I kind of feel as though anthropologists want to maintain a kind of 'guild' mentality. I have tried in numerous ways to engage with anthropologists from a range of institutions both through interpersonal exchange and as a journalist. I don't know if it is because they are media shy or they have a personal dislike of me but I find myself with anthropologists is like oil with water, the two don't mix.

Anthropologists seem to have this amazing resource. The slogan of the world social forum 'another world is possible' isn't Utopianism. It's an ethnographic fact documented in thousands of books and papers.

I just find the world of anthropology quite frustrating and closed .

I just find anthropology weird and I don't know what it is for. I like it but it is weird.

Hmmm... Forgive me.

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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?

I don't want to embarrass anyone by naming them but here are a few examples:-

1) Whilst an undergrad I was interested by the work of US author Daniel Quinn. I was trying to understand how 'teleology' shaped particular societies. Did a societies' beliefs about the fate of the universe affect what they did or vice versa. For example does a western belief in progress reflect an underlying sense of linear time. I brought this up with one of my professors but there was just mutual misunderstanding. It's quite a long time ago so can't remember exact details.

2)I met my former tutor after several years gap and told him about the Japanese documentary I had made. He sounded impressed and suggested we meet up for coffee. I contacted him twice until I realised he seemed to be avoiding me. It might just be that we don't get on but it's another opportunity for exchange down the swanny.

3) Had exchange of correspondence with a former tutor but it just seemed to dry up. Again I suppose it's up to that person but I feel the interest I show in anthropology is being somehow rejected.

4)Contacted an anthropologist at a South African university for a radio interview about a science topic. They seemed shocked that I had contacted them and afterwards just ignored my calls and emails.

I wanted to add something else about my questions but finding it hard to formulate anything. I think part of my problem is that I prefer to see things in mystical terms rather than academic terms. I am much more about seeing the 'whole' or having a sense of how the parts fit into a larger whole rather than dissecting and dissecting for the sake of labelling and categorising everything.

When you talk about the foundations of anthropology being eroded do you mean the constraints on academic funding in the marketised education sector, neo-liberalism etc? My feeling is that many professionals are doing 'bits' of anthropology e.g. In quality print journalism, radio, TV, cinema, fine-art, writers of books, photographers. Whether that amounts to anything worthwhile by academic standards I don't know.

Thanks for replying.


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. 

Posted a reasonably long reply but the IPad ate it (ack!)

John:- like the idea of following an idea through the net or synapses. I like how playing with words and meanings is important to anthropologists. At the drudge end of the corporate world you are just supposed to suck up the meanings given to you.

My lack of motivation for reading more anthropology stems from lack of people to discuss my readings with but maybe this could change. Doing a masters is out of my league financially.

Alice: I see you specialise in Biblical anthropology? I feel as though some anthropologists don't do enough to share their findings with the wider world but then maybe the world won't listen. I think the rainbow of possibilities contained within the anthropological record is something that the world needs to respond imaginatively to various crises and opportunities.

I like how anthropology is broader than any one ideology and looks at wider cultural issues behind problems and issues in society. For people who are trying to change the world for the better, an appreciation of cultural depth and diversity could foster (just typing on the hoof here) much more relevant solutions.

I am a massive fan of Graberian anthropology, Taoism, Daniel Quinn all things which are a bit left field and put the curve back in the universe. In a world that sometimes feels grey and monotonous anthropology can restore the sense of wonder and 'otherness'

Sorry for my ramblings
(Maybe to a Taoist any attempt to 'change the world for the better' might be considered pernicious?)

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. 

Your experience is interesting. The 'it's been done before' criticism is common in the media although it seems stricter in radio because in TV they seem to have a license to rehash the same old themes again and again. Having this forum may well motivate me to read more anthropology as I now have people to discuss my reading with.

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."

Hi John,

Interesting. Advertising as religion or advertising as magic... It brings to mind some words of Ursula K Le Guin, 'There's a good deal in common between the mind's eye and the TV screen, and though too often the TV set has been the boobtube, it could be, it can be the box of dreams'.

I am not sure I would choose magic over religion always. I go to a Unitarian church and I like the sense of 'the unseen' or the 'great spirit' (My chapel is seemingly post-Christian and eclectic).

In defence of radio production I think we have to work harder than the TV boys and girls to come up with fresh themes. How many times have you seen a documentary about the Tudors or the D-Day landings on British TV? For radio the angle has to be freshly squeezed, hot off the press, newly minted, surprising. You can't just do a straight documentary about cars or clouds it has to have some edge whereas TV to some extent seems to be more about primary colours.

The idea of meanings is interesting.... I read a lot from the Tao Te Ching. It gives me a sense of renewal. I feel there is some intangible reality between the words, like the unseen rain of Rumi. As I said before I am more prone to mysticism than academic pursuits. I like to appreciate a transcendent whole into which the parts fit.... I have been reading from Jung's Liber Novus (The Red Book) in which he re-states his belief that the Western man (he uses gendered language) is a member of a Christian civilisation and the fact we tend to forget it cannot mask 2000 years of Christian civilisation. I wonder if in the simulacrum of post modernity and the flux of meaning, symbols, images, the internet we aren't in fact losing sight of history, our ancestral roots.

I am not sure what this has to do with anthropologists hoarding knowledge. Just maybe that certain cultures are quite dumbed down (maybe due to advertising, propaganda etc..). Maybe a lot of people would rather eat nachos and watch baseball than read obscure anthropological or alchemical texts in difficult languages. Maybe the consumer is the problem. But then anthropology (still) seems to be a sought after profession. It seems to be perceived as a 'candy' job or a job that allows scope for personal expression,travel, intellectual stimulation.???

PS I am studying Kanji at the moment and just getting to a point where I am seeing at least some pattern and sense in them. It is really satisfying.

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