Anthropology: It's not just a "promotion" problem

Just read this guest column in the Orlando Sentinel by Ty Matejowski and Beatriz M Reyes-Foster.  It was written a while back, but still worth a read.  Good on them for writing this piece.  It’s all about anthropology’s “branding problem”:

Cultural anthropology’s branding problem is largely superficial. Anthropologists possess unique knowledge and skill sets that have real-world value. Anthropology helps us understand the world in a way that cannot be reduced to numbers or captured in surveys.

The marketing industry is increasingly recognizing the value of anthropological methodologies. A recent Atlantic article highlights the way in which ethnography and participant-observation are used in market research. Moreover, the World Bank recently elected an anthropologist, Jim Yong Kim, as president.

Anthropologists need to take better ownership of our brand. The complexity of anthropological concepts such as “culture,” “power” and the “global” should not dissuade anthropologists from engaging in meaningful public discourse.

In short, the argument here is that anthropology suffers from a PR problem.  While this may be true at many levels, I think there’s quite a bit more to the story.  Sure, anthropologists should go about and promote their field and all of that.  Fine.  Great.  But the deeper issue here, in my view, is more about how we actually think about and practice anthropology rather than whether or not we are marketing ourselves well enough.  I think that once we deal with the former some of the PR issues will fall into place.  The short version of my argument: we don’t just need to promote ourselves, we need to change.  The “we need promotion” argument assumes that we are doing everything right, and we just need to get ourselves out there in the public view.  As if all is right in the house of anthropology, and we just need some good press on CNN.  I disagree.  I think we need to actually change how we do anthropology.

Despite their overall argument about branding and promotion, Matejowski and Reyes-Foster hit the nail on the head when it comes to identifying the true problem that plagues cultural anthropology these days: our collective silence.*  And this silence isn’t some accident or fluke–it’s how we do things.  It is what we produce.  It’s really not all that hard to figure out why the vast majority of people outside of academia have no clue what contemporary cultural anthropology is all about.  For the most part, we really only talk to ourselves (although there are signs that this is changing, finally).  For example, over the course of the past year or so, cultural anthropology did find its way into the news fairly often, but usually for all the wrong reasons.  Still, as Matejowski and Reyes-Foster explain:

Many cultural anthropologists have remained aloof amid this tumult. This remoteness is surely compounded by today’s academic environment. Public engagement counts little toward promotion and tenure and may even be viewed dismissively by fellow academics.

We are stuck in our own little silos.  Often literally by design.  Look at graduate school training.  What does that training produce?  More academics, who are theoretically supposed to get university jobs, get their own students, and do more of the same.  It’s all about building of specifically academic credentials: going to conferences, getting internships, writing papers for awards, seeking grants.  It’s a big, and very insular, loop.  It’s a factory designed to produce people for tenure track academic positions that no longer exist (at least for the vast majority).  But the factory keeps working.  Everyone thinks they’re going to make it.  Everyone thinks they will be the one who bucks the trend–if they just work harder, write more, get one more grant, or impress that one person at a job talk.  But there’s no place for all these people within this system because academic tenure a dying, endangered beast–and there’s not much of a place outside of the system because an extremely small percentage of people outside of the world of academia have any clue what this “anthropology” thing is all about.

Is this because we just don’t have anything to offer?

The answer to this question is an emphatic NO.  That’s not the problem at all.

Whose fault is this?

Ours.

So what happened?  If we have lots of great ideas, and if there’s plenty of good research going on, what’s the problem?  It’s a matter of dissemination, folks.  Sure, we produce all kinds of research and knowledge, and that research/knowledge is translated into various forms of media: papers, books, presentations, grant proposals, and so on.  But where does the vast majority of this media end up?  Where does it go?  Right back to…us.  What this means is that we may write great books about cultural and power and globalization, but we are also the main consumers of our own ideas/media.  Again, this is no accident.  This is how we currently operate.  Sure, cultural anthropologists work all around the world, with all kinds of people, and speak an astonishing range of languages.  But look at the books and papers we write!  Listen to our presentations!  Who are we speaking to?  Ourselves.

Ok, so why is this happening?  Well, it all comes to down to our values, or, more to the point, what is currently valued in academic anthropology.  Does public engagement really matter in academic circles?  Nope, not really.  What about teaching–do we really value teaching?  Somewhat, but it’s nowhere near the most important, valued aspect of an academic scholar (and of course, teaching is basically another form of public outreach that’s sitting in front of us day after day).  What really matters in this system is research, getting grants, and getting published in the right journals.  The ultimate values–the ones that everyone is working toward–are based upon the academic job market.  This is what counts.  This is what gets you a job.  Getting these things is what moves you up the ranks.   So it’s no surprise that graduate students, post-docs, newly minted PhDs, and other junior scholars spend every waking moment trying to grasp these ultimate academic achievements.  In essence, as Matejowska and Reyes-Foster point out, there’s little time for any sort of meaningful public engagement:

Many anthropologists, already burdened with increased class sizes, decreased institutional support, and ever-growing pressures to publish and secure research grants simply do not have the time, resources or motivation to publicly voice their opinions.

