#AAAfail as PR meltdown

God bless Neuroanthropology for tracing out the twists and turns of #AAAfail as it unfolded and now, apparently, is more or less ‘over’. In general I concur with Daniel’s analysis of what went wrong. The AAA’s ability to handle its internal processes — and what happens when they go public — reminds me of the fracas over global climate change skepticism (or at least my vague understandings of it): bloggers and other grassroots voices take up the issue, official and authoritative voices abstain from public debate as it is beneath them, the issue blows up, and they find themselves backpedaling and attempting to control a debate which others have already named and framed. What scientists learned from all this was that there is no substitute for early and extensive engagement with critics and involvement with all stages of debate. I think this is a lesson that the AAA should be learning from #AAAfail.

Of course, a time-honored method of dealing with crackpot claims is not dignifying them with a response, and I understand that the AAA wants to stay aloof from engagements that do nothing but drag it down and tarnish its reputation as the the most important professional association for our discipline. However, I think it is clear that its strategy of “do nothing until the New York Times runs a piece, then reveal that you had been right all along” has not been very effective. Honestly, for how many people is the take-away of #AAAfail “anthropology is a science”? This genie is out of the bottle, and to the extent it has any effect at all it will be to create vague memories of anthropology’s silliness for all who read the article.

It may be that the AAA lacks the ability to respond quickly or effectively to issues like this and so simply can’t be as active as it needs to be in public debate. Or it may be that it thinks it actually has been effective in this case. At any rate, the PR meltdown of #AAAfail doesn’t bode well for the organization. At this point I think the ‘scientific’ anthropologists should get a slate of candidates together for the election, disseminate it on the Internet, and see whether they can’t get a few people in. I suspect that turnout is so low that even a modicum of organization could result in significant gains. And heck at this point, even I’d vote for them.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on “#AAAfail as PR meltdown

  1. “At any rate, the PR meltdown of #AAAfail doesn’t bode well for the organization.”

    Agreed. Looks like it might be a good time for the AAA to rethink how it engages with “the public” (including its own membership).

  2. I think the reaction to the statement was over-done; and I think the concern-mongering about PR-disasters and so on is also over-done, especially insofar as it lets the reactionaries feel they’ve accomplished something in ostensibly embarrassing an organization they (wrongly) accuse of being ‘against’ them.

    The culturalist-pomo-affect theorist in me wants to locate this whole fracas in a contemporary US zeitgeist given to being angry at the putatively powerful who are supposedly to blame for everything, especially ‘my’ problems. {Sidenote: someone joked about the recent collapse of that stadium dome in Minneapolis — ‘How could Obama let this happen??’} The anger expressed toward AAA almost strikes me as a form of ressentiment. It’s also a dodge. Rather than name names and be specific about what work actually constitutes the supposed anti-science trend {Geertz? Emily Martin? Paul Rabinow? Chris Kelty?}, one can invoke an abstraction (‘AAA’) and attribute to it all these nefarious motives and powers.

    The AAA is fine, anthropology is fine, the work continues. Take a deep breath.

  3. Speaking of PR, I suspect some overlooked players in how this became a big deal are college and university PR departments. Particularly at smaller, not-always-visible places, they will do anything to get their name in big press, and so any hint of a faculty member piping up in a nationally-recognized way will get spun, amplified, packaged, and pitched to InsideHigherEd, NYT in as controversial way as possible. From a PR perspective, I bet some people are pretty happy with how this turned out for the visibility of their faculty… no matter the intellectual costs to the discipline or sane conversation.

  4. I agree completely with Strong’s analysis, and I generally find it amusing how easily many Anthropologists, allegedly hyper-aware of our own human ability to be manipulated, were strung along in this very unfortunate spin.

    As a student , I’ve dealt lately with the question of membership in various organizations, especially Anthropological ones. My resistance to joining is not in the “mission” of the AAA but rather the purpose of joining the AAA. What do I really gain by joining?

