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Public Anthropology (Re) Defines Power

“This is a different kind of conference,” says Ashante Reese, PhD candidate in public anthropology and co-organizer of (Re)Defining Power: Paradigms of Praxis, American University’s Eighth Annual Public Anthropology Conference, taking place October 15 and 16. One of the main goals of the conference, according to Reese, is to go beyond the university to include members of the community and those studying in the field at other institutions. “We want to engage in dialogue with people in a meaningful and constructive way,” says Reese. “We want to provide an informal and very welcoming environment.”

Joowon Park, Reese’s co-organizer and fellow public anthropology PhD student, agrees. “The conference is meant to bring together students, faculty, activists, and lay-people in a way that is very real, not just high-level or theoretical.”
  
The very nature of the field of public anthropology demands this type of informal setting, according to Professor William Leap, Anthropology Department Chair. “Public anthropology seeks to find the causes of the problems that are present in many communities so that the problems can be solved,” he says. “We want everyone to learn from each other in an informal setting.” In Leap’s opinion, many people want to go into communities and point out the problems that exist, such as a lack of drinking water, but they aren’t willing to look at the root causes of these problems in order to solve them on a larger scale. “We’re not just looking at what is wrong,” says Leap. “We’re asking ‘How come?’”

One of the conference’s keynote speakers is Max Forte, a political anthropologist and member of the Zero Anthropology Project, which looks at issues relating to modern imperialism and power struggles. Barbara Rose Johnston, an environmental anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, will speak about her use of action-oriented anthropology to look at the connections between environmental crisis and human rights abuse. “We worked very hard to find speakers who would match the theme,” says Park.

Last year’s conference brought over 40 submissions, and Reese and Park report that they have already had more submissions than they had at this time last year. Local participants are working to organize housing for those who are making the trip to Washington, with many hosting conference participants in their own homes.

Public anthropology has its roots in applied anthropology, but in the mid 90s, AU became one of the first schools in the country to make the transition to emphasizing public anthropology. “One of the reasons we created this conference,” says Leap, “ was so people who wanted to study public anthropology could do so without having to fit the mold of a traditional anthropology conference.”

Reese hopes the conference will help people to critically engage with power as it is defined and used. “How are people redefining power?” asks Reese. “There are so many different ways that people can come together to challenge power.”  She believes that public anthropologists can have a positive impact on power relations, and can help change these ideas into actions.

The conference also features a film festival coordinated by PhD student Ted Samuel. “We want to create a space for AU students to show their best work,” says Samuel. “Especially those students who don’t have any other venue.” The film festival runs in conjunction with the conference so that attendees will be able to view the films in between presentations, and features films with similar topics to that of the conference.

Reese, a former middle school teacher, says attending this conference is what convinced her to pursue her PhD in public anthropology at AU. Succeeding in the field, according to Reese, depends on “a mindset of pursuing individual growth and not being afraid to make mistakes.”

For more information about (Re) Defining Power: Paradigms of Praxis and AU’s anthropology programs, visit the Department of Anthropology Website.