But you know what?  I don’t really buy the “lack of time” argument.  Now, before you get all up in arms and tell me about how wrong I am and how you don’t have time to breathe, hear me out.  I am well aware of the fact that few of us have much time to breathe, let alone to speak out to the public on THE BIG ISSUES.  But maybe we should ask ourselves why this is the case.  Is it really a matter of having no time?  Or is it a matter of priorities?  I argue it’s the latter: academic anthropology is, by and large, all about academic anthropology.  When was the last time you saw anyone from the “public” at one of your AAA talks (and no, your spouse or kid doesn’t count)?  Seriously.

Sure, we have a public image problem.  And sure, promotion is not a bad idea.  But before we start talking out full page ads in the New York Times to announce how great our “brand” is, we might want to do a little soul searching.  Maybe we should think deeply about the gaps between the ideals of anthropology and the actual practices of anthropology.  If we really think that all we’re missing is some good PR, then we’re completely deluding ourselves.  We tell ourselves that academic anthropology is all about humanity, or culture, or exploring the world around us.  We tell ourselves that anthropology is all of these great things.  It’s all very idealistic–and this is good.  This is what anthropology is and can be all about.  But we have to face the facts as well.  Really.  What are we really doing with anthropology?  Where does our collective energy go?  What, ultimately, are we working for?  What are we creating?  What values shape and drive us?

What we currently produce is this: THE TENURED ANTHROPOLOGIST.  Today’s tenured anthropologist is made to do RESEARCH, attend ACADEMIC CONFERENCES, get GRANTS, write ACADEMIC BOOKS, and publish in TOP TIER ACADEMIC JOURNALS.  They also train future TENURED ANTHROPOLOGISTS.  All of this sums up the main purpose of this being.  This is what graduate programs train students to become.  This is what all new PhDs want to be someday.  Well, most of them.

We are creating more academics, that’s what we’re doing with anthropology.  We’re talking to ourselves…in our papers, our conferences, and our books.  The vast majority of our energy goes toward satisfying the demands of our own internal political economy and hierarchy.  This is what drives us.  We are working to keep our own little insular system afloat, via a mountain of papers and ideas that don’t really see the light of day.  We are creating our own illusions.  Many of us are driven by a deep belief in the possibilities of anthropology–and the ideals of anthropology–while we effectively help maintain something that is far, far different from those ideals and possibilities.  We travel all around the world, telling ourselves that we are working toward understanding humanity, or social change, or making the world a better place.  But…what are we really doing?

I don’t think we need to promote anthropology–we need to change it.  Focusing graduate programs on training future academics is fine and all, but at some point we’re going to have to do something more.  We’re going to have to rethink the end result a bit.  We might need to diversify, and work toward really encouraging and fostering some different avenues for anthropology.  I think this needs to happen in graduate school, I really do.  We can’t keep pretending that teaching students how to do Powerpoints, write academic papers, and go to conferences is enough.  We need to really work on writing–for a variety of audiences.  We need to dive into the possibilities of various media (video, film, online).  We need to push students to get involved, to collaborate, to find ways to communicate and bring the ideas of anthropology to wider issues and conversations.  That’s what we need to do.

Ya, sure, we need to promote ourselves better.  But you know what?  The best way to do this isn’t to worry about promotion per se, but instead to step outside the academy.  That’s my argument here.  Speak out.  Stop spending all of our energies on stuff that counts for tenure.  Break out.  Change things.  Rethink WHY WE ARE ALL REALLY DOING ANTHROPOLOGY in the first place.  Why does anthropology matter?   And what does it have to add to wider public conversations, disagreements, and debates?

The potential is there.  It’s all there.  We just need to do something with it.  Something more than writing another article that nobody is going to read, something more than just another 15 minute presentation at some annual meeting.  Don’t get me wrong–the academic books, presentations, and papers are fine–but they aren’t enough.  We need to completely rethink what we’re producing in anthropology.  And then we can start worrying about PR.

UPDATE 6/19: The first comment I received [on my other site] raises a good point and I meant to put something about this in the main post: There are lots of people who are working hard to push anthropology toward wider audiences.  This includes anthropologists who work for large publications like National Geographic (and other venues),with NGOs and other organizations, and others like Kate Clancy, Daniel Lende, Barbara King, and Jason Antrosio who are really working hard to get anthropology out there via online media.  So there are people who are working to make these kinds of changes, and this has to be recognized.  We just need more of this.

*The authors of the article I reference are talking specifically about cultural anthropology, but I think this discussion applies to anthropology as a whole.

Cross-posted on Anthropology in Public.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.  He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty.  He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public.  You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

35 thoughts on “Anthropology: It's not just a "promotion" problem

  1. Thank you for your post. I think anthropologists have a great skill set, but we’re taught to only see these skills as being useful in academia, which is becoming a dead end for a lot of us.

    I’m located in San Francisco where the conversations are constantly around innovation, entrepreneurship, and creating small solutions to small problems. I see great potential for anthropologists in this area. Places like Institute for the Future, Citris, and IDEO, for example, already have or are looking for anthropologists to work with them.

    I recommend Tina Seelig’s “What I WIsh I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World” (2009). It’s written by a neuroscience PhD who pivoted her skills and “ended up” at Stanford’s entrepreneurship center and design school. The book has been an eye opener for me in trying to understand how to transition what I’ve learned in anthropology to the professional world. Let’s see how this plays out as I start applying for jobs this fall…

  2. Ryan, there is a lot of good stuff in your post. There is also much to challenge. You begin with a quote from which you conclude “the argument here is that anthropology suffers from a PR problem.” You dismiss this argument but then go on to assert that the problem is “a matter of dissemination.” To someone who has worked in advertising and PR, that sounds like a PR problem to me. The solution, to get academic anthropology out of its tenure track silos and talking to the public, sounds like a PR solution.

