Article

Public Sociocultural Anthropologies

Peggy Reeves Sanday

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0020
Public Sociocultural Anthropologies

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In its early history as a distinct social science discipline, anthropology’s public outreach consisted of informing the public regarding the “natural history of man,” as anthropology was defined by the Anthropological Society of Washington in l879, which in 1902 became the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The natural history of man was represented in museum exhibitions on human evolution and the material culture of societies past and present. Beginning in the 20th century, anthropology’s public engagement included a humanitarian effort on the part of Franz Boas and his students to inform the public regarding the social meaning of human adaptability, thereby placing more importance on human equity than on cultural evolutionary hierarchies. In the holistic approach of Boas and his students to the study of the societies of the world, they identified a specifically cultural dimension of human life along with its linguistic, evolutionary, archaeological, and biocultural components. The Boasian concept of cultural relativism challenged Western ethnocentrism, and Boasian science sought to demolish racist doctrines. Boasian anthropology informed the public through museums and public commentary. Boas gave radio addresses and wrote for broad audiences. Ruth Benedict, one of his students, published books that garnered a wide public audience, as did Margaret Mead, another student, who also wrote a column in a popular magazine. With the expansion of anthropology into the academy, an unfortunate dichotomy developed, representing anthropological research as either “pure” or “applied.” As the 20th century progressed, the humanism of the Boasian tradition was continued inside and outside of the academy by sociocultural anthropologists, who did not see themselves as falling either within the tradition of pure or applied science but as partly in both. They described their work using a variety of labels conveying commitment to public engagement. Examples include “applied anthropology,” organized as a separate association in 1941; “action anthropology,” named in the 1950s; “critical, feminist, public interest, and practicing anthropology,” named in the 1970s; “militant anthropology,” named in 1992; “engaged anthropology,” named in 1995; and “public anthropology,” named in 2000. These developments are considered here under the more general label “public sociocultural anthropologies,” with reference also to the overlapping fields of applied and practicing anthropology. In the early 21st century, public anthropology is a multisited field operating from the many different perspectives that have proliferated beyond the original five-field approach of anthropology. Many of these perspectives are covered in various other Oxford Bibliographies anthropology articles. This bibliography focuses primarily on the public outreach of sociocultural anthropology, as it developed in the academy with roots in the public engagement of the Boasian era.

Article.  22324 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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