Accepted paper:

Fateful legacies and the burdens of academic excellence: UK anthropology and the public sphere


John Gledhill (Manchester University)

Paper short abstract:

Paper long abstract:

UK anthropology retains a reputation for academic excellence but has a declining public profile. Public images and media representations still associate us with strongly with “the savage slot” and anthropologists are rarely invited to contribute to public debates even on the kinds of controversies over multiculturalism and immigration into which the profession is drawn in some other European countries. Our contemporary significance as public intellectuals is minimal. The death of the public intellectual is one arguably a consequence of the neoliberal culture of audit which has served as the vehicle for the restructuring of the publicly funded British Higher Education and is increasingly serving as a model for similar endeavours elsewhere. Yet other branches of UK academia do still produce public intellectuals. This cannot be the sole explanation of our image problems. This paper examines how the discipline dug itself into a bunker of academic self-preservation historically and missed vital opportunities for reinventing itself, in order to consider contemporary options for avoiding further marginalisation as an academic jewel’ on the margins of a university system whose employees are in danger of talking only to each other. I argue that anthropologists today have more scope than ever to challenge conventional assumptions about the world and communicate knowledge that is both distinctive and readily perceived as ‘relevant’ and significant’ by the public, but that in Britain this means adopting a more aggressive, pro-active stance towards intervention in public debate and abandoning ways of thinking that disqualify any clear normative stance.

panel W095
A WCAA debate: the public image of anthropology