    To this advertising professional, the newspaper column you cite suggests that what anthropology has is, contrary to what the authors of the column write —a branding problem. Just look at that second sentence: “Anthropologists possess unique knowledge and skill sets that have real-world value.” Tell me more: “Anthropology helps us understand the world in a way that cannot be reduced to numbers or captured in surveys.”

    Sound plausible, do they? Try a simple exercise: Substitute “Christians” for “Anthropologists” and “Christianity” for “Anthropology.” Now observe how you respond to

    1. “Christians possess unique knowledge and skill sets that have real-world value” and
    2. “Christianity helps us understand the world in a way that cannot be reduced to numbers or captured in surveys.”

    Unique knowledge = revelation
    Unique skills = faith, prayer, a lot of great music
    Real-world value = Where did all those medieval cathedrals and modern megachurches come from?

    Doesn’t have to be “Christians” and “Christianity,” of course. Could be “Hindus” and “Hinduism,” “Daoists” and “Daoism.” Pick the preachers of your choice.

    Perhaps we need to take a hint from branding professionals, who almost universally say that step one in branding is a lot of serious soul-searching and debate aimed at providing a clear and compelling statement of what the brand stands for. In that context, phrases like “unique knowledge and skill sets” are utterly vacuous. Can anyone who isn’t an insider even begin to imagine what you are talking about?

    Compare, for example,

    “What is social network analysis?”

    1. It is network analysis applied to human behaviour.
    2. Network analysis is based on a branch of mathematics called graph theory that works for any system that can be described as dots and lines that connect them.
    3. In social network analysis, the dots are actors, individuals or organisations, and the lines the relations that connect them.
    4. The amazing thing is that the same principles and techniques that work for analysing the Internet, or power grids, ecological systems, or protein cascades in cells, apply to social networks as well….

    I could run on. But there is the point: My audience may not understand immediately terms like “graph theory,” but “graph theory” points to something specific that can be explained: the mathematics of systems conceived as dots and lines. It seems plausible to imagine social systems described in these terms, and as the pitch continues, I have a ready answer, bolstered with concrete examples, to address the sorts of questions that the audience is likely to ask. I am not stuck, hand-waving and chanting, “We know stuff that you don’t….” Duh. Doesn’t everyone?

  3. You begin with a quote from which you conclude “the argument here is that anthropology suffers from a PR problem.” You dismiss this argument but then go on to assert that the problem is “a matter of dissemination.” To someone who has worked in advertising and PR, that sounds like a PR problem to me.

    I hope I’m not going too far into the weeds with this one, but a couple of days ago Russell Brand made a stop at an MSNBC morning show to shill for his comedy tour. The proceedings deteriorate to such a degree that he eventually says, “Is this what you all do for a living?!?” and takes the reins out of the hands of the professional(?) journalists(?).

    Perhaps part of the problem is that it is hard not to equate the PR profession as a whole with the lowest common denominator of its practitioners? At this point the sort Brand was dealing with on MSNBC seem so omnipresent in American life.

  4. Is there no longer a way to comment anonymously? I would like to respond to John’s comment and discuss focusing on public outreach more, but as a student and soon-to-be job-seeker, I don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about some of these topics with an account linked to my actual identity.

  5. Interesting post and definitely something the discipline should be talking about more – making anthropology relevant outside of academic circles. Not to discount much of what you say here about these issues, but I’m a bit puzzled when you say: “Look at graduate school training. What does that training produce? More academics, who are theoretically supposed to get university jobs, get their own students, and do more of the same. It’s all about building of specifically academic credentials: going to conferences, getting internships, writing papers for awards, seeking grants. It’s a big, and very insular, loop.”

    Maybe this is true for some. But what about applied anthropology graduate training programs which “produce” practitioners who go out into the world and attempt to use their anthropology knowledge and skills in productive, meaningful ways? Applied programs exist “by design” to get students out of “silos” and into the real world, into multiple sectors (private, public, non-profit), to actually affect some change. And while I have my own opinions about how applied programs could improve their training in various ways, I think their efforts need to be recognized.

    On top of that, there are also anthropologists from “traditional” programs who go out of the academy and work in the public or private sector either because they want to or because teaching options are limited… they do exist!

    You also say: “Focusing graduate programs on training future academics is fine and all, but at some point we’re going to have to do something more. We’re going to have to rethink the end result a bit. We might need to diversify, and work toward really encouraging and fostering some different avenues for anthropology. I think this needs to happen in graduate school, I really do. We can’t keep pretending that teaching students how to do Powerpoints, write academic papers, and go to conferences is enough. We need to really work on writing–for a variety of audiences. We need to dive into the possibilities of various media (video, film, online). We need to push students to get involved, to collaborate, to find ways to communicate and bring the ideas of anthropology to wider issues and conversations.”

    Ryan – this is happening! Applied programs do all of this, and more. They teach the “academic”-oriented stuff because, as you point out, that’s still important, but they also teach about solving problems, engaging with communities and public stakeholders, and writing for/selling the value of anthropology to non-anthropology audiences.

    Perhaps your perspective is different because you’ve “come up” in traditional anthropology programs, so I can understand that. Likewise, my graduate training was in an “applied” program, so I’m not really familiar with what yours might be like. But rest assured, this is happening – we just need more of it. We can start with advocates like you who notice that something needs to change for the betterment of both anthropology and society and call others within the discipline to action.

