some sociocultural anthropologists DON'T KNOW HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH ANYBODY BESIDES THEIR OWN RESEARCH SUBJECTS

I'm four days into the largest Anthropological convention on my continent. It's pretty cool, but I noticed a disturbing problem. A fraction of sociocultural anthropologists DON'T KNOW HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH ANYBODY BESIDES THEIR OWN RESEARCH SUBJECTS, thusly leaving their audiences in the dark. Which sucks. Anyway, I wrote a short article on the problem, including an example on communicating anthropology to business audiences. http://ashkuff.com/akaBlog/?p=5782 Now leave some comments, either here or on my blog. I like the interaction. Even short, stupid comments count.

 

--- Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Venturing out of “armchair” scholarship and into action, one anthropologist tackles business, occultism, and violence! He gets spooked and roughed up a lot.

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1. A lot of academics are not sure they even want to communicate. After all their job is to do research and publish, not to teach. I won a teaching prize once and I overheard someone say "Oh Keith is just an entertainer".

2. Anthropologists are the worst conference communicators I know and there is a lot of competition. Never mind businesspeople, natural scientists and even economists know how to make an engaging presentation -- because their subject matter is so dry. Anthropologists assume that they are interesting because they talk about people.

3. What it comes down to is whether or not you bother to prepare an effective talk. Most anthropologists think it is enough to send in a paper and then just turn up. How many times have I witnessed conference presentations where the individual reads a text and has too much to say for the time slot available?

4. Anthropologists talk to each other and not to the public (with a handful of rare exceptions). Why? Because our methods are dodgy and we can't sustain our huge claims to understand whole groups of people on the basis of very limited exposure to them. We are scared of being found out by more rigorous outsiders and so we stick to talking to other members of our secret society.

5. I once gave a public lecture on money which has since become my second most famous article. A young woman came up to me afterwards to say how much she enjoyed it, adding that she didn't understand it all. I replied, "What makes you think you were supposed to?"

6. Some of the leading academics of our day (I could mention some anthropologists, but this is no place for flaming) have learned that if they communicate in a confused and impenetrable way, oral or written, a good part of their audience will blame themselves for not understanding. This is how to become a guru! I once overheard some sociology students: "I just read that article by Homi Bhabha and I didn't understand a word. It was great!"

7. So don't underestimate how far obscurity will take you in academia. The sad thing about many anthropologists is that they don't even know how to be obscure well.

 

Where, one wonders, does the idea that anthropologists should be especially good communicators come from? As the field has grown from a handful of talented eccentrics to a field with several thousand practitioners, it is perfectly predictable that the distribution of writing ability among anthropologists has come to approximate that among the population at large. A few of us are pretty good writers and presenters. Most of us aren't. And, contra what Keith says,  the same is true of business people, economists, and natural scientists as well.

The one thing we know for sure is that anthropology, like other academic disciplines, was founded by a handful of people who were persuasive enough to convince institutions or other patrons to support and legitimize what they did. That each and every one of their growing number of successors should equal their abilities is statistically speaking absurd.

One can, of course, point to examples of beautiful prose selectively extracted from the middens of history to enliven myths of golden ages when everyone wrote well. It is, however, important to remember that these examples survive because someone found them memorable. They are brought to our attention because someone else agrees. But without systematic samples of run-of-the-mill writing or speech making with which to compare the exemplary good (or bad) examples presented to us, there is no convincing argument that they were once more common than they are today.

 

 

This post made me laugh a bit and brought up some fascinating points.

 Its funny you say this, because at the latest GDAT conference in Manchester, Chris Pinney delivered some great oration and people seemed to put his sides winning the motion down to this to a fair degree, as if this took something away from his point. It didnt.

 

I have to add support to John's point though that academia in general can be quite inadequate at communication but due perhaps to this point by Keith "Never mind business people, natural scientists and even economists know how to make an engaging presentation -- because their subject matter is so dry." there is more effort in flashing it up a bit.

 

I hope and don't ever want to fulfill Keiths point 4 personally, however 'dodgy' the methods I find them the strongest thing about socanth, however I can not claim to have done much fieldwork in a formal way yet so perhaps experience will tell.

 

Anyway we know there is an integral problem with democratizing academia and I will not pull this up here.

 

However in terms of Anthropology I find something interesting, a good sized minority of social anthropologists at least are a little weird (myself included) and come across as socially awkward sometimes. Sometimes I think this is because the paralysis of having thought about so many things, deconstructed so many words, etc makes one increasingly sensitive to what one says and so decreases natural flow sometimes, dunno just a thought.

Also I am constantly aware of anthropology's inability to explain itself to the world (or itself), whether it should or not. But more poignantly to its own undergrads who essentially do a BA in getting to know what anthropology is. I don't think this is a bad thing necessarily by the way. Perhaps it reflects the multiplicity of things, rather than one dominating theoretical paradigm?

 

I dunno, there is a point touched on here that is quite important, what I can say is perhaps presenters should borrow from their field methodology for more inspiration e.g. getting a we bit of participant observation from audience, also dont conform to normal formats, also run it by a none anth a few times until they get it b4 presenting, also it depends on the audience, also it can come with practice, also it should be more rigourosly part of educational programs, etc etc

 

There may be something to the weirdness of anthropologists meme. In my own case, the appeal of fieldwork was at least partly the legitimation of the awkwardness I'd always felt in school as a fat, astigmatic, short-sighted, non-athlete. If you have read John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you may remember the character Roach, the boy who makes it  his business to watch over the protagonist who is, temporarily, teaching at his school. 

As anthropologists in the field we find it OK to be awkward; no one expects native fluency in language or culture. The analytic gaze we cultivate by growing up on the social margins becomes a useful research tool. Add that going into the field is a big adventure, definitely one up on the hearty, social athletes who were our schoolyard nemeses. No wonder that for some anthropologists, at least the ones like me, anthropology is irresistible. 

That doesn't, however, make us very good communicators. That requires a different kind of training. I learned a lot in my first job in Japan, as the editor of a daily translation of material from the Japanese press for IBM Jan. My boss was a journalist who taught me some of his trade. Even so, the creative director who hired me for my second job, as copywriter for a Japanese advertising agency, swore after two months that he would never hire an academic again, regardless of how much he knew about digital technology. Fortunately, he was stuck with me and forced to pound into my skull the basics of paying attention to your audience, finding something fresh to say, and resisting the impulse to try to say everything you know—since most of it is beside the point. 

 

Very actual topic, but also very risky I'd say. I would not be as violent as to make the distinction between the non-communicative anthropologist and the clearcut business person. The two try to promote different kinds of knowledge. The anthropologist might speak obscure words, but obscurity can be found is also in the ears of the listener. Therefore, while the business person gets the message across, he does so through a style of communication which has already been reharsed in the dominant media. In a sense, to be clear means to profer statements following a culturally strong backbone.
Academia, be it represented by the anthropologist or the literary critic, must in my opinion look at its own ridiculous incapacity to think of itself as a minority communicating things about a world "majority". As a duty, academics have to know the language of the business person, but purposedly to counteract its straightforwardness. Business straighforwardness is based on culturally dumbing down communication to the level of information. I am really sorry to say, but simple information is not communication. The anthropologist, for the oracular position it occupies, has to step up and make suggestion and imagination out of communication. It must provide a different kind of knowledge, as he or she has to promote alternative visions of the world and of the people inhabiting it. People have to be inspired through mental jouneying, and not just informed. Otherwise the anthropologist is simply not doing his own job. But I do believe that this can be done only if the anthropologist accepts to "dumb down", at least as intellectual exercise, and to then be able to express as mediator, as his role should be.

I know this sounds very dreamy, but think about it. The very notion of communication is attached to clarity and transparency. Evoking is not considered as knowing in our world. For the Panda-role that anthropologists have (as they're risking estinction), I believe it is an ethical duty to propose a suggestive way of communicating about the "truths" of other people.

Hi, and what a timely topic so shortly after AAA. Academic tradition, at least where I'm from, clearly privileges the Emperor's New Clothes (I'm German) and I sometimes wonder if my ancestor's would be so often cited if my colleagues would read them in the original, without an editor's and a translator/transcriber's skill to improve the digestibility of long sentences, paired with difficult verbal clauses and occasional Latin, to display the art of spinning arguments instead of chewing them first and writing them in forms that provide more clarity, or shall I say, transparency, in regard to the basic intention of the author himself.

 

See what I mean... it is an art form that we are taught early. It connects neatly with the skill of combining words into one very long and special expression. This impresses me most when done in Greek, as I can usually figure out Latin roots quite well (just to make sure you don't see me as too simplistic/uneducated ...). In English, however, we should try to remember that expressions (that are often ungrammatical) make you a "good speaker/writer", not the skill of building long sentences. So we are really down to a few general problems that do not even touch the anthropologist him/herself, as an inapt, arrogant, elitist, insecure, lazy person.

