Why is there no Anthropology Journalism?

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?

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

40 thoughts on “Why is there no Anthropology Journalism?

  1. If someone wrote a “Freakopology” while they were still untenured, would they get tenure? There’s something about the reward structures of our discipline that discourages popular writing. In some places this is merely rumored; here in Australia it is actually quantified: you get a score of 1.0 points for each peer reviewed journal article, but not a single point for a popular article published in a magazine or newspaper, no matter how long it is, whether it’s based on your own research, etc. This point system determines how much money each public university (i.e. all but 4 universities in the entire country) gets back from the government as a reward for its research output, and in many universities and departments it’s connected with other rewards. So it’s a kind of sacrifice to write for a popular audience.

    And speaking of Freakonomics, I wonder how economists feel about that book? Do they feel like serious research got dumbed down for popular consumption (which is what I think most anthros would think about a Freakopology), or are they excited about the way it has raised the profile of their discipline, or are they just jealous?

    But what I really wanted to mention before I got side tracked (by myself) was that “Findings” section at the back of every issue of Harper’s Magazine. You know, the one that summarizes all the science journalism of the past month in one-sentence lines of absurdity. I keep meaning to write something like this out of just anthropology research. (I never find the time.) Could it even be done? The absurdity, yes, we could surely supply that element, but I keep wondering: could any anthropology article ever be boiled down to a single sentence? Or are we too convoluted and subtle in our thinking to ever be synthesized into neat little sound bytes like other disciplines seem to be able to do with their research?

  2. All good points I think, but there’s been a promising effort by the editors and contributors of Anthropology Now to address some of these concerns. They even have a “Findings” section that offers a brief synopsis of emerging research relevant to public debate. I’m contemplating getting a subscription for some of my family members who remain mystified by what I do for a living….
    Here’s the link:
    http://anthronow.com/

  3. I think you would have to conduct an ethnography of the production and consumption of Journalism to answer this properly(!) – what cultural purpose does it serve? what counts as News? What is being sold?

    But in lieu of that, a few things:
    As Sarah and Chris’s point 3a indicates a lot of this is to do with whether Journals and their editors (and university PR depts) promote particular articles by issuing press releases just prior to publication. Most of the big science journals do this. Competition plays a role there – Nature vs. Science vs. PNAS etc. You kind of get the impression that the big Anth journals would rather carve a niche than compete, and few seem to engage with the press. Current Anthropology is one major exception that springs to mind. Check out the In The News sidebar on their website.

    I don’t think the Australian research assessment system and its equivalents can explain why Anth journalism in particular is absent, since the same point system applys to all disciplines in the university doesn’t it?

    Another factor might be that Anthropologists are too sensitive to ‘accuracy’ in terms of getting their words right, capturing that social phenomena _just so_, to be able to handle seeing journalists mangle it. What would our colleagues think?! We’d have to issue a disclaimer! Critiquing Bad Science journalism is a cottage industry of course…http://www.badscience.net/

  4. “I feel like I hear a lot these days about anthropology’s need to be more engaged, more accessible, more readable and more relevant. …………..

    3a) because anthropologists’ scholarly societies do not report on their research.

    How come you didn’t aim your sights at AN?
    Let’s consider what gets reported there. They pick themes for reports in the first part of each issue, but overall reporting on the cultural anthro. discipline is slim. AN could be a medium where short reports of ongoing research could be published. What seems to happen though is that the reportage of each sub-discipline in AN is culled from what people send the editors in charge of those columns, and nobody sends much of anything! AN could be restructured so that reports of ongoing research could make up a large section of the first part of the newsletter, sparing us the boring articles that have recently dominated that section on themes having more to do with sociology than anthropology.

  5. Seriously though… the AAA blog is going in the right direction here, finally. And I hope the AAA sees it as something more than just an experiment, because it represents the first step towards actually enlivening public discussion with research in anthropology, and providing journalists with a point of access.

    AnthroNow is also a step in this direction, but it goes in the “we can be journalists too” direction, rather than a technology for hooking up journalists with good story ideas, or recent research. I hope it grows… especially the online component, which has tremendous energy right now.

  6. I just wanted to point out that “Daniel Everett”:http://llc.illinoisstate.edu/dlevere/ comes from a straight linguistics background. At this point I would say that he is doing “anthropological linguistics”:http://www.jstor.org/stable/30028237 (but not linguistic anthropology) that avails itself of “Boasian models”:http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001387.html – whether he wants to be claimed by the discipline of anthropology, however, I cannot say!

