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What Is Public Anthropology

Theory, Practice, and Social Justice

What the dictionary might tell you: Public anthropology builds on other fields of anthropology to serve the public good—in ways you can see.

What public anthropology means at AU: theory, practice, and social justice.

The term “public anthropology” can feel vague if you’re not in-the-know. We’ve outlined what it means at American University: the theory underlying our work, the forms it takes in practice, and how public anthropology drives social justice.


A lot of research is built with a “do no harm” ethos in mind, but public anthropology goes further—actively striving to enact social change.

Public anthropologists look at the roles that cultural forces, societal power structures, and historical legacies play in shaping today’s world. In response, we harness skills in critical inquiry, communication, and problem solving to make an impact.

Importantly, we also emphasize transparency. Too often, academic research—including the research done by anthropologists—is completely opaque to those outside the field. The public has no way to access it or influence it. In contrast, the “public” in public anthropology refers not only to the public concerns we engage, but to our emphasis on openness. Our work is visible to the public and owned by the public. We invite society to participate in big conversations and are held accountable to the people we serve.

Our graduate students come to the field from archeology, cultural/social anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and biological anthropology, but our work draws on fields far beyond. By engaging sociology, public history, education, international development, justice, and law, we shape nuanced lenses through which to view societal dynamics.


Public anthropologists put our skills to work in public service, community organizing, and social justice advocacy. We work in women’s and minority health, educational equity, and cultural resource management. We strive to better human rights conditions and to further environmental justice.

In short, we apply the perspectives of public anthropology at organizations that concern themselves with public problems.

Our public anthropology students have found meaningful internships with the Smithsonian Institution, National Park Service, National Center for Environmental research, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. They have made an impact in organizations in Washington, DC, and across the globe, including at the Peace Corps, the US Department of State, the AIDS and International Development Project, and the Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation.

Social Justice

Public anthropology identifies the most urgent problems of our world, then draws from a broad body of work to illuminate pathways to solutions.

No public anthropologist can spend too much time in an ivory tower. By working in solidarity with the communities we live in and study, public anthropologists push for real, significant betterment in people’s lives throughout the world. By pushing for transparency, public anthropologists break past academic elitism to achieve on-the-ground social justice.

Our students are making a difference in their communities, working to effect a more just world, and we’d love for you to join us.


Learn more about public anthropology at American University.


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