Activism and Anthropology

According to James L. Peacock in his “The Future of Anthropology,” there are three possibilities for the discipline in the coming century: “extinction,” “hanging on as a living dead,” or a “flourishing redirection of our field into a prominent position in society” (Peacock 1997, 9).

Perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration, but his call to place a renewed emphasis on anthropology’s relevance to a wider, mostly non-academic audience is an important one. The question is: how do we, as anthropologists, reach that wider audience and establish our relevance in mainstream, public discourse? If anthropology’s goal is “the advancement of knowledge and the welfare of mankind,” how do we make strides towards that (Lassiter, 83)? And if that’s not our goal, then what use does anthropology have?

Another important question is: what avenues can anthropologists take to impact public discourse and be a force for positive change in marginalized, mostly working-class communities? That’s a question that I will attempt to answer here. Anthropologists have a lot of techniques at their disposal to understand the human condition, systems of power, capitalism, and the intersectionality of oppressive systems that subjugate marginalized communities. This includes, but is not limited to, ethnography, participant observation, participatory action research, qualitative methods, quantitative methods, and all of the theoretical frameworks that inform our methodologies.

Robert Borofsky, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University, describes a common project between anthropologists, both applied and academic, that “affirms our responsibility, as scholars and citizens, to meaningfully contribute to communities beyond the academy—both local and global—that make the study of anthropology possible” (Lassier, 84). I agree with this vision of a grander anthropological project, yet I find myself frustrated with the lack of a radical, anti-capitalist framework among anthropologists, where applied “activist” work is delegated to non-profits, NGOs, economic development, and international aid. All this controlled and funded by powerful forces, such as the IMF, the World Bank, and local, state, and federal governments, that seek to reinforce the status-quo and offer band-aid solutions, rather than radical change in response to exploitative forces.

If anthropological research can teach us so much about why humans live and act the way that they do, along with the external forces that impact their way of life, why aren’t anthropologists doing more to combat exploitative systems of power? If the goal of the anthropological project is to improve the welfare of mankind, why aren’t we doing more to achieve that? What’s the point of publishing our research if close-knit academic circles are the only ones who will read it? Forcing an anthropological focus into the public discourse, using data-driven and research-backed information, to educate the populace in radical politics and the systems of power that subjugate them would do wonders to combat reactionary forces seeking to maintain the status-quo (or even to corrode ideals and concerns about social justice, like we see with the erosion of women’s rights and abortion in states like Ohio and Georgia).

With my limited anthropological knowledge as a graduate student, I will attempt to address a few ways that I believe anthropology can become a force for radical change in our local communities. Above all, collaboration and equal participation is key to a truly democratic and radical anthropological praxis.

  • Workshops in anthropological theory and techniques for local activist communities. The praxis of anti-gentrification groups, like in Austin and Los Angeles, can be improved through anthropological techniques (such as collaborative ethnography and participatory action research) to unite local communities against exploitative forces.
  • Collaborative, open research “conducted in the spirit of free and open-source software” (see wiki page here) that can help activist groups better serve their communities and contribute where they are able. As scholars seeking to insert the anthropological project into mainstream, public discourse, this is especially important. Research also needs to be disseminated in an easily digestible way for non-academic communities (no jargon!).
  • Studying up, as coined by Laura Nader in her “Up the Anthropologist–Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” Anthropologists could help by turning their ethnographic gaze upwards and making sure our research is attentive to institutions and systems of power so communities can be better prepared to tackle systemic issues perpetuated by powerful people. According to Nader, “it is appropriate that a reinvented anthropology should study powerful institutions and bureaucratic organizations in the United States, for such institutions and their network systems affect our lives and also affect the lives of people that anthropologists have traditionally studied all around the world” (Nader 292-293). Although anthropologists do concern themselves with systemic issues and hierarchies of power, few ethnographic studies actually take place in powerful, bureaucratic institutions. Studying up could be an important tool in our arsenal to help activist communities understand who they’re fighting against and how their activism should address powerful, exploitative forces.  

Anthropologists have the tools to make the world a better place and to act as radical influencers of change in collaboration with activist communities all over the world. We need only apply them.


Lassiter, LukeEric. “Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 46, no. 1 (2005): 83-106.

Nader, Laura. “Up the Anthropologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. New York: Random House, 1972.

Peacock, James L. “The Future of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 99, no. 1 (1997): 9-17.



Hi! My name is Eden. I’m a graduate student in an applied anthropology program. I’m also queer and non-binary (they/them pronouns). I’m from the United States, but have been living in South Korea for the past two years teaching English. This isn’t my first blog. However, this is the first blog where I’ll be specifically talking about applied anthropology, social science, ethnographic research, linguistics, and folklore, along with how all these fit both into my professional development and praxis as an activist (or wanna-be activist anyway). So, first things first:

What is applied anthropology?

Wikipedia provides a simple answer: “Applied anthropology is the application of the methods and theory of anthropology to the analysis and solution of practical problems.”

In other words, applied anthropology deals with problems outside of academia and involves searching for research-backed, data-driven solutions to them. Anthropology is a complex field, however, and splits off into a vast spectrum of sub-disciplines. The traditional four-field approach is, of course, socio-cultural, archaeology, linguistics, and biological anthropology. However, each of these split off further into fields such as business anthropology, activist anthropology, forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology, medical anthropology, and countless others! It’s also heavily influenced by other science and humanities disciplines such as psychology, sociology, history, biology, literary theory, and many others. For me, anthropology acts as a bridge between the sciences and the humanities. Personally, I was a history major during undergrad, so that’s a big influence in my own theoretical framework. Postcolonialism, Marxist anthropology, feminism, queer anthropology, and linguistics also have a large impact on my work.

I plan on blogging about a lot of different, related topics. However, my interests are largely framed around how anthropology can be used to solve real-world problems. In particular, how anthropology can improve praxis in activist work and how anthropologists can collaborate with communities to solve real world, social problems that impact people all over the world. I’ll update this blog about twice a month or so, and each post will be informed by data-driven and research-backed information (with citations included!).

Please comment if you have any questions or suggestions. I’m open to discussion. Also, if you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see me write about, please let me know!

Picture taken on top of a mountain on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam.