Whenever I go into a bookstore, I always check out the anthropology section (see part I here). A curious habit, or custom, or something like that. What can I say? I have my routines. I like to see what happens to be on the shelves and compare that to my own understandings of what contemporary anthropology is all about. I imagine that this is some sort of litmus test that tells us something about the state of anthropology in the public sphere. Maybe, maybe not. More about that shortly. So, the last time I did this informal empirical investigation, the results were similar to past experiences: not phenomenal. The most “anthropological” books included:
1. Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson
2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
3. 1491 by Charles Mann
4. Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna
Bateson’s was the only book I saw that was written by an actual anthropologist. How it is that only one anthropologist happens to be in the anthropology section is beyond me. This was a particularly skewed sample, I’ll admit–usually there’s at least a Wade Davis, Margaret Mead, or even Sir James Frazier in the mix. Not this time. The rest of the section was incredibly eclectic, and included everything from books by Drew Pinsky to one by Maira Kalman (which does look pretty cool, though not what I would define as anthropology). Some of this eclectic-ness had to be due to some restocking malfunctions, undoubtedly, but overall the section on anthropology was, as is often the case, a strange and somewhat askew reflection of the discipline. Yes, that is an opinion. And now, it’s time for some questions:
1. What’s the situation in your anthropological neck of the woods? Do I have bad data here, or is this a consistent trend in bookstores? Is your local anthro section pretty good, or is it stuck somewhere between 1890 and, well, the History Channel?
2. If you could choose five books that best represent contemporary anthropology, what would they be? What five books would you be proud to see gracing the shelves of your local independent and/or mega-bookstore?
3. Who cares? What do the contents of local bookstores *really* tell us about public understanding of and access to contemporary anthropology anyway? In these days of e-books and Kindles, is this all just a red herring? When it comes to discussions about “public anthropology”, should we be looking in different directions (and places) altogether? What counts as “the public” anyway?
It is highly possible that using a bookstore as a gauge for measuring public anthropology is hopelessly outdated. It might make more sense to start tracking Google, Bing, and Amazon.com searches instead. Or maybe we should think about the public in a completely different way–less about access to popular or mass culture and more about communication with certain pockets, segments, and key components of society. Still, even if less and less people are going to bookstores these days, this residual evidence has to mean something. If anthropology isn’t even well represented all that well in the old paradigm (print-based), what does this mean for newer modes of dissemination (e-books and so on)?
Harry Wolcott, in his book The Art of Fieldwork, recounts the words of publisher Mitch Allen: “The writers of qualitative research are also the buyers of qualitative research. It is a closed system” (2005: 134). Does this statement still ring true? Anthropologists produce a massive amount of information each year. So where does it all go? Where should it go? More importantly, if anthropological information dissemination is caught in a closed loop, why is this the case? Is it because everyone is simply too busy–and stressed out–to worry about these kinds of issues? Is it because the structural powers that be completely determine the situation? Do the demands and regulations of tenure limit how and where anthropologists publish? Is that the main issue?
Maybe, in the end, engaging with wider audiences isn’t worth the risk and effort in the current political economy of academia. Maybe it’s impossible to rework the system at this point. Or maybe it’s just not a priority. But if there’s one thing that I have learned from anthropology, it’s this: social systems, even the most apparently entrenched, are anything but immune to change. And the direction of that change may be heavily influenced by wider “structural conditions,” but the actions, decisions, and choices of the actors themselves can, in the end, play a crucial role in shaping the systems in which we participate. Right? Or is that just a bunch of nonsense that we all promulgate in lectures and seminars but don’t really buy into on a day to day basis?