The SCA's podcast series is pretty darn good

I’m so amazed and proud to see the way the anthropology noosphere has grown over the past few years. Where once we had two blogs and an Open Access lunch for six at the AAAs, we now have twitter meet-ups and more blogs and social media sites than you can shake a stick at. One missing piece of the puzzle, however, has been a good podcast. And now, thanks to the Society for Cultural Anthropology and their podcast series AnthroPod, we have that too. Go listen to it now.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been anthropology podcasts out there in the past. Savage Minds has played around with the genre from time to time, for instance. And of course the AAA has its own podcast series. But we at SM ultimately were too busy keeping the blog afloat to expand into podcasts, and the AAA series… well, the quality was somewhat uneven. Often podcasts would open up with a couple of seconds of static and then a phone dialing, and then people started talking, and if you listened for a while you slowly realized you were listening to Virginia Dominguez interview Marilyn Strathern. And even when they seemed a bit more professionally produced, these podcasts were too anthropological — too much for the sake of the interlocutors and not for the sake of the audience — to be interesting.

The SCA’s podcast, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. They are still growing into the form, but it has genuine production values and the people putting it together clearly know what they are doing. There are a few things that drive me nuts about it — the interviewers sometimes speak in the halting, nasal, overly-articulate cadence so typical of the generation that grew up with Ira Glass. But I think my hesitations on this front have more to do with my own hang-ups with Ira Glass than the podcast, so I’m happy to let that one go. Overall, in the very important area of professional presentation, the podcast is going in the right direction.

The SCA’s podcasts so far have been on the topic of articles published in Cultural Anthropology. The first, with Michael Fisch, is on suicide in the Tokyo subway system and how (drumroll) “a subway system thinks suicide”. The second, with Richard Handler, is about his role in creating an undergraduate program in Global Development Studies.

Its fascinating to listen to the interview version of an article (in fact, its much more convenient than reading the article!) but its even more fascinating to have a chance to get to know the authors behind the articles. This, to me, is the real value of the podcast: it gets you to the backstage of elite anthropology, to see what the people at the center of the discipline are like. Its an incredibly important experience denied to the vast majority of anthropologists who didn’t go to Top Schools, and the SCA’s willingness to share this with us is really fantastic.

Michael Fisch, for instance, is one of the many new hires that have recently been made at Chicago, where I earned my Ph.D. So, you know, my question was: now that he’s someone is he good enough for Chicago? The written work was less important to me than the character and the quality and vitality of the responses he made in his interview. For me, the most interesting part of the podcast came as he discussed his broader theoretical interest, and particularly the importance of moving past Latour to the thinkers that influenced him in order to dig out the genealogy (and thus possible future) of a realist, network-based ontology to ground future research. As someone who studies mining and petroleum, Fisch’s frustration that we hadn’t completed the seemingly effortless task of developing cheap sources of infinitely renewable energy was, maybe, not so insightful. But whatever — it was a great interview with a young and successful scholar. Surely other young scholars will want to see what success sounds like, eh?

The Handler interview was very different. Handler is a senior scholar (I mean that in a nice way) talking mostly about the kind of issues that comes at the height of one’s career, rather than at the beginning. It deals with administrative matters and big-picture issues in the organization of our discipline (and others). I’ve not always been interested in the topics that Handler studies (except Quebec, which I <3 ) but I’ve always been blown away by his tremendous analytic ability. Its remarkable to me to have the opportunity to listen to someone who has spent a lifetime in the academy tell us what he has figured out about the professionalization of the discipline and how it related to the intellectual endeavors that it scaffolds. There’s a certain clarity that only experience can provide. Its valuable for anyone thinking about being involved in anthropology long-term.

What should an anthropology podcast be? Its an open question. Judging from twitter, the answer should be “available to a general audience” or “four field anthropology”. There is a tremendous void to be filled and the SCA has a lot of choices about how to fill it. Here at Savage Minds we’ve consciously decided to make anthropology public by revealing what we do in pretty unvarnished form for the public. “Popularization,” in the sense of deciding that the public isn’t capable of understanding what you are saying even if you say it clearly, is something we’ve left to others. Ultimately its up to the SCA to decide what to do, but I think that if they use their podcast to make the backstage of anthropology’s elites institutions they will gain tremendous brainshare in the anthropological community, and make our discipline more visible as well. Whatever they decide, I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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

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