Public Anthropology

Public Anthropology

NOTE: “Leadership Reflections” shares views of the different members of the University Leadership Council on matters related to campus life and the operations of the University. As well, it features opinions on issues of national and/or international relevance.

Applying Public Anthropology
By Dr. Enrique G. Oracion, Director of Research

After I received a confirmation that the theme of the 2011 UGAT Conference will center on public anthropology, I began to seriously search for materials about it is so I can write a paper for the occasion. My initial reading says that it is about extending anthropological knowledge and expertise to certain public beyond the academe. When I was In Hong Kong as a United Board Fellow I had a close and personal encounter with some organized groups of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially the domestic helpers, while I professionally and intellectually enriched myself in my interaction with anthropologists and administrators of the Department of Anthropology of The Chinese University of Hong Kong which served as my host institution.

Outside of the university I did a study on the Sinulog Festival in Hong Kong by the organized OFWs which they hold annually since 2009. It was in the course of my interviews and involvement in their various social and cultural activities and as honorary adviser to one group that I also learned about problems confronting them that are personal, relational, financial and work-related. I did not only submit for publication my Sinulog article in the Asian Anthropology journal in Hong Kong but I also contributed brief articles to a newsletter of an alliance of groups of OFWs and a Filipino newspaper distributed free in Hong Kong to share my anthropological impressions about them. I have been known to some OFWs as a professor from Silliman University and an anthropologist who was doing research in Hong Kong.

I was fondly called Dokie by those who were closer to me. This title was recognizing my academic background but at the same time signifying my acceptance to some OFW groups whom I was associating with every Sunday and statutory holidays in Central or elsewhere when they were free from work. This was different in campus where I was formally addressed as Doctor and we were intellectualizing anthropological concepts such as cultural heritage and diaspora. Among the domestic helpers who did not personally know me and who perhaps presumed that I was also a migrant worker or a seafarer, addressed me Kuya which means older brother—generally used to refer to Filipino male strangers in Hong Kong and even in Luzon area (aside to refer to a consanguinal brother).

Given the foregoing description of public anthropology as engaging with the public, then my activities together with and for the OFWs in Hong Kong can perhaps qualify as a practice of this dimension of the discipline.  But I want to further prove that since every anthropologist very well knows that ethnographic fieldwork always involves direct engagement with a particular community or group of people. And why the term “public” has to be tagged before the name anthropology when this field by itself is inherently about engaging a certain public, like other social sciences, becomes a valid question. Incidentally, anthropologists are not well appreciated with what they are doing because many publics have no idea beforehand what anthropology exactly is and what anthropologists are good for.

Let me reiterate what anthropologists have said what non-anthropologists say about anthropology. Dr. Carole McGranahan, in her introductory notes on public anthropology published in Indian Journal (2006), observes that people tend to pause and wonder upon hearing the term “anthropology”. This was the reaction I likewise noticed from some of my OFW friends the first time we met when they asked me about my profession. Some thought of anthropologists who are interested of tribal people and exotic cultures. Moreover, others perceived anthropologists as intellectuals who are confined in universities teaching or doing fieldwork but publishing their outputs only in journals or books, and presenting papers in conferences among fellow anthropologists.

It is no wonder a few of my OFW friends questioned why an anthropologist like me was in Hong Kong and interested to research about what they are doing (not to mention their cultural performances). I should have been with certain indigenous peoples in Philippine hinterlands and not with the OFWs in this ultra modern city. And this type of public will continue to have this stereotype about us if we insist our intellectual supremacy or isolation and circulate the results of our researches only among ourselves or within the academe. They cannot appreciate that current anthropology is actually about the whole of human life, society and culture which can cover both village communities and highly urbanized cities like Hong Kong. So unless the public understands and appreciates what anthropology is, this discipline will continue to be intellectually high and detach from the public.   

But working with the public further create a question if that is not applied anthropology. As I searched for the difference between applied anthropology and public anthropology to clarify the matter, I found instead more about their similarity, i.e., to promote the welfare of certain public. For instance, applied anthropology is described in an introductory textbook of anthropology as the utilization of anthropological theory and data “to propose solutions to practical problems”. And applied anthropologists said that through the years this field has improved its approaches starting from the use of experts in generating scientific knowledge up to involving the community in the whole process of knowledge production and dissemination. It is an engagement with the public. Given such similarity one cannot avoid but asks why there is a need to recreate the field of public engagement and give it a new name.

But so much of the debate about which is which, the point I want to raise is that the convergence of applied anthropology and public anthropology in the long run can help transform the stereotypes that still associate anthropology with the exotic and the primitive. But if one insists on the difference, perhaps a more important distinction is what Dr. Robert Borofsky, one of those promoting public anthropology practice, calls public accountability in this practice where the benefits of ethnographic writing are given back to certain public which may be measured by the amount of difference it makes to the lives of people beyond the academe that may take various forms. When I wrote and published about the cultural activities of the domestic helpers in Hong Kong I was primarily inspired of promoting them as a people with beautiful and diverse culture that may eventually erase the stereotypical view and self-prophesized identity of their being good only in domestic work.


UGAT stands for Ugnayang Pang-Aghamtao Inc. (Anthropological Association of the Philippines) of which Dr. Oracion is a Board Member. The conference is scheduled on October 20 to 22 at Central Mindanao University, Malaybalay, Bukidnon. The article provides a glimpse of the main paper of Dr. Oracion for the plenary session dubbed “Distinguished Lectures in Public Anthropology”.