be an important issue or that people would see police brutality as deeply connected with land expulsion. But the fact that they were demolishing these houses went hand in hand with the destructive practices of military policing in these places. So I had to work with the idea that knowledge itself would come out of activists or community participants who were setting the terms of my own research agenda to say, “Well no, this is what you need to go write about. It’s not just that we are losing our land and our housing but that there is this broader project at hand.” Those are, I think, the concrete ways that you become an activist: by interest but also by the terms of engagement. The communities are saying that they are not going to work with you unless you understand that this is what they are doing. We could write about the cultural functions that we do but this is not of interest to them, right? This is what is of interest to them. So I think those are the things I’ve been thinking about. What is our role in these spaces?

DG: I wonder, given all that we’ve been talking about, if the concept of “public anthropology” is adequate to what we are talking about. It seems to me we are talking about something very specific and very central to anthropology. When I read stuff about engaged anthropology, for example, I often feel like what they are describing are add-ons. There are people who are doing research and in their spare time they are teaching English, or they are doing some sort of work in the local nursery school, and it’s not directly connected to their research. It opens the doors so they are able to do their research but it’s not a fundamental part of what they are doing. The activism and the engagement stand apart from the scholarship. And I think what I’m trying to get at and what I’m writing about—and it sounds like you are also talking about—is anthropology itself that is a form of activism. It’s not just that anthropology is doing good, right? But it’s putting anthropology to work as a tool of liberation.

KP: Absolutely. I think you are making a really important point. Edward Hedican talks a lot about that. He breaks down the various definitions of public anthropology in various schools of thought. And one that I thought was really important was that suddenly everyone’s talking about public anthropology whereas even applied anthropology was already doing some of that work. Even if they were doing activist anthropology they were using their skills to work for the state, to work for nonprofit organizations, for example. They were always doing some kind of work in that capacity, and to separate the public anthropology from applied anthropology is to create this two-tiered system and it’s a kind of hierarchy: that public anthropologists are more important than applied anthropologists.

DG: But they are still below the theoretical anthropologists in the academic hierarchy.

KP: Yes. So public anthropologists are below the theoretical anthropologists, but because they are also working within the academy, they are more important than folks who are doing applied anthropological work. Some of the other things that come up in this discussion are that even activists and a kind of liberatory anthropological project are seen as an aside. It’s seen as: you do your academic stuff, your institutionally approved work, and activist or engaged anthropology is what you do outside the academy. You may not even document it or write it up but its kind of your activist work.

DG: And that’s part of the activist perspective, right? Charles Hale had an essay where he said that doing activist anthropology is like having a second job. It’s twice as much work, which is quite often true. But that is the obstacle: that we see it as a second job, something you are doing on top of your actual work. Because it does take a lot of time and energy.

KP: What I think you are pointing to is the sense that activist or public anthropology becomes integral to our work, right? It is not an add-on. It is not a second job. It is the work. My mom is a lawyer and she does a lot of immigration work in New Jersey. It’s quite painful work, actually. But I will say that lawyers in those instances, they don’t see their work (making sure that people aren’t deported) as different from the professional part of lawyering. There’s the sense that you are protecting and working for your client. At the same time there are all those legal issues and so forth. But it’s not seen as very different or separate. So I think what you are pointing to is that what happens in that decolonial process or even liberatory process where we would actually transform how these things take place, and become an integral part of our work. What is the goal of this project, right? What is the aim that your writing will achieve? And it’s funny that it was only in the process of writing the book that I kind of felt as though only academics were going to read this. I was thinking to myself, “What’s going to come of this?” And it’s only a few years later that I have non-anthropologists reaching out to me and saying, “Oh, thank you. I came across your book. And, you know, we have these land claim issues that you could help us with.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, it has a kind of different reach or somehow it’s doing the kind of work, or precisely the kind of work that I intended it to do.” And the other part of our work that is still important is how it would transform how we think about these people or how we think about subjects, right? So even if anthropologists are the main readers, it’s how they interact with black and indigenous peoples that is truly part of the transformation process.