    One book you might be interested in is a brand new one edited by Riall Nolan called “A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology” – all of the chapters within are written primarily by non-academic anthropologists/practitioners, with a handful of professors from applied programs. The idea behind the book is to show students what all can be done with an anthropology degree outside of academia in private, public and non-profit sectors. Also check out the Society for Applied Anthropology – maybe we’ll see each other at next year’s conference! :)

  6. I agree a lot w/ what you highlight in terms of what’s privileged in anthropology. But some minor points: I think some teaching gigs aren’t so into the hierarchy that you map out although perhaps even ‘getting in the door’ to these in a full time position (whether as an instructorship or as an asst prof) requires at least an equal weight of ‘research potential’ (and some actual publications) and teaching experience. Here’s the deal though, to prove yourself in these positions teaching does matter more, and in the meantime, you have little time (or significantly less time) to do the writing/research that gives you status in the hierarchy you map out so well. Interestingly, however, you’re likely speaking/teaching/writing to an audience of undergrads and non-majors in these positions so your getting the on the job training for the kind of anthropology training your blog envisions in terms of making ourselves relevant outside the silo. But you’re also in a position that’s not going to be lauded or necessarily seen as a launch pad for a “better” position.

    So, again, whether you want to call it a PR problem or a dissemination problem or systemic disciplinary problem, I agree with you that these priorities are a MAJOR problem in our training as well as in the ‘what counts’ to get acclaim and tenure. Nevertheless, I think promoting teaching and communicating w/ different audience work hand in hand and could be part of the solution IF it’s treated as a necessity in all of our training (and just for those who aren’t going to ‘make it’ as top tier research-scholars).

  7. Here’s my attempt to broaden the reach of anthropology: My ethnographic novel The Shrinking Jungle (2012 University of Utah Press). Set among the Aché, hunter-gatherers of eastern Paraguay, among whom I lived and studied in the early 1980s while doing my dissertation research. The novel is set in the 1960s, when the traditional lifeways of the Aché were disrupted and destroyed by the encroaching modern world. The Aché are still fighting to retain traditional ways in the face of a continually shrinking jungle.
    Kevin Jones
    ktjiama@msn.com
    http://www.theshrinkingjungle.com

  8. I really enjoyed this piece and completely agree that anthropology as a discipline needs to get its house in order before it sets out to “rebrand” itself. That anthropologists even think that something like “rebranding” is a viable solution tells us that we have problems. Of all academic disciplines, anthropology should recognize that marketing is completely hollow. Our responsibility is to tell the human story. If we do not tell compelling stories in the first place, then no amount of advertising will make it any more appealing to the public. In fact, that would make us dishonest and derelict in our responsibility to the average taxpayer who, whether they like it or not, bankroll our institutions and granting agencies.

    So where do we start? I find that the best stories have themes. As you come to grasp the symbology employed by an author, you see the symbol represented at a variety of scales within the story. This is not unlike a coherent body of theory; I would propose that evolutionary theory provides compelling themes for describing, explaining, and understanding ourselves and our place in the world. This not only links the research to a broader body of knowledge, but this gives anthropologists inroads to interdisciplinary work.

    This is not to say that an evolutionary anthropology is the only way forward, but I think the field needs to move beyond the either-or polemic of history vs. evolution, soft vs. hard science, objectivism vs. relativism, etc. What we need to pursue is a balance of understanding how natural processes interact with our historical particulars and the complex ways that individual decision-making and identity produce emergent population-level phenomenon. Too often anthropologists see the description of complexity as the goal, rather than the explanation and understanding of complexity. One of my favorite professors often quoted Eric Charnov as saying, “it doesn’t take a Ph.D to realize that the world is complex”.

    We should aspire to more than describe. We need to empathize, understand, and explain if we hope to tell compelling stories about human beings and our place in the world.

  9. Is there a quota for the number of times the word ‘brand’ has to be used by anthropologists online?

    Is it a brand? No. It’s supposed to be about learning, which is not, or should not be, branded. ‘Anthropology’ is just a word, for Pete’s sake. It’s just a word, and not an especially attractive one. It doesn’t do anything in and of itself, and its conventional meaning refers to something lacking in unity or coherence. All of this ‘brand’ talk detracts from the purpose of academic and learning: to find out more about the universe, because finding things out is good in itself. This idea seems to have been lost by anthropologists, which may be the cause of all the theoretical madness and branding anxiety.

  10. Al, I agree completely that, “All of this ‘brand’ talk detracts from the purpose of academic and learning: to find out more about the universe, because finding things out is good in itself.” At the same time, I cannot dismiss the realities behind our colleagues preoccupation with what “anthropology” stands for and how that affects the lives of individuals who have invested substantial parts of their lives and fortunes in acquiring degrees in the discipline and may now be wondering what the future holds for them. And “anthropology” qua brand may have a lot to do with that.

    My previous remarks anticipate the sort of thing that Chris says, “Of all academic disciplines, anthropology should recognize that marketing is completely hollow.” From my perspective, having spent several decades in the company of people for whom marketing is very substantial, indeed, it seems that this view of marketing is too shallow. Historically speaking, it equates marketing with the snake oil salesman’s spiel and has not caught up with Peter Drucker, who long ago offered the profound observation that,

    “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” (See http://www.forbes.com/2006/06/30/jack-trout-on-marketing-cx_jt_0703drucker.html)

    Those who see academic research as antithetical to business, for whom even thinking about their scholarly research in business terms is repulsive, should stop here.