  7. As a former journalist currently working on my PhD in anthropology (and also studying anthropology of media), I wonder about a lot of these issues as well. It seems like it’d be helpful to have more out there in terms of journalistic writing on anthropology, even if for no other reason than to give non-anthropologists a better idea of what it is we actually do and what our research can contribute (Sarah, I can relate to your comment about mystified family members…).
    Many of you have probably seen this already, but there’s a new book, “The Anthropology of News and Journalism,” edited by Elizabeth Bird, that gets into some of these issues – anthropology of news and journalism specifically (as contrasted with anthropological studies of entertainment media) and the similarities between anthropologists and journalists – here’s the link to the book’s Indiana University Press page: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?isbn=978-0-253-22126-1 .

  8. So . . . tossing my archaeological hat into the cultural anthropological room, let’s be clear, as well, that all of anthropology continues to look down it’s long, collective nose at self-promotors. And let’s be honest here, individuals who push their research out into public venues are often viewed as self-promoters. There was a time when anthropologists of whatever stripe would “come home” from their research travels and give public lectures, even tours of public lectures, replete with specimens and slides and what not. No more. We have largely eschewed public gaudiness for lives of quiet sincerity.
    The result? How about Indiana Jones movies? Every time a new one comes out, the archaeological list servers and blogospheres fill up with lively but ultimately pointless debates about whether Indy actually serves a positive purpose to archaeologists by bringing archaeology back into the public eye. Looking farther around the anthropological circle, how many people do you think actually know what Jane Goodall did or its importance? A few nights ago, the actress Betty White was shown receiving a lifetime achievement award from a cinematic organization. It was pointed out during the ceremony that she had received an award from Goodall’s foundation for her work promoting humane treatment of animals. Many people clapped, but I have to wonder whether any of them knew anything about Goodall.
    In my own little parochial corner of my own little world, I can think of a colleague who is known as a self-promoter — because he is a self-promoter. While many of his colleagues look down upon him behind his back, they are secretly envious of his willingness to show up to talk on panels about research he hasn’t done in 20 years and didn’t really interest him even then or to edit volumes about topics that are not within his actual experience. That is not to say, however, that he is not a good researcher or that he has not made significant contributions. His work is worthy of recognition. But the fact that his name is commonly seen makes him the behind-his-back target of professional skepticism, principally by colleagues who actually wish they could get a paper in a volume he is editing.
    This takes us to Point 3a — are we as a profession willing to put ourselves out there to “engage” (I think I might hate that word) with a public with a 10-second attention span when it might mean that our names will get plastered, if only for a short time, in plain sight? What if my results turn out to be wrong? What if I get misquoted? (And I can assure you from personal experience, you will be misquoted.) I won’t get any professional perks for getting out there. Will I be seen as a self-promoter? Will my colleagues see that I can promote anthropology by getting my own research noticed? Aaaaaagggghhhhhhh . . .

  9. Here is another reason for the lack of coverage. This is a brief contribution to the Anthropology Newsletter from 1996 (in its entirety):

    Projecting Points: As Others See Us
    By Boyce Rensberger (Washington Post)

    One of the questions frequently put to me by anthropologists is why the press doesn’t capitalize more on anthropological insights and expertise about various stories in-the news. In my experience, anthropology is still so riven with rival “schools of thought” that it is almost always possible to find well-credentialed anthropologists to dispute anything said by any other well-credentialed anthropologist. This gives the impression that anthropology hasn’t got its act together or isn’t a mature science. Consequently, science writers tend to think that readers (and viewers) will not be well-served simply by putting up contrary points of view that explain nothing.
    There is controversy on the frontiers in the “hard” sciences but not on a steadily growing body of accepted textbook knowledge-hard facts. In physics no one doubts that F=ma. In chemistry, redox reactions always happen the same way, and nobody claims they don’t. In biology, RNA always transcribes DNA the same way.
    It doesn’t seem that anthropology can point to a large body of knowledge that explains a lot about human beings and is solidly accepted by all anthropologists.
    I offer this commentary from a point of view of great sympathy with anthropology. I spent a year in Africa with paleoanthropologists and know most of the key figures in that field (used to cover it a fair bit). Aside from description, I’ve concluded that there is very little that this branch of science can explain persuasively.
    [Boyce Rensberger is a senior science writer for the Washington Post and Editor of the Post’s special educational section, Horizon. His thoughts were excerpted from a response to Meredith Bruns’s (Center for Anthropology and Science Communication Proxima, Inc) recent survey of journalists, which asked why the press doesn’t capitalize more on anthropological thoughts and expertise to help clarify stories in the news.] Anthropology Newsletter, October 1996, page 12.

