A ‘Public Interest Anthropology’

Anthropologists have long had an image problem. Are they not the scholars interested in the odd and the exotic, the totems and taboos of primitive tribal groups in faraway jungles, islands and deserts? Correct. So the image is in accord with reality. Which is what troubles a new group of young anthropologists who want to study power right here in American society. Led by Shelton H. Davis, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they have formed the Anthropology Resource Center (P.O. Box 90, Cambridge, Mass., 02138) to examine such exotic forms of influence as multinational corporations in the Amazon, electric utilities in New England, and conflict in the Boston school system.

Davis describes what work anthropologists have done in this country: “Countless ethnographies of Midwestern hamlets, San Francisco bars, and Appalachian religious cults have given us a Whitmanesque vision of America but have told us little about power and politics in the United States.”

He also asserts that the claim by anthropologists, stated in most college textbooks on the subject, that their studies of tribal cultures can help us understand problems in our society has remained “a mere promise.”

Why not, asks this straightforward, soft-spoken scholar, begin a “public-interest anthropology” which would “give information not to bureaucrats for the purpose of social engineering but to citizens and community groups for the purpose of social change?”

A few days ago, Davis and his associates carted their newsletters and reports down to the annual convention of anthropologists in Houston where they conducted a panel on this new focus. Many of the attendees thought the session was the most professional and exciting of the entire convention.

But that in itself may not be saying much. For anthropology as a discipline is near the doldrums. Tribal peoples are not around as much to be studied. Economic development and emergent nationalism in many countries have assimilated many tribes or impeded access to them. Other tribes have been felled by disease or oppression, as in the Amazon.

Where anthropologists once found tribal huts and native artifacts, they are finding a large corporation clearing the wilderness or running a plantation.

But there is more to the doldrums than the dwindling data reservoir for conducting traditional field studies.

The glory days when applied anthropology assisted Uncle Sam’s World War II effort in the Pacific have been replaced by the souring suspicions among many overseas peoples that anthropologists may be disguised servants of the CIA or some other arm of the U.S. government. Cutbacks in foreign-language and area-study grants are constricting graduate programs. And this branch of social science, like the others, is suffering from the need for broader theory and redefined missions.

Why, then, should anyone by interested in the work of the Anthropology Resource Center? Because anthropologists bring unique skills and viewpoints to the study of the powerful and the wealthy.

These skills are in patiently gathering the facts in the field, bit by bit, through intensive interviewing and observation. They know how to obtain data from sources other than the written word, even if they incur personal inconveniences. They are less likely to be limited by assumptions that in other people would restrict their imaginations or make them oblivious to certain patterns of behavior.

At their best, anthropologists are wonders at developing rapport with those they are studying. Their experience with widely differing cultures in the world gives them a more sensitive perspective than a culture-bound scholar.

It will be interesting to see how Dr. Davis and his associates apply these skills to the challenge of “studying up” the power ladder of corporate and governmental bureaucracies. Davis already has shown the way in just repoducing a difficult-to research book on corporate development and the Indians of Brazil, entitled “Victims of the Miracle,” (Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y.).

Interested readers can obtain a free copy of the Center’s newsletter by writing to the afore-mentioned address. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

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