    I write for those who realize that, like all human institutions, academia, too, depends on marketing and innovation. Academics may think that innovation, conceived as original thinking, is inherently valuable. But those who provide the funding that supports academia and allows us to pursue our hobbies — from students going deeper in debt to legislators and foundations wondering where their money is going — will have a different perspective. They would like to know where this inherent value lies. That is the central question that marketing must answer for anthropology to become a compelling brand.

    Here I agree with Chris, anthropologists need stories and evolution provides a great theme. That leads me to want to ask amysantee to tell us more about the stories told in applied anthropology programs and how, if at all, they relate to that theme.

  11. Ryan,

    It’s not just a ‘promotion’ problem–and yet it is. Was the double entendre of this post’s title intended? Because after I read the post I couldn’t help thinking about how much the issue of ‘promotion’–not simply of PR and ‘branding’, but clawing one’s way up the academic ladder so as to get a TT job and then eventually tenure and then all the proverbial bells and whistles that come with the ‘prestige treadmill’ (as described in the exchange with David Graeber in response to your ‘Stop the Silence’ post (sadly now unavailable, perhaps for reasons of one Savage Minds moderator’s ‘promotion)–is very much a root cause of the ‘who really needs anthropology and anthropologists?’ quandry (addressed in the Orlando Sentinel post). Anthropologists have largely made themselves irrelevant to many ‘public’ debates/policy discussions by prioritizing getting-tenure/a-tenure-track-job-by-any-means-necessary practices, and the insular conversations and writing that such a focus produces. The focus has become ‘promotion': not just in the sense of branding/PR/dissemination, but getting to the next rung of the TT/academic prestige ladder: an enterprise very contrary to Chris’s belief that anthropology should be about “We should aspire to more than describe. We need to empathize, understand, and explain if we hope to tell compelling stories about human beings and our place in the world.”

    John’s comment is interesting because I think he is correct to say that vague platitudes about anthropology having ‘lots to offer’ aren’t really going to help. Even if many (commenters) don’t want to embrace the corporatist implications of branding, we should at least acknowledge that the definition of what anthropology has to offer, which John rightly takes issue with, doesn’t really tell us much about what anthropology has to offer, of how, for example, anthropology differs from sociology? What, are we different from sociologists simply because we go to all those ‘exotic’ far-flung places sociologists don’t study? John is right to ask what REALLY do anthropologists do differently, what do we truly have to offer which is different and unique and intellectually incisive?

    Al is also right to lament the careerist, monetized focus of anthropological scholarship. I agree with him that there should be value in learning for its own sake. But yes, i know this makes one rather ‘unsuccessful’ in the present neoliberal corporate academy. After all, as Rex reminded us last week, we should ‘appreciate’ Sage for its unvarnished commercialism right? Or not. Anachronistic or not, I prefer to think that anthropology should be about more than individual self-promotion, and that if this problem were properly addressed, i would go a long way to addressing the other ‘promotion’ problem (i.e. branding) which I think you are quite right, Ryan, to claim is not really at the root of academic anthropology’s problem.

    I believe both Rachel and Beatriz Reyes-Foster come out of the Berkeley Anthropology department, a department which Paul Rabinow has claimed on this site is right as rain, and a department which promoted a person who engaged in public email bullying via the department’s forgrads listserve, because the department and university were more concerned about branding/PR/promotion than having a zero-tolerance policy for (racist) bullying and sexual harassment (yes, let’s not forget that recent AAA statement on the latter). I mention this issue not to ‘whine’ (though I certainly agree with Sarah Kendzior’s recent writings on the value of complaining), or to make any comments about either of these female anthropologists (just noting an interesting institutional affiliation/coincidence), but because I think it speaks to the actual ‘promotion’ problem which is actually hobbling academic anthropology: who and what does anthropology value, and why, because of the obsession with academic prestige and climbing up the TT ladder. The behaviors and intellectual orientations (as well as writing) which is rewarded, particularly in the elite departments, is not the kind of behavior which encourages anthropologists to be ‘public intellectuals’ in any deeply substantive sense. I think about this comment in relation to a Salon article I just sent Ryan about Paula Deen’s alleged racism, and the was in which I read such articles and lament that so few anthropological voices are ever heard on such topics. But how can they be when those who are interested in having such public engagements are not supported by their own departments and are instead attacked for raising legitimate issues of anthropological ‘white public space’ and sexual abuse and harassment in the discipline and in the academy more broadly? The elite departments 9and certainly some more than others) as they are presently configured don’t really encourage the kind of ‘promotion’ of anthropology that would address the PR/branding problem that many ar claiming is academic anthropology’s problem.

    So yes, Ryan, I agree that ‘promotion’ as PR/branding is not necessarily the problem, but ‘promotion’–as a fixation on getting a tenure-track job (including my sociopathic and unethical means) and climbing the academic prestige ladder so as to promote one’s self and one’s institution–certainly is. When you are focused on your own advancement, by any means necessary, it is a lot harder to care about others (including behaving ethically) and to engage in the empathetic project which Chris writes above should be the focus of academic anthropology.

