Roundtable: Recovering Anthropology’s Voice: From Ethnographic Practice to Writing for the Public

Organizers: Karin Eli (University of Oxford) and Tess Bird (University of Oxford)

AAA 2017, Washington D.C., November 29-December 3

In response to the recent U.S. elections, anthropologists have turned to ethnography, to the eloquence and insight of texts which, in their slow, methodical, and nuanced way, peel layers of the human experience to reach the very core of why. New syllabi were urgently constructed. Scholarly read-ins were organized. Series of thoughtful, ethnographically-based reflections were curated on anthropological blogs. And yet, despite its close engagement with the multi-level intricacies of human existence – closer, one could argue, than any other discipline – anthropology’s responses largely remained within the comfortable spheres of academia.

In this roundtable, we ask: how might we productively rethink anthropology’s roles in addressing global discord? How should we distinguish, in practice, between active anthropology and reactive anthropology? What steps should anthropologists take to branch out into a public sphere of dialogue and influence? Our starting stance is that anthropology can and should be applied for wide-scale change. Other social scientists, including historians, economists, political theorists, and sociologists, have successfully integrated their disciplinary insights into mainstream discourses, making their work invaluable to public opinion and policy change thought through news, policy briefs, and cultural commentary. US anthropology, of course, has had a rich history of high-profile public intellectuals and political involvement. However, the timid course followed by much of contemporary academic anthropology – a course in which anthropologists struggle to proclaim “why anthropology matters” – stands in stark opposition to the potential anthropology holds for bringing about change.

While the slow art and science of ethnography might seem antithetical to public political cultures dominated by the quick missive, the tweet, and the five-minute read, ethnographic insights are essential to advancing public discourse. As scholars who painstakingly study and tell both individual lives and the macro-scale forces that shape them, anthropologists are uniquely positioned to change policy and public perceptions of socio-political worlds. In this roundtable, we will think together about how to turn our experiences as practicing ethnographers into innovative actions, with the goal of developing anthropological leadership in the public sphere and developing new sustainable collaborations. Our central focus will be on harnessing anthropology’s strengths in writing and storytelling, with particular attention to practical ways of expressing anthropology’s voice through news articles, policy briefs, feature articles, and social media posts – with nuance and integrity.

***If you would like to be considered for this roundtable discussion, please email us by Friday, 7 April, with a brief bio (100-150 words) and a paragraph that delineates your interest in the roundtable topic (200-250 words) or***