Why is it that pop science, pop sociology, and pop economics exist (and are so well- received), but not pop anthropology? Why is anthropology so foreign to people when it seeks to understand the latter? Why do people still think it’s something to do with ants or birds or, at best, dinosaurs?

 

Off the top of my head, there are a few answers (which, frankly speaking, are pretty related to each other).

 

Baggage | Anthropology’s troubled past and its roots in colonialism might have led to several decades of soul- searching and identity crisis within the discipline. In that same time that anthropologists have spent trying to get their confidence back and stand up again, other social sciences have long made their impact on the popular consciousness, which eventually filters down the generations as received wisdom or general knowledge).


Academic barriers to entry | To become what one might call “an anthropologist”, it is pretty understood that one needs to go through the long, expensive process of obtaining an undergraduate degree, then a Masters degree, and eventually a PhD. Therein lie several barriers to be overcome, most of them pragmatic, and most of those who even get started on it at all tend to come from backgrounds that can afford the risks that come with attempting to overcome aforementioned barriers. Who could risk graduating with a non- professional degree that doesn’t even grant you enough knowledge or experience to be given much respect from people within your discipline (much less people from without), unless you took on even more risks by spending another ten years to get to the basic stage of academic recognition? More doors close between anthropology and the rest of the world — the vicious cycle continues.

Methodological barriers to entry I Participant observation takes too long, it’s hard to get published, and nobody actually really wants to read ethnographies (at least, not in the way they have been written for a large part of the history of anthropology). Since it’s hard to get published, you make sure you write in a way that will be well -received by the people who will read it, because it is they who affirm your status and credibility as an anthropologist. So nobody from the “outside world” really reads anything that anthropologists write, unless your name is Gillian Tett.

 

So that’s why anthropology isn’t more popular. I’m sure there are other reasons as well, which my lack of contextual knowledge (having not actually been an anthropologist before myself) will indubitably cause me to overlook, but from where I stand, the answer is simple: perhaps, anthropology just takes itself as an academic discipline way too seriously.

 

First posted on The Participant Observatory

Views: 278

Tags: academia, anthropology, observation, participant, popular, public

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Comment by Adrian Andreescu on February 19, 2011 at 4:40am

I am deeply surprised that anthropology is so distant currently to issues like religion and health, placebo phenomena, etc., promising areas of interdisciplinary research that might offer a solution for funding and media coverage. In my opinion, anthropology is hugely failing to be a significant participant in the discution regarding subjectivity and health...it will be a big struggle in the next 5-10 years about "who" might be the most important voice in this area (at least at the level of public perception, but this also imply access to research money) ...neuroscience is already trying to establish itself as the most authoritative voice...anthropology is not even considered a major player (like psychology and sociology) because it doesn't pay attention to the trends in social science...

Comment by ryan anderson on January 15, 2011 at 6:45pm

"The flaws are foregrounding academic names and debates that no one outside a particular geographical specialization knows or cares about and writing in a flat, academic monotone."

 

Definitely.  I agree 100%.  There is nothing worse than subjecting a non-specialized reader to a laundry list of terms and names they have never heard of.  And there's no quicker way to get a book tossed aside as dull than writing in some drab monotonous tone.  The really good science writers out there know how to take concepts and illustrate them in interesting ways (Stephen Jay Gould was always one of my all-time favorites...but folks like Robert Sapolsky, Jonathon Marks, and Natalie Angier come to mind as well).  There are tons of good writers out there, and anthropologists could take some notes about form, style, creativity, etc.  Again, we certainly have PLENTY of pretty fascinating things to talk about.  It's all a matter of presentation.

 

"The result is as flawless—and tedious—as a properly laid concrete foundation that no-one who passes by the house will ever notice."

 

Exactly.  A good foundation is absolutely fundamental--no doubt about that.  But that doesn't mean we need to go around talking about how it was built all the time.  A solid foundation will prove it's worth when the house we place upon it (ie our argument) displays is architectural wonders.  As you say John, houses (arguments, ideas, and analysis) are a lot more interesting to look at and think about than concrete foundations (ie theoretical and methodological treatises). 

 

I like the metaphor, John.

Comment by John McCreery on January 15, 2011 at 10:22am

It's the old saying about "showing" instead of merely "telling."  Good writers generally don't keep telling the reader about the style guide or the latest trends in literary criticism--they write about the subject at hand.  They tell stories, focus on characters, and illustrate ideas in a creative and interesting manner.  A good model, IMO.

 

Hallelujah! One of my current headaches is being asked to review a book that should be very interesting. The line that keeps popping into my head is,

"This book is good, solid, deadly earnest—and deadly dull."

 

The flaws are foregrounding academic names and debates that no one outside a particular geographical specialization knows or cares about and writing in a flat, academic monotone. The result is as flawless—and tedious—as a properly laid concrete foundation that no-one who passes by the house will ever notice.  

Comment by ryan anderson on January 15, 2011 at 6:52am

"Still, asking ourselves why people don't know about it was (I felt) a necessary first step in reflecting upon the discipline in terms of its academic identity and relative seclusion from mainstream consciousness/ awareness. And going forward, how we might slowly make that barrier a little more permeable."

