Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | July 11, 2006

Public Anthropology

This is a copy of 2001 interview published on “Public Anthropology: A Graduate Journal,” an online journal of Association of American Anthropologists. I consider the topics are still relevant for anthropology today.

Christina Puryear was a graduate student at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

“Public Anthropology,
Political Anthropology”
An Interview with Fadjar Thufail


Tina Puryear
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Abstract: In the following interview, Fadjar Thufail, a cultural anthropology graduate student from Indonesia, describes the environment in Indonesia which cultivates a unique relationship between scholarly research and public discourse. Fadjar comments on the history of anthropology in Indonesia, the political context in which anthropologists work and the media’s expectations of academia as well as the public’s.


Professor Borofsky of Hawaii Pacific University noted that one of the key issues raised during the 1999 A.A.A. session on “A Public Anthropology!!!” is the anxiety anthropologists feel surrounding the desire to be objective on the one hand and active on the other (email, 12/13/99). Traditionally, anthropologists in the west strove to be scientific. To be scientific meant to be objective, to distance ones self from the events or practices in order to ensure an unbiased, indifferent analysis. In Indonesia, however, the anthropological tradition emerged within a different context. This context, argues Fadjar Thufail in the following interview, gave birth to a discipline in which scholars are actually expected to engage the public. The expectation of a scholarly public discourse is continually perpetuated by academia, the media, and the public. Therefore, there is no dichotomy between anthropology and ‘public’ anthropology.Fadjar Thufail is currently a Research Associate for the Center for Social and Cultural Studies which is a division of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. He is simultaneously working on his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He obtained his Master’s Degree from Rutgers, State University of New Jersey in 1997. In 1998, Fadjar was awarded the “Indonesian Best Young Scholar Award”. Fadjar’s dedication to bringing anthropology to the public is demonstrated by his multiple interviews and articles in Indonesian newspapers like The Jakarta Post. In addition, he is presently editing a volume of anthropological essays that are catered to the ‘public’, to non-academic readers in Indonesia.When Anthropologists in Indonesia are interviewed by newspapers, their comments are not squeezed into tiny sound bites, instead they are written up in long, detailed articles. In addition to interviews, Fadjar notes, Anthropologists also contribute their written work to newspapers. And finally, many Anthropologists often appear on television or on radio. Indonesian anthropologists continually attempt to link themselves to the non-academic world. In the following interview, Fadjar describes the environment in Indonesia which cultivates a unique relationship between scholarly research and public discourse.Tina: “What makes the situation so different in Indonesia? Why is ‘public anthropology’ the norm in your country and not the West?”

Fadjar: “The Indonesian journalists. When they interview scholars who use the same jargon for newspapers that are also used in academic journals (ex. ‘deconstruction’, ‘globalization’ etc.), the journalist’s themselves think that this is what scholars should do. They don’t see it as only something scholars should know…they see jargon as a way to educate the public. The journalists appreciate academic discourse as a way to bring theory to public discourse. Another difference between anthropology in the United States and Indonesia, basically, well…, the actual theoretical discourse is not much different as many Indonesian anthropologists have degrees from Western universities. They also learned about Malinowski, Redfield, Bourdieau, etc. What makes anthropology as a discipline different than the discipline in the United States is that from the beginning, Indonesian anthropologists are supposed to be able to talk to the public and get involved in development practices. The first anthropology department in Indonesia was established in 1957 and that was after the Indonesian independence when the people were eager to develop the country. Part of the institution of Indonesian anthropology is that the anthropologists were asked to contribute to development practices and that makes what in the U.S. called “applied anthropology” a part of Indonesian anthropology. There is no distinction like in the U.S. This is not unique to anthropology, it is also applied to other disciplines as well (sociology, political science…). That is why in Indonesia “public anthropology” is nothing new.

T: “You mentioned both ‘applied anthropology’ and ‘public anthropology’. In your opinion, what is the difference?”

