I'm doing some research on anthropology's audiences. It seems to me that most writing with anthropological content is written by anyone but anthropologists (see discussion thread in PopAnth group here on OAC). Why are we so shy about writing for a general public? I don't see how it can relate to our academic career goals or research opportunities because other academics, such as scientists and psychologists, are doing it. Those anthropologists that do write for a mainstream audience tend to be physical anthropologists or archaeologists. Are the rest of us just anxious that no-one will take us seriously if we write popular anthropology?

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This is a great question and one which often creates a lot of debate. It is amazing how far anthropology has entrenched itself within its own practices. One reflection I will offers, is we have cannabalized some of our most 'public' and socially conscious ancestors such as Boas and Sol Tax whose attempts to reach the public and engage government in ways that did not make them complicit in the kinds of problems they wished to address. Part of it, I suppose, is doing it and not worrying who takes us seriously. Another part means finding a place to stand on issues that anthropologists are notorious for proclaiming objectivity and non-interference as scientists (namely, the ongoing issue of settler colonialism in North America). 

In the Tax papers in the archives at the U. of Chicago, I found a note where Sol had written: 'advocacy doesn't need to be any more explicit than Imperialism is'. I have not stopped thinking about it and this may be the title of my next article. 

Erin, doesn't the answer to your question lie in that "no-one," which, at least to this reader, translates as "no-one important," which has, at least since the 1960s, when I was in graduate school, meant "no-one who can give me a job"? Given the current structure of academic hierarchies, it isn't all that surprising, is it, that young scholars write to please those who will make hiring and promotion decisions, which means including what they think's important, current buzzwords and citations of those who must be cited. In effect young scholars (an this phenomenon is by no means confined to anthropology) are put in the position of the aspiring mandarins who took pre-modern China's Imperial Examinations, having to demonstrate familiarity with what their examiners take to be canonical texts and demonstrate skills that have as much relevance to most of the rest of the world as writing eight-legged essays (a prescribed form of writing of no importance whatsoever except when taking the Imperial Examinations) had to the lives of merchants and peasants. 

Joshua, I also keep coming across a similar sentiment. Imerialists don't go around saying, 'We're doing imperialism!', and we don't necessarily have to go around saying, 'We're doing mainstream anthropological writing!'. But I do get the sense that there are numerous people who would write more of the stuff if they know how, and where to publish it. What do you think?

Joshua Smith said:

In the Tax papers in the archives at the U. of Chicago, I found a note where Sol had written: 'advocacy doesn't need to be any more explicit than Imperialism is'. I have not stopped thinking about it and this may be the title of my next article. 

John, I think that does have a lot to do with it. But it still doesn't really explain why some kinds of anthropologists do it more than others. Unless the biological anthropologists and archaeologists, who are closer to the 'hard' sciences, are less anxious about not being taken seriously?


John McCreery said:

Erin, doesn't the answer to your question lie in that "no-one," which, at least to this reader, translates as "no-one important," which has, at least since the 1960s, when I was in graduate school, meant "no-one who can give me a job"? Given the current structure of academic hierarchies, it isn't all that surprising, is it, that young scholars write to please those who will make hiring and promotion decisions, which means including what they think's important, current buzzwords and citations of those who must be cited. In effect young scholars (an this phenomenon is by no means confined to anthropology) are put in the position of the aspiring mandarins who took pre-modern China's Imperial Examinations, having to demonstrate familiarity with what their examiners take to be canonical texts and demonstrate skills that have as much relevance to most of the rest of the world as writing eight-legged essays (a prescribed form of writing of no importance whatsoever except when taking the Imperial Examinations) had to the lives of merchants and peasants. 

Erin, your point about the kinds of anthropologists is a good one. No question about it, biological anthropologists and archeologists are in a different category when it comes to popularizing their work from cultural anthropologists. Why should that be? Your observation that they are closer to the hard sciences suggests the classic C.P. Snow two-cultures divide that anthropology, or at least its North American variety, was once proud to straddle: to be, as the slogan put it, the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. 

But then the question becomes, why is the work of those on the scientific side better popularized than than on the humanistic side? If offer for your consideration the thoughts of John Brockman, the founder of Edge, from his book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. In the introduction to the book he writes,

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

Brockman's thesis, briefly summarized, is that, while the humanities were embracing "theory" in an effort to appear more credible in a science-dominated world and, thus, losing their traditional audience, the educated public, a growing number of scientists were moving in the other direction, making ideas that had once been utterly esoteric, more accessible. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Gould [see the list of contributors to the book here] were filling the space that the humanities were abandoning. They were creating a third culture, a hybrid that straddles the traditional domains of science and the humanities: a forum in which the human implications of new scientific ideas is discussed.

