engaged anthropology (2018)

University of California Press

Engaged Anthropology: Politics beyond the Text

Does anthropology have more to offer than just its texts? In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Kirsch shows how anthropology can—and why it should—be engaged with the problems of the world. Engaged Anthropology draws on the author’s experiences working with indigenous peoples fighting for their environment, land rights, and political sovereignty. Including both short interventions and collaborations spanning decades, it recounts interactions with lawyers and courts, nongovernmental organizations, scientific experts, and transnational corporations. This unflinchingly honest account addresses the unexamined “backstage” of engaged anthropology. Coming at a time when some question the viability of the discipline, the message of this powerful and original work is especially welcome, as it not only promotes a new way of doing anthropology, but also compellingly articulates a new rationale for why anthropology matters. 


“Public Thinker” interview by Christopher Loperena: Stuart Kirsch on Engaged Anthropology. Public Books, 2019.

Conversation with Ilana Gershon on Engaged Anthropology, Allegra lab.


“As the promises of globalization unravel, and as the ecological devastation of the planet deepens, Kirsch’s persuasive call for engaged forms of anthropology becomes vital to the survival of the field as a relevant intellectual and ethical project. This is a book all social scientists must read.”  —Arturo Escobar, author of Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds

“No one is better qualified than Stuart Kirsch to take on this topic. His treatment of what has been a taboo subject in political and legal anthropology, the tension between scholarly and activist goals, is handled with a forthrightness that leads to important insight.”  —Ron Niezen, author of Public Justice and the Anthropology of Law

“Kirsch asks the critical questions: Does ‘engaged’ anthropology produce good enough research? Is it good for anthropology? What generalizations does it allow beyond particular cases? This book takes a fresh look at roles anthropologists play in public affairs and political struggles. It takes the reader on a revealing tour of major issues in which Kirsch has been involved: a high-profile lawsuit against the Australian owners of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, the West Papuan independence movement, consultancy for the U.S. Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands, arguments about repatriation of human remains in the United States, and participation in indigenous land claims.”  —Francesca Merlan, author of Dynamics of Difference in Australia: Indigenous Past and Present in a Settler Country
“Knowing Stuart Kirsch’s work on the issue of mining and the assertion of indigenous people’s rights to their lands and territories and to self-determination, I have no doubt about the relevance of this book not just for academics and activists but for society at large. In this Anthropocene era where human beings are the key actors causing the earth crisis, it is time to revisit and reshape anthropology to help address this crisis. This book, which emerged from the author’s experiences in linking theory with societal transformation, is an important contribution to continuing struggles for social justice, human rights and sustainability.”  —Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


“Stuart Kirsch’s recent book could not be timelier. While current political landscapes leave many peoples feeling threatened, hopeless, and even helpless, Kirsch offers an alternative. Through a bold critical analysis of engaged anthropology, Kirsch illustrates how anthropologists can work with communities to protect their land rights, defend their sovereignty, and hold entities accountable for devastating environmental degradation. Encouraging anthropologists to move beyond conventional forms of ethnography and purely academic texts, Kirsch anchors his analysis and findings in concrete examples of his own engaged research with indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea, West Papua (Indonesia), Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, Suriname, and Guyana. His work offers a refreshing perspective on the validity and utility of engaged anthropology, inspiring anthropologists who find that merely situating themselves as participant-observer bystanders in communities is no longer sufficient or appropriate given the increasing external threats to community and cultural lifeways.” Shirley Heying, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Stuart Kirsch’s Engaged Anthropology is a sophisticated and passionate account of anthropology put into practice in a variety of political and social contexts. Drawing on ethnography, autobiography, disciplinary history, legal affidavits and other writing styles, Kirsch offers an intimate look at the ‘backstage’ of politically engaged research and advocacy. It is the emphasis on explicitly political engagement that distinguishes engaged anthropology from related approaches, including applied, activist, collaborative or militant anthropology, and Kirsch makes a compelling case for foregrounding our political commitments, in part by showing just how much anthropology can matter in the world.” Greg Beckett, Anthropologica

Engaged Anthropology successfully demonstrates the dynamic relationship between ethics, research, and political commitment. It affirms the value of anthropology’s engagement with the problems of the world within the story of an anthropologist sensitive to fairness and who accrues knowledge by being present on the ground, gathering information and insight, and applying it in the interest of justice. The story thereby demonstrates political commitment. As a complement to historical and contemporary works—by black and feminist anthropologists with long histories of engaging anthropology beyond the text—this book will be especially useful to students, scholars, and practitioners for what it reveals about the complications and contradictions of engaged research.” —Alisse Waterston, Anthropology and Humanism

