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Book: 'Engaged anthropology' can benefit society

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Joe Schwartz
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Traditional views of anthropology imagine researchers as outside observers studying populations at a scientific remove. But a new book by a Cornell anthropologist describes a new form of engaged, public anthropology that is taking hold in the field for its promise to address social and economic disparities found in many communities and social groups.

“Toward Engaged Anthropology” (Berghahn Books), co-edited by Sam Beck, senior lecturer in the College of Human Ecology and director of Cornell’s Urban Semester Program, presents essays by seven experts on the promises and challenges of this approach, including numerous real-world examples.

“An engaged approach, used to study and ‘walk with’ policy developers and implementers might fruitfully produce structural changes that would reduce or eliminate economic disparities,” Beck said, citing affordable housing and education programs as examples.

The essays provide insights into what constitutes engagement, emphasizing the importance of developing trusting relationships, sharing information and resources, promoting youth development through community service and recognizing citizens’ ability to contribute to research as equals, among other factors.

“Producing knowledge only for knowledge’s sake is no longer enough, if it ever was,” Beck said. “We require a global effort, one that moves anthropology beyond the production of texts alone and encourages anthropologists to collaborate and participate with people they study to bring about changes that the people feel they need. … It means [anthropologists] are working with them, using their expertise, their wisdom, to inform the decisions being made by people employing indigenous knowledge.”

Each chapter explores the partnerships required to bring about change and advocate on behalf of citizens, Beck said.

As editor, Beck brings his scholarly background along with perspectives from real-world experiences. A social and cultural anthropologist, Beck leads Urban Semester students in engaged learning projects each semester to benefit low- and middle-income families in Brooklyn.

“… The basis of my work is in developing a relationship with individuals and groups involved,” he said. “I seek to use theory and method to benefit the people I study by partnering with them and move toward a more just world, one where inequities are reduced.”

Sarah Cutler ’16 is a student communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.

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