I feel like I hear a lot these days about anthropology’s need to be more engaged, more accessible, more readable and more relevant. There are obviously many different motives behind these concerns, from seeking attention to raising the prestige of the discipline to creating a public anthropology to being true to the concerns and needs of our subjects and collaborators.
But one thing I don’t hear people say is that we need more “Anthropology Journalism.” I mean that primarily on analogy with (or as a subset of) science journalism. It is a very rare experience to open up the Tuesday NY Times and see an article about recent research in anthropology–to say nothing of rags like scientific american, Wired, Discover or the New Scientist. Of all the “news alerts” I get, or the RSS feeds I browse from journalistic outlets, few to none ever report new findings, controversies, or questions coming out of the discipline. And I get more news alerts and RSS feeds than I could possibly read in ten lifetimes.
Two qualifiers: first, I mean linguistic and cultural anthropology specifically. Archaeology gets some love, though usually only when the findings are narrativized in a story of human origins or change, or when something truly rare is discovered. Biological anthropology gets perhaps a bit less love than archaeology, though certainly more than cultural or linguistic, and only when it is clearly identified with another discipline (evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary theory, etc). Jared Diamond, it appears, gets the rest of the attention.
Second, it’s not a total lack. A few weeks back the NY Times magazine ran a story about the Americanization of global mental illness. That article had everything good and bad about science journalism going for it: it reported on recent research, digested it and used to to paint a compelling picture, but it also took liberties with the subtlety of the claims to make an overly broad argument in order to be provocative, and to sell more copies of the journalist’s book. A few years back, Dan Everett got a full profile in the New Yorker. Tracy Kidder recently devoted a whole book to Paul Farmer (though interestingly the publicity only refers to him as a doctor, not an anthropologist). And speaking of Haiti, I’ve heard more anthropologists interviewed in the last two weeks than in the whole of 2009. But basically there is no anthropology journalism to speak of. Why not?
There are a few arguments that are always used to explain why there may be science journalism but no anthropology journalism. The harshest of these is that there is simply no interesting (or objective, or reliable, or novel) anthropology to report on. The argument has a Glenn Beck feel to it, suggesting as it does the decline of western civilization and values and the destruction of all that is Good and Right by the scourge of French philosophy, postmodernism and dissolute tenured radicals. Whatever.
Slightly less annoying is the frequent argument that our writing is inaccessible, jargon-laden, pretentious, or needlessly over-written. This argument fails on the simple grounds that most scientific papers are totally inaccessible to a general audience. Science journalism by journalists trained in science is absolutely essential to communicating what the vast majority of things scientists and engineers are up to today. I won’t defend the wealth of bad writing in anthropology, but nor will I defend it in psychology or chemistry or engineering. Have you read a conference paper in computer science lately? Not only is it likely to be totally inscrutable to you non-computer scientists, but it is also very likely to be extremely poorly written, badly punctuated, and generally abusive of the English language–though very prettily formatted using LaTeX
So let me propose three reasons that people don’t usually seem to offer for why there is no anthropology journalism:
1) because there isn’t as much anthropology as there is science to report on.
This strikes me as a basic difference. The simple volume of papers and reports published in most natural science and engineering disciplines absolutely dwarfs the number in anthropology. Each year at the annual neuroscience conference in san diego there are over 20,000 posters and papers. There are less than 8K anthropologists in the AAA total. It seems entirely likely to me that anthropology is being swamped by other information. However, the proportion in science reporting doesn’t seem to mirror the distribution of disciplines in universities, nor the number of students working on PhDs. Certainly it reflects the relative wealth and prestige of some sciences over others. And compared against the humanities generally, instead of the sciences, the argument makes somewhat less sense. There isn’t much “humanities” journalism (Chronicle of Higher Ed notwithstanding) either, but the amount of reporting on the arts, history, literature or music that draws on scholarly work also dwarfs the reporting that draws on anthropology to explain culture.
2) because journalists already do what anthropologists do, only better.
How many of us have not had the experience of reading a really quality piece of investigative journalism in which the journalist has done her homework, traveled to the right places, talked to the right people, and basically explained a phenomenon in terms that suggest there is nothing much more to say? All kinds of things that graduate applicants write in their statements of purpose are likely to appear the following month or year in a magazine or newspaper, artfully done and reaching a far larger audience. Kudos to the journalists who pull this off. But that’s never the end of the story. Three weeks later, anthropologists are still puzzling over the significance of the phenomena reported on, and 5 years later are publishing articles that I think generally do a better job of explaining, rather than reporting, the causes, effects and long historical twists and turns of cultural phenomena. Journalists tend to move on. The temporality of anthropological research far from matches that of journalists, just as it is far slower than many of our colleagues in the natural sciences and engineering. Changing that temporality might require a different approach.. and this, I think, is the third reason for a lack of anthropology journalism:
3) because anthropologists do not report on their research.
Cultural anthropologists have no tradition of publishing articles that simply describe their ongoing or recent research in brief but detailed, relatively standardized forms. Instead, the journal article in cultural anthropology is a mini-book, replete with complex forms of argument and narrative, rich, detailed description and a complete list of references in the literature. Whereas many scientists write a synthetic review article of research in their field once every couple of years, sub-fields of anthropology get one per decade, if that. Whereas a brief article reporting some results in science looks like “findings,” a brief article by an anthropologist describing a bit or recent fieldwork looks paltry and insubstantial.
One result of this is that I honestly have no idea what the vast majority of my colleagues in anthropology are working on until well after they are done doing it, and this is a real failure when it comes to making anthropological research appear fresh. If I were king, or Bill Davis, I would require every researching anthropologist to publish a paragraph describing ongoing research in a AAA publication at least once a year. Such a resource, if done correctly and made freely available would of its own accord change the dynamics of attention to the discipline by outsiders.
3a) because anthropologists’ scholarly societies do not report on their research
A corollary to this reason is that the AAA leadership, editors of journals, and staff of the AAA have done little to innovate these forms of scholarly communication in the last 100 years, to say nothing of the last 10, when they have done nothing more than resist such innovation, sometimes on principle (preserving a tradition of scholarly production focused on monographs, books and critical distance, I suppose), sometimes out of fear and anxiety about the very sustainability of the scholarly enterprise. Contrast this with the aggressive (and to be sure, questionable) shift in the sciences towards models of open access, publicity hounding, interaction with journalists, and repackaging of research in a range of scholarly forms (think Freakonomics). Perhaps in the long run, the traditionalism of the AAA will defend us against the craven onslaught of pecuniary interest and cozy complicity with neo-liberal capitalism. But it will be a lonely 21st century.
The most poignant part of the lack of an anthropology journalism for me is that there are lots of things anthropologists know and understand about the world that few others know. I never feel like I understand what’s happening in the world when I listen to NPR, however good their reporting. Sometimes I feel a bit more informed by a New Yorker or Atlantic article. But I always walk away from quality anthropology with a sense that my brain has been rewired and that I now know better why things are happening the way they are… surely journalism can amplify that effect rather than dampen it?