I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).
AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.
It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:
How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?
OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters.
AF: In what ways can be scholarship be “anthropological” without being “ethnographic”?
OS: Well, anthropology is really just the study of how people live, think, and make their way in the world. Anthropologists certainly have no monopoly over this endeavor, and, in fact, I end up using a lot of writing by journalists, memoirists, and fiction writers in my introduction to anthropology classes. They often do a better job shedding light on the dynamics of culture, politics, and history than we anthropologists do. I can’t think, for example, of a better book about the political economy of work than Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or about history, culture, and commerice in the Indian Ocean than Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (though one would like to think Ghosh’s training as an anthropologists might have been of aid in his writing). All this work isn’t necessarily ethnographic — though in some cases journalists like Ehrenreich do what we’d think of as fieldwork — and yet it’s deeply anthropological in the sense of its attention to the ebb and flow of life and experience.
AF: Can you comment on the future of offline ethnography in an online world?
OS: I’m not really sure that one can distinguish between off-line and online ethnography any longer. It’s the rare anthropologist that doesn’t in one way or another deal with the internet in their work. And online ethnography always requires attention to the dynamics of power, politics, and symbol in what we used to call the real world.
AF: You’ve provided commentary for ESPN and NPR, how do you distinguish your work as an anthropologist from your work as a journalist?
OS: I don’t think of them as different realms, and the points I try to make when I’m on the air are ones that grow out of my work as an anthropologist. But, certainly, speaking on the radio and, say, at an academic conference demand employing quite different registers and vocabularies. I’ve always liked Donna Haraway’s injunction that we should learn, insofar as it’s possible, to be tricksterish shape-shifters, able to pitch our voice in different ways for different situations.
AF: What is your selection process for your research?
OS: I think you have to pick topics that you really care about it. It’s just too demanding to do years of research and years more of writing about something that you don’t think matters, and that doesn’t engage you at some really profound level (though, of course, we all tend to get sick of our dissertations or latest book by the time we get to the end of them!). It’s very much a post-60s generational thing, but I’ve always been concerned with questions of politics and social change, and in one way or another all of my work has been linked to those issues, even my work on golf with its strange, troubled history as the unofficial pastime of presidents, CEOS, and global business.
AF: How has that selection process changed throughout the course of your career?
OS: Sometimes the odd turns of necessity factor into what we decide to work on. I’ve had six back operations over the past three years, and have two titanium discs in my back courtesy of a Swedish surgeon. As I was bedridden on medical leave for some of this time, I didn’t have the option of going back to Peru or some other more conventional project. So I ended up doing largely online ethnography for a book about Tiger Woods and what his troubles say about sports, race, and sex in America today. My previous book, Ishi’s Brain, also grew from an unexpected turn of things. When I was doing some preliminary research into the story of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, I stumbled upon old letters showing his brain had been shipped off to the Smithsonian. That led me into writing a book about the story of death and survival in Native California, and the role of anthropology and museums in it all, and the quite extraordinary figure of Ishi himself.
AF: How would you advice a PhD student who came to you and said they wanted to play some golf and eventually write a dissertation based largely on online data about Tigergate?
OS: I’d discourage them. Tenure confers certain luxuries, and writing a book about golf and sex scandal is one of them. But, more broadly, I actually do think that doing some serious, more conventional offline ethnography is still really important in one’s development as an anthropologist, a rite of passage of genuine value. And, though you need always to choose to do your dissertation on something you really care about, there’s also the pragmatics of a down job market. Unless golf studies suddenly is the next big disciplinary thing, an event less likely than the return of the dinosaurs, then writing a dissertation about Tiger is not going to be much of a calling card for a first job.
AF: You are a great writer and clearly interested in popular or potentially popular issues. This book on Tiger and your last book on Ishi exhibit your penchant for taking on scandalous subjects. I see you as one of few anthropologist interested in showing that anthropological books can have a place in airport bookshops potentially alongside the tabloids you write about.
What do you see as the future of popular anthropology?
OS: I’m a little leery of the term “popular anthropology,” which has a Harlequiny ring of pulpy and lightweight. Margaret Mead, unfairly was never really taken as seriously by some in the field precisely because her work seemed too “popular,” or at least to sell too many copies. I’ve actually found it much harder to write in a more readable, trade press voice than to churn out a jargony journal article. When you’re writing for a larger audience, you still need to try to be smart, nuanced, and drawing on theory, and yet you have to do it in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages. I’m not against jargon or specialized publications at all, but we’ve really failed dismally as a discipline in recent decades to produce much work that has mattered beyond the discipline. I’d love us to pay more attention the craft of writing, and how to communicate our ideas to more than the ten readers of this or that specialized journal.
AF: It says on the back of the book that you have a 5 -handicap. How about a 5$ Nassau on the Monday after the next AAA meeting? You give me 2 strokes a side, OK?
OS: You’re on! But I gather you are a former Idaho state high school champion, and I won’t have much of a chance. In any event, we shouldn’t tell anyone at the AAAs we’re going to play, since coming out of the closet as golfers will be damaging to any pc credentials we may wish to retain. Yoga, meditation, swimming, hiking, or maybeultimate frisbee would be more in line with the expected anthropological recreational profile.
AF: You can say that again!
[See a great video-trailer for Orin’s book here: The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal.]