"Discuss politics!" - How anthropologists in Indonesia engage with the public

Crossroads is the name of a new blog by anthropologist Fadjar I. Thufail, currently completing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In an interview (from 2001), he tells us that Indonesian anthropologists continually attempt to link themselves to the non-academic world - and they succeed. 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. Anthropologists often appear on television or on radio:

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.

He also explains the differences between "public anthropology" and "applied anthropology":

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.

In Indonesia, most of the anthropological scholars are engaged in such a critical function. (...) 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.”

This has to do with the specific Indonesian context:

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.”

Therefore, anthropology is much more involved in politics in Indonesia - that's why it's so relevant for people:

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.


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.

(...) 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.

>> read the whole interview

>> visit Fadjar I. Thufail's blog


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1 comment

Comment from: Roger Jolley [Visitor]  
Roger Jolley

It is interesting to read about the difference of anthropology in Indonesia & US. How do you think Anthropologists and the public in Indonesia viewed Anthropologists coming to their country in the 50s e.g. Geertz and what do people think of Anthropologists today?

2009-06-02 @ 15:26

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