Public Anthropologies

By Sareeta Amrute (University of Washington) and Mona Bhan (Syracuse University)

A review always feels tardy; it catches up to events as they unfold. This review, rather than canonizing a list of public anthropologies, might be thought of as conceptualizing time and its passing—the review itself exists to be undone and redone. Within this frame, publicness might be imagined as a discussion happening over time with various degrees of openness.

There almost seems to be a surfeit of publicness now, as events, debates, and audiences are created for and spread across anthropology’s mediated terrains. Indeed, what we collectively term social media—the platforms, messaging apps, and websites through which we communicate across multiply situated audiences—is itself a source of publicness. Anthropologists exchange information, call one another to account, and become embroiled in jurisdictional battles demarcating constraints on the freedom of academic expression. Social media is a demonic space, capable of moving public anthropologies outside of what Zoe Todd terms the “moldy” infrastructures of institutions, but also serving as a new space of scrutiny and surveillance. We did not have to look far to come to the conclusion that social media is a surveilled space, as we noted that the government of Turkey institutes massive surveillance campaigns and jails academics for signing a petition under antiterrorism laws, the government of India bans academics from criticizing the government and authorizes surveillance laws that may be unconstitutional, China uses surveillance data to regularly monitor and incarcerate Uyghur minorities, and the US-based platforms that anthropologists regularly use to communicate with each other and with their publics monitor and sell their usage data, even when there may be good alternatives to these commercial providers. Add to this the imperative for anthropologists located within and outside universities to build their social media brands, as if online recognition could function as a substitute for materially and structurally supporting adjunct, contingent, and nontenured faculty. The desire to polish one’s brand can be a kind of cruel optimism that allows universities to maintain elite affordances for the select few and respond with what Sarah Ahmed describes as strategic inefficiencies for the others. These trends suggest a need for publicness as thinking on the fly. To practice publicness, we need to be on our toes, attentive to keeping an open, experimental capacity alive.

Strategies of informant protection, ethics, and the represented positionality of the ethnographer have preoccupied anthropology as a field for several decades. Yet in a review of what it means to “go public” in 2018, we are especially sensitive to notoriety’s wide and unpredictable undulations, which change what it means to be known publicly. Systems of surveillance are regularly deployed by authoritarian states around the globe. Sometimes, to be named can be a strategy of garnering attention for an urgent issue of global concern, but at other times, a throng’s anonymity provides the cover necessary to accomplish much-needed pubic airings. We follow the lead of the public efforts we describe in this essay, preserving collective cover as much as we can, even while recognizing the important work in personalizing publicity to make anthropological publically efficacious.

Choosing not to engage in an act of canonization in this review, we instead recognize a series of events and interventions. We ask: What are some of the global issues that have prompted anthropological interventions? What multiple genres of writing, outside of conventional academic formats, have anthropologists used to make their writing public and accessible? And how are anthropological interventions meant to constitute a particular kind of public through response and reflection? We think of these as events that happen in public, interventions meant to make anthropology public, and interruptions that are for particular publics.


Sometimes, anthropology just happens in the open. A case in point involves the long history of crossed connections between anthropology, missionaries, and colonialism.

