Not available in 2022/23
AN480      Half Unit
Public Anthropology

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Andrea Pia


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Social Anthropology and MSc in Social Anthropology (Religion in the Contemporary World). This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

What and how does anthropology contribute to public life? Do anthropologists have a responsibility to meaningfully contribute to communities beyond the academy that make the study of anthropology possible? This module explores the challenges, difficulties, and stakes of having ethnographic research encounter various publics, ranging from journalists, legal experts, and policymakers to activist groups, local populations, and other scholars. Students of this module engage critically with a variety of media (books, newspaper articles, documentaries, podcasts, social platforms and interactive digital tools) with a view of analysing the ways in which anthropological ideas are conveyed to broader audiences, reflecting on how to improve their representation and effectiveness, and proposing new ways of disseminating these ideas to different publics.


6 hours of lectures, 3 hours of seminars, 8 hours of classes and 12 hours of workshops in the LT.

The course is divided into ten weeks, consisting of a combination of lectures/movie workshops/classes. Each week students read excerpts from selected ethnographic texts across geographical areas that have spurred public interest for the sensitiveness of their subject matter or the questionability of their research ethics. Workshops introduce students to the public buzzes generated by these studies and ask them to reflect on the politics and situatedness of ethnographic research and on the relatability of its findings. In some of the seminars a ‘local expert’ will be present to serve as a resource in the discussion of the issues.

The focus of this module is on the relationship between anthropological theory, the power fields in which it is inserted and its diverse publics. The types of questions this module address are both of critical and applied nature: to what extent can ethnographic studies of the food production system, waste management and water and energy provisions make global social infrastructures fairer? To what extent structure/agency debates in anthropology (and cognate disciplines) may move public perceptions of criminality and marginality towards more sympathetic positions? How effective have ethnographic-based critiques of trickle-down economics and social mobility really been, and why? How can anthropological accounts of systemic inequality take root into public representations of otherness?

The course ends by examining recent anthropological proposals within academia for a more vocal and engaged anthropology. It asks student to critically reflect on whether the discipline’s colonial past may still weigh on today’s attempts at engaging new publics. What disciplinary benchmarks of successful engagement should anthropologists set up for their own scholarship?

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 project and 1 presentation in the LT.

Formative assessment consists in a series of dedicated methodological seminars (two sessions in total) where students familiarise with non-traditional methods of communicating ethnographic insights. In preparation of seminars (on week 4 and 8) students submit a draft proposal of their research in progress and present related research materials in small groups.

Indicative reading

  • Low, Setha and Sally Engle Merry 2010. Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas, Current Anthropology 51(2): S203-226.
  • Sanford, Victoria and Asale Angel-Ajani 2006. Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy, and Activism. Rutgers.
  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 2009. Making anthropology public. Anthropology Today 25(3): 1-3.
  • Beck, Sam and Carl Maida 2015 Public Anthropology in a Borderless World. Berghahn Books.
  • Fassin, Didier 2017. If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography. Duke University Press.
  • Borofosky, Rob. 2005. Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It. University of California Press.
  • Pachirat, Timothy 2013. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale University Press.
  • Lora-Wainwright, Anna 2017. Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China, MIT Press.
  • Powell, Dana 2018.Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation. Duke University Press.
  • Von Schnitzler, Antina 2016. Democracy's Infrastructure: Techno-Politics and Protest after Apartheid. Princeton University Press.
  • Goffman, Alice 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. University of Chicago Press.
  • Fassin, Didier 2013. Enforcing Order: An ethnography of Urban Policing. Blackwell’s.


Research project (100%) in the LT.

The course is assessed via a research essay (100%) at the end of LT

For the research essay, students carry out independent research to produce a document of a maximum of 4000 words which relates anthropological scholarships to a public issue of their choice.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2021/22: 19

Average class size 2021/22: 11

Controlled access 2021/22: No

Lecture capture used 2021/22: Yes (LT)

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication