- Toward Engaged Anthropology ed. by Sam Beck, Carl A. Maida
The latest version of the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics (2012) stipulates that “Anthropology . . . is an irreducibly social enterprise,” and among its goals are “the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems” (aaa 2012). In Toward Engaged Anthropology Sam Beck and Carl Maida present a valuable selection of essays that challenge anthropologists to fulfill their ethical commitment to the discipline as stated by the aaa and to expand the principle of “do no harm” to a commitment of “doing good” and advocating for people’s well-being (aaa 2012). Beck and Maida call upon anthropologists to play “a more intentional and responsible role in working with people” (1). Since the 1960s those engaged in anthropology have increasingly questioned and reflected upon its role in society; however, concepts such as “advocacy,” “engagement,” or “public” [End Page 220] work still engender controversy within the field. In this book the authors advocate for an anthropology in which dialogue, collaboration, and partnership with local stakeholders are central to the discipline and show how this is possible without compromising the discipline’s goals and principles.
Toward Engaged Anthropology critically exposes the power relationships and asymmetries that constrain a legitimately engaged scholarship and that disconnect academics not only from the broader outside communities but from the core principles of the discipline. The authors support a type of anthropology that recognizes knowledge production as “dialectically produced with partners” and puts “partnership, collaborations, and mutuality at the core of their work” (8–9). In such cases, the benefits of the “co-produced knowledge” must be equally shared, allowing mutual understanding, community empowerment, and co-production of solutions. The challenge is to reconsider that anthropologists do not work for people but with people and are accountable for producing the changes that the people feel they need.
The seven essays in this book carefully expose and analyze issues of authority, representation, reflexivity, definition of research agenda, academic and/or self-censorship, and changing practices of public and engaged anthropology under the pressures of global capitalism and neoliberalism. Maida’s revealing opening chapter summarizes his ten years’ experience working “with” the residents of Pacoima (Los Angeles), and particularly with the Pacoima Beautiful grassroots organization, in addressing the severe environmental neglect and mistreatment this community has undergone. Maida shows how an egalitarian and engaged association between “experts” and lay persons became a successful, efficient, and beneficial research enterprise for all concerned. Pacoima Beautiful brought together residents and experts in various fields and served as a mediating space in negotiating a common agenda. University faculty, students, urban planners, environmental organizations, and representatives from governmental agencies collaborated from their individual perspectives, providing technical support, training, and funding.
Maida emphasizes the positive results of this experience. He believes its success can be attributed to reciprocal communication between experts and community, and the training, support, and understanding provided by partners, as well as the rapport and trust built between Pacoima [End Page 221] Beautiful and the residents. However, Maida also discloses how severe budgetary cutbacks following the economic downturn of 2000–1 in California have affected this type of collaborative project. He particularly points to “the competition, between faculty-partnered projects and communities, for scarce university funds” (22) and advises of the negative consequences of this struggle. Despite budgetary difficulties, Maida insists that universities should keep a vocation of service as well as a genuine and sustained commitment to the communities with whom they collaborate.
The following chapter, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, presents an interesting case study of how, in contrast to the United States, the practice of anthropology in Norway is public despite the aims or purposes of its anthropologists. He explains how Norwegian anthropologists’ research has historically contributed to the nation-state and national identity formation, causing an inevitable bond between the academic and the political. Eriksen also shows how anthropologists and political parties participate in these interactions and analyzes how the lack of reflexivity among Norwegian anthropologists, in regard to their own...