ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Engaging anthropology and archaeology: theory, practice and publics
Location Victoria Rooms G12
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 09:00


Katy Fox (Aberdeen University)
Caroline Gatt (University of Aberdeen)
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Short Abstract

We welcome papers that evaluate the different engagements Anthropology and Archaeology have had with different publics so far, focusing especially on the theoretical impediments that may exist to these and the creative strategies one could resort to for achieving public engagements in practice.

Long Abstract

Anthropology and Archaeology engage non-academic audiences differently. While Archaeology has gained public visibility through educational engagements in TV programmes, children's books and the heritage industry, Anthropology's engagements with publics have been marked by ambivalence. Apropos, a recent ESRC benchmark report noted the 'invisibility' of Anthropology in public policy as anthropologists do not readily identify themselves through their discipline. Noting this absence prominent anthropologists (e.g. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Thomas Hylland Eriksen) have called for a more publicly engaged anthropology.

Anthropology had more public presence in the past (e.g. Malinowski and Mead) and still has in some regional contexts today (Norway, North America). Yet recent public identifications of Anthropology in the UK (BBC2's Tribe) have been glossed as not being 'properly anthropological' or remain confined to the ethnographic museum. Conversely, the public profile of Archaeology may encourage monolithic understandings of 'the past', and may fail to communicate epistemologically fundamental debates (e.g. local inhabitants' interpretations of archaeological remains).

We thus ask how anthropologists and archaeologists could engage with non-academic publics without compromising theoretical subtlety and political sensitivity. Is the fear of loss of 'depth' by pedagogical reductionism and strategic communication an exit strategy from serious public engagements? Do certain theoretical frameworks constitute an impediment for Anthropology and Archaeology's public engagement on certain issues? What possible avenues can archaeologists and anthropologists take to engage different publics? The panel calls for papers that address these and related questions and that provide practical examples of how engagements could and have been achieved in specific contexts

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Keeping friends close, but enemies closer: theoretical and methodological negotiations of dominant invisibility within fieldwork at a city farmers' market

Author: Clare Perkins (University of Worcester)


Upon conducting fieldwork at a farmer's market in Cardiff, South Wales, I began to interrogate the inter-relationship between 'alternative' and 'dominant' notions of identity as they are underpinned by negotiations of historical, political and geographical boundaries. Grounded by processes of globalisation, the communication of an 'exotic', 'unusual' or 'alternative' identity became a defining moment of my research.

Holding repercussions for my entry and acceptance within the 'field', my positioning and methodologies were illuminated in surprising ways. My presence was constantly negotiated as I encountered perplexing difficulties of access, as described by Eriksen (2006) when he addressed the public invisibility of anthropology itself. Consequentially, my continued presence was addressed according to the 'alternative-dominant' inter-relationship the very focus of my research. The resultant simultaneous 'presence and marginality' in my positioning as a researcher (Coffey 1992: 2) was, I found, conducive to gaining 'closeness' to individuals. Reflectively concerned with my positioning in fieldwork, this paper will demonstrate how anthropological engagements with the public have the ability to creatively re-configure current 'dominant' theoretical and methodological approaches to the practice of fieldwork and research more widely.

Anthropology and public debate: a call for engagement

Author: Jonathan Mair (University of Kent)


Though anthropology has a long history of engagement with diverse audiences, anthropologists have tended to act as experts, providing what Strathern (2006) calls useful knowledge for consumption by NGOs and government agencies - rather than acting as public intellectuals, using their experience of other societies to comment on policy debates and current affairs at home. This is a pity because anthropologists have developed distinctive comparative and theoretical approaches to topics that are furiously debated in the media, including identity, integration, respect, crime and punishment, work and leisure, consumption and exchange, families and childrearing. The paper discusses the reasons that anthropologists have been reluctant to address this sort of issue in public arenas, and argues that in many cases reluctance may be due to unreflexive and incoherent relativism; other deterrents include a fear of being misconstrued by the media and fear of the stigma of populism. The paper reviews some recent work that does try to mobilise anthropological findings to contribute to public debate, much of which has originated in the United States, including a book that takes on conservative media pundits (Besteman and Gusterson 2005) and a travelling exhibition on race and identity. Looking to the future the paper concludes by introducing the Thames Group, a new initiative being developed by the author and his collaborators, which aims to bring anthropological knowledge to bear on questions of public policy in the UK and the rest of Europe.

Public engagement and theoretical paradigms: a focus on methods

Author: Caroline Gatt (University of Aberdeen)


Some have argued that post-modernism and changes brought on by the post-colonial period have eroded anthropologists' confidence to engage in public debate and alienated anthropology from policy-making processes (Eriksen, MacClancy, Latour). Adverse public perceptions of the discipline have led many anthropologists to be wary of addressing 'large canvas' issues in public debate, and have silenced their claims to provide contributions of relevance to policy-making or project development.

Yet there are alternative paradigms in anthropology, feminism and Science and Technology Studies (STS) that do not generate the same paralysis as post-modernism. Examples are Ingold's ecological phenomenology, Haraway's situated knowledge paradigm and Latour's elaboration of the progressively constituted common world.

Alternatives such as these could hypothetically restore confidence both in anthropology and of anthropologists. However, the research methods through which such alternatives could be operationalised in practice are still being developed.

In this paper I review the argument that certain theoretical paradigms prejudice anthropologists' engagement with public matters. One possible reason why existing alternative paradigms have not been widely adopted in anthropological research projects, I suggest, is that there is continuing uncertainty about the methods they entail.

Drawing on experience of doctoral research with Friends of the Earth and a previous applied anthropology project, I explore a possible strategy derived from alternative theoretical paradigms. Consonant with these, and taking into account specific publics as opposed to a mass public, I propose 'serial closure' as a possible strategy to re-store anthropological confidence without prejudice to the complexity or novelty of its matters of concern.

Visual methods, environmental impact assessments and public involvement: a proposal

Author: Steven Vella (University of Malta)


Policy makers argue that grassroots involvement can be counterproductive at high-level strategic policy making. My contention is that Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a project level-planning tool, and not high-level strategic policy making. Therefore, it is those persons directly affected who are involved at such a level.

Conflicts arise between the various 'stakeholders' in the urban planning decision-making and implementation processes, usually during different stages of EIAs. Furthermore there is little collaboration and communication between the different consultants, including SIA and Heritage consultants, who engage with the public as part of their consultancy work on EIAs, and the so-called 'hard' scientists.

I describe how certain methods used in participatory and collaborative ethnographic filmmaking, together with other techniques already adopted in cross-disciplinary academic research, such as Participatory GIS and 3-D visual modelling, or Virtual Landscape Theatre (VLT), can be used during EIA consultancies. In this paper I propose that such methods can improve cross-disciplinary communication within EIA's as well as involve the public more actively. These tools could effectively be bridges of communication, understanding and education between technocrats in EIAs and an informed public.

The bureaucratic system, adopting tools such as Social Impact Assessment (SIA) contributes to the constant renegotiation of stakeholders' perceptions of the social-physical environmental, caused by the developments EIAs are required for.

The means to improve communication proposed in this paper aim to make apparent these social processes in order to improve mediation during decision-making processes.

Grounded structuralism, gender, and weighting: lessons from the Massim

Author: Patrick Glass


The Massim, and Malinowski’s works in particular, have been central to anthropology’s engagement with the public. Recently, however, even within the discipline, the focus of interest is limited and largely confined to the Kula. I want to spark a more general interest.