I would suggest not only that biological and anthropologists do a good job of producing work that appeals to third-culture interests, because they are starting from the science side they also have new discoveries to write about and find a comfortable niche in what I will call the circuits of knowledge by which science is popularized. I note, for example, that new discoveries in archeology and biological anthropology appear in Science  and Nature, where they may then be discovered and made into news stories by journalists. Science writers (some of whom are the same journalists) turn some of the stories into books; but the market they write has space for works written by the scientists themselves, should they be so inclined. 

What, then, of the cultural anthropologists? Do journalists scan the pages of our journals looking for hot news? No. And it's pretty simple to understand why. There usually isn't any. Retread "theory" is loosely applied to observations whose only novelty is that they happen to be made in place X instead of place Y, in a world where, truth be told, damned few people care at all about either place X or place Y.  In a world with thousands of places where people believe strange things, act in peculiar ways, or suffer from various forms of oppression, people have to have some special reason to care—and in a world where moralistic outrage and demands for compassion are so ubiquitous that most people tend to avoid instead of embrace them [except, of course, when their own ox is gored], what we have to say is rarely surprising in a newsworthy way. 

When push comes to shove, I don't think that our biggest problem is that we aren't better writers. When we retool and start once again making discoveries that people besides ourselves find fascinating, the writers will appear. Behaving like a corporation that believes better advertising or PR will make up for producing a lousy product? That's not a good model for what we need to do.

John McCreery said:

When push comes to shove, I don't think that our biggest problem is that we aren't better writers. When we retool and start once again making discoveries that people besides ourselves find fascinating, the writers will appear. Behaving like a corporation that believes better advertising or PR will make up for producing a lousy product? That's not a good model for what we need to do.


That's a potent point, John.  While I do think a lot can be gained by better writing (writing as craft, as it were), there are limits.  I was struck this week when going over American Anthropologist about how few journal issues there were - what, anthros can't produce more?  Certainly not creating a long tail of content there to get other people to react to.

I'm struck by the point too, read somewhere (perhaps Greg's branding post, perhaps somewhere else) that selling the exotic and the strange - a long-time staple of anthropology - isn't really our domain any more.  The Jerry Springer Show?  Animal Planet?  4Chan?  The exotic has become domestic.  And in the meantime, as you say, many anthro's just recycle the same theory but new time/new place.  Been there done that.  And not even doing it as well as the mainstream.

 

I wonder what the Hot News is that anthropology offers.  What's our Hot News?

And alongside that, how can we play better defense?  Many of our basic points - variation, cross-cultural comparison, a broader notion of relativity than the absolutes sold in other fields and in the news - comes across as critiques today.  Maurice Bloch essentially said that's the anthro role, to critique.

But for me, I don't think about it as critique any more.  It's about playing proactive defense, about making sure we shut down the opposing side as best we can.  And that in itself can generate News today.

Good conversation, in any case.

Daniel, thanks for the kind words. When you ask "What's our Hot News?" I find myself asking, "What is Hot News?" Could it be that hot news has to be part of a Big Story? Think about it, why did Mary Leakey's latest finds of hominid fossils in Kenya make it into this morning's International Herald Tribune? Human evolution is a big, big and, thanks to various Creationists, highly contentious story. Every new detail is, thus, hot news as soon as it appears.

On a less universal plane, national origins are a big, big deal in Japan, where the imperial family line is officially traced backed to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami,  and new finds in archeology and genetics suggesting Korean origins touch all sorts of ticklish spots in the body politic. So, no surprise, new archeological finds are regularly reported on the front pages of national newspapers. 

Where these thoughts lead me is to a serious consideration of the damage done to the anthropological brand by those who embraced deconstructionist critique and dismissed grand narratives as, ipso facto, nonsense. When you stop to think that "grand narrative" is just a fancy scholarly term for "Big Story," you can easily see what this implies. It is all very well, highly moral and egalitarian to insist that every local voice, in every corner of the world, deserves to be heard and that the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius or Shinran (look him up) deserve no more attention than a shaman in the back of the beyond in Brazil or Siberia. But if every voice deserves to be heard, there are billions of voices to choose from and the human brain's bandwidth is limited.  All but an infinitesimal fraction will be simply be ignored. If your self-proclaimed mission is to speak up on behalf of the people whose lives you shared and studied while doing your fieldwork and you don't have a Big Story to frame what you've learned from them, you are, as the old, vulgar image puts it, pissing in the wind.

Nice observation, Erin.  I see self-preservation through exclusivity.  Maybe, just maybe, subconsciously, anthropologists do not want to write what journalists write ethnographically to avoid positing the idea that anyone does not need a degree in anthropology to write about humans, society, and culture. 