The demons of an anthropological past, populated with images of exotic, primitive, and uncontacted tribes, resurfaced in November 2018 when an American Christian missionary, John Allen Chau, was killed by the Indigenous Sentinelese people from the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar in India. As the news of Chau’s murder spread like wildfire, so did stories of Indian anthropologists who had, in the past, managed to enter a forbidden land and establish contact with the hostile Sentinelese. Captions such as “First anthropologist to enter North Sentinel Island” and “Meet the world’s first woman to contact one of the world’s most isolated tribes,” although celebratory, harkened back to the times when anthropologists enabled colonial rule and ethnography served as a tool of pacification. Pictures from the 1990s of Madhumala Chattopadhyay, the young female anthropologist, gifting coconuts to the naked natives who surrounded her in their remote island reappeared in popular media, showcasing anthropology as a counter to Chau’s forced missionization project. Likewise, T. N. Pandit’s slow efforts to establish trust and understanding with the reluctant natives were cited as reasons why Pandit and his team, unlike Chau, survived the Sentinelese hostility. That these early Indian anthropologists were part of administrative or naval reconnaissance missions in a region with a long and violent history of maritime defense misadventures hardly received any attention in popular media. Instead, the publicness of anthropology centered on its fascination with the “remote,” and “tribal.” As Uditi Sen has recently argued, the continued invocation of “tribe” as a legal, bureaucratic, and academic category in India has done little to force a conversation about social or political justice for India’s Indigenous minorities. On the contrary, the caste, class, and civilizing logics of state-funded anthropological missions remain largely unchallenged.

Anthropological interventions to establish forced contacts, be it in the context of the US-funded Human Terrain System experiments in Iraq or Afghanistan or in the postcolonial settler context of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, however, are anything but benign occasions. For instance, rather than exaggerate their differences, Sita Venkateswar’s forceful portrayal of both Chau and Chattopadhyay as similarly engaged in a “proselytizing mission,” none of which was to protect indigenous interests or autonomy, made a critical intervention in this debate. In order to urgently intervene in Chau’s killing and prevent the local administration to retrieve his dead body, concerned activists and anthropologists issued a collaborative statement in which they urged the Indian government to abandon the search for Chau’s dead body to prevent worsening the already tense relationship between the Sentinelese and the government and to avoid inflicting more harm on a vulnerable population. The statement reminded the government of its “eyes on, hands off” policy that afforded the Sentinelese Islanders some protection from the government’s welfare and interventions. The mounting pressure on the Indian government by several advocacy groups ensured that the search for Chau’s body was eventually suspended.

While anthropologists have acknowledged their historic and continued entanglements with projects of power and empire building, it seems that the uptake of this critically oriented anthropology in public spaces has been rather plodding. For instance, Chau’s demonization in the media, while not entirely misplaced, was contrasted with anthropological encounters with the Sentinelese as innocuous and good-hearted attempts to understand India’s noble savages. In such accounts, anthropology’s imperial and intrusive histories were sidelined. What explains this disconnect between the critical work we do in the present and how our public image seems trapped in a colonial ethic and temporality?

There is a deeply felt need to rethink anthropology in the twenty-first century and devise ways to align our principles of inclusivity, equality, and social, political, economic, and environmental justice with the structures of disciplinary production through carbon-neutral and cost-effective conferences, open-access journals, podcast series, and a range of other interventions. Yet hierarchies between academic and public writing, as well as between scholarship and activism, present our obligations to the public and to the discipline as competing and antithetical. As we confront the increasing neoliberalization of universities, climate change, rising student debt, the immigration crisis, and the adjunctification of academic labor, among other things, there is a greater need to rethink what some authors call the “legacy model of scholarship” and create alternative models of thinking and doing anthropology. And yet it is clear that innovation does not always signal the dissolution of entrenched power relations.


Sometimes, anthropology as a discipline needs to be made public so that it can be criticized from within. The fall of the journal HAU and #MeTooAnthro (and #MeTooArcheology) exemplify these moments of airing anthropology’s ongoing inequities. HAU, a journal that moved out from under the for-profit publishing model only to be undone by the abusive, bullying practices of its editor, became the subject of two anonymous letters cowritten by eleven staffers detailing overwork without adequate pay (wage theft), threats of retaliation (extortion), and financial misconduct involving charging institutions double publishing fees and slowing down external reviews for authors who were unable to raise these funds from their universities. One letter outlining this abuse was published on the Footnotes blog, whose editor, Dick Powis, later worked with Anar Parikh to organize a bursting-at-the-seams roundtable at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Jose featuring Anar Parikh, Emily Yates-Doerr, Savannah Martin, Jules Weiss, Taylor Genovese, Takami Delisle, and Hilary Agro, along with Adia Benton and Zoe Todd to discuss questions of open access-publishing, meeting fees, and the need to center black, Indigenous, Latinx, and LGBTQI+ knowledge in anthropology.

