The Anthropologist as Advocate

The study of human cultures and societies is especially relevant today as a tool for understanding the contemporary world. Far from the world sought to be understood by the founding fathers of Anthropology, the world now presents new challenges as well as opportunities for the development of the discipline. This is a world encountering a different class of ideologies, tensions, and dialogues, all set in a growing multiculturalism and globalism, yet at the same time marked by pockets of fundamentalist worldviews, and militant protectionism of the local life.

Anthropology, at the risk of over-simplification, is about making sense of other people’s worlds (Geertz assertion that it is the “understanding of others’ understanding”), translating peoples’ experiences, how their societies work and why they believe what they believe in (or not), and what makes them tick as humans in a given cultural landscape. The work of the Anthropologist requires a tremendous amount of holism to understand this contemporary world, juggling insights from economics, political science, world systems, health, gender, identity, environment, et cetera, that affects human lives in the macro and the micro levels. His holism – the ability to make sense of the world as a whole – allows him to dig for that something infinitely profound in our common humanity.

The traditional domain of the Anthropologist has been the small community, often in what has been coined as “indigenous peoples,” or “indigenous communities” while his/her ethnography and participant observation enable him/her to understand the “understanding of the other”. Here, in the local community – talking to the locals and participating in the day to day life in the community – problems are presented to the anthropologist either by members of the community or through the data she had gathered. Often these issues are connected to social injustice, access to resources, assertion of self-determination or the more compound structural violence that permeate the lives of the people in these communities. As they begin to unfold, the anthropologist is caught in a moral dilemma. Should she maintain the cold objectivity of “observation” or take on the more active engagement of “participation”? Peter Kellet in an article in Durham Anthropology Journal (2009) asked: “Is the role of the anthropologist to try to change the world or to ‘merely’ understand it? Can (and should) anthropologists act as advocates for the rights of people they study, or does this compromise their objectivity?”

With the important insights and decisive data gathered from the community, Anthropology should have indeed changed the world for the better. The findings of Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993), for instance, of the relentless and chronic hunger in the Nordestino people of Brazil impacted policy decisions in Brazil but many more studies conducted by anthropologists should have contributed more to social transformations and the pursuit of social justice. Derek Hall’s (2011) study, for example, of the dynamics of institutional land grabbings in Southeast Asia or the studies describing the present plights and foreseen effects of climate change in many communities (Crate and Nuttall, 2009), could have been at the forefront of debates in world summits, national congress or the media, yet these subjects are almost invisible in the public sphere outside the university. This is unfortunate, since a wide range of important social issues are being raised by anthropologists in original and authoritative ways. Anthropologists should have been at the forefront of public debates about multiculturalism and nationalism, climate change effects on populations, the abundance of food yet the pervasiveness of hunger, the relationship of poverty and economic globalization, human rights issues and questions of collective and individual identification, for instance, in the Bangsamoro or the Filipino. Why indeed is there a seemingly “professional reluctance to share this knowledge with a wider readership”? (Eriksen, 2006: ix)

Many debates have been centered on these fundamental questions in the discipline (Hastrup and Elsass, 1990; Kellet 2009; Huculiak 2000), and the answers may basically be divided into streams of either epistemological or moral arguments.

Hastrup and Elsass argue that the ethnographic method is itself “advocacy” in the sense that it already involves a “speaking for” or a way of “presenting” the people being studied (302). The anthropologists Hastrup and Elsass came to this understanding when they were requested by some Arhuacos of Northern Colombia to help promote a ‘development’ project to increase their autonomy within Colombian society. Their limited traditional land was under threat from encroaching peasant farmers and the proposed irrigation project was meant to increase yields. Elsass and Hastrup believed that the Arhuacos’ proposal was valid, but on reflection they decided that they would not act as advocates. Their reasons: that they were not needed, that some of the educated Arhuacos could do what was required; they were concerned about their relationship with the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs; they also questioned why they should privilege the Indians over the peasants; and lastly, they felt their participation would be patronizing and an extension of the romantic notions attached to the European vision of the Indian as the ultimate ‘other’ (culled from Kellet, 2009: 27). These are valid reasons, of course. The problem of “whose voice” to represent haunts the anthropologist who advocates.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, on the other hand, argues for an engaged witnessing in anthropological studies – a radical approach which is politically committed and morally engaged (Kellet 2009: 25). In her point of view, anthropology must be accountable, committed, engaged, responsible, empathetic and compassionate, in which a change is required that would turn the anthropologist from “spectator” to “witness”, and explains that being neutral is not option. In her words, we cannot flee from “local engagements, local commitments, and local accountability” but must use ethnography as “a tool for critical reflection and for human liberation” (Scheper-Hughes, 1995: 417, 418). This argument on the side of what is moral rest on account of the anthropologist being an expert witness being able to interpret the life of the subject for those outside, so as to bridge any cultural barriers in understanding, as well as to actively work for that community being studied.