 

We can probably make the barrier more permeable by producing more material for audiences outside of the discipline, and by emphasizing the craft of writing as a key METHOD in the discipline.  In short, there is definitely no shortage of interesting, relevant, and meaningful material--anthropologists do all kinds of pretty fascinating work.  The dissemination of their work, however, isn't always all that interesting from certain standpoints.  Journal articles and monographs are great--but 99% of those are produced for academic audiences.  And it shows.  Nothing wrong with that--but it's really no surprise that the general public doesn't really have a clue what most anthropologists do.  In my view, the best way to get around this isn't to organize some big PR movement for the discipline, but instead for more anthros keep doing good anthropology--and then WRITE about it.  We probably need less pieces that say "hey this is what anthropology is all about" and more pieces that are very well written and happen to have an anthropologist as the author.  The latter will effectively illustrate what anthropology is all about without sounding like a commercial for the discipline.  It's the old saying about "showing" instead of merely "telling."  Good writers generally don't keep telling the reader about the style guide or the latest trends in literary criticism--they write about the subject at hand.  They tell stories, focus on characters, and illustrate ideas in a creative and interesting manner.  A good model, IMO.

Comment by Cui Yin Mok on January 14, 2011 at 9:59pm

Chris -

I like what you said, and I agree wholeheartedly. It's very true that "efforts to make anthropology more "popular" don't necessarily have to be bothered about whether people know what it actually is. Still, asking ourselves why people don't know about it was (I felt) a necessary first step in reflecting upon the discipline in terms of its academic identity and relative seclusion from mainstream consciousness/ awareness. And going forward, how we might slowly make that barrier a little more permeable.


That said, the covert "infiltration" of "anthropological ideas and approaches to public problems" is already occurring, I think. It seems that ethnography or anthropology is becoming a little more trendy in the public/ Third sector, and I get very happy when I chance upon public service consultancies that say they employ "ethnographic methods" to come up with solutions.

 

What I'm trying to suggest, though, is the filtering of anthropology into our personal lives, as part of the way we live, or think, create knowledge about the world, and engage with the people around us, as well as how we solve our own problems (instead of how a public service provider solves a public problem). It's a little like how some people use psychology/ psycho- analysis or economics to make sense of the world around them and to solve their own problems in their daily lives. This is why a "covert infiltration" isn't exactly what I'm looking for (and besides, it already is happening).

 

I know that there are many, many problems inherent in this idea, but I just thought I'd like to throw it out there anyway. (And also that it is still worth a shot, no matter how impossible it is.) :)

Comment by Chris Martin on January 14, 2011 at 8:30pm

Assuming that most anthropologists agree that encouraging the public into more 'anthropologically minded' action and thought is a good thing, should efforts to make anthropology more 'popular' in fact not be that bothered about whether people know what it actually is? Can a sort of covert infiltration of public consciousness occur, whereby anthropological ideas and approaches to public problems become more prevalent? How can professional and non-professional anthropologists encourage this?

This approach probably won't necessarily put food on ethnographer's tables, but doesn't it accomplish some of the things a call for a more public anthropology entails? A good example might be Scandinavia, where anthropology does not necessarily have a more public face, but there is a culture of governments and institutions turning more readily to anthropological expertise.

Comment by Cui Yin Mok on January 14, 2011 at 7:43pm

The discussion has evolved to something very interesting, and raises one more question - what constitutes "public" engagement? Is it just anything that goes beyond the realm of academia?


Personally, I'd used the word "popular" intentionally as a double- entendre to refer to how well- known (or not) anthropology is, as well as how engaged it is with the mainstream population (the two have an area of intersection but they are not the same).

 

Whilst I do agree that the institutional hiring of anthropologists is riddled with problems and misconceptions about anthropologists and what they do, I was wondering if anyone has anything to offer in response to the idea of anthropology as more of a bit of a thought movement or a social movement amongst the general populace? 

Comment by ryan anderson on January 13, 2011 at 5:48pm

"My experience with USAID was that they relied on NGO's when it came to gathering of local data.  I met agronomists, educators, engineers, economists but not anthropologists."

 

Ok.  So your basic argument is that there should be more anthropologists doing this kind of work, right? 

Comment by M Izabel on January 13, 2011 at 10:39am

Ryan, if you read back, I did say "specifically hiring anthropologists.  I did not say that there are no anthropologists in institutions such as USAID, World Bank, State Department, etc.  For God's sake, there could even be an anthropologist at Walmart or Target.  The question is: are they doing anthropology?  Of course they can be administrators, program managers, and paper-pushers. Michael Horowitz wrote something about anthropologists in these institutions.

 

As far as I'm concerned, I have not seen any in job listings from these institutions that only want anthropologists for anthropology jobs related to international development and foreign aid.  My experience with USAID was that they relied on NGO's when it came to gathering of local data.  I met agronomists, educators, engineers, economists but not anthropologists.

 

 

Comment by ryan anderson on January 13, 2011 at 9:14am

M Izabel,

 

"Do you see any political, developmental, and economic anthropologists needed, even though crisis, stabilization and governance programs/projects in Afghanistan need cultural experts as they should be planned as culture-based in a country plagued with communal and tribal conflicts."

 

The USAID announcement does not specifically mention anthropologists by name, but there are TONS of anthropologists who would qualify for this sort of job--depending on their area of study, specific training, language skills, etc.  Notice that economists are not specifically mentioned either, by the way.  I am fairly sure that a decent number of anthropologists do in fact work with or for USAID.  Earlier you said that they hire more economists--and for all I know you may be right.  I'd have to look further to see.  But this job posting is absolutely amenable to anthropological training and experience.  I'd be interested to know how many apply for jobs with USAID and how many get hired though.

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