[my current thinking about the title and rationale for an event the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University is planning for the Fall 2014]
There may be some truth to the romantic image of the anthropologist (archaeologist?) as daredevil pursuing dubious knowledge, motivated by obscure interests. Why else would any scholar, or apprentice scholar, insist on visiting far away mountains or islands (or other scary neighborhoods nearer at hand), if it wasn’t because some knowledge about humanity and its possible futures cannot be gained from the comfort of one’s armchair (or even hard seat in the library)? Boas, Rivers, Malinowski, Mead and countless others left the comfort of home on the conviction, we continue to share, that the knowledge they, and we, seek can only be gained by placing ourselves in dangerous places—not only when the danger may spring from wild beasts, poisonous plants, or not necessarily friendly peoples, but when it springs from sovereign authorities. “Powers-that-be,” from governments to organizations controlled by governments to private foundations or universities more or less controlled by corporations and the more or less benevolent rich and powerful, may open routes to new locales no Indiana Jones could otherwise reach. But they also control what can be made public, how and when. They can be dangerous to one’s career, or coopt it, all the more so that the proposed knowledge challenges this or that common sense. We also need to understand these dangers, theoretically and practically.
Anthropological knowledge can be dangerous and there is an argument for keeping it in protected environments away from polities that would use it to nefarious ends. But at least some anthropologists always intended, and continue to intend, for their work to enter the political, no matters the dangers. From Boas onwards, anthropologists have written specifically against what made so much sense that it could drive political action at the largest of scales, justify action, or mask the other motivations that can move people to act. But many anthropologists have also gone far beyond what has been called, for much of my middle professional life, “deconstruction” (or “cultural critique”). They have also wanted to help. Emblematic is Ruth Benedict’s work for the American government in World War II. This was actually but one aspect of the work of other anthropologists of the time as they founded  the Society for Applied Anthropology. W. Lloyd Warner was involved, as well as Conrad Arensberg, Allison Davis, Eliot Chapple, not to mention Margaret Mead. That call to help took many form including Sol Tax’s “Action Anthropology” that was also a critical response to what “Applied Anthropology” was becoming (Bennett 1996). It led to the creation of the Council on Anthropology and Education that provided an institutional framework for entering conversations about the evolution of schooling policies. And it led to the inauguration of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia University as one of the responses of the Columbia department to students’ call for “relevance.” The history of what an editorial in Current Anthropology called “going public with anthropology ” (1996) is long and we must ground our own call in this history.
The desire to help may also have led to Oscar Lewis’ decision to enter the fray of the contentious fields that constituted policy relevance in the 1960s as he wrote, fatefully, about “the culture of poverty.” This may have been a high point in the public acknowledgment of anthropology as having something to say outside of academia. It may also have been the low point that soured many of those who, as students, may have called for relevance in 1968 and then later argued for a withdrawn casuistic irony that may not even be dangerous—as Shweder’s knew when he noted that Clifford Geertz was applauded, in the safety of our association, for “challenging … received assumptions” (1991: 72).
Many anthropologists, of course, picked up the task of responding to Lewis and, they continue to hope, to the polities that keep returning to what moved Lewis, often with specific attacks on anthropological critiques. Indeed much of the more vibrant anthropologies of the turn of the 21st century have addressed matters that are directly dangerous in political term: abortion, pre-natal care and the new technologies of life and death, motherhood, disability, world diseases, drug use, the mining of natural resources, the production of scientific expertise, to mention but a few notable achievements. Not only do they challenge assumptions or beliefs from the top of the battlements, but they also enter the fray as they trace in detail how this or that policy, regulation, routine practice, etc. enables or disables this or that possibilities for building personal lives.
Obviously, the danger now is not in the imagined travails of journeys off the beaten tracks. The dangers lies much closer to home, like the research anthropologists now conduct. Whether we continue to use labels like “applied anthropology,” revive others like “action anthropology,” create new labels (“public anthropology,” “engaged anthropology,” “anthropology of trouble,” etc.), the fact remains that many of us will not remain in ivory towers. We will face the dangers that must be faced to elaborate the knowledge our ancestors, grand-parents, siblings and (dare I say?) children have been seeking and continue to seek. We now need to move a long conversation forward.
Bennett, John 1996. “Applied and Action Anthropology: Ideological and Conceptual Aspects.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public pp. S23-S53
Shweder, Richard 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.