Tales of becoming a public anthropologist

Academics are increasingly called upon to apply their skills and knowledge to public problems and issues. In New Zealand as elsewhere we’ve witnessed a growing public and political appetite for universities to make knowledge accessible. We’re increasingly expected to work in more temporally immediate ways to address contemporary social challenges. The status quo model of knowledge dissemination, of publishing an article two years or more after conducting research in a journal hidden beyond a pay-wall that only a few scholars will read, is under fire within and outside of the Academy.

In Cultural Anthropology at Victoria both academic staff and students are increasingly focusing on how to enact this commitment to public scholarship. Blogs such as this one are now commonplace online, and speaking to the media is increasingly part of our everyday work. Yet the public anthropology we do is not always this publicly visible. To our students we might appear to be spending too much of our days hauled up in the (Murphy) Ivory Tower, but the anthropology staff are often quietly participating in small, everyday forms of public engagement. To illustrate, let me describe some of the projects I’ve had the privilege to be part of in the last year.

Last year I was invited to give a keynote at a symposium on veterans’ health. High-ranked members of the New Zealand Defence force were present, as well as senior figures from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs. Using ethnographic stories I described the frustrating bureaucratic labyrinths that veterans found themselves navigating in applying for pensions, and the sense of injustice and powerlessness that ensued. I learned a couple of lessons here. First, ethnography is an effective tool for breaking through policy speak, medical language, and governmental priorities, forcing those in power to imagine the experiential consequences of their policies. Secondly, critique is not enough; you have to suggest solutions, or at least point in the direction of possible actions. A senior figure from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs felt I had underplayed the things they get right, and how they might capitalise on the positives of the current system. It was a fair point. I had not mentioned the praise veterans heaped on particular practices and people in the veteran pension system. Anthropologists often complain that public anthropology work requires simplifying things down too much, but we already have our own disciplinary ways of bracketing out the messy nature of issues. This is particularly true when we want to spotlight suffering or support our participants.

As a medical anthropologist, I get invited to be part of projects outside of my direct area of research. Recently, I became a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Increasing Organ Donation. Along with bioethicists, clinicians, health advocates, and ministerial figures, we sought to identify effective ways to increase organ donation rates in New Zealand. I grappled with and learned much about how to raise questions about cultural differences and social inequalities in ways that were pithy, solution-oriented, yet not reliant on cheap stereotypes.

Sometimes public anthropology takes me into the heart of unfamiliar communities and subcultures. I recently spent the day on an Army base acting as a cultural advisor. I was asked to observe the officer recruitment process and to comment on how the process benefited or disadvantaged different cultural groups. I was impressed by the openness of the NZ Army to questions of inclusivity and to critiques from outsiders, and was fascinated by the complex enculturation process that I witnessed officers undergoing to become ‘service ready’.

Not too long ago, a lawyer acting on behalf of Māori nuclear test veterans and their children asked me to act as expert witness before the Waitangi Tribunal. I’ll need to prepare a detailed report and be questioned at a Tribunal hearing. I’m both excited and nervous: nervous that I can translate my research effectively within an unfamiliar legal landscape, nervous that I do justice to my participants’ trust in me to act skilfully on their behalf. Luckily, my colleague Jeff Sissons has experience in this role, and has much useful advice to offer. This is a crucial and often hidden ‘backstory’ to public anthropology work. As faculty members we’re always discussing these projects with each other, talking through the anxieties of possibly getting stuff wrong, trouble shooting likely problems, encouraging each other on, and joking about the imposter syndrome we might feel as ‘public experts’.

Public anthropology stretches you. It forces you to learn to be at ease with feeling uncomfortable. It requires you to think laterally about your work, and to distill anthropological ideas down into legible nuggets of wisdom that can immediately apply to a range of different scenarios. It also exposes you to other forms of expert knowledge outside of academia that are just as complex and nuanced. This has both tempered my own anthropology-centric vision of the world and made me want to work more collaboratively outside of my field. Ultimately, public anthropology changes you as much as it allows you to be involved in enacting social change.


Catherine Trundle 7_1 (002)Catherine Trundle is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research interests include medical anthropology; charity and humanitarianism; militarism; the ethics of responsibility, compassion, care and detachment; contested illness and environmental health; and political anthropology.  She is a co-founder and secretary of SOMAA – the Society of Medical Anthropology in Aotearoa.


Cover photo: ‘Together’ by Daniel Zimmel

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