Rex over at Savage Minds recently wrote a short post about the "relevance gap" in anthropology. Pretty important topic, if you ask me. Here is the money quote:

"The time it takes for academics to study, write, and publish something about a current event is about the same amount of time it takes to enroll a cohort of students too young to remember the event."

I have written an article length response about this issue, with a critical analysis of all sides of the problem. This article will be published sometime around Fall 2017, so mark your calendars and be sure to join the discussion.

*Cross-posted at Ethnografix

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Comment by John McCreery on July 5, 2010 at 5:56pm
Ryan, interesting comments. How, for the sake of argument, would you distinguish "history of ideas," "human history" and, I will toss in a third possibility, "the natural history of humanity"? All three I take to be distinct from the search for atemporal principles shared by social science (in at least those avatars modeled on classical mechanics) and philosophy.
Comment by ryan anderson on July 3, 2010 at 4:50pm
Huon,

"I suppose the point is, though, that what is being accredited is surely not the newsworthiness of the item (which is transitory by definition) but its relevance in an enduring history of ideas (or so we would hope)."

I think there is plenty of room for different types of publications--those that appeal to current issues and events, and those that are meant to add to the "enduring history of ideas."

" have to say, though, I was a bit struck by how parochial some of the problem cases raised were - students don't know who Farakhan was, or David Duke, or in some cases what 9/11 was about. But what about their relative ignorance about Evo Morales or Raul Castro, or Aung San Suu Kyi?"

I thought that people were making a big deal with some of their examples. What if students don't know anything about 9/11, or William Gibson, or the CIA involvement in Guatemala in the 1950s? Then talk about it. IMO, if someone hasn't read a particular text or event that a prof thinks is foundational, it doesn't make sense to go around talking about how pathetic the students' education was. Everyone has gaps and blind spots in their knowledge.

Keith:

That's a funny anecdote. Good thing anthropology isn't just about human history! Sometimes I think it's interesting when people expect anthropologists to stay in their stereotypical academic hiding places. Fortunately, the dust bin of history has an amazing tendency to remain relevant to contemporary life.
Comment by Keith Hart on July 3, 2010 at 10:34am
An anecdote on the general subject of anthropology's relevance. The Caribbean revolutionary and writer, CLR James, visited Ann Arbor around 1970 (personal communication) and he was keen to meet the anthropologists there. Wolf, Sahlins and other members of the Michigan Department at its peak were glad to reciprocate. They told him about all they were doing to protest against the war. After a while, he interrupted them. "I am a professional politician, he said. I didn't come to hear about your poliical activities. I would like to learn from you what you have discovered recently about human history."
Comment by Huon Wardle on June 29, 2010 at 4:21pm
This is intriguing. Obviously there are more means than ever to publish anthropology on topics of contemporary interest: I added a discussion of that kind here recently - though as 'news' the headlines are already disappearing into the past and will quite soon be forgotten. Having said that, by 'publish' is clearly meant here 'publish in an academically accredited form' = peer review > journal. I suppose the point is, though, that what is being accredited is surely not the newsworthiness of the item (which is transitory by definition) but its relevance in an enduring history of ideas (or so we would hope).

I had a quick look at the comments on that post and the concern seemed to be (in general terms) with the fact that students born in the 90s don't have any lived connection to events such as the end of Apartheid etc. True enough; and that sense of a generational knowledge gap seems, if anything, to be accentuated by the increased availability of information. I have to say, though, I was a bit struck by how parochial some of the problem cases raised were - students don't know who Farakhan was, or David Duke, or in some cases what 9/11 was about. But what about their relative ignorance about Evo Morales or Raul Castro, or Aung San Suu Kyi? The good thing is that all these things are easily remedied because the information is freely available, but what is more difficult is to teach the means by which any of this content can be put together in an anthropologically meaningful form. So I await your forthcoming publication with great interest...

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