It is weird. But I wonder, is today's anthropological world more closed than that of any other academic discipline whose foundations are rapidly eroding. I am curious, what sorts of questions do you ask when you attempt to engage with anthropologists?
Yes, I do mean constraints on academic funding. But there is, of course, a lot more to that story, there is top-heavy administration. There are faculty for whom tenure means being allowed to pursue personal hobbies disconnected by critique of grand narratives from any larger cause. There is the overselling of higher education as a path to upward mobility in a world where education is so easily available that degrees at all levels have lost the value that rarity once gave them. This list of relevant factors could easily be extended.
I would be the first to agree that labeling something "anthropology" is no guarantee of quality or utility. And other professionals can, indeed, produce work that touches on topics addressed by anthropologists and exceeds most anthropology on both dimensions. That does not, however, alter the fact that most work by most professionals, including anthropologists, is crap. Whatever the field, the occasional gem is rare, indeed.
The question is how to find them and appreciate them when found. And here the Internet has transformed our worlds in previously unexpected ways. A particular work may belong to the 0.1% or so that deserves serious attention. But when a million works demand our attention, 0.1% is still a thousand works. Who among us will read and truly appreciate them all? Increasingly useful knowledge is less a matter of mastering some limited "field" with clearly defined boundaries and more a matter of knowing how to follow whatever topic we pursue on a wandering path from one synapse to another, through the Net, through our brains.
I don't know if this makes any sense to you or to anyone else who may read these remarks. I, too, can only hope that someone will pay attention.
Hoarding knowledge? As in not sharing findings? That is a tragic quality in an anthropologist. I only can speak from my experience, but I've found that the more freely I share findings, data, hard information, and sources, the more other people share with me.
Liam: My own experience in the corporate world has been at the other end of the spectrum. Working as a copywriter in one of the many creative divisions of Japan's second larges and one of the world's largest advertising agencies, my job was to come up with meanings. No criticisms were sharper than those which said, mo furui, it's already been done.
I find it interesting that you describe yourself as lacking motivation to read anthropology but are, nonetheless, engaged in this conversation.
In advertising as well as TV rehashing themes is common. Creativity is mainly a matter of finding new angles and new forms of execution. How this difference relates to anthropological theories is an interesting question. I addressed this question in a piece titled "Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors," a chapter in John Sherry, ed. (1995), Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. Here are my conclusions. Be interesting to see what you and others think of them.
"We began with two metaphors: One says that advertising is magic; the other says that advertising is religion. Neither is literally true. Both, however, are true enough to be interesting. Then we raise the adman's questions: Which is the bigger idea? Which is closer to the heart of the matter? Which is more campaign able? The case for religion is strong. It's a big idea and campaign able. Still, however, magic feels closer to the heart of the matter. Now we can say more clearly why.
"In the cases examined here, magic shares with advertising the tensions of a highly competitive business, the rewards of success, the fear of defeat, the quiet pleasures of craftsmanship, and the sheer love of the game. Ads do, indeed, articulate cultural categories and principles (McCracken, 1990). The rarely, if ever, form the basis for solidarity in groups; they are public but not collective acts (Schudson, 1993, pp. 159-160). Ads speak for products, companies, or candidates, more rarely on behalf of the public good. They are not produced as ends in themselves. Where religion suggests self-sacrifice and the muting of private wants and desires in favor of ultimate values, magic is self, competitive, contested. So is advertising. If we had to choose religion or magic, if feels like magic to me.
"Still, one nagging issue remains. Comparing these two metaphors, we find in them a common core. Like religion, magic is rooted in ritual, and in their use of symbols, ads and rituals seem alike. But here, especially, caution is needed. For where rituals are said to repeat traditional patterns and are validated by faithfulness to their prototypes, ads are supposed to be new creations. In the realm of ritual, innovations are either ignored or, if recognized, justified as rediscoveries or revelations. Ritual repeats received ideas. Ideally, at least, ads do not.
"In advertising, innovation is openly celebrated. As in scholarly research, plagiarism is evil, flagrant imitation a sin. Ads belong to a world in flux, where 'meaning is constantly flowing' (McCracken, 1990, p. 71) and, thanks to new technology, the ownership of meaning is more than ever up for grabs (Barlow, 1994). Ritual assumes a settled world in which cultural categories are fixed, where cultural principles never change. Advertising assumes a world in which traditions are being replaced, where media-based messages propose transformations in relationships between persons and goods (Leiss, Klein, & Jhally, 1990, p. 62).
"If our categories and principles now seem as uncertain as the truth in our metaphors, that is the world in which we live. In our rampant jungle of symbols (no orderly forest this; see Turner, 1967), we need strategic reasons to guide us. Our metaphors point in many directions. As makers, researchers, and managers we need, I propose, more thought devoted to how we choose among them."