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Comment on "Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas" (Setha Law and Sally Engle Merry)



Setha Low, Sally Engle Merry, and contributors revisit the problems and possibilities of “engaged anthropology” in this comprehensive and indeed landmark collection of articles, which resulted from a 2008 Wenner-Gren Foundation sponsored international conference. The editors’ introduction to this special issue of CurrentAnthropology makes a range of important contributions to the history and historiography of the anthropological presence in the public sphere, and their innovative theorization of this often fraught presence must now serve as a benchmark going forward.
S214 Current Anthropology Volume 51, Supplement 2, October 2010
constraint on field research. Some funding agencies emphasize
neutral, scientific-appearing work over work that has a clearer
activist agenda. Some government and corporate funding
comes with requirements of secrecy in the use of the data or
forms of reporting that could negatively affect the commu-
nities where anthropologists work and may violate ethical
standards of anthropological research. Such forms of research
are particularly common in conflict zones. Under circum-
stances of war or concern about terrorism, funding may be
directed to particular political or military objectives, as in the
example of the HTS.
Similarly, the U.S. government has not only generously
funded the HTS system, it intends larger investments in an-
thropological work through Project Minerva. The AAA argued
that these funds should be distributed through the National
Science Foundation process of academic peer review instead
of through the Department of Defense, but even a peer-review
process does not deal with the problem that this is research
with a particular military and political agenda. Clearly, an-
thropological scholarship that depends on funding is to some
extent bound by the expectations and goals of the granting
agency. The same problem confronts social activists, who must
not only frame their projects in terms the granting agency
approves but must also provide evidence for their accom-
plishments. As ethnographic research depends increasingly on
defense and security funding, these issues will only become
more complicated.
This volume argues that engaged anthropology has many
faces, from emotional support in the course of field research
to activism to promote the human rights of vulnerable pop-
ulations. Within U.S. sociocultural anthropology, the spread
of engaged anthropology is extensive, while the contributions
of Howell, Smart, and Spencer indicate that similar issues are
important in Norwegian, Canadian, and British anthropology.
This is hardly a new endeavor for the discipline; as the his-
torical section shows, there is a long history within anthro-
pology of addressing social problems and developing social
critiques of the structures that subordinate individuals and
groups. Engagement is transforming the way anthropologists
do fieldwork, the work they do with other scholars and with
those they study, and the way they think about public as well
as scholarly audiences.
Our undertaking here has been to assess the state of the
field of engaged anthropology and to expand its scope. We
wanted to broaden the range of what we consider engagement,
showing how pervasive engagement is within anthropological
scholarship. Our introduction and the articles attempt to il-
lustrate this breadth and richness through an expanded set
of forms of engagement that is more inclusive, from basic
commitment to our informants, to sharing and support with
the communities with which we work, to teaching and public
education, to social critique in academic and public forums,
to more commonly understood forms of engagement such as
collaboration, advocacy, and activism. The articles reveal this
broad range of forms of engagement, from concerns about
tact and ethnographic critique to direct advocacy in favor of
subordinated communities.
We were also interested in highlighting the tensions and
ambiguities inherent in this project. For example, the articles
show that engagement raises dilemmas for ethnographic re-
search and writing for both practicing and academically em-
ployed anthropologists. Many of these dilemmas have been
with the field for a long time, such as the ethics of intervention
into a research situation, the appropriateness of critique given
the anthropologist’s position as insider/outsider, and the haz-
ards of working with powerful government and military
The articles in this special issue demonstrate widespread
enthusiasm for a variety of forms of engaged anthropology
along with some enduring ambivalence about engagement
and a continuing set of obstacles and forms of silencing
faced by those seeking to develop a vibrant, engaged an-
thropology. Finally, the articles not only reveal ambivalence
but also highlight the obstacles and organizational barriers
to engaged work. These include institutional dimensions of
universities and the world of practice, such as the inability
to talk or write about a political agenda; the expectation
that work be scientific; anthropological emphasis on par-
ticularity and context; avoiding an imperialist stance; and
problems with promotion, tenure, and recognition of schol-
arship. Yet despite these difficulties, engaged anthropology
is alive and developing in many different ways that we sup-
port and herald as an intrinsic part of a vibrant and inter-
connected anthropological future.
Mark Goodale
Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Anthropology,
George Mason University, 3330 North WashingtonBoulevard,
Arlington, Virginia 22201, U.S.A. (
Setha Low, Sally Engle Merry, and contributors revisit the
problems and possibilities of “engaged anthropology” in this
comprehensive and indeed landmark collection of articles,
which resulted from a 2008 Wenner-Gren Foundation–
sponsored international conference. The editors’ introduction
to this special issue of Current Anthropology makes a range
of important contributions to the history and historiography
of the anthropological presence in the public sphere, and their
innovative theorization of this often fraught presence must
now serve as a benchmark going forward. As the editors
rightly argue, now is an ideal time for anthropologists to
reconsider both critically and creatively the multiple dilemmas
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Low and Merry Engaged Anthropolgy S215
that confront those of us who seek to find ways to bring the
unique and often ambiguous ways and means of anthropology
to bear on some of the contemporary world’s most pressing
problems, including endemic poverty, structural violence, eth-
nic and racial discrimination, the rise of transnational crim-
inal networks, and the deepening of various forms of mar-
ginality within those Fergusonian “global shadows” that are
a necessary by-product of the consolidation of late (perhaps
even decaying) capitalism.
I would characterize the overall tone of this major inter-
vention as one that moves between guarded optimism and
profound ambivalence about the challenges facing anthro-
pologists who struggle with ways to bridge the often artificial
divide between scholarship and the world. Indeed, as the ed-
itors explain, this “rich panorama of anthropological work”
can and must be both intellectually vital and ethically con-
sistent with the still-emergent standards of professional an-
thropological practice. Yet what is strikingly absent here is the
kind of full-throated and passionate triumphalism that is to
be found in some of the earlier writings on this topic. Readers
coming to this collection hoping to find an uncomplicated
blueprint for anthropology as political action will be disap-
pointed; so too will those younger scholars and graduate stu-
dents seeking epistemological solace in these dystopic times
in which the promises of the early post–Bush II years have
yielded to the sober realization that “plus c¸a change, plus c’est
la meˆme chose.”
What this collection offers instead is both a framework for
understanding and an argument for why more anthropolo-
gists should reframe their scholarship as some form of en-
gagement. In their introduction the editors unpack “engage-
ment” through a clear-eyed and judicious conceptualization
that leaves room for vigorous debate and further refinement.
They distinguish between six modes of engagement that are
relevant to the work of anthropology in all of its diversity:
sharing and support, teaching and public education, social
critique, collaboration, advocacy, and activism. Although the
editors modestly describe these divisions as a “preliminary
typology,” the articles in this issue demonstrate that this
framework can both capture and, in a sense, justify an im-
portant cross section of the leading edge of contemporary
sociocultural anthropology.
At the same time, what the editors describe as barriers to
these modes of engagement are all too real and must be ac-
knowledged. These barriers are likewise diverse and confront
anthropologists with epistemological, institutional, political,
and (especially for American scholars) geopolitical challenges.
In other words, despite the intellectual allure of an expanded
conception of engaged anthropology, there are reasons why
some anthropologists do not formally recast their teaching
and practice in these terms. This collection demonstrates that
what might be thought as an unengaged anthropology should
not necessarily be reinterpreted as bad faith or as a symbol
of narrow professional self-interest. Indeed, given the extent
of the dilemmas for engaged anthropology that the editors
describe in convincing detail, such a reframing becomes some-
thing of an act of courage. Yet what this collection also dem-
onstrates is that such acts of courage will continue to be “an
intrinsic part of a vibrant and interconnected anthropological
future” and much of what is best about our inimitable
Catherine Lutz
Department of Anthropology and Watson Institute for
International Studies, Brown University, Box 1921, 128
Hope Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02912-1921, U.S.A.
Low and Merry have written a comprehensive and careful
survey detailing the efflorescence of an engaged anthropol-
ogy, and it provides cause for celebration. The discipline’s
newly wide-ranging enthusiasm for making anthropological
research and writing relevant to pressing global problems
comes after a sometimes painful period of anxiety and dis-
ciplinary self-critique. That period in the 1980s and into the
1990s produced angry retrenchment into positivism in some
corners and demoralization in others. The subsequent en-
gagement with publics and the tackling of pressing human
concerns, while not new as Low and Merry point out in
their historical narrative, has given anthropology new life
and reason for being.
Low and Merry define an engaged anthropology primarily
via a six-part typology, including sharing commitment and
resources; educating a variety of publics; identifying inequal-
ities, suffering, harms, or discriminatory concepts; collabo-
rating in research or action; advocating; and engaging in ac-
tivism (though the value of the distinction between these latter
two is not clear). Like a number of earlier commentators,
Low and Merry write not simply to describe this trend but
to valorize it and to help make this kind of anthropology
more central to the discipline and more acceptable to those
who broker careers in the academy.
They also argue for the value of making this kind of
anthropology more recognizable to broader publics. Those
publics are most often exposed to expertise on human be-
havior that reflects a “growing tendency to understand be-
havior in broad, comparative, and statistical terms” as well
as, we can add, in deterministic biological (your genes make
you do it) or economic (the market makes you do it) ones.
Perhaps even more important is the ability of engaged an-
thropologies to highlight and make sense of popular ex-
periences, desires, and misunderstandings of things such as
inequality, environmental racism, or job and status loss. This
ability to claim research-based knowledge is especially val-
uable in a historical era when public debate is so often run
on discourse produced via the science of public relations
and political expedience, both of which merely produce
info-kibbles or sound bites.
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