Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part II: Critiques from the Margins

In this guest blog series, the Savage Minds folks have been kind enough to provide a space for me to untangle and unpack some of my recent thoughts on anthropologists, hipsters and such. In my first post, I took the conventional path of defining my terms. In this second post, I focus on a common characteristic that is both productive and frustrating for anthropologists and hipsters alike: their position at the margins.

Fads at the Margins

The hipster community can offer refreshing and insightful critiques (or even rejection) of “popular” or “mainstream” contemporary trends, whether it be in lifestyle, fashion or social conventions. As a whole, anthropologists do the same when it comes to theoretical formulations. We interrogate tacit assumptions about the world around us and even turn them on their heads entirely. We don’t simply accept that which has come before us, but we question and reimagine it in ways that yield complex ideas; students in my own classes have shared their intellectual struggles with excitement for their first encounters with anthropological literature. We turn to the old, the obscure and the unknown to find alternative understandings; we deconstruct the past and present, refine and reimagine what we thought we knew, and make the old new again. Such nuanced understanding requires making extremely fine distinctions about various concepts. Such work is deeply productive.

However, the ability to make extremely fine intellectual distinctions among various phenomena is precisely what makes us opaque and irrelevant to the general public; it is what the new student to anthropology struggles with. The hipster may claim that band X produces music wildly superior to band Y in every way, while the general public has never heard of either one of them, and cannot distinguish the sound of one from the other. Like the hipster, the scholar is accused of getting held up in endless squabbles about extremely fine distinctions, and thus scholarship can be seen not only as a meaningful dialogue but as a way to demarcate membership in an elite group. And as soon as non-hipsters have heard of band X it is no longer superior to band Y. Discovering powerful theoretical lenses (the equivalent of the next great band or fashion) produces cultural capital for anthropologists, and can help establish a career – but jumping on the bandwagon too late can be labeled cheap opportunism. Worry not, future anthropologists, a new French social theorist is always waiting to be discovered.

Although critique of the mainstream can encourage a rich intellectual dialogue, it can also produce an intellectual snobbery or elitism. I have seen doctoral students who are deeply sensitive to raced and classed elitism shun and ostracize a peer because her/his position was too “mainstream” or framework too dated. Furthermore, any attempt to make that dialogue meaningful to the general public is dismissed as irrelevant (for one’s career) and intellectually stultifying. Despite some movement towards better including applied and public anthropologists at the table, the discipline is still deeply rooted in theory and intellectual fads. This can be frustrating.

Can there be an anthropologist-public intellectual?

Many anthropologists love to ‘hate on’ biologist and professor of geography Jared Diamond1. He writes popular, mainstream books that seemingly re-package antiquated, geographically deterministic, grand theories of human societies that anthropologists discarded as inadequate years ago. At their worst, his writings seem to alleviate White, Western guilt about colonial conquest by pointing to massive, impersonal social forces that are the ‘true culprit’ of current global inequities. However, his works also align with much of the core messaging of anthropology: that socio-political structures, the distribution of resources, historical conditions and geography can be as powerful as agency in shaping the current state of affairs. I agree with a number of the substantive critiques of Diamond, but the accessible texts can lay a strong foundation upon which further conversations can productively be built. Diamond’s books are also fun to read and accessible.

Therefore, although the critiques of Diamond’s work is substantive, it seems to me that what most offends some anthropologists is not his intellectual argument, but rather that Diamond is poaching on anthropology’s territory – that he is taking old anthropological fads to the mainstream. I hear the same fury about non-anthropologists who ‘do ethnography’ or ‘culture.’ The critiques sound much like hipsters who see their own styles go mainstream, or are experts on the obscure:

That ironic Metallica t-shirt is so 2012.

Grizzly Bear is just a pale shadow of Neutral Milk Hotel.

The fury seems partly rooted in our own marginalized position, and the lack of acknowledgment of our own expertise. Why, we wonder, are they listening to these others? Why can’t people see that what we do is so much better than what they do?

Similar to hipsters, anthropologists can be slave to an endless array of fads. Although these academic fads can be intellectually stimulating, we also use this knowledge to demarcate membership, maintain our relevance and evaluate one another – which is a major aspect of doctoral study. As a doctoral student, one learns to articulate personal narratives related to the in-group (anthropologists), but may simultaneously act to make oneself indecipherable to out-groups (everyone else). Furthermore, it seems as if the act of making something accessible to the mainstream is considered one of “selling out.” Thus we frequently complain that no one listens to us, while making our work impenetrable to non-experts and punishing those who attempt to makes those works more accessible. I have heard many call for anthropologists to produce a new public intellectual in the tradition of Margaret Mead, but it seems that the culture of anthropology today is designed to position us at the margins.

The question is in the ‘seems.’ Do we position ourselves at the margins or is there something else at work? Can anthropologists produce public intellectuals given how we socialize students into the discipline? Is it a contradiction of terms, like a “mainstream” hipster? Given our media-bite culture, is it possible to have true public intellectuals at all? Which current anthropologists and anthropological works do you think have been most successful at crossing over into engagement with the public? I invite comment below.

