In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Sociocultural Anthropologies

  • Introduction
  • US-Based Journals
  • Journals in Other Countries

Anthropology Public Sociocultural Anthropologies
Peggy Reeves Sanday
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0020


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.

Concept History

Two approaches are evident in the merging of theory, research, and action by publically oriented sociocultural anthropologists who are addressing human problems and commenting on sociocultural trends in their own society: One approach interprets the world through the lens of anthropological research with an eye on conducting corrective strategies by means of public outreach; the other focuses on building a science that turns its attention to maladaptive or inequitable public and global processes in the interest of developing a socially responsible and responsive science. Whereas the first weds anthropological research to political processes and education in the interest of change, the second approach, more strictly academic, seeks to expand the epistemological and conceptual frameworks for studying and responding to public cultural and social processes. Both approaches connect science and society and theory and practice, but in different ways. For example, the science goal is evident in the editorial statement of the journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), established in 1941 (Editorial Statement). For the academic debate regarding pure versus applied anthropological science, see Lewis 2001; for other approaches to the science question, see Bridging Theory and Practice, Ethnographies Addressing Public Audiences, and Engaged Anthropology Defined and the Science Question Revisited. Those sociocultural anthropologists who carried on the humanism of the Boasian legacy in the academy tended to mark their work as separate from the scientific disengagement of basic research by giving it the various labels noted in the Introduction. As the 20th century progressed, promotion of the public and practical implications of academic anthropology became more pronounced. In 1985, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) incorporated practicing anthropology with the issuance of the NAPA Bulletin. The AAA’s commitment to anthropological practice continued with the inauguration of a “Practicing Anthropology” section in its flagship journal, the American Anthropologist (Johnston 2008). This was followed by the establishment of a “Public Anthropology” section in 2010 (Wali, et al. 2010). The publication by a group of sociocultural anthropologists of the new journal Anthropology Now, beginning in 2009, was explicitly aimed at a broad audience. Further development along these lines came in late 2010, with the issuance of its long-range plan by the Executive Board of the AAA, stressing the importance of advancing “public understanding of humankind in all its aspects” (see AAA Long-Range Plan). Today, sociocultural anthropologists are reaching out to the public from many sites within and outside of the academy, online and otherwise, using various media and popular cultural outlets.

  • AAA Long-Range Plan.

    This version of the AAA Long-Range Plan was updated by the Executive Board at its 20 November 2010 annual meeting in New Orleans, in order to address the changing composition of the profession and the needs of the AAA membership.

  • American Anthropologist.

    The flagship journal of the AAA advances the organization’s mission. The journal instituted sections on practicing anthropology and public anthropology in the years 2008 and 2009, respectively.

  • Anthropology Now.

    This journal was founded in 2009. The editors state that they are looking for essays that are relatively short, fascinating, addressed to a general audience, and engaged in contemporary problems. They also say there should be minimal jargon and few if any references, and the essays should be shaped as a narrative.

  • Editorial Statement. 1941. Human Organization 1.1: 1–2.

    The editorial philosophy of this then-new journal is based on the premise that as the science of human relations, anthropological theories must be tested in practice. The goals include eliminating social problems in the interest of harmonious social relations, working out more effective and democratic systems of government, and extending harmony in the relationships between nations.

  • Johnston, Barbara Rose. 2008. From the associate editor for practicing anthropology. American Anthropologist 110.2: 172.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00022_2.x

    Johnston defines practicing anthropology as the array of research, methods, and outcomes that is conducted inside and outside of the academy in collaborative and participatory contexts, with the goal of understanding and responding to human experience. She sees practicing anthropology not as a fifth field but as a component of all anthropological work.

  • Lewis, Herbert. 2001. The passion of Franz Boas. American Anthropologist 103.2: 447–467.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2001.103.2.447

    This article discusses the rise of Franz Boas’s “pure science” in anthropology and the denigration of his contribution by some anthropologists. Lewis defends Boas as devoting his lifetime “to advance a science that would serve humanity.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • NAPA Bulletin. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC.

    Looking to engage practitioners, academics, and students, the NAPA Bulletin publishes articles on practical problem-solving and policy applications of anthropological knowledge. It publishes articles on research topics related to public health, social justice, the media, environmental management, and other timely issues.

  • Wali, Alaka, Melissa Checker, and David S. Vine, eds. 2010. Introducing public anthropology reviews. American Anthropologist 113.3: 5–6.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01356.x

    The editors note that significant changes are underway in anthropology. They state that anthropologists have a responsibility to dedicate their skills to issues of broad public import in work that communicates primarily with nonanthropological audiences in ways that will have an impact on critical issues of wide social significance.

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