DG: And this is how we get to the race question. Maybe the race question is there in the beginning but we haven’t talked about it. But I think one of the things is that to do this work we as academics have to surrender privilege—and that’s what I’m writing about in the new book. We have to be willing to give up that comfortable place of being the person who knows everything, of being the salaried person going to study other people, and instead adopt the posture of humility and solidarity with the people we are studying.

KP: Absolutely.

DG: And I think that the reason its racial is that white males have more privilege than others, and therefore they have more privilege to give up. And I think that’s one reason that we see a lot of this innovative scholarship coming from scholars of color and not from white scholars. People are reluctant to relinquish their power, even people for whom power—social power, political power—is an explicit object of critique. There is a certain resistance on the part of white anthropologists to activist or decolonial approaches, and this may be why activism is seen by some of the entrenched authorities in our discipline as somehow less “serious” or less important than strictly academic scholarship. Activist work is not “objective” enough, supposedly. Meanwhile, objectivity, which claims to be neutral and detached, can be understood as a very “white”—as in dominant and unmarked—posture that is very comfortable for those who can occupy it and very alienating for those who are disqualified a priori from doing so. This is something that all anthropologists, including white anthropologists, have to address if we want the discipline to grow and flourish.

KP: I think a lot of scholars of color came into the academy with the hope that we would do something that would transform the lives of our people. I could have become a lawyer; that’s where people have hopes and dreams too. The idea is that you’d go into the academy and your research would do something and your teaching would create some change, and you’d be able to participate in some kind of change. But what ends up happening is that people, even those like myself who are trained in black feminist thought and believe in those principles and the relationship between thought and practice, what happens is that the university starts dictating how you do your work. You feel you have to do a particular kind of work to be seen as belonging. But I think in my case not being in an anthropology department gave me a kind of freedom because I wasn’t being evaluated by anthropologists. At the same time there is the sense that this is the kind of work I want to do and if it doesn’t fit within the academy, then that’s just the price that I will have to pay. And that’s a tough price to pay and a lot of people have paid it. And sometimes I wonder how I have survived. A colleague said to me, “It is what it is, the book is what it is, these are your research interests and if the gatekeepers feel that you don’t belong or you don’t fit in, then so be it.” A lot of people have paid that price and I know a lot of black anthropologists and anthropologists of color are in interdisciplinary departments, in black studies departments, women and gender studies departments, where those kinds of questions are already at the center and are also acceptable points of entry.”

“A decolonized anthropology, from my perspective, is one that joins the work of social struggle directly to the work of social analysis. It takes the tools and perspectives of anthropology and uses them not to produce elite theory for a narrow readership, but uses the insights it generates to contribute to radical projects of social restructuring.” – Daniel Goldstein

DG: I see that as a real indictment of anthropology as a discipline, that this is in fact the case. That for all our liberal posturing there isn’t that kind of structural space within anthropology for that kind of scholarship and those kinds of scholars. And that is a problem that we need to address. That is one reason I’m interested in decolonial theory, which I think creates the space for this kind of work and the people who want to do it. A decolonized anthropology, from my perspective, is one that joins the work of social struggle directly to the work of social analysis. It takes the tools and perspectives of anthropology and uses them not to produce elite theory for a narrow readership, but uses the insights it generates to contribute to radical projects of social restructuring. I’ve written about this on the Savage Minds blog, and am currently writing a book that explores the decolonial question in more detail.