As criticisms and disavowals mounted, Catherine Trundle, Lily George, Marama Muru-Lanning, Lorena Gibson, Tarapuhi Vaeau, Fiona McCormack, and Tom Ryan, members of Mahi Tahi, a group dedicated to scholarship by and about New Zealand Maori, published an open letter that brought to the surface the connection between issues of academic power, elitism, and precarity and the misuse of native terminology. It turns out anthropologists have been mispronouncing hau, a Maori term that comes to anthropological theory through the writing of Marcel Mauss, for over ninety years. For members of Mahi Tahi, the mispronunciation is itself symptomatic of a much more serious occlusion, the failure to acknowledge Tamati Ranapiri of the Ngati Raukawa tribe as anthropology’s interlocutor in defining and describing hau and many other terms that have become primary conceptual tools of the discipline. Such moments evidence appropriation without relation, in other words, of building anthropological knowledge through Indigenous thought without maintaining relationships with communities that have their own understandings and usage of these terms. As in the case of the Sentinel Islanders, this aspect of the HAU debacle makes clear a fact that bears repeating: anthropology’s colonial past is not past at all; as a discipline, its boundaries and its authority continues to be forged through expertise maintained by powerful individuals at powerful institutions and energized by the hidden intellectual, embodied labor of graduate students, precarious faculty, and broadly speaking, the colonized peoples of the world.

Corporatized publishing limits easy and cheap access to our scholarship, preventing it from becoming “public” knowledge, and as an open-access journal, HAU was certainly responsive to this trend. At the same time, the journal’s publishing practices signify a disciplinary need to urgently think beyond standardized modes of knowledge production and the devotion to abstruse conceptual fads that further limits anthropology’s capacity to shape public opinion. The question of the status of Indigenous knowledge and scholarship in anthropology raised by this mess extends far beyond the fall of a single journal, as many of anthropology’s most potent conceptual formations—like the posthuman—emerge from indigenous thought. As the Mahi Tahi follow-up letter argues, these exploitative patterns demonstrates a failure to care, both for the less-privileged within the structure of production that the academic journal represent and for the epistemologies and ontologies of those black, Latinx, undocumented, indigenous, queer, and disabled thinkers that the discipline systematically includes as informants but excludes as peers.

Anthropology makes worlds, and it is part of worlds. Beginning in 2017, anthropology became part of #MeToo movements, which unfolded in part through discussions of #MeTooAnthro, and resulted in the following year in a collective to combat sexual assault and gender-based violence in the field. For the members of this collective, they see a need for urgency in combating sexual violence, both in anthropology as an institution and during fieldwork. #MeTooAnthro has collected stories of harassment, rape, and manipulation by dissertation advisors, colleagues, and informants, and at conferences. In response, they have both worked to document the degree of safety experienced by young anthropologists and the pathologies of normalization that accept assault as a rite of the field. At the same time, collective members Holly Walters, Amy Hanes, Kersten Bergstrom, Esther Anderson, Hannah Gould, Kathleen Openshaw, and Mythily Meher have produced a series of guides for faculty and students on how to think through and respond to gendered violence when it happens. In archeology, ongoing efforts by women who have filed complaints in the face of the continued public renown of known harassers translate what some have categorized as hashtag politics into sustained pressure to remove such figures from the field. Archeology has produced its own reckoning with long histories of sexual abuse at the hands of prominent scholars and during fieldwork, which has resulted in multiauthored initiatives to combat sexual harassment.