“In Engaged Anthropology, the anthropologist Stuart Kirsch aims to show how research that is deliberately mobilized for political purposes makes for good scholarship. Examples of the sort of action he is talking about include ‘participation in social movements, collaborating with activists and nongovernmental organizations, advising lawyers, writing affidavits and producing expert reports’. Kirsch’s book is a series of case studies: an extended consideration of his own career as an engaged anthropologist. He fell into this sort of work by accident in the late 1980s, while studying ritual, sorcery and magic in a Yonggom village in Papua New Guinea. He started to worry about pollution from an Australian-owned gold and copper mine nearby, and he grew involved in both a political campaign and a lawsuit against the mine, advising lawyers, collaborating with nongovernmental organizations and providing expert reports. This political work led him to pursue research questions about the Yonggom that he otherwise might have overlooked, such as how they conceived of the pollution situation, which they viewed not as a ‘technical problem’ but rather as a manifestation of ‘a failed social relationship with the mining company’. Given how much anthropologists depend on reciprocity with the people they study, Kirsch argues, helping ‘their informants work toward achieving their political goals’ is only fitting. Kirsch does not think all anthropologists should be engaged. Activism, he grants, is not always called for, and even when it might be, ‘many anthropologists would be reluctant participants.'” —James Ryerson, “Ivory Tower,” The New York Times Book Review (April 13, 2018)

“In a chapter called ‘The Risks of Intervention’, Kirsch documents his involvement in a series of discussions on the repatriation of Indigenous
ancestors and his experience of a political blowback. By allying with Indigenous students in a context fraught with white fragility, Kirsch did the only proper thing to do — but it came with costs that not all allies are willing to absorb.” —Charles Menzies, Collaborative Anthropologies

“In this substantial volume, Kirsch reflects on his career as an engaged anthropologist, revisiting projects he has been involved with over the past 30 years. [His book] is dense and detailed, and at times quite personal.” —Erin Dean, Anthropology Now

O que podemos encontrar nas análises e textos de Stuart Kirsch é a caracterização de uma pesquisa engajada cuja interferência ‘expand the possibilities of the discipline within and beyond academy’ (p. 46). Mas este livro de Kirsch segue um caminho diferente das reflexões sobre o campo que muitos autores e autoras realizam após alcançarem certa estabilidade acadêmica. Ao invés de apresentar reflexões gerais, ele oferta o modo como suas experiências enquanto etnógrafo e expert possibilitaram estar mais próximos dos enquadramentos de pesquisa que as práticas tradicionais da ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973) tanto requerem. A ideia de antropologia engajada é reconectada a uma matriz teórica por Stuart Kirsch, que afirma entender a ligação do tipo de pesquisa etnográfica que pratica às críticas do movimento writing culture , mas observa que: ‘The writing culture debates addressed the question of reflexivity within the text, including the influence of the author’s political commitments and positionality on ethnography. In contrast, engaged anthropology is concerned with reflexivity beyond the text’ (p. 2). eTrata-se, portanto, de uma política de participação e não de representação, uma ideia que nosso autor diz ser uma suplementação das formas convencionais de pesquisa etnográfica. Antropologia engajada, mais do que simplesmente endossar uma causa, ou trazer à atenção para um descontentamento particular, é um projeto de prática etnográfica que se modula às condições requeridas por aqueles que se estudam: ‘They [engaged anthropologists] seek nothing less than the enrichment of the finest traditions of ethnographic research while simultaneously addressing important questions of social justice’ (p. 78).” —Joâo Vitor De Freitas Moreira, Espaço Ameríndio

“In Engaged Anthropology, Stuart Kirsch offers a perceptive analysis of the value and challenges of ‘engaged research’: a blanket term for modes of anthropological research that share a commitment to mobilizing anthropology towards achieving positive transformations in the world. Drawing from his experiences as a scholar, consultant, expert witness, and lawsuit participant across diverse cultural and institutional contexts from the late 1980s to the present, Kirsch highlights how engaged research can expand anthropological insights, fieldsites, and interlocutors in ways that ‘neutral’ anthropology cannot. Such an approach, Kirsch argues, pushes the boundaries of anthropological practice because it demands experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation. In particular, engaged anthropology requires attending closely to how reflexivity and politics shape engaged anthropology’s ‘backstage’, namely the interactions, agendas, and conundrums often left unexamined in written accounts.” —Sophie Chao, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Ch. 1. How Political Commitments Influence Research: Backstage in the Ok Tedi Case

Ch. 2. When Contributions are Elusive: Writing Across the Border in West Papua, Indonesia

Ch. 3. The Search for Alternative Outcomes: Conservation and Environmental Degradation in Papua New Guinea

Ch. 4. When the Intervention Fails, Does the Research Still Matter? Overtaken by Events in the Solomon Islands

Ch. 5. How Analysis of Local Contexts Can Have Global Significance: Double Exposure in the Marshall Islands

Ch. 6. The Risks of Intervention: Campus Debates on Repatriation

Ch. 7. Dilemmas of an Expert Witness: Indigenous Land Rights in Suriname and Guyana

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