These two streams of arguments may both be pitted against the other, possibly a duel between the cerebral and emotive, without any clear winner or loser. While the debate on whether the anthropologist would remain objective – an observant – or engaged witness – a participant – the issues they have disentangled and analyzed continue to affect real lives, mostly of the poor, suffering and marginalized. For a field of study which prides itself on studying the world “from below”, seeing the world “from the native’s point of view”, giving voice to “muted” groups and so on, it is unfortunate that many would still prefer to hide behind the relative safety and height of scientific objectivity, yet all the while aware of the distressing and pervasive injustice of the situation below. Of course, we find many anthropologists whose work and life are fuelled by a burning moral and political engagement. Many anthropologists do important and admirable social action work with their students, with nongovernment organizations and some in government agencies; some write important texts about violence, the State, economic exploitation or culture and human rights – but few step forward in order to intervene in the unpredictable and risky public sphere (Eriksen, 2006: 16).

Anthropology ought to make a difference outside the universities. The call of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, does not end in the four corners of the university. While it is true that universities are the nurseries of future leaders, the teacher of anthropology must never rest with the noble task of teaching these future leaders – the ‘mere’ transferral of knowledge” – but rather implant the necessity of praxis: action and reflection of the students upon their world in order to transform it (Freire, 1970: 79). The “setting forth” of students as well as the teacher of anthropology is particularly relevant in the contemporary world. Eriksen (2006: x) writes that young students who come to anthropology “are motivated by a desire to make the world a slightly better place”. Re-phrasing Freire, he adds that the task of “anthropology teachers is to make certain their students do not forget these initial sources of motivation – that the onslaught of dry theory and abstract models does not detract from the big issues concerning human life in all its diversity, which fuel the passion necessary to keep the flame burning”.

The possibilities for social action and engaged anthropology in Mindanao are countless. Given the tumultuous history of this region, the Mindanawon anthropologist must make a stand, be an advocate committed to the ethics of care, valuing the “other” not because he or she is a research subject, but because the other is valuable per se. Huculiak (2000: 18) in her article concludes that “it is difficult to decipher on whose account and on what basis to advocate, however anthropologists should nevertheless avoid the assumption that removing advocacy from their field is a reasonable alternative […] a multi-sided approach to advocacy is perhaps the best present mode of action.” Although it argues for advocacy, her conclusion is actually inconclusive.

I would instead propose that advocacy in anthropology be oriented toward justice in what Kolvenbach asserted as “a concrete, radical but proportionate response to an unjustly suffering world” (2007). In this manner, reflection and action on the social reality is paramount, and utilization of the research communities for such ends as a degree or a promotion, avoided. In the formulation of research or study, it is necessary to ask “for whom?” and “for what?” This engaged anthropology that is oriented toward justice, is necessarily carried out from “the perspective of the poor for the sake of bettering their lives, for it is in their suffering that the inhumanity of unjust structures become clearly manifest” (Alvarez, 2014: 28). Here we avoid the inconclusiveness of Huculiak and instead embrace the anthropologist’ active role as agents of social change – accountable, committed, engaged, responsible, and compassionate toward the ‘other’.

Indeed, this orientation of research and the endless pursuit of truth, will lead to inconvenient truths which the advocate-anthropologist will have to face. Engaged anthropology would require courage necessary to protect the common good and the dignity of all human persons – the anthropos of Anthropology.


Alvarez, Patxi (ed). 2014. “The Promotion of Justice in the Universities of the Society.” Special Document of Promotio Iustitiae, no. 116.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2006. “Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence.” Oxford, New York: Berg.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Hastrup, Kirsten. and Peter Elsass. 1990. “Anthropological Advocacy” A Contradiction in Terms?” in Current Anthropology vol. 31, no. 3, 301-311.

Huculiak, Lindsey. 2000. “Anthropology and Advocacy: Off of the Fence and into the Foray” in The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, vol. 8, no. 1, 11-19.

Kellet, Peter. 2009. “Advocacy in Anthropology: Active engagement or passive scholarship?” in Durham Anthropology Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 22-31.

Kolvenbach, Peter-Hans. 2007. “The Service of the Faith and the Promotion of Justice, Reminiscing the Past and Looking at the Future” in Promotio Iustitiae no. 96, 9-18.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” in Current Anthropologist, vol. 36, no. 3, 409-440.