  10. ugh. That Rensberger piece haunts me. It’s trotted out every time I say something like this. The problem is not with anthropology, it is with Mr. Rensberger, whose only model of a science is one in which uncontroversial facts are steadily accumulated in some mythical body of knowledge. I don’t know about anyone else, but I just watched a year FULL of Darwin celebrations, and I mean FULL. There is no other scientists in history more adored than Darwin right now, and yet the body of widely accepted fact in evolutionary theory is miniscule. tiny. maybe even non-existent. And I’m not even talking about intelligent design. there are enough sub-fields and cliques and arguments in evolutionary theory to make even the most committed relativist blush. Every science is riddled with dispute and it should be… if it weren’t, who would call it science? (and btw, F=ma is an abstraction that works only for idealized baseballs, and RNA emphatically does not transcribe DNA the same way everytime)

    More to the point, the rensberger piece illustrates my point: I don’t want anthropologists to feel any more conflicted about speaking to the public, or self-promoting or touring with slides or whatever… I want to know why journalists don’t bother to figure anthropology out. And lest this sound like it is their fault and not ours, I want to know what we could be doing better to help them figure it out, short of going on self-promotional book tours and so forth…. it’s not rocket science. In fact, as many science journalists know, rocket science isn’t rocket science… but why then are some sciences seemingly so much easier to report on than others?

  11. I think that anthropologists themselves are part of the problem. Particularly, a disciplinary refusal to accept any kind of simplification. Scientists hate it too, but they generally only care what their peers think, and are perfectly happy to have the general public remain somewhat confused about the actual nature of their work, which they assume the public would never understand anyway. Anthropologists, however, especially those of the current “assemblages” mode, seem determined to caputure reality in all its complexity, refusing to allow for any generalization or simplification. Thus, there is litte willingness to work with journalists in a process which anthropologists see as hostile to the very nature of their work. And not without some justification, I have to admit. [Oops, have to go. May not be online for a while, so this will have to do.]

  12. The American Sociological Association publishes a magazine called Contexts. According to the website (http://contexts.org/)

    “Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes sociology interesting and relevant to anyone interested in how society operates.”

    Professional sociologists write the articles, and they are authoritative, informative, and interesting, yet written at a level for the educated public (or the science journalist). Why doesn’t the AAA do something like this?

    Archaeologists have the opposite problem – lots of public interest and media attention, but most is focused on spectacular finds and sensationalist themes that are far from the intellectual center of archaeology as a scholarly discipline. A new Eyptian tomb? Lots of journalists and public interest. But if you want to talk about how Egyptian settlement patterns were different from most other early states, and why that is an important scholarly question, all you get are yawns. We have Archaeology Magazine, but that is firmly in the “temples and tombs” camp, nothing like the sociologists’ Contexts. (and articles in Archaeology Mag are increasingly written by their staff journalists, not by archaeoligsts).

  13. Although I agree with much that has been posted already, there are a couple of fundamental issues that have not been addressed:

    1. Ethics – Journalism and (cultural) anthropology have very different ways of understanding/ enforcing ethical standards. While anthropologists (with pressure from IRBs) must shield the identities of their interlocutors, good journalists shy away from using anonymous sources.

    2. Generalizability – getting to Kerim’s point about simplification…journalists are often looking for the one or two stories that can stand for the whole, that can help their harried reader quickly grasp what it is like to win a spelling bee or lose everything in a tornado.

    I think anthropologists are conditioned to avoid generalizing and ask our readers not to assume that what happens in one village, one corporation or one classroom can be projected onto the whole. While this makes for more careful anthropology, a general reader might think, if this is just an isolated example, why bother?

  14. An excellent set of arguments. I think that #2 is a particularly crucial point: to some degree this raises the question of how what we do differs from the work of investigative journalists — aside from the differences in our temporalities. But this gets into another–much broader–set of issues altogether.

    The key point of your #2 is that whereas science journalists report on research, many journalists are seen as doing more or less the same research as cultural anthropologists. To me, this suggests that we need to do a better job of helping non-specialists to see and understand our disciplinary practices as research practices. This can be somewhat challenging, insofar as taking notes at the steering committee of an NGO or talking to a family over their kitchen table doesn’t–to many non-anthros–seem as specialized an activity as, say, running a northern blot or putting someone through an MRI scanner. Of course, ethnography isn’t reducible to taking notes at a meeting or talking to a family any more than molecular biology is to the northern blot technique, but this isn’t necessarily evident to those who aren’t familiar with anthropology.

    This is not to say that our methods are entirely analogous to those of the natural sciences (clearly, they’re not) or that journalists can’t or shouldn’t try to conduct longer-term fieldwork-type investigation (indeed, some have done so, to great effect). My point is simply that we should try to foster a greater appreciation for the particular kinds of knowledge our methods can produce–and the temporality of anthropology, its long-term engagement with people and settings is key here.

    That the recent NYT Magazine piece demonstrates this nicely in that the author–Ethan Watters (a self-described “science journalist”!) reports on the research of anthropologists. He doesn’t try to “do” their research, and in fact it is clear from his reporting that he couldn’t “do” their research even if he had wanted to.