  12. Grandson of small business owners speaking here, so I don’t pretend to be anything like objective. But isn’t the notion that the primary purpose of a business is the creation of customers a big reason for not only the latest iteration of the crisis of anthropology but also for the broader crisis in American higher education?

  13. @Rachel: “I think anthropologists have a great skill set, but we’re taught to only see these skills as being useful in academia, which is becoming a dead end for a lot of us.”

    Yep–it’s a dead end but for some reason many of us keep running toward it! I’ll be interested to see what kinds of things you end up doing upon graduation–keep me updated here or via email or twitter (@publicanthro). Also, thanks for the tip about the book, I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one.

    @John M:

    My basic argument is this: I think some changes need to be made to what we do and what we produce before we go on some big PR/promotion campaign. To me it’s not just a matter of a lack of communication or PR, it’s the fact that we’re basically overproducing people who can work within a very limited system. Sure, some break out, but I would argue that overall academic anthropology is primarily geared toward reproducing itself. That’s fine and all if there’s a place for these people to go, I guess, but we all know there isn’t. For me, PR comes later.

    @Mateo:

    Russell Brand!

    @Emily:

    Thanks for bringing this up–ya, there used to be a way to comment anonymously. Let me check into this and see what can be done.

    @Amy Santee

    I got an MA in an applied program, and am finishing up my PhD in another applied program (different schools). In part, it depends on the program itself. I don’t really think that making a shift to “applied anthropology” takes care of all this automatically. But I do agree with you that there are plenty of people out there doing good work outside the academy. And I agree with you that we need more of that, not less. But the fact that we have this big division between the applied and academic anthros speaks volumes–to me–about the overall problems we face. PS: I have always liked the SfAA meetings and I definitely appreciate their take on anthropology.

    @Sarah Q:

    “Nevertheless, I think promoting teaching and communicating w/ different audience work hand in hand and could be part of the solution IF it’s treated as a necessity in all of our training (and just for those who aren’t going to ‘make it’ as top tier research-scholars).”

    YES! Thanks for making that point. I agree that teaching and communication with wider audiences can be part of the solution, but yes, these activities/goals have to actually be a key part of the wider disciplinary value system. They have to count!

    @Kevin:

    Thanks, I’ll check it out.

    @Chris: Some good points, especially about the need to realize we’re telling stories, basically, and we need to think in terms of themes, etc. Also, I like the idea of moving past some of the polemics that have bogged the field down for a while.

    @Al West:

    I think we are already over the quota. It’s not my favorite term.

    @DWP: Nice. In that sense, it is definitely a “promotion” problem–ie everyone is so geared toward the TT promotion path that everything else falls by the wayside.

  14. @John:

    I don’t think marketing is completely or inherently hollow. But I also don’t think it’s the primary purpose of anthropology. Doing good anthropology is the primary purpose. To me all the talk about PR and branding and all of that seems to be putting the cart before the horse. If the vast majority of anthropology is actually about producing disengaged academics who are primarily concerned with the political economy of their own insular hierarchies, what is there really to promote? We have to break that, unless, of course, we are ok with continuing to promote great *ideals* that aren’t really being realized in practice. And by and large that’s what I think is happening a lot in anthropology these days.

  15. @Mateo:

    To me, it seems like the primary purpose of a business is to run a really good, consistent, dependable business. That comes first, and marketing and PR follow. But maybe I have an overly simplistic view of business (and anthropology).

  16. @Ryan

    As far as I can see, we are in complete agreement. My assumption in writing as I did is that too many of us think of branding as the icing on the cake. Branding professionals know that the cake is where you start. Unless we can agree on what “Doing good anthropology” is, branding in the superficial sense of messaging is worthless.

  17. @Ryan

    “To me, it seems like the primary purpose of a business is to run a really good, consistent, dependable business. That comes first, and marketing and PR follow.”

    The assumption that there is a business that precedes and exists apart from marketing and innovation is precisely the one that Peter Drucker challenged. No business exists apart from customers, which makes innovation (even something as simple as a more convenient location) and marketing (at a minimum a sign that says “Great hotdogs here!”) preconditions for any business.

    Do have a look at that article on Drucker to which I provided the link.

  18. @Mateo

    The second paragraph in my previous comment should have ended “preconditions for any NEW business.” There are, of course, long-established businesses. If, for example, you run the only general store for a hundred miles somewhere on the Great Plains, you know your customers, your customers know you. So long as the only goal is to keep the business going and the business environment doesn’t change, marketing and innovation are minor issues. There are famous bars and restaurants in many cities that occupy a similar situation. Customers may come and go but as long as the atmosphere, food, drink and service live up to the reputation, there is not a lot of point to spending on advertising or PR. The problem for most businesses today is that competition is fierce, customers are fickle, and the business environment keeps changing.

  19. Academics may think that innovation, conceived as original thinking, is inherently valuable.

    Well, it’s more the quest for truth that I see as valuable, and the emphasis on original over correct thinking is probably harmful to that. Either way, though, lifelong learning is good in itself.

    Academic skills are not only ‘useful’ in the academy. I am not in the academy. I work for a living. But my life has been and continues to be enriched by reading about, and refining my skills in, ethnography in the Indo-Pacific, historical linguistics, kinship analysis, archaeological theory, attempts to resolve the problem of social facts, and the human history of the earth. I don’t think these skills have any wider application and I don’t value them for their ability to generate money, prestige, a good job, or anything else. The point is not what they can give to me. They, and all of the other things that tell us about the world, are the point. They are fascinating and make life worth living.