  

This is a very good question, Erin, and it is one I have given a lot of thought to. Simone Abraham got me to propose a paper for EASA 2010, but I was prevented by illness from completing the assignment. My title was "Open systems and closed minds: why most anthropologists shun the public". Here is the summary I posted on the conference website:

"My argument takes off from Max Gluckman's edited book, Closed Systems and Open Minds (1964), where he says that fieldwork requires anthropologists to be open to everything around them as part of their commitment to studying humanity as a whole, but later they have to seek analytical closure in ways that often seem to be naive from the perspective of other disciplines. Anthropology is now a diffuse global project, where the imperial centres are more backward than other regions such as Brazil and Scandinavia. The academic division of labour in particular countries is an important variable shaping anthropologists' public posture. So generalization must be qualified. The collapse of empire has something to do with anthropology's contemporary predicament. But my main thesis is that our investigations of everything under the sun lead us to retreat into our own company for purposes of mutual protection and, by default, to shun the public. The public success of economists is the inverse of this. My paper will explore how we might overcome the limits of naivety in order to address the general public more effectively."

I could say a lot more about why I think the premise of "scientific ethnography" is a contradictory one. I believe that ethnographers form a secret cult based on hidden knowledge of how we do our research which we don't want to expose to outsiders for fear of being found out. There is also the obvious link between empire and the pretension to speak for humanity as a whole on the basis of limited fieldwork. Mainly we have failed to replace the coherent object, theory and method that launched the discipline in the first half of the century, retaining only a method which is increasingly shared by others.

I agree that the archaeologists and biological anthropologists lack these inhibitions and that is why Daniel and Greg's blog is so successful or the Leakeys have kept themselves in the limelight for so long. In 1922, the best-selling movie of the year was Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. In the same year Malinowski launched modern British social anthropology with a similar message (so-called "primitives" have important lessons for westerners recovering from mass death in the trenches). I do feel that some anthropologists will achieve a mass audience when we address issues of popular concern in a new way. David Graeber hit the button with his book on Debt, but his method was world history, not ethnography.

Great debate, I am learning a lot. My feeling is that even though anthropology has become very much Haviland's definition of 'the study of humankind in all times and places', it still very much creates big stories, albeit among ourselves. What was postmodernism if not a 'Big Story About How There Are No More Big Stories?' And it didn't kill off the others. 'Race Does Not Exist But Racism Does' is still a big story. 'Will Resistance or Agency Win?' was another one that persisted for a long time, though it never really made breaking news. 'Globalization Will Ruin Us' was a big story. It was soon replaced by 'Globalization Isn't Really As Ubiquitous As People Think', which has recently been again challenged by 'Globalization Isn't Entirely Evil But Neoliberalism Is'. These are all attempts to understand the human condition and where we are going (who says it's only economists who make predictions?), which gained a lot of consensus in the anthropological community.

Okay, so I'm being flippant, but the point is that we do produce very clear, surprisingly united threads, despite our debates about whether we should break our eggs at the big end or the little end. Each sub-discipline has its own current concerns that often do tie in with larger social issues. The question is, do these discussions serve only our discipline or do they serve knowledge production? If the latter, then they should be public.

Personally I think we are a bit too doomsdayish. The biggest anthropological story of all – the meta-story, if you will – seems to be that 'The End Of The World Is Nigh But Subalterns Everywhere Struggle On, Including Anthropologists Whose Discipline Is Doomed'. What? Are we going to start carrying placards next? Nobody wants to hear this, because it tells us nothing. In this sense, we have lost the ability to make discoveries, because we have created one grand narrative to rule them all, and it sucks.

My point is that anthropologists discover all kinds of interesting things that non-anthropologists would be interested in, all the time. In fact, we have a huge back catalogue of this stuff, that nobody knows about. If you don't believe me, try picking some of the facts that you think are most interesting in anthropology, tell them to non-anthropologists, and watch how they react. In fact, try picking some of the topics that you think are the most boring and mundane, tell people about them, and watch how they react. I have been consistently stunned by what the most random people find interesting: 'Mobile money in Haiti? But how does it work? Why don't we know about this?', they ask. 'Why don't we know?' is something that I hear quite a lot these days. In the age of the Internet, people don't understand why they should be left in the dark.

One of the things that I would like do with PopAnth is to empirically test what kinds of anthropological materials have mainstream appeal by looking at the analytics (we can do this because we have Gawain on board). It might seem like a joke to imagine breaking news headlines such as 'Foucault's panopticon discovered in Colombia's jails!' or 'Bourdieu's theory of distinction disproved!' but I would bet money that many of these things can be turned into really successful articles, so long as they are presented in a relevant and engaging way.

I am increasingly convinced that anthropologists have lost sight of their audience, and that this is a shame, because we produce really interesting knowledge that people should be able to access. Some more knowledge of that audience can help us think more about what it is that we're trying to do and how we could effectively go about it.

Erin, I beg to disagree. Postmodernism is a dying, almost dead story.  'Race Does Not Exist But Racism Does' may still be a big story. It is, however, so familiar that finding something newsworthy to say about it is damned hard. 'Will Resistance or Agency Win?' is, with that title, a story only an academic social theorist could love. 

But I do like your idea of testing mainstream appeal by looking at the analytics (assuming, of course, that we generate enough traffic to make the analytics significant).

 

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