    As for #3, blogs like this one are as good a place as any for more anthropologists to start reporting on their work while they’re carrying it out.

  15. Awesome! You mean now that I’ve secured that super stable adjunct assistant seasonal teaching associate job in academia I can go into that emerging new stable profession called print journalism! With such an absence of information these days being an original nonfiction knowledge producer is going to kick ass!

  16. now now. cynicism is frowned upon by the blogosphere. Your license to freely contribute your content without remuneration will be revoked.

  17. Is it specifically anthropological journalism that’s of concern, or the popularization of cultural anthropology in general?

    Previous inquiries aside, as an ex-anthro student who’s had a resurgence of interest, I think part of the problem is that the nuanced notions of culture practiced in anthropology haven’t been spread enough within society such that people would even understand, let alone seek journalism that covered it.

    For whatever reason, most people understand quantum physics and genetics to some degree. Most people don’t understand problematizing recursive narratives or issues of colonial influence in constructing the other.

    In terms of cultural awareness or understanding, most Western audiences are as provincial in their beliefs as those anthropologists traditionally study.

  18. OK Folks, here’s a challenge:

    I don’t think current anthropology is so resistant to being “news-ified” or that the resistance to simplification is the problem or that the public understands anthropological theories less than it does quantum mechanics (!). I think the problem lies in the failure to clearly an carefully outline the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” (to use the NSF’s language) of any given piece of work.

    So take any recent journal… let’s pick the latest American Ethnologist.

    Can anyone write a clear paragraph about any of the articles in there which puts in terms that would make good copy in the Science Times, or the New Yorker? Imagine a journalist (with an anthropolpgy B.A. or B.S.) reading these paragraphs, looking for a good story… can you do it? Is it worth doing?

  19. It is simple laziness on the part of us anthropologists to communicate our work. Our field is not more special or more complex or more nuanced than anything else. That is just pretentious poppycock. Because of this attitude Anthropology is becoming increasingly irrelevant to both the public as well as to the broader scientific community. This is a tragedy that we need to fight against. Go on, stop being lazy and pretentious and tell people why what you are working on is COOL, write reviews, be “self-promoting” and get your message across. Completely apart from anything else – need I remind you that we are all publicly funded, and therefore we have an *obligation* to communicate our work to people.

    Simon

  20. Simon, well said. What we have fallen back on is what other educated people recognize as the oldest excuse in the book: It’s all so complicated. Duh.

    The world is complicated. Theories are always simplifications. Better theories account for more than worse ones. Some can, ceteris paribus, even be used to make useful predictions or support a verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Thick description is important. It suggests questions that need to be asked, points to things that theory’s simplifications have left unaccounted for.

    Good writing can grab you and stir emotions in a way that even useful abstractions do not.

    Nothing said here should be remotely controversial.

    What Simon says is spot on. The claim that what anthropologists do or write is more complex or subtle than what any number of practitioners of other scholarly disciplines do is, indeed, pretentious poppycock.

  21. I’d have to agree with both Simon and John. Don’t expect journalists to come knocking down your door every time you publish a jargon-laden article or book. If you want your work to catch the public’s eye then send out press releases, submit op-eds, write reviews, etc. You have to do the leg work. If Lionel Tiger (eww!) is capable of snagging an ongoing column at Forbes, I’m sure others of us can as well.

  22. Aside from being embarrassed about what I wrote for other reasons – I agree with Simon. I don’t think Anthropology is “beyond the ken” of anyone, any more than other disciplines. It just hasn’t been popularized as extensively, and that’s part of the reason for a lack of anthro journalism.

  23. The problem with the press and simplification is not that anthropology concepts cannot be simplified. Anthropologists have no problem simplifying concepts in Intro and lower level undergrad classes. The problem is that for many anthropological concepts, simplification has the danger of leading to racist or ethnocentric interpretations of what the anthropologist is trying to say. This is especially true if you are studying certain regions (e.g. the Middle East) or certain topics (supposedly “exotic” religions like Hinduism, medical anthro related to AIDS or drug use, immigration, etc).

    In an undergraduate class, you have enough time to correct misinterpretations of your simplifications. Yes, some students will still misinterpret anthropology but you can mitigate this because you have regular contact with them (in the context of the classroom). When journalists messes up and ends up reporting something in such a way that it reinforces racial or ethnocentric stereotypes, it is a lot harder to correct these misinterpretations (and even harder to fight them if groups with problematic agendas begin using a misinterpreted understanding of your as a justification for their actions).

    Thus, for me, the challenge of simplification is mitigation of damage. How do you frame your research in such a way that avoids misinterpretations that could lead to (in some cases) problematic consequences?