Other posts in the series:


  1. See also the NPR piece here

Alex Posecznick serves as manager of the Division of Education, Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education while also holding an academic appointment therein, where he teaches courses in Anthropology and Education, Qualitative Modes of Inquiry and Merit and America. His scholarly work focuses on the ethnographic examination of neoliberalism, public policy, and the culture of meritocracy vis-à-vis institutions of higher education. Follow @AlexPosecznick. More on Alex Posecznick.

6 thoughts on “Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part II: Critiques from the Margins

  1. Have you heard of the ontological turn? They’re pretty new… only released their first EP..

  2. Didn’t Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, and their predecessor, Franz Boas, do the public-intellectual thing? It’s like we did the thing right up to the late 1960′s and then stopped. If we picked it back up again, what would it look like? Twitter anthropology (of which there is plenty)? Anthropology on (not ‘of’, a la MWesch, but just on, available via) YouTube? Big-promo anthropology; a kind of Marina to Jared’s Diamonds, bad pop-cultural pun fully intended?

    I’m not being facetious here – it strikes me that if anthropology is to take back its own territories, we need to dial down the hipster-elitism (and actually subtle classism) of talking about theories and aggressively do what we say we do – listen to, collaborate with, and promote the interests of our others, wherever they’re found (these days, increasingly on social media).

  3. Mike Wesch might be a useful example of an active anthropologist who took on the role of a public anthropologist. The “viral video” he created to accompany an academic article has had a significant impact on people’s understanding of that material and the ethnographic insight is obvious in his work. The fact that some academics dismiss his work goes well with the rest of your post.
    Another example, from the same scene, is danah boyd. The added complexity comes from her role in a corporate research lab (and the type of anthro credentials she has).
    Mary-Catherine Bateson-Mead does some work which could qualify her as a public intellectual and she certainly has the intellectual lineage.
    David Graeber has been part of public discourse and may be having quite a deep impact on social change, in line with the «intellectuel» epithet originally applied to Émile Zola in the Dreyfuss affair.
    Our own Maximilian Forte has been doing work which resonated outside the Ivory Tower.

    If you mean people like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, and Richard Dawkins, it might be a different issue. Bestselling authors of what we could call “semiacademic nonfiction” are rare in anthro (though we do have best selling authors,including some who wrote fiction). Considering the potentially negative impact some of their work may have on topics close to our heart, it shouldn’t be too surprising that books in this genre aren’t typically published by people with an anthropological sensitivity.

    Public intellectuals are, as a whole, a very interesting bunch. Few of them are praised by academics from the disciplines they represent. In fact, your Diamond example could be fleshed out with criticism from geographers. On the other hand, such authors often sound insightful to people outside those disciplines. It’s quite interesting to observe people’s reactions when they realize that, say, Gladwell is as problematic a writer in other fields as he is in their own field.

    But there are people writing fascinating things which are potentially more grounded in intellectual traditions similar to our own. The most satisfying ones also tend to be the most modest and honest. Apart from the anthros named above, one could add people like sociologist Zeynep Tufekci (not to be confused with anthropologist Zeynep Arsel, the former “Hipsterologist”), David Weinberger, Adam Greenberg, and Steven Berlin Johnson.

    Been compiling a list of public intellectuals, from diverse horizons. Many of them are college-educated English-speaking males from privileged positions, but the cultural context privileging individual authordom and authority is patriarchal anyway.

    Not to mention mainstream.

  4. Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. I wish to bring up here a discussion of exactly what we do mean by ‘public intellectual’ and what that looks like for anthropologists. I come with questions for discussion, not answers. @StepsInShadows above suggests that we just “stopped” at some point, but there may be better ways to think about it. @Enkerli, Wesch, Bateson-Mead, etc. are certainly interesting examples to bring up, as is the work done at the Center for a Public Anthropology (http://www.publicanthropology.org), including the complete book series that goes with it. Among these, my personal favorite is Bourgois and Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend. There are efforts to engage the public.

    However, Bourgois and Schonberg are not household names like Margaret Mead was, or like Diamond, Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Paul Krugman are. Journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich also come close to crossing these intellectual lines through works like Nickel and Dimed. These are authors of what Enkerli refers to as “semi-academic nonfiction.” Emkerli also interestingly suggests that “it shouldn’t be too surprising that books in this genre aren’t typically published by people with an anthropological sensitivity.” Why? Is there something about anthropology in particular that makes crossing over into a popular, mainstream, semi-academic, non-fiction genre particularly challenging? Is there a way to cross-over to speak to the general public in a way that they will find compelling and that will not sacrifice the spirit of anthropological inquiry? Or does lightening up on the theory erase nuances so significant that in doing so it ceases to be anthropological?

    Perhaps the change since Mead is not in us but in the fragmented mediascape we encounter. We are not the only academic discipline to struggle with this question, after all. But is this level of celebrity, public intellectual a desirable goal at all?

  5. Perhaps, it would be helpful for us to differentiate between the ‘public intellectual’ and the ‘celebrity intellectual.’ Or is even this a false dichotomy, with the former being used to describe intellectuals we approve of and the latter with those we don’t. Or, perhaps as Eric Hobsbawm suggests, the ‘public intellectual’ was actually more the result of a particular historical moment than representative