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Rosemary J. Coombe and Susannah Chapman

Ethnographic research into intellectual property (IP) gained traction in the mid-1990s. During this period international trade agreements mandated that all states introduce minimum IP protections, property rights in intangible goods were expanded to encompass new subject areas, international Indigenous Peoples’ human rights were being negotiated, and protecting biodiversity became a global policy concern. Anthropologists considered IP extension in terms of the processes of commodification the law enabled, the cultural incommensurability of the law’s presuppositions in various societies, the implications of these rights for disciplinary research and publication ethics, and the modes of subjectification and territorialization that the enforcement of such laws engendered. Recognizing that IP clearly constrains and shapes the circulation of goods through the privatization of significant resources, critical anthropological examinations of Western liberal legal binary distinctions between public and private goods also revealed the forms of dispossession enabled by presuming a singular cultural commons. Anthropologists showed the diversity of publics constituted through authorized and unauthorized reproduction and circulation of cultural goods, exploring the management of intangible cultural goods in a variety of moral economies as well as the construction and translation of tradition in new policy arenas. The intersection of IP and human rights also prompted greater disciplinary reflexivity with respect to research ethics and publication practices. Analyzing how IP protections are legitimated and the activities that their enforcement delegitimizes, ethnography illustrated how the law creates privileged and abject subjectivities, reconfigures affective relationships between people and places, and produces zones of policing and discipline in processes of territorialization.


Mass communication is a constitutive part of social life and experience across the world today, affecting how people work, practice religion, engage in politics, understand others, and so on. Indeed, in many world contexts, social actors interact with mass media on a daily basis. In doing so, they not only consume or produce media artifacts but also participate in publics. A public is a particular kind of social form that coalesces as discourse circulates among, and thereby creates, audiences of mutual attention. Through participants’ ongoing orientation to and engagement with circulation of texts and images, publics produce social arenas that link disparate persons into collectivities of shared interests, issues, and convictions. Some publics are large, general, and sustained, such as those centered on national news. Other publics focus on particular topics, such as those related to religious communities, political ideologies, marked social identities, professional worlds, or even hobby and fan cultures. Others still are relatively small scale, such as those formed among the diffuse groupings of friends and acquaintances connected on social media platforms. As venues constituted by the circulation of discourse, publics have wide-ranging social and political consequences. The interests and identities that they privilege and presuppose shape broader processes of social belonging, exclusion, and contestation. Publics ground claims to political authority through assertions of the public interest. Publics also mediate contemporary consumer capitalism, as when advertising targets particular networks of public circulation. In short, publics lie at the center of contemporary social formations and political economies. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere examines how practices and structures of mass communication mediate and generate wider forms of social and political organization. How do publics normalize some identities while marginalizing others? Under what conditions can publics emerge as political actors? How do dominant public spheres shape political cultures? In taking on these questions, anthropologists attend to the regimes of publicity; that is, constellations of participation norms, social imaginaries, media infrastructures, language ideologies, and metadiscourses that organize publics. This analytic perspective illuminates both how normative publicity is reproduced and challenged and to what effect. In addition, in focusing on discursive circulation, scholarship on publics has pushed anthropologists to develop research methodologies that go beyond face-to-face, participant observation as a tool of data collection. The anthropology of publics and the public sphere has thus emerged as a theoretically generative and methodologically innovative field that endeavors to illuminate mass communication and its implications for social life. In doing so, it has generated novel theoretical understandings of mass media, power and affect, consumption and capitalism, identity, belonging and exclusion, and the bases and limits of democratic representation.