The #hautalk, #MeTooAnthro, and #MeTooArcheology debates are public examples of protest that use the anonymity and speed of social media platforms to foster debate in the face of silencing maneuvers. Thinking through these two instances of anthropology made public, we are struck by the fact that outward commitments to progressive change in the academy—such as open-source publishing—can serve as cover for multiple kinds of abuse, in part because such efforts remain financially undernourished. Abuse within activist and scholarly communities also continues to flourish behind the desire to maintain a united political front in the face of systemic oppression. Ultimately, decisions to look the other way over sexual abuse and harassment within so-called progressive movements damage the very politics that these communities are promoting. They represent a failure to create care and trusting relationships with communities.

Anthropology made public can be understood as a moment of political rupture, where the very publicness of the form of the tweet, the anonymous electronic letter, and the blog post produce a counter-space in which pain can be aired. These moments also give rise to the desire to create another kind of intervention in the face of ongoing crises to address persistent gaps in our framing of place and the peoples who live in them.


Anthropology sometimes happens with a particular public in mind. In this kind of public anthropology, the reigning questions are, who do we write for, and how does that knowledge empower nonanthropologists? Anthropologists writing with a particular public in mind are often doing translation work—they are taking the knowledge amassed by one public and authorizing it by connecting the work to the concerns of another, arguably larger, public. Oftentimes, we occupy the difficult position of being both experts and witnesses as “native” anthropologists are called upon to perform this dual role, particularly for audiences in the West. A few good 2018 example of anthropology for publics are the Puerto Rico Syllabus project, Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, and writings across a range of platforms on borders and walls.

The Puerto Rico Syllabus Project, led by Yarimar Bonilla, Marison LeBrón, and Sarah Molinari, gathers readings and videos to explain and teach about the Puerto Rican debt crisis. As a hashtag syllabus project, it builds on efforts like the #StandingRockSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus, #ImmigrationSyllabus, #Trump2.0Syllabus, #ImmigrationSyllabus, and #CharlestonSyllabus. These open-ended education efforts themselves draw on histories of African American self-education programs extant since the late nineteenth century. The project creates greater awareness about Hurricane Maria, the debt crisis, and American legal imperialism. It also functions as a rallying document for groups within Puerto Rico and in diaspora to organize against punitive financial measures imposed on Puerto Rico by the banking industry. Reading through the syllabus takes the student on a history lesson in US colonial relations in the Caribbean, the relationship between climate change and power, and through the long-term consequences of international austerity regimes. Testifying to its important translational aspirations, the syllabus is published in both Spanish and English.

These syllabi collectively force us to rethink the academic canon that continues to exclude the experiences of colonized and occupied people across the globe. With the increased demonization of black, Dalit, and Muslim communities, who continue to suffer the prolonged violence of racism, casteism, and Islamophobia, such syllabi open up anthropology to the public while making room for critical perspectives within anthropology. To do public anthropology, then, is to continually ask how we wittingly or unwittingly exclude, silence, and erase. This is especially pertinent as academic frameworks and interventions can remain wedded to power and privilege. As the War on Terror and ongoing vigilantism and lynchings in India suggest, liberal-feminist and animal-rights discourses are often pretexts to silence or exterminate unwanted bodies. The #MeToo movement in India, for instance, focused predominantly on Bollywood while barely addressing sedimented histories of institutionalized racist and casteist crimes against India’s minorities. To an extent, Raya Sarkar’s online list triggered such a discussion in the public media. She named many well-known predatory academics on Facebook, which generated a counter-response by several Indian feminists, who denounced the public naming and shaming of academics without due process and recourse to just procedures of accountability. For many, the ensuing debate between Raya Sarkar, a young Dalit law student, and upper-caste Indian feminists exposed the deep caste, gender, and generational fault lines within the feminist movement in India. As the #MeToo movement gained traction in India, however, and reached militarily occupied and Muslim-majority regions such as Kashmir, it became clear that the movement could, in its less radical form, reproduce institutional forms of toxic nationalism and Islamophobia. There are many instances of liberal outrage by Indian feminists over gendered forms of violence by Kashmir’s patriarchal and Islamic culture. Yet the outrage is minimal when gendered forms of military violence, such as mass rapes and violence, are normalized to support regressive security and nationalist projects.