KP: What I find fascinating is that even at the peak of anthropology, at a place like UT Austin, there were a lot of students of color who were getting their PhDs. And even a lot of interesting white scholars who were doing very good work. I remember Mark Anderson and Jennifer Goett, and other people who came out of the school when I was there: Junaid Rana, Jemima Pierre, Amanda Walker-Johnson, Marc D. Perry. But only a handful of them are in anthropology departments. People are being trained to embrace ethnography as a primary method, and they are being encouraged to ask these questions around power, privilege, and empire and hegemony, and then they go onto the job market and confront others who think that this is not what you can reproduce as knowledge within the field. At the same time there are these other fields that are pushing forward in terms of asking these questions. So part of it is that the field is training black and indigenous scholars and is forward thinking in terms of these ideas but as an institution, as a field, it’s really struggling with how to make these questions central to the discipline. So they become peripheral in terms of institutionalizing the field in terms of how anthropology is taught. I have students come up and say, “I’ve never heard of these folks. I didn’t even know that Eslanda Robeson was an anthropologist.” I’m thinking, “Really?” I think the field itself ends up shaping what becomes acceptable anthropological knowledge. At the same time, people who are being trained in ethnography end up seeing ethnography as the main tool to advance these political issues.

DG: This is why I have embraced activist anthropology and I think it’s awesome that American Anthropologist has a separate section on “Public Anthropologies,” but I still think it’s problematic because it suggests that public anthropology is a subset of some regular anthropology that is not public. And if you look at how many pages are given to that regular anthropology in each issue of the journal, you see that this public stuff is a very, very small piece of it. I think we should drop the adjectives and that anthropology as a discipline should incorporate these lessons into the mainstream, and not in some bracketed subcategory.

KP: What I found in a recent issue of Transforming Anthropology edited by Christen Smith, about the black mother in the wake of all the violence, came out of the context of the protest at the AAA meeting around Black Lives Matter. And what I think I found really fascinating is that black anthropologists are taking on the questions of the day around violence, right? This is a moment where the field is asking, “Okay where are we on these issues? Where are we around issues of terrorism and Islamophobia or Black Lives Matter? The violence against blacks and browns in this country and sexual minorities? So where are we and why aren’t these actually the kind of questions we are talking about?” And I think what you see is these people talking about them. These are black anthropologists saying we need to pay attention to these issues. One of my colleagues said that it is in writing about these issues that she actually started to get attention as an anthropologist, and that her work as an anthropologist was considered peripheral and marginal until she started doing “public anthropology,” writing about what is going on in France and writing about Black Lives Matter. But at the same time it’s seen as not the central work that’s being done in the field. And the question is: Why? There is still a hierarchy around people who are documenting these issues. And what’s even more fascinating is the hierarchy between people who are doing so-called theoretical work and people who are actually using ethnography to discuss these ideas.

Two members of Dr. Goldstein’s collaborative team perform a play about work accidents in an immigrant rights advocacy center in New Jersey. (Courtesy of P. Quach)

DG: And this is the other question of the whole decolonizing project, which maybe falls outside of what is meant by “public anthropology” here, but for me is central: Who are our theoretical sources? In the decolonial literature, but not so much in anthropology, people talk about the need to look beyond Foucault and Agamben and these white European elites. We take our data and process it through their theoretical machinery and come up with an article. I think this marginalizes a host of scholars who are forgotten about and neglected. And this includes not just scholars but I’d say ordinary people who generate theory, ideas, and concepts to interpret lives. Give them attention. In my own work with undocumented immigrants, I’m talking about them—the people we usually call our informants or interlocutors—as producers of theory. What would an undocumented theory of undocumentedness look like? Here we can turn to the work of decolonial theorist for guidance. I find the work of Arturo Escobar to be very useful in this regard, especially his writing on “border thinking” (as described by Walter Mignolo) and his work with Eduardo Restrepo on “world anthropologies.” Other writing from Latin American and other nonwhite scholars, people like Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano, Sylvia Wynter, María Lugones, and Ramón Grosfoguel, as well as by my colleague at Rutgers, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, are really important here, too. One of the useful insights I take from decolonial scholarship is that elite theorizing grows out of the same exploitative kinds of colonial relationships that existed during the imperial age, and the only way out of this is to include southern scholars in the conversation. And to this I would add that we need to include the people whom anthropologists study in the conversation, not only as the passive objects of elite theorizing but as themselves the active producers of cultural analysis.