  24. Hi, science journlaist here. I’ve got a bit of an anthropology background (grad level physical and cultural courses) and I’ve written a few anthro stories over the years. If the field wants more attention from the press, here are some ideas:

    – Hire good science writers to write and distribute press releases. Believe, there are plenty of quality science writers looking for work. Journals could easily pay a few to write press releases on the top two or three papers per issue. Current Anthropology does this and I’m grateful for the service. Not many journalists (probably almost zero) read the primary antrho journals. we need to be led to the fountain.

    – Post those press releases on Eurekalert.org, which is run by AAAS, and on other services science reporters scan for news, such as Newswise.

    – When preparing press releases, try to relate the work to current events. Make it relevant.

    – Write and submite opinion pieces for big newspapers, New Scientist, Nature, Scientific American, and Science. We read these.

    – Prepare for some disappointment. Yes, some journalists will get it wrong. Sometimes you won’t like our pithy language or need to strip away the BS and get to the heart of the issue. Well, that’s the price of admission.

    – Let me say it again. FIND WAYS TO MAKE YOUR WORK RELEVANT. What does it tell us about something happening now that’s important to large groups of people? What currency does the work have? I once wrote about some studies of infanticide in baboons – and the researcher was willing to draw inferences about human behavior from his work. That made the work newsworthy and interesting.

    Hope this helps –
    BV

  25. Hi, science journalist here. I’ve got a bit of an anthropology background (grad level physical and cultural courses) and I’ve written a few anthro stories over the years. If the field wants more attention from the press, here are some ideas:

    – Hire good science writers to write and distribute press releases. Believe me, there are plenty of quality science writers looking for work. Journals could easily pay a few of them to write press releases on the top two or three papers per issue. Current Anthropology does this and I’m grateful for the service. Not many journalists (probably almost zero) read the primary anthro journals, let alone secondary journals in the field. We need to be led to the fountain.

    – Post those press releases on Eurekalert.org, which is run by AAAS, and on other services science reporters scan for news, such as Newswise.

    – When preparing press releases, try to relate the work to current events. Make it relevant.

    – If you have the aptitude and inclination to write for a popular audience, DO. Write and submit opinion pieces for national newspapers, Nature, Scientific American, and Science. We read these. New Scientist and Scientific American and Scientific American Mind run articles written by researchers (usually they are heavily edited). It’s cheap labor for magazines to do this, and more and more of them are probably heading in that direction.

    – Prepare for some disappointment. Yes, some journalists will get it wrong. Sometimes you won’t like our pithy language or our need to strip away the caveats and get to the heart of the issue. Well, that’s the price of admission.

    – Let me say it again. FIND WAYS TO MAKE YOUR WORK RELEVANT. What does it tell us about something happening now that’s important to large groups of people? What currency does the work have? I once wrote about some studies of infanticide in baboons – and the researcher was willing to draw inferences about human behavior from his work. That made the work newsworthy and interesting.

    Hope this helps –
    BV

  26. For me, it comes down to this: why are we producing all of this information? What purpose is there to anthropology? What are the end goals? Teaching? Publication of textbooks? Journal articles and tenure? Why are we sending people all around the world to collect information about different people, situations, and issues?

    I can understand the aversion to mass media, and to journalism. I understand the fact that anthropologists are concerned about getting it right, and about making sure that the correct interpretation comes across–and they are worried about the ways in which their ideas/information will be incorporated into larger media circles.

    The only problem: there really is no way to perfectly control meaning. So that means anthropologists can either remain silent and keep things under control, or they can start to participate more frequently in these discussions. The only way to influence meaning is to actually take part in the continuous discussion.

    I hear plenty of views about international development and politics from the likes of political scientists and economists…but not too much from anthropologists–who often have a pretty different perspective to offer.

    The site “Contexts” was already mentioned above. I think that is one possible model that we anthros could look into for some ideas and inspiration.

    Also, in my opinion, since we ARE media producers, I think that a part of our methods training SHOULD be media production. This means classes in film, classes, in photography, classes in web design, and yes, classes in writing as a part of the standard canon of teaching. Why not?

    Writing especially. A lot of anthropological writing is pretty damn opaque and boring–and this isn’t something new. Renato Rosaldo spent a lot of time talking about that in his 1989 book “Culture & Truth”. Anthropologists have to write all the time–why isn’t there more of a methodological focus on the craft of writing. It’s not as if good writing just happens automatically. I think that one or two creative writing classes might do wonders. Open up the possibilities.

    ckelty wrote:

    “I don’t think current anthropology is so resistant to being “news-ified” or that the resistance to simplification is the problem or that the public understands anthropological theories less than it does quantum mechanics (!). I think the problem lies in the failure to clearly an carefully outline the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” (to use the NSF’s language) of any given piece of work.”