Since #MeToo can be weaponized against vulnerable minorities, the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, which comprises anthropologists, literary studies scholars, historians, and activists, issued a Decolonial Feminist Statement on #MeToo in Kashmir. The statement cautioned against the Islamophobic rhetoric that becomes normalized in moments like these as the “savage” behavior of inferior natives is used to delegitimize their social and political freedoms. The statement also criticized civilizing narratives that claim gendered violence to be inherent to certain “cultures” or “religions.” At the same time, the statement encouraged Kashmiris to treat women’s stories who were bravely sharing them on social media not merely as politically motivated distractions but integral to people’s collective struggle for rights, freedom, and self-determination.

In this instance, the decolonial statement was responding to historic patterns of Islamophobia and military brutality in Kashmir while also affirming women’s rights to speak out against perpetrators of gendered violence across the political spectrum. Collective academic statements can become effective tools to transfer and translate knowledge across multiple audiences. In this case, the statement motivated a young university female student to expose an activist male lawyer who had risen to prominence as an antirape crusader after he had publicly fought on behalf of Asifa, an eight-year-old Kashmiri Muslim girl from a marginalized ethnic minority, whose gang rape and murder was abetted by the Hindu nationalist state in India.

The anthropology of walls and borders was given fresh impetus in 2018 by the US government’s plan to build a wall at the US-Mexico border. Anthropologists working on walls in places like Germany and Palestine have weighed in on what Antonio de Lauri calls the theatricality of wall-building as a deterrent even as they have called out the theater of politics in which the idea of walls can play a significant role. Those who do ethnographic fieldwork on the border, like Christine Leza, document the effect walls have on indigenous subjects whose right to move across the “imaginary line” that separates members of nations on either side of the border have been curtailed. Tracking the migrant experience in crossing borders continues to be part of anthropology’s approach to humanizing those subjects that walls are meant to keep out. The criminality of US immigration policy is visibilized through Hostile Terrain 94, a multiyear project that documents the names and information of thousands of migrants who have died while entering the United States through the Sonoran Desert. Through toe tags, the project curates this information for public display on a map of Arizona, which will travel to ninety-four different countries before the US presidential elections of 2020. Finally, the watery borders of the Mediterranean crossing bring together forensics and the anthropological study of genomics in Amade M’Charek’s account of identifying refugee bodies and tracing them to their families, often through their social media profiles. Anthropologists are also engaged in designing psychosocial interventions to help refugee children to cope with wars, loss, trauma, and suffering. Even though the meanings and politics of building resilience in the face of catastrophic life events remain unclear, anthropologists are joining collaborative teams to grapple with urgent questions that pertain to people’s survival and their individual and social well-being.

Eschewing creating new canons for public anthropology, we have tracked the multiple kinds of public anthropology that emerged across 2018. Some of the most spectacular emerged when anthropology’s ongoing colonial engagements surfaced to sediment national domination over historical minorities. And some of the most intentional public interventions extend across several years and across disciplinary boundaries to provide sustained collective critique addressing planetary well-being. Yet, this essay also tracked a “meso” level between these ghostly events of anthropological haunting and the identification of structures outside the discipline that warrant anthropological attention. These largely anonymous, collective reckonings with anthropology’s pervasive forms of exclusion must be linked to any future elaboration of either colonial critique or anthropology designed to change a public’s opinion, public processes, or public legislation. An ongoing critique from within that links economic and political issues on the broadscale with the everyday workings of disciplinary power both requires and can produce anthropology as a multiple, alive discipline attentive to the opportunities for doing anthropology in different kinds of public spaces.

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