F: “There are different ways of defining ‘public anthropology’ – 1) scholars who write for newspapers, 2) publishing for non-academic books, and 3) scholars involved in applied anthropology projects. For me, public anthropology should have a notion, … it is a critical process. Public anthropology is supposed to involve in a critical position. It should be a reminder, no…not a reminder. It should involve engaging the public, but by criticizing projects or challenging the dominant paradigm. To me, applied anthropology is not the same as public anthropology because they (applied anthropologists) do government development and journal writing etc. Applied anthropologists are just technicians or sponsors of the government and hence are not ‘public anthropologists’ because there is not a critical component to it. For me, they are not public anthropologists because public anthropology must have a critical component. This can be done in an ‘applied’ way – working for a ‘critical’ NGO, or an NGO that challenges government endeavors. Also, in that sense, the anthropologist working in a university as a student or faculty can also do public anthropology as long as they are engaged in a critical ‘review’. In Indonesia, most of the anthropological scholars are engaged in such a critical function by writing in newspapers or maybe giving comments on TV talk shows or maybe invited to give a paper in public seminars to criticize government policies. I see that as part of the public anthropology”.

T: “So you argue an anthropologist could be both applied and public, or neither?”

F: “There are a number of anthropologists working for development projects, but not doing ‘public’ anthropology because they are simply part of the government… they aren’t ‘independent’. But, most Anthropologists in Indonesia are critical of the government and act independently. That is why lots of anthropologists in Indonesia are invited to various seminars, give public talks, probably invited to TV talk shows, or interviewed by newspaper journalists. So, basically, in Indonesia, it’s not only the scholars who want to go public, but also the journalists. A connection exists between the community of scholars and the media. That I don’t see in the United States where academics are beyond the reach of the public.”

T: “Great link to my next question… you mentioned one difference between Anthropology in the United States and Indonesia was the role of the media. In Indonesia, the media is committed to criticizing the government and therefore seeks out scholars who will critically analyze public events. In the United States, there is a mutual view on both the academic and non-academic side that the public will not understand most of the theoretical work anthropologists do. Does the media in Indonesia also have a preconceived idea of what the public does and does not understand?”

F: “Scholars use specialized analytical and theoretical discourse, as such they only understand each other. Somehow, one can blame that on academia, but one can also blame public discourse in general, and public discourse is determined by the media. The Indonesian media is very aware of the capability of different public groups that are critical of the government. The media and the public both see scholars as much more an authoritative group who can critique or explain public events and government policies. And, both the media and public are interested in hearing scholarly views of social and political events. – the problem emerges, however, that this establishes scholars as the “right” person. But, somehow this can be good since it becomes a way of connecting scholars with the public.”

T: “What is ‘public’? Is it only people interested in criticizing the government?”

F: “anyone who reads papers, watches TV, listens to the radio – taxi drivers, government workers, medical technicians, anyone!”

T: “One of the many debates surrounding ‘public anthropology’ in the U.S. is the ‘dumbing down dilemma’ – there is a fear that, in order to break down a complex theory or to avoid using the specialized jargon, then the scholar’s idea’s are either lost or more prone to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Is this a problem in Indonesia?”

F: “Complex question… recently there has been a debate among the media and scholars… I was involved in a discussion which basically debated whether what academia…how do I put it… exactly your question. The debate is going on in everywhere in the country…in what ways can you talk about very complex theories, substantially, scholarly complex, you know, and convey that to the public who may not be interested. Part of the way U.S. media portrays the public – they think the public is dumb, not interested in learning what scholars are doing, and that jargon is unintelligible to the public. It can be true, but then…let me say, the political context is different in Indonesia. Most of the media think of themselves as opposed to the government. They have a function to criticize the government. Most of the scholars also think of themselves as critics. They [the scholar’s] use media to launch critiques of the government, especially the ‘New Order’ [Suharto’s regime – 1966-1998]. So that is why whatever scholars say, the media accepts it without saying ‘too difficult’ – nothing is ‘too difficult’ for the story…they feel this is something we must publish because we must criticize.”

T: “To clarify… there is no fear of ‘dumbing down’ in Indonesia like there is in the United States; the scholars and the media in Indonesia believe the public is both capable of understanding and willing to read articles full of theoretical ideas?”