    I agree with you that the problem is not whether or not the public can “understand” anthropological theories. In my opinion, anything can be explained…as long as you don’t write in jargon ridden nonsense. Anthropology is certainly NOT quantum mechanics.

    I am not sure if the problem has to do with a lack of intellectual merit. I think that those journal articles are published for a specific audience, and in many cases are not applicable or relevant to wider audiences. But that does not mean that anthropologists have NOTHING to contribute–there are anthropologists working all over the world, on all kinds of issues. There is no lack of relevance, but there is a lack of Op-eds and articles that speak to different audiences. This is a matter of finding various ways to communicate information to diverse audiences.

    Why do economists and political scientists have so much pull when it comes to international politics etc? Because they’re out there saying something? Because they’re publishing magazines that people actually read. Because they publish books that larger audiences actually find interesting and accessible.

    In order to take part in these discussions we have to be willing to actually make some mistakes. Maybe that’s the roadblock.

  27. _Why do economists and political scientists have so much pull when it comes to international politics etc? Because they’re out there saying something? Because they’re publishing magazines that people actually read. Because they publish books that larger audiences actually find interesting and accessible._

    As a social anthropologist, I can’t help noticing that they are also well-connected with powerful institutions, both inside and outside government. Is there any anthropology department, anywhere, that offers what the Kennedy School at Harvard (where my daughter is now doing a master’s in public policy) offers its students? By which I refer to (1) a continuing stream of cabinet officials, big city mayors, other leading politicians and pundits, who visit the school not only to speak but also to participate in brown bag lunches and other get togethers to which the students are invited; (2) a carefully cultivated and highly influential alumni network; and (3) access to internships with top-ranked think tanks, consulting firms and Congressional and White House staffs. Not every student will get every plum; the competition is fierce. But every student will graduate with friends who got the plums this time and know how useful it is to lend each other a hand.

  28. John M wrote,

    “As a social anthropologist, I can’t help noticing that they are also well-connected with powerful institutions, both inside and outside government.”

    Good point, John. Can’t forget about the politics of it all.

  29. Booger’s description of me with “eww”uis typical of the fatuity of many who disdain crossing the sacred anthropology boundary. Robert Merton said ” no scientific virtue inheres in bad writing”, All of my books have been reviewed in both scientific and popular places eg MEN IN GROUPS by Mead in Redbook,
    All it generates is scorn and grief. Academics are subsidized people and have a responsibility to those who support us to tell them what we are doing and why. But given the profession, it’s a mug’s game.

  30. Hello – Just dropped in here from a completely different blog (followed a recommendation and ended up on this page) – but I now realize that I have visited your site before, about 4 months ago.

    Have skimmed this conversation, and have a few thoughts from an outsider’s perspective.

    Background: In undergrad in the late 1980s, I majored in psychology and minored in German, sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies (yes, I spent 5 years doing a 4 year degree, but I loved the learning!) I got all A’s in anthropology, even my only A+ in college (never even knew they could give A+’s before then). Loved taking classes in the social sciences (except economics, which didn’t make sense to me even then, and which seemed to be a sub-category that could easily be covered in psychology and anthropology, which I guess “behavioral economics” is lamely attempting to reinvent the wheel to do now, I don’t know… anyway, back to the subject at hand.) In undergrad, I was told by several professors not to try to become a professor – that it was a difficult career choice and likely to bring much angst and unhappiness. It’s not that they doubted my ability — they really seemed to believe this. That was in both anthropology and psychology. (Recently, in my late 30s I began a PhD in organizational behavior but got caught in some political fallout that was not of my making so I didn’t finish it; a familiar tale, I’m sure.) I knew that I enjoyed learning about other cultures, though, so after undergrad I upped and moved to Germany on my own for 18 months, and then lived on my own in the UK for 11 years, and Sweden, France, and the Netherlands for 3 months each. (I’m an American.) Among other things, in recent years I have been a cross-cultural trainer to company executives and their families who were being moved from one country to another for the typical 3-5 year expat assignment. So I’m not a completely ignorant outsider to your field, and I certainly “get” the amazing variety and subtlety and importance of different cultures/groups/societies, but my last real exposure to actual anthropology/anthropologists was probably in 1989.

    [Except for my complete devotion to watching the archeology tv show Time Team when I lived in the UK. Anyway, there archaeology is an entirely separate field to anthropology, as I was sternly told by my friend who did a master’s at Oxford in archaeology under Mick of the stripey-sweaters. :-)]

    My thoughts about having more popular anthropology articles and outreach:

    My perception of anthropology is that it is very fragmented internally. Many different schools, different ways of looking at things, different terminology. You can go from one similar university to another, and the anthropology areas will be set up entirely differently. This describes other areas of the social sciences too, but anthropology seems to be especially disjointed and confusing.

