Public anthropology

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Public anthropology, according to Robert Borofsky, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University, "demonstrates the ability of anthropology and anthropologists to effectively address problems beyond the discipline - illuminating larger social issues of our times as well as encouraging broad, public conversations about them with the explicit goal of fostering social change" (Borofsky 2004). The work of Partners In Health is one illustration of using anthropological methods and data to solve big or complicated problems.

Merrill Singer has criticized the concept of public anthropology on the grounds that it ignores applied anthropology. He writes: "given that many applied anthropologists already do the kinds of things that are now being described as PA, it is hard to understand why a new label is needed, except as a device for distancing public anthropologists from applied anthropologists" (Singer 2000: 6). Similarly, Barbara Rylko-Bauer writes: "one has to ask what is the purpose of these emerging labels that consciously distinguish themselves from applied/practicing anthropology? While they may serve the personal interests of those who develop them, it is hard to see how they serve the broader interests of the discipline" (Rylko-Bauer 2000: 6). Eric Haanstad responds to Singer's claim by arguing that public anthropology does not necessarily entail the exclusion of applied anthropology (Haanstad 2001a). Alan Jeffery Fields defends the concept of public anthropology by claiming it is "a useful trope for one important reason: it calls attention to the fact that there is a division between public and academic perceptions" (Fields 2001a).

Borofsky, who coined the term, prefers not to get drawn into such arguments, especially since the term was originally coined for an innovative, new book series published by the University of California Press.  He writes: “I feel uncomfortable getting caught up in what Sigmund Freud called the ‘narcissism of small differences’ – related groups arguing over small differences to differentiate their identities. There are too many serious problems for anthropology to address” (Borofsky 2019:130).  He continues:

Take, as an example, the anthropologist Ben Finney. Challenging Sharp’s assertion that Polynesia was settled accidentally by unskilled navigators, Finney became a leading advocate that Polynesia was intentionally settled by Polynesians highly skilled in the art of open-ocean navigation, able to travel across thousands of miles guided by the stars and waves. In 1973, he co-founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society and served as its first president. The Polynesian Voyaging Society became the lead organization in building the Hokule’a, a 62-foot-long double hull canoe. He was a part of the initial crew that sailed the Hokule’a by celestial navigation to Tahiti in 1976. Later he helped crew the trips to New Zealand (Aotearoa) in 1985 and Rarotonga in 1992. Quoting Nainoa Thompson, the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s current president and a prominent figure in the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance movement, the voyage of the Hokule’a “changed the whole identity of the Hawaiian people. We went from being castaways . . . to being children of the world’s greatest navigators, . . . We owe it to our visionaries . . . and Ben was the first” (Kubota 2018).

Borofsky concludes: “I do not see what is gained by trying to attach applied or public to Ben Finney’s work. What he did was impressive. He played a leading role in the resurrection of Hawaiian voyaging and, through that, the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance” (Borofsky 2019:130).  Public anthropology, for Borofsky, is more than a label, is more than an intellectual dispute.  It focuses on what anthropologists can achieve when they address problems beyond the discipline.

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