1. Most English speakers are 2nd language: ca 3000 words, good command of grammar, lack of expressions and the right melody (which makes it hard for native English speakers, or so it seems).

2. Native English speakers like their jargon and need it for tenure and promotion

3. Bad customs from German (and French) have entered academic English: long sentences, long new words, obscure prose. This appears to be very impressive - I guess it's quite safe, too: who's gonna admit that The Gender of the Gift has remained a book of many seals, in spite of repeated, careful study and all the review articles by Gell, Jolly, Douglas and so on?

 

If only we were still a small bunch of non-competitive crazy adventurers. But we've been infiltrated and the flow seems to go into even more murky waters, as the job market is shrinking and the conditions get worse. Writing many eloquent words can be faster than forming one smart line, as we probably all know - at least that what comes out when I force myself too much (could also be my culture sneaking in, excuse the oversimplification).

 

I should not be writing this. I'm just procrastinating, but since I've been thinking about this for a while now I thought I'd share. Cheers from the frozen prairies of central Canada!

 

 

I attended the AAAs in Montreal this year, and although I did not see a lot of panels, I would say the papers were on the whole much better than in previous years. I actually saw very little of the running-over-time, unpracticed glop that we've become so used to. All of the panels I attended were marked by punctual papers and pretty nice presentation skills. It could be that everyone read Rex's article on Defending the Form or maybe I just went to a unique set of panels, but I noticed a distinct sharpening of presentations.

"I would not be as violent as to make the distinction between the non-communicative anthropologist and the clearcut business person."

 

Filippo, a wise move. Not, however, for the reasons you offer. The premise that business people communicate clearly is nearly as dicey on the face of it as the notion that anthropologists are, qua anthropologists, poor communicators. One has only to note the billions of dollars/euros/name your currency spent each year on speechwriters and PR companies to find this premise questionable. Add the number of books on the market offering instruction in activities elementary as writing business letters.... 

 

One might also note that in business as in politics, clarity is not always a virtue. I give you a real-life example.

Several years ago I was, for my sins, working with an account executive, the best I've ever worked with. The client was Coca-Cola. Together we developed three rules for our presentations.

  1. We had to use Coke's language and respect their taboos. At that point, for instance, the word "refreshing" could never be used of any beverage but classic Coke.
  2. We had to say something a little unexpected. Why else would Coke be paying us to help with their communications? But not too unexpected; see Rule 1.
  3. We had to speak concretely but also leave some wiggle room. Producing advertising involves a lot of individuals with their own particular skills and creative ambitions. They are frequently prima donnas. Forcing them to follow too rigid agreements with the client would result in flat, boring ads, if not outright rebellion. On the other hand, we didn't, for example, want to go off to shoot a TV commercial, come back, and have the client say, "That isn't what we agreed on." 

We thus devoted a great deal of time to "How are we going to say that?" and being perfectly clear was rarely the objective.

 

The tension for anthropologists (and not just them) is between oral and written performance. They once studied non-literate peoples in the field and based their claim to academic legitimacy on "writing up" texts. Over the last few decades anthropology has become ever more a species of writing, with field trips rare and the staple diet an endless series of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers with little space for ethnography in them. During the Cold War "research" came to dominate teaching as the main function of academics, initially in areas that attracted lots of money like armaments, pharmaceuticals and food, eventually even in disciplines like ours that only have a public value as a sort of education.

Oral performance, especially improvised speech requires someone to trust their unconscious mind. That is why insecure academics write texts and read them out. Research seminars raise the stakes by asking paper givers to reveal their new thoughts to an audience of peers, so reading a prepared text is quite normal there. Even so, there are cultures, like Scandinavia and once in the US, where reading a text is thought to be an affront to a live audience who deserve to be engaged directly. Conferences for many people raise the stakes even higher, so they take the safety first option of reading something. Students may be given partially improvised lectures, but they are often presented with a text which reinforces the basic message that ideas have nothing to do with life.

PowerPoint provides the security of a prepared outline that the audience can read and if they want copy, while the speaker has a chance to improvise within limits. I first encountered this technique in government and business, both of which place a higher value on communication than does contemporary academia. Within the latter, natural scientists and economists pioneered the limits and freedom of PowerPoint in my experience. Their security lies in equations, graphs and statistical tables that the audience can examine while they are speaking. It seems that more anthropologists are coming round to this method now, which may partly account for Jason's observation, but they do so at a time when the others are keen to leave it behind.