    Anthropology appears to be about disparate areas of knowledge, from art to archaelogy to biology to politics to religion to culture to economics to folklore to linguistics (and so on). These areas of knowledge are also covered by other fields, and it doesn’t necessarily make sense to the outsider what the point is of their being sub-fields of anthropology too, in addition obviously to being areas of study in their OWN disciplines, or having a more seemingly-logical fit within other broad disciplines.

    Anthropology does honestly use high-falutin’ terminology sometimes (like ‘hermeneutics’, aaugh!) and the typical writing style and thinking style seem to be quite convoluted and specialized. (Even on my first visit to this blog a few months ago, this perception was overwhelming — and it’s off-putting to the layman. Even though the people whose entries I read on here seemed to be very intelligent, thoughtful, funny, etc. – much of it was in a jargon that I couldn’t fathom and that I didn’t want to try too hard to figure out. Though I did look up hermeneutics again in the dictionary.)

    More than most social science/science subjects, anthropology seems quite circular, descriptive rather than predictive, self-reflexive (aaugh!), and navel-gazing. Stories for the stories’ sake. Individual experiences (of the fieldworker) for individual experiences’ sake. Like 35 people each describing an artwork in an essay. Which is fine, but what does it tell me, really, that is applicable to my life? (Beyond knowledge for knowledge’s sake.) Might be illuminating, might capture a few facts, might touch my heart, but what use is it really, besides being a diversion and taking the place of other reading I would do for enjoyment, such as novels or photography books or whatever. [Now, please don’t be annoyed with me here – I am giving you some stereotypes, and this is just a ‘quick and dirty’ download of my first thoughts on the subject — but I believe that I would fit into your “popular anthropology” ‘target market’ as a college-educated, interested layperson who is keen to keep up on various fields’ academic ‘progress’/research.]

    In undergrad, I took 2 seminar classes in cross-cultural psychology, which were not regular offerings by the department, just one-offs. It was a pretty new area then, in the mid-1980s. The classes were fascinating to me. Recently I had a look on the internet to see where cross-cultural psychology has gone over the last 25 years or so, and it seems to have meandered along, with a few very dedicated people pushing forward, but with some strands sputtering out altogether in the last few years. I think ALL psychology should be cross-cultural psychology in some senses, as the familiar accusation that most psychology findings in the 20th century were specifically based on research on middle-class, white, male, American 20-year-olds, and are not nearly as generalizable across humanity as is typically assumed, is very accurate (in my opinion).

    But, taking a step back, I’m still genuinely confused as to which social science gets to study what about humanity/the human experience/the human animal. Who gets the individuals, who gets the small groups, the large groups, the nations, the ethnic groups, the religious groups, the corporations, the age segments, the languages, the social classes? Or do all the social sciences study the same things, using hopelessly specific and ridiculous terminology, refusing to peer over the garden wall and see who else is planting the same crops?

    Back in my undergrad years, I was fascinated by sociobiology and took a few biology and genetics classes “for the non-science major”. And I loved my bioanthropology class. Now those two areas don’t seem to exist much anymore, but now there is evolutionary psychology (talking a little bit about the same stuff?) Where is the progress? What is the connection? I’m certain that you guys have a great handle on the answers to my stupid questions (stupid because of my ignorance), but to the majority of (American and British, anyway) people who go to college, I would wager that the more fringe fields are not that interesting to them even whilst they are studying for their degrees (degrees in English or chemistry or art history or politics or whatnot), and then, after they leave university, the ongoing, confusing specialization and fragmentation makes such fields even less understandable or relevant to all but 0.05% (or less) of the population.

    I also want to say, contrary to what appears to be the accepted view in the other reader comments above, that I don’t think many people, actually, in the “west” (especially the US) are *that* interested in other cultures. Yes, they might be interested in vacationing in another climate. Or in trying different cuisines. Or in enjoying an art form that is mainly from a certain country (anime, German opera, kabuki theatre, whatever). Or they are interested in historical/archeological finds, but it’s all in the distant past. Most Americans, even college-educated ones, don’t understand that much about other cultures, have any idea why it’s important or relevant to them to learn about other cultures, would prefer not to have to deal with people from other cultures if they can at all help it, and almost feel it’s unpatriotic or unmodern or something equally inane to be too interested in other places and ways and folk, and don’t take too kindly to approaching their own culture from a bird’s eye or comparative viewpoint. Therefore, you don’t just have the hurdle of finding a topic that can be described well and accurately in a ‘punchy’, relatively short layman’s article without using much clunky terminology — you also have the hurdle of finding anthropology topics that (American, especially) laypeople would honestly want to read about. In the way that they want to read about Dawkins’ extreme athiesm promotion, or astronomers’ musings on the existence of alien life, or what the top ten foods for antioxidants are, or the Hadron collider experiments at CERN, or what Psychology Today has to say about the mental-health effects of being bullied in the workplace, etc.