The polarisation of the sexes and the construction of kinship and gender in the Massim have lessons for the widest study of gender. My focal points are the Trobriands and Sewa of Normanby Island: two neighbouring, mythologically linked, and puzzling matrilineal societies. Tacit rules are manifest in symbolism, beliefs and practise, and grounded in everyday life - notably, in the relations between the sexes and religious beliefs. Overt and covert binary oppositions need to be weighted, plus and minus (F+ : M ; F++: M- ; etc), and these are encoded in buildings, the landscape, and elsewhere (Glass 1986, 1988, 1996). The kinship ideology elevates the female principle, while stigmatising women elsewhere. This has been underestimated, and is seemingly predictable; and is very different from Annette Weiner ‘s popular Trobriand accounts (1976, 1988). I suggest traditional Trobrianders were essentially enveloped by four psychological complexes (Tudava, Delilah, Dokonikan, and Vaiaba).

Anthropologists demythologise the exotic, humanise it, and bring it back home. Grounded structuralism spells out representations’ tacit ground rules and ties them to experience. I suggest Massim insights help us to understand our current body-image obsession, enhance our theorising, and engage with Orbach, Wolf et al.

The anthropologist's lived/shared field presence brings unique grounded knowledge for all forms of engagement across space and time

Author: Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull)


Malinowski's emphasis on being there, language and the imponderabilia of the everyday remain central. He also popularized. Anthropology has long been engaged in wider political and cultural dialogue. It has been influential for policy, but only when politically expedient. Academic integrity may be retained, but risks rejection when contrary to governmental strategies. It depends on context and the decision makers in power. Engagement as policy adviser to the powerful, effectively a detached minority, or indeed the dispossessed, should be distinguished from popularization through media ratings. There have been impediments to the latter. Traditionalists have denigrated European fieldwork and cross-disciplinary links with some social sciences. Fortunately, the RAI has reversed an earlier decision to block A level anthropology, thus moving beyond class and ethnic stereotyping.

Media popularization through 'Disappearing Worlds' brought mass viewing, defying claims to anthropological elitism. Peoples were given voice as subjects, replacing the front man-commentator by subtitles and observational filming. Ironically, the latter has been appropriated by reality TV. But celebrity culture has revived the front man adventurer, constructing and performing exotica, and minimizing subtitles.

Instead of daredevilry for ratings, anthropologists bring experiential knowledge through grounded engagement. Lived, not vicarious field work, brings privileged interpretation beyond the local, including material culture across space and time. The anthropologist can bring retrospective interpretation to objects, oral and written history. Locations, seemingly without past traces, can be deciphered for former activities and presence. Again, this has potential and proven policy implications, both for the powerful and the dispossessed.

Full-term breastfeeding: archaeology, anthropology and advocating 'natural' styles of parenting

Author: Charlotte Faircloth (University of Roehampton )


This paper profiles research with 'attachment parents' (or, more strictly, 'attachment mothers') in London who practice a philosophy maintaining maternal-infant proximity over a long period of time (typically, breastfeeding 'on cue', bed-sharing and 'baby-wearing'). In accordance with this philosophy, these mothers breastfeed 'to full-term', following a pattern of lactation supposedly imitating a hominid blueprint of care. Ideally, this means that a mother breastfeeds until her child outgrows the need - for some children this might be at a year old, for others, not until eight years old. Since full term breastfeeding goes against social convention, yet occurs in a climate of 'intensive motherhood' (Hays, 1996) the paper pays close attention to the strategies of rationalization employed by this non-conventional sample of mothers, and the 'identity work' they undertake.

Many women refer to archeological and biological anthropological studies (of 'primitives' or 'primates') when explaining their choice to breastfeed 'to full-term'. Whilst bottle-feeding or even limited breastfeeding is considered artificial, breastfeeding to full-term is considered evolutionarily appropriate, natural and therefore, right. The paper explores the relationship between academic research and advocacy in wider society. Questions of informed consent become troubling where informants assume an advocacy stance from 'an anthropologist' who they assume will validate 'primitive' modes of childcare.

The paper traces the lines of congruence - and tension - between archeology, biological anthropology and social anthropology. The three disciplines rely on some heuristic separation of 'nature' from 'culture', yet the level of reflexivity about this dichotomy varies considerably, both within, and between the three fields.