“I think that who we are citing and who we are teaching is really important. . . . How you go about doing research and how it’s taught to us is really important. How we write the story, produce scholarship, and make it available and teach it is really important. And who are we teaching it to is really important.” – Keisha-Khan Perry

KP: I’ve had the unique opportunity over the past ten years to teach classes where I teach all black women writers and I won’t put it in the title, I won’t put it in the description. It will be a class on the diaspora or urban rights. We are writing about other things. And some of the students will realize, “Hey, did we have an entire semester of only black women writers?” And I say, “Would you ask this in other classes where you’ve had one week of black writers and one week of this.” I try to push them to have these different intellectual interlocutors. And what happens in fields like Africana studies is that you will have female students who will be dominant in the classroom and they will reproduce certain ideas around male scholars. And I ask them to name authors of three books that they should keep with them after the class and they will name Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, and Cedric Robinson. And what about the black women who have shaped the field? People like Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Coopers? And I push them and ask further: who are the main theoretical interlocutors you use in your own work? And then I’ll also say, “Ok, if you as black women are not citing other black women scholars, who will cite you when you write your own work?” That is key. What I found in my own work on liberation is that these black women who shape the field were very unapologetic about the fact that their work was political and that ethnography was important. They had particular ideas and particular things to say not just about what was going on in anthropology as a field (that was the least of their concerns) but also what was happening to black people in the United States and beyond. And that’s really important: the idea that through ethnography they could give a voice to the people and say that this is what their experience is like, that this is what is at the center of our everyday lives, and that that would be considered important theoretical work. To actually listen to women and what they are saying is important. I think Asale Angel-Ajani was one of the first to say that she would just transcribe, have long transcriptions of people’s stories. Let them talk. Let them actually speak. That’s precisely what we have been asking them to do: leave these in the text and not have these long interpretations.

DG: Mediators.

KP: Yes, not have theoretical mediators.

DG: One way we can begin to address this in a small way is through our syllabi, how we structure our courses and whom we have our students read. And that would require that we who are trained in this way and may be less familiar with non-white scholars to begin to look beyond this familiar cannon not just in our teaching but also in our writing.

KP: I think the writing is crucial. I learned that from Patricia Hill Collins and Sara Ahmed. They both say that the majority of the people they cite, and intentionally, are scholars of color. So I started paying attention, sort of reading their bibliographies and being like, “Wow, how does one do this?” And that’s what I did with my dissertation, to the extent that not all but a sizable percentage of the people I cited were scholars of color, to the extent that people would ask me who these people were. And at that time no one was reading Milton Santos, no one knew about African Brazilian geographers, and that’s really interesting. In the review of my book someone asked, “Are you excluding these US Brazilianists on purpose?” I said that it wasn’t that I had excluded them on purpose but it’s just that these Afro-Brazilians and not US scholars were my theoretical interlocutors. So there were all these black Brazilian scholars that no one had ever heard of, but who had written dissertations and small articles.

DG: And probably not in English.

KP: Mostly not in English. So I think that who we are citing and who we are teaching is really important, and that has actually been part of my current book project: to talk about teaching as well. Initially, the title was Anthropology for Liberation, and part of it is about researching, writing, and teaching for social justice. How you go about doing research and how it’s taught to us is really important. How we write the story, produce scholarship, and make it available and teach it is really important. And who are we teaching it to is really important. These are some things that I have had to think a lot about.

DG: And that is our most common form of public engagement right there.

Goldstein, Daniel M., and Keisha-Khan Y. Perry. 2017. “Activist Anthropology: A Conversation between Daniel M. Goldstein and Keisha-Khan Y. Perry.” American Anthropologist website, March 27.

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