    The benefits of the AAA as they list them, are access to the journal and AnthroSource, some newsletters, the AAA directory, and meeting discounts. Well, I already get access to the journals through my school or ILL, news about Anthropology comes much faster via blogs, I can’t imagine that the AAA directory is much more helpful than Google, and if I choose to attend meetings my department will pay for it.

    It seems to me that the whole proposed function of the AAA is hopelessly antiquated, as evidenced by a website that has yet to be fully bug-free in Firefox. How exactly will the AAA improve public understanding of human kind? It seems to me that none of its current functions allow for that in any fashion, especially since most of the things it does are behind a hefty paywall.

    What AAA should be is more like the evolving online community of Anthropologists we’re all apparently a part of–a place to facilitate discussion beyond an annual meeting, a series of freely available scholarly journals, a de-centralized, de-bureaucratized body that actually functions to improve communication and cohesion among anthropologists in a meaning way which utilizes existing technologies.

    I’ll also say that the last bullet point on the AAA’s list of “Member Benefits” sounds more like a threat than a benefit. It says “Extensive networking opportunities”, which to me says, “Join or forget ever meeting anyone who could advance your career.”

  5. It says “Extensive networking opportunities”, which to me says, “Join or forget ever meeting anyone who could advance your career.”

    A plausible reading. You might, however, find it interesting to look for evidence of which anthropologists are–or are not–active on line. Good be wrong, but my impression, for what it is worth, is that both faculty and students from top-tier institutions are rare as hen’s teeth. If you are academically ambitious, the threat could be real.

  6. @Strong:

    “I think the reaction to the statement was over-done; and I think the concern-mongering about PR-disasters and so on is also over-done, especially insofar as it lets the reactionaries feel they’ve accomplished something in ostensibly embarrassing an organization they (wrongly) accuse of being ‘against’ them.”

    Ya, plenty of people overreacted. It happens. And I don’t really think this was so much a “PR distaster” as an indication of some of the PR issues that AAA and (US) anthropology has in general. If the general public had a clear understanding of “what anthropology is,” then the NY Times and others wouldn’t really be able to write such ridiculous bits. Maybe.

    Also, despite some of the polemic reactions of some anthropologists themselves, I think this also managed to highlight certain internal divisions in anthropology. A lot of biological anths and archaeologists are not part of the AAA anymore, because many don’t it as an organization that represents their version of anthropology. I think this is unfortunate–I’d rather see a more broad-based membership within the AAA. So this issue, fiasco, or “PR disaster” brought some of these things up, and I think there’s something to be learned. But by no means is this the end of the world…you’re right on that count.

    @Joe:

    “I agree completely with Strong’s analysis, and I generally find it amusing how easily many Anthropologists, allegedly hyper-aware of our own human ability to be manipulated, were strung along in this very unfortunate spin.”

    Funny. It turns out that anthropologists are human as well.

  7. @Joe, on the “benefits” of AAA membership. I still belong to the AAA, largely for nostalgic reasons after more than 30 years. If I were a grad student now, the only reason I’d consider joining was possible benefits in the job market. I haven’t been to the annual meeting for many years (too big; too little of interest to me; too few pals and too hard to find the pals to have a beer with). The AAA spends too much effort on political issues and not enough on intellectual issues. Its open access stance is prehistoric. When I send something to the newsletter, it get butchered. etc. etc. etc.

    @Ryan A:
    “A lot of biological anths and archaeologists are not part of the AAA anymore, because many don’t it as an organization that represents their version of anthropology. ”

    I am one of those archaeologists who feels that the AAA has little to do with my interests, and by this time next year I probably won’t be a member anymore. But my (intellectual) disaffection with the AAA has less to do with its lack of relevance for archaeology than with its lack of relevance for the kind of comparative, historical social science research I do on urbanism. My strong negative reaction to the elimination of “science” from the plan document derives not from a view that “archaeology is science” (much of it very clearly is NOT scientific in goals and approach, even if “scientific” techniques are applied to sites or artifacts). Rather it comes from my strong adherence to a scientific approach to comparative social science history, which seems to have fewer and fewer adherents within US anthropology today.

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