F: “To criticize the government, you need different points of view, different ways to explain your ideas. Jargon is seen as authority to craft opposition or criticism against the government. Maybe from the American point of view the authoritative position given scholars because of the jargon is bad. But in the Indonesian political context, the authority is important because it is the only way one can craft your criticism (because the government does not care if the ‘public’ criticizes). The government needs authoritative critics in order to listen, they need jargon to feel challenged. When Suharto was in power, the media and scholars had something in common – an authoritative regime. When Suharto stepped down, they had to redefine their relationship. Some of the media think that scholarly analysis is not important anymore. Some, however, still think academic input is still important and hence still accept comments from academics. Some media now, I see them as serving as same function as in U.S. media – not interested in scholarly analysis. Things are changing a little bit – I don’t know what will happen in the next five to ten years”.

T: “You’ve commented on the Indonesian context which gave rise to a very public anthropology. What about the U.S. view of public anthropology…?”

F: “Anthropologists in the U.S. think of politics as separate from academics. To do academic work, one must be free of politics. I think this is a legacy of colonialism, of the Enlightenment or something. Politics are bad; politics distort objectivity. Western Anthropologists feel they must be objective, hence they shouldn’t be involved in politics which are too subjective. U.S. scholars not only see themselves as someone who can objective all the time, they are afraid to involve themselves in politics or in public works – or else their integrity as a scholar is ruined. Many tend to see those involved in politics as more degraded social informants. In Indonesia, as I said earlier, Anthropologists from the beginning actively pursued involvement in public/political events. Some chose to be part of the government, some put themself against the government. So, the dynamics of relations between politics and academics is different in the United States than in Indonesia. In the U.S. politics are kept out of academics.”

T: “So, in sum, you argue that anthropologists cannot hide behind the facade of objectivity, that any writing we do is subjective.”

F: “I think that is the most important message I want to get across. Anthropology is political – I want to remind you that as an anthropologist you must talk about politics. You can’t talk about culture as separate from politics. In order to put yourself in a more public sphere, you must discuss politics. There are different ways to do this. One is by not talking about cultural systems anymore, or semiosis, but instead discussing politics. Then realize that anthropology has critical power. I agree with Marcus and Fischer’s book, “Anthropology as Cultural Critique”. That is what public anthropology should do. Or, in Katherine Bowie’s [Associate Professor at UW-Madison] words, “Go for it!”


Fadjar has been interviewed extensively by journalists in Indonesia. Below are links to past articles and interviews [written in Indonesian] in popular newspapers: www.perspektif.net/articles/other/thufailresensi.html, www.ased.org/resources/women/women1.htmlBelow is an excerpt from one of his latest interviews with Wimar Witoelar, the Indonesian “Larry King”, which appeared in on national and nine regional newspapers. [Translated by Fadjar Thufail]:Question: “What is anthropology in the popular understanding and how would you bring that to Indonesia?”Fadjar: “Anthropology is actually a discipline which studies everyday life. So far, there has been a lot of misunderstanding [in the Indonesian context], the public thinks of anthropology as a discipline which only studies or learns about culture through wedding ceremonies, customary practices, etc. As a matter of fact, anthropology is a discipline which tries to understand the complexity of everyday life.”

Q: “The public only knows that anthropology is a discipline which studies the custom of isolated tribes, of exotic work, of very romantic (?). If you say it tries to understand everyday life, what would be your focus of research?”

F: “I just try to understand the complexity of our recent social dilemmas, but from an anthropological point of view. I just want to understand politics from the popular point of view.”

Q: “Democracy in anthropological understanding, does it have a special place in society?”

F: “Well, this is very much related to power. I mean, in a certain context of power, ‘democracy’ is something that is good. On the other hand, ‘democracy’ has different notion. For example, in the People’s Republic of China, it means something that is bad from western point of view if the Chinese call [their current system of government] democratic. But from an anthropological point of view, I want to see these particularities. We cannot just say that democracy is part of the western world or eastern world. This is just simply what ‘New Order’ always said. The ‘New Order’ regime always said that democracy is part of the western civilization.” [context of this interview – that kind of democracy is different from ‘Indonesian democracy’. Fadjar challenged that, can’t say democracy is western or eastern as dichotomized in the political rhetoric of the ‘New Order’ regime. As an anthropologist, we must be open to different kinds of articulation of democracy. Hence, if talking as a critic of an authority, must be open to different forms of democracy. Anthropology also critical, must remind the public that we can’t say democracy is different. Always a tension with doing public anthropology – how can you explain complex problems but in context of political practices.]


Responses

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