Ieva Jusionyte (Photo: Sharona Jacobs)

One of the most influential books series that UC Press publishes is the California Series in Public Anthropology. Originally founded by Hawai’i Pacific University professor Robert Borofsky and UC Press editor Naomi Schneider, the series includes some of the most significant works of anthropology on the UC Press backlist, including books by Paul Farmer, Philippe Bourgois, Arthur Kleinman, Seth Holmes, Carolyn Nordstrom​, ​and Didier Fassin.

Recently, Harvard University professor Ieva Jusionyte assumed leadership of the series. She spoke with UC Press anthropology editor Kate Marshall about the legacy and future of Public Anthropology at UC Press.

Kate: Anthropologist Rob Borofsky and my colleague Naomi Schneider launched the California Series in Public Anthropology in 2001. Two decades in, how is the series different from other book series in the field?

Ieva: What makes the series stand out is its commitment to publishing scholarship on issues that matter to readers beyond the discipline and intervening in public debates. Unlike in many other series, there is no common theme that binds the books, which cover diverse topics that range from homelessness and heroin addiction in San Francisco to genocide in Cambodia, from illness and injury among migrant farmworkers in the U.S. to international aid and human rights in Congo. The collection is held together by the way authors understand the aims of ethnography and how they approach their writing: presenting evidence and making arguments through stories, being attentive to language so that it is not only accessible, but also appealing to broader audiences. By now, the series is well known, which comes with expectations for the kinds of books that we publish, books that aspire to make ethnography useful for critically thinking about social problems. Not all anthropology books aim for that – nor should they. It takes some audacity on the part of the author to accept the role of a public intellectual, to use research as a platform for speaking out. As Wole Soyinka, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, once said, “A book if necessary should be a hammer, a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world.” His words express my vision for the series.  

What are some of the books in the series that have influenced you as a scholar?

I read some of the earlier books in the series back in graduate school and it is fair to say that they helped make me into the kind of anthropologist that I am. Carolyn Nordstrom’s Shadows of War, Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, Didier Fassin’s When Bodies Remember left indelible marks on me as a scholar-in-training. Later, when I began teaching, I found other books in the series to be indispensable in the classroom. I assign Phillipe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend, Shaylih Muehlmann’s When I Wear My Alligator Boots, and Jason de León’s The Land of Open Graves year after year because they show students the power of anthropology, its relevance for understanding complex social problems. And they are also beautifully written, not burdened by jargon or impenetrable prose. To me, these books are the best advocates for why anthropology matters.

We’ve had the privilege of working on two books together, Savage Frontier and Threshold. Threshold was part of the series and is notable for its vivid depiction of an urgent political crisis at the US-Mexico border told from the perspective of first responders. Can you tell me about the process of cultivating your voice for a broader readership?

My research with emergency responders was driven by my wish to examine how security buildup on the border changes the work of firefighters and paramedics in southern Arizona and northern Mexico and, as a result, affects the wellbeing of people on both sides. It was not a theoretical question – although theory, too, is at stake – but one of the effects that a misalignment between policy and lived reality has on human health. When it was time to sit down to write Threshold, I knew I wanted to address several audiences. As an academic book, it presented research findings that were relevant to scholarship on state and violence, and I wanted to share these with my students and colleagues. But I also wanted the people I was working with – emergency responders – to be interested in reading it and to learn something from it. They shared their lives with me, they were invested in this project. In a way, it helped that I was both an anthropologist and an EMT/paramedic, I had experience of talking both to scholars and to emergency responders in their respective registers. That’s how I started, with these two audiences in mind. But because of how central the issue of border militarization has become in the political arena, I had to broaden my intended audience to include the public at large. Writing an insular academic book was no longer an option. I decided to tell a story from my dual position as an ethnographer and a paramedic, one that everyone could relate to in some way – anthropologists and other scholars, emergency responders and managers, as well as individuals who are neither but who care about such matters border security, migration, and access to healthcare. 

Public anthropology is a phrase that is used often, but not always with a clear meaning. What do you think is the role of public anthropology within the field?

Public anthropology makes the research anthropologists engage in relevant to society at large by sharing its findings with the public and motivating the public to care about them. Sometimes I think of it as storytelling grounded in research. Other times I see it as public interest anthropology. It may overlap with applied, engaged or activist forms of research, but what distinguishes it in the field is its commitment to anthropological analysis of important social issues through writing that has broad appeal. It draws on ethnography, as method and genre, to expose new angles of problems that animate public conversations. In my view, all anthropology has potential to speak to wide audiences on topics that matter, but it requires a conscious decision and effort on the part of the anthropologist, to embrace and fulfill this commitment to public scholarship.

In my experience, it can be challenging to carve out your own areas of interest when you assume leadership of an editorial program with a reputation. As an editor, how do you hope to build on Rob Borofsky’s legacy?

It is an honor to take over the series that Rob created and directed for so many years. It is also a great responsibility. He oversaw the publication of over forty books, including some of the most influential ethnographies of the past two decades. Rob was adamant about the ability and hence the duty that anthropologists have to address problems beyond the discipline. Under his leadership, the series published books that analyzed issues of public concern in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and act on them. As I grow into the shoes he left me, I will follow the path he has started.

What are the kinds of books and stories you hope to publish in the coming years?

The thematic strengths of the series include social inequality, violence, global health, and migration, and I plan to build on these foundations going forward. Mass incarceration, labor precarity, and the lived realities of people with varied legal statuses in the country are all important topics, as is, for example, U.S. military and humanitarian intervention abroad. But I am also interested in expanding into new areas that have reached the forefront of public debates, primarily the environment and new technologies. Anthropologists are doing groundbreaking work on climate change, environmental racism, disaster politics, toxic exposures and effects of contamination on our bodies and communities. And there is growing interest in examining digital media, artificial intelligence and other modern technologies that are not only reshaping our routines, but also redefining the very parameters of public life. I am hopeful to see more stories that foreground the experiences and perspectives of women, Indigenous people, black communities, and others who, because of their gender, race, ethnicity or religion, have too often been denied a voice in public conversations and who have much to contribute to the way we understand society, environment, health, and technology. These are all important directions and I am actively seeking out books that address them, but at the same time I remain open-minded. The goal is to publish books that keep up with – maybe are even a few steps ahead of – conversations that matter to all. As the concerns our society faces shift, so will the series.

What should authors do if they are interested in submitting to the series?

Those interested in submitting to the series should send a brief letter of introduction, a book proposal and a sample chapter (or two, if available) to The UC Press website provides some very helpful guidelines on what you should include in the proposal.