    As far as I can tell, lifelong learning and the acquisition of knowledge is the entire purpose of civilization. Be good to one another, love one another, and try to improve the world – so that we can all explore the universe in peace. I don’t want to yield on this point: learning is the purpose of having all of this business and state infrastructure in the first place. And learning doesn’t have to take place in the academy. I sometimes get the feeling that the academy is actually inimical to this, and that fashion or the need for a career override the simple pleasure involved in finding out more about things.

    I invested a lot of time, and much more money, in acquiring a degree in anthropology from a good university. I have an interest, of course, in improving anthropology’s ‘brand’, given that the word has a prominent place on my CV. But I don’t think the problems of anthropology – including its lack of consensus, largely non-naturalistic approach, infection by terrible ideas that don’t seem to want to go away, emphasis on learning to make money in a discipline ostensibly pursued out of interest and humanistic belief, &c – will be solved through branding. There’s no point in putting up a poster saying, ‘DELICIOUS BON BONS £1′, if the customer ends up receiving a bag of freezing cold poison. Or, more likely, a mix of freezing cold poison and delicious bon bons.

  20. @Al

    I agree 100%. Repeating myself, serious branding begins with the questions, “Who are we? And what do we want to be?” It isn’t making silk purses out of sows’ ears or selling the sizzle without the steak.

  21. So long as the only goal is to keep the business going and the business environment doesn’t change, marketing and innovation are minor issues. […] The problem for most businesses today is that competition is fierce, customers are fickle, and the business environment keeps changing.

    Not to get too far off topic, but I think that a lot of people immediately think of Velcro and the Internet then they hear the word innovation. They should also think of cup holders and men’s body wash (and of library coffee bars and shiny workout centers in the university context).

    Bonnie Urchiuoli has done work which seems relevant to this thread.

  22. “They should also think of cup holders and men’s body wash (and of library coffee bars and shiny workout centers in the university context).”

    Two points:

    First, innovation is always relative to a context. Finding a more convenient location for a new restaurant is only innovation in a very narrow context, the absence of a restaurant in that location.

    Second, innovation is not imitation. The first first automobile manufacturer to introduce cup holders and the first personal care products company to introduce men’s body wash were innovators. Those who imitated the products were not. The next college to introduce library coffee bars and shiny workout centres is only keeping up with the trend, not innovating.

    The generic claims the Urchioli describes are every bit as vacuous as most corporate slogans. So, are generic claims about, lets say, critical thinking.

    Are there alternatives? Consider the following: My daughter got herself an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

    1. No place was more the opposite of we do it all for you. At the parents’ briefing we were told our kids were wonderful. Then came the serious bit: “We have a special mission here, to train leaders who can remain cool and effective in the fog of war. We are going to take your wonderful children, stress them until they drop, pick them up and stress them again and do it over and over again.”

    2. A female midshipman (not the daughter) described the atmosphere in the Trident, the student newspaper: “The commandant wants me 16 hours a day. The coach wants me 16 hours a day. The dean wants me 16 hours a day. We learn to prioritize.”

    3. My daughter decided to be an English major. That didn’t get her out of the three semesters of calculus, the semester of probability and statistics, and the full year courses in chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering required of all midshipmen. I will never forget the semester I asked her what she was taking and she said, “It’s pretty cool. I’m doing Satire in the Age of Reason and Weapons II.” “Weapons II?” I asked.”Mainly physics. How far things fly and how big a boom they make.”

    3.1. There was no three-month summer vacation. The summer was divided into three month-long blocks, only one of which was leave. The other two were practical, military stuff, Marine Corps infantry training at Quantico, serving with the fleet in the Mediterranean, interning at the Pentagon, that sort of thing.

    4. The biggest surprise of all to me: I had never once in any of the schools I attended had it even suggested that I should be responsible for anyone but myself. At Annapolis, every youngster (sophomore) is assigned plebes (freshmen) for whom they are personally responsible, i.e., responsible for calling them on the carpet for misbehaviour, making sure that they get the special tutoring available for classes they are finding difficult, counselling when personal issues come up. The kicker? From youngsters on up, every upperclass grade point average depends in substantial part on how well the younger students for whom they are responsible do.

    Is this kind of education good for everybody? Probably not. Would it have been good for me? I sometimes wonder. But anyway, reverting to branding, there’s a school with a brand that goes much deeper than the usual handwaving.

  23. Second, innovation is not imitation. The first first automobile manufacturer to introduce cup holders and the first personal care products company to introduce men’s body wash were innovators. Those who imitated the products were not. The next college to introduce library coffee bars and shiny workout centres is only keeping up with the trend, not innovating.

    The point I was trying to make was that there are innovations and there are innovations. Some innovations (such as cup holders and men’s body wash) are certainly clever, but do little beyond adding a smidge of convenience while helping a business remain profitable in a tight market.

    Consider the following: My daughter got herself an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. […]

    Your list includes some of the more onerous Features of pursuing an undergraduate degree at the Naval Academy, features lacking in almost all other American institutions of higher eduction. (And there are other, less onerous features, such as not having to pay tuition and receiving a small monthly check.) But the Naval Academy brand has just as much to do with the Benefits as it does with the features.

    I don’t mean to irk the mods by going off topic. I just think that John’s point that anthropologists often make use of and critique terms from the language of business without really understanding how those terms are used by businesspeople is well worth discussing.