As my teacher, Jack Goody, has insisted in half a dozen books, what matters is the technology of communication, of which orality and literacy are by far the most important, the one being freer, more egalitarian and flexible, the latter more controlled, hierarchical and rigid. He has written a score of books since he retired, but anyone who heard him speak in public will know how dire his oral performances are. One thing we might consider at the OAC is that our communications are all written -- and we complain about the lack of free activity! But then we hear nothing and see everything. As for me, the holy grail is an oral/written hybrid that crosses the range of media available.

 

I am surprised that no-one has mentioned that there is a connection between thought and language. No-one who writes the sort of gobbledygook that passes for anthropology today can be thinking with any clarity. Not everyone can write deathless prose but at least we should strive to make what we write convey a meaning clearly . Sloppy writing all too often reveals sloppy thinking. I am for less writing and more thinking about what and how we write. Unintelligible writing is not great- merely a fraud perpetrated on those who listen or read.

Jean La Fontaine.

following on from Jean I still think that there is something to be said about the paralysis of having thought about so many things, deconstructed so many words, etc makes one increasingly sensitive to what one says and so decreases natural flow sometimes.

 

The two things I have found that create and engaging, quality yet appreciable presentation (outside of natural ability by some) are

a) talking from personal experiences and anecdotes, which gives a natural and human flow

b) also having gotten to grips with a perspective of understanding the world. e.g. I live in a region where the discourse is highly biased towards understanding things in a market capitalistic sense, whereas to give a good presentation I must 'feel at home' within other perspectives of understanding the world' e.g. a Marxian view of the world, or a structuralist view of the world, or a certain buddhist view of the world. Which for me at least comes from constantly reapplying these perspectives, I associate with, to the everyday, whether on fieldwork or not. So I guess I agree slightly with Jean again on having to really think through what one is bringing to the table, but I would also add this is done by feeling it through when applying it to events of everyday, rather than thinking constantly in abstract.

 

This is my own personal approach. However a lot of non-anthropological presentations also sound/appear good even without their presenters really getting to full grips with the underlying perspectives and theories. They get by because their discipline sits on a well accepted overarching theory, that is taken for granted and most variation is in the sprinkles on top. e.g. How many people, including biologists, have really gotten to grips with the theory of biological evolution, from my experience not nearly as many as assumed. I think this is what Jean is also pointing at.

George Orwell wrote that bad prose reflects an author's mixed motives. In anthropology the mixed motives arise from the conflict between the manifest function of reporting on some situation in the world and the latent function of boosting one's career by hitching the report to some professional bandwagon or, as the cant has it, "engaging with theoretical issues." In practice the theoretical issues have a shelf life of about ten years, long enough to get tenure somewhere. Jean LaFontaine and I both remember that Meyer Fortes used to say that ethnography lasts longer than "theory," most of which turns out, after ten years, to be incoherent as well as unreadable.

Wyatt MacGaffey.

Keith Hart said:

1. A lot of academics are not sure they even want to communicate. After all their job is to do research and publish, not to teach. I won a teaching prize once and I overheard someone say "Oh Keith is just an entertainer".

2. Anthropologists are the worst conference communicators I know and there is a lot of competition. Never mind businesspeople, natural scientists and even economists know how to make an engaging presentation -- because their subject matter is so dry. Anthropologists assume that they are interesting because they talk about people.

3. What it comes down to is whether or not you bother to prepare an effective talk. Most anthropologists think it is enough to send in a paper and then just turn up. How many times have I witnessed conference presentations where the individual reads a text and has too much to say for the time slot available?

4. Anthropologists talk to each other and not to the public (with a handful of rare exceptions). Why? Because our methods are dodgy and we can't sustain our huge claims to understand whole groups of people on the basis of very limited exposure to them. We are scared of being found out by more rigorous outsiders and so we stick to talking to other members of our secret society.

5. I once gave a public lecture on money which has since become my second most famous article. A young woman came up to me afterwards to say how much she enjoyed it, adding that she didn't understand it all. I replied, "What makes you think you were supposed to?"

6. Some of the leading academics of our day (I could mention some anthropologists, but this is no place for flaming) have learned that if they communicate in a confused and impenetrable way, oral or written, a good part of their audience will blame themselves for not understanding. This is how to become a guru! I once overheard some sociology students: "I just read that article by Homi Bhabha and I didn't understand a word. It was great!"

7. So don't underestimate how far obscurity will take you in academia. The sad thing about many anthropologists is that they don't even know how to be obscure well.

 

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