    Put yourself in the place of a North American college-educated skimmer of internet news stories or of monthly general periodicals — someone who works outside of academia, someone who never took even one anthropology class, someone who probably would be hard-pressed to name more than 4 countries in Africa (for example). What do you have to say to him/her? How does the field of anthropology matter in his/her life? What does anthropology do that psychology and sociology don’t? How can you convey what you want to say in clear, simple prose? How can you get them to expect your articles to be different from National Geographic photo essays or Smithsonian magazine lite-bite-of-knowledge features?

    Well, that’s my two cents’. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. I value scholarship and fieldwork highly. I adore fringe fields. 😉

  31. Applied Anthro MA here–

    1. I agree with Simon completely.

    2. I find it ridiculously ironic that for a science that studies humans the anthro discipline possesses an incredible lack of understanding how to communicate with the general human population, and also just how beneficial and vital such communication is to furthering the discipline.

    3. What is the harm in experimenting? Today there are so many new ways to communicate– many of them free! Why not give something new a try? What can be worse than becoming irrelevant by not trying at all?

  32. This subject has come around the block more times than I can count, and (as a former science writer and archeology student), I’d like to help bridge the gap. I deal with science media, and science organizations all the time, and understand the gaps in communication. (I’m also a friend of Boyce Rensberger, and he allowed me to post our email chat in the AN, back in 1996-he’s nuts about anthropology, and covered it constantly back when he was Science editor at the Washington Post.)

    As I see it, anthropologists won’t get covered responsibly by media unless they start understanding, er, its CULTURE, and hat drives it. If you want to operate successfully in a culture, any culture, you have to learn how that culture works.

    Reporters have sets of requirements handed down from their editors handed down from the marketing dept handed down from the advertising dept… and to work the system to your advantage, you gotta understand how this works.

    That said, I’ll mention that I’m writing a media guide for social scientists (to be publisher by Left Coast Press’s Mitch Allen), that includes tips from both media-savvy anthropologists and the science writers. It’ll be a practical, brief how-to guide, based on real-life scenarios.

    Want to join in?

    • If you’ve had good experiences with media-and know why they were good-let me know.

    • If you had a bad expeiernce – but now know how to make it better – I’d like to hear that too.

    You can reach me through the web site (and warning, this is a VERY very old site, and irregularly maintained, but it has some reasonable good media tips on it as well as my email link). link).http://www.sciencesitescom.com/CASC/mediaguide.html)

    I got into anthropology (archeology) in 1982 for the pure love of it, and it changed my life, though I’m no longer in the field. But I’ve long seen that bridging the gap between a terrific, useful discipline and getting it out to the public is desperately important.

    Merry Bruns

  33. As a former journalism major, and current PhD candidate in medical anthropology, I often have to defend my continued interest in popular non-fiction writing, which never ceases to amaze me. One of my colleagues, upon hearing that I had accepted a creative non-fiction fellowship at the Mailer House last summer, said to me quite straight-faced, “But why would you want to do that? Are you an anthropologist or a writer?”

    Um. Both. And I’m always interested in learning how to write better so that I can write better. It’s that simple. Writing, after all, is a craft and a skill.

    Simon is spot on, I think. And Brian and Merry make excellent points. As a ex-journalist, I intuitively understand how to make my work more relative to the world-at-large. I think more of us should be trained to engage (sorry, couldn’t find a better word) with journalists, rather than have knee-jerk reactions to media coverage of our work (if we are lucky enough to get coverage at all).

    Next year, at Berkeley, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and I will be trying to organizing a conference – a critical dialogue, if you will – between journalists and anthropologists working in the same field. In part, I think, to get at the problem so thoroughly laid out in both this article and in the comments above, and to begin a generative conversation across disciplines. I believe that there’s a lot we can learn from each other, two disciplines at a crossroad in their development.

  34. I just stumbled onto this site, found myself an object of discussion and couldn’t resist responding, even if I am a few months late.

    I won’t lay out all my thoughts at this juncture but will say that I agree mostly with what Brian and Merry Bruns said above. I will, however, suggest an exercise that might help our two tribes (journalism and anthropology) understand one another better. So, please consider the following items.

    1. Would any anthropologist care to name a current or recent issue in public policy in which better decisions could have been made if only anthropological knowledge had been considered? If so, how so?

    2. Aside from helping shape public policy discussions or decisions, how would people benefit from anthropological knowledge that is currently being ignored outside of anthropological circles? I’m looking for specific examples.

    3. If these questions miss your point, please feel free to set me straight.

    –Boyce Rensberger

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