  24. @Mateo: “I don’t mean to irk the mods by going off topic.” Mods nor irked. Fire away. I agree this is well worth discussing.

    @John: I see your point about “branding,” and that you are thinking of it in much deeper terms. This is good to keep in mind. Thanks for that. It’s still not my favorite term or way of looking at things though.

    Thanks for all the good comments everyone. If I don’t respond for a bit it’s because I will be offline for a bit. But I will check back in when I can!

  25. @Ryan

    Thanks for clarifying – it’s interesting that you still have this perspective given your immersion in “applied” programs; I’d like to know more about that if you ever have time (how you came to form this perspective, and how your applied training/work has played a role).

    Applied programs are not “the” answer, but they are a good start and have been quite effective at getting practitioners into numerous domains of work/teaching people how to sell anthropology skills and competencies, at least as far as I can tell. And, as I mentioned in my previous comment, they could still do better and improve aspects of their training practices. I was happy to get an email survey recently from my MA program asking alumni to provide feedback on how to improve the program. I imagine that other departments are taking similar measures. It’s an iterative process, right? :)

    Speaking of folks who are out there practicing outside the academy, I recently started a series of interviews with practitioners in various fields, from healthcare and non-profits to government and social justice (and everything in between). The interviews are posted over at my blog (http://www.amysantee.blogspot.com/search/label/Anthropologists%20in%20Practice%20Series), and there are about 8 or 9 of them so far, with about five more coming down the pipeline.

    The goal of this project (as stated in the intro to each interview) “is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do.” It’s been really fun to do these and to learn about all of the interesting work being done outside of the ivory tower.

    I am also currently working on co-guest-editing a special issue of ‘Practicing Anthropology’ (one of the two SfAA publications) with Amy Goldmacher on practicing anthropology in the private sector. We’ve solicited 10 contributors to write reflective articles focusing on personal experiences and recommendations for students considering working in this sector (and recommendations for improving applied training programs). It’ll be out in March 2014. We see it as a great opportunity to get more practitioner voices into the picture to inform these reflexive disciplinary questions.

    And yes, the whole applied-academic dichotomy debate is another issue in and of itself that we still need to figure out, because it continues to come up time after time.

  26. I was taught years ago that Applied Anthropology defines itself as anthropology attempting to bring about directed culture change. Was that the case when the term was coined, and is it still considered to be what Applied Anthropology is about?

  27. ” I just think that John’s point that anthropologists often make use of and critique terms from the language of business without really understanding how those terms are used by businesspeople is well worth discussing.”

    Mateo, just want to thank you for this thought and say that I am willing to function as an informant/ collaborator for anyone who wishes to continue the conversation along these lines. Having spent many years engaged both with anthropologists and other social scientists on the one hand, and people in advertising, PR and marketing on the other, I have found in both the usual human mixture of occasional shrewd insights and large numbers of half-baked notions drawn largely from the same sources. Also the usual mixture of some very smart and occasionally very decent people with hacks and SOBs. The former include some of the most successful people in their various disciplines.

    Footnote: Stewart Ewen’s _PR: A History of Spin_ is a fascinating introduction to the corporate co-opting and exploitation of social scientific ideas, a good place to begin if you wish to pursue these matters further.

  28. Some here might be interested in a brilliant conversation now underway on the anthrodesign Yahoo! list, under the subject heading, “Serendipity.” Arvind Venkataramani has just offered a provocative proposal that bears on the issue that Mateo raises and, more generally, the role of anthropology in a wider world.

    “The language we’ve been using so far is heavily driven by methodology selection and its cognates, so much so that participatory research is being treated as a method, not an approach (just like ‘lean=process’). I suggest that we need instead to focus on problem framing and context, and get good at mapping and identifying them. This means we talk less about research and methods, and instead about problems, sensing, mapping, and learning, using the language of our business colleagues. Talking about depth, up-front planning, quality of insights etc. only serves to maintain the boxes and boundaries we find ourselves in.”

  29. As a graduate student doing a dissertation I came up against the decision to use less academic language with the possibility of getting a lower mark but more chance of *actual* people reading it or to write for the academy. I went with the first choice. Sure enough I got the comment from one of the markers that it wasn’t ‘anthropological enough’, however the other marker was obviously more leaning towards inclined towards applied anthropology and commented how well I had used anthropological theory’!! I came out with a decent mark and best of all my research has been published on the website of a large public health organization where it can be read by people who actually need to know the information. I have even got a comment back from a lady who told me my interviews left her in tears and she was glad to know she was not the only one struggling with the topic I researched. Not bad for Bachelor Level anthro if you ask me. I agree with Ryan, there is no point researching and publishing where it is only read by the anthro community. Seriously, why on earth would one spend an entire lifetime on something that will be kept in a moldy cupboard somewhere and maybe ever read by three people? Just my humble opinion from the bottom of the anthro career ladder.

  30. Ryan, thanks for speaking out. I just read your blog post, while I’m trying to revamp the Dutch anthropology scene with discussion and columns for the Dutch Association of Anthropologists – in dutch, though you might be interested: http://www.antropologen.nl/blog/451-de-mismatch-tussen-antropologie-en-samenleving).
    Curious to your more detailed view on the US anthropology scene, so you might want to send me an email so we can discuss it more personally at walter AT sustainableconsultant DOT com or a PM at my twitter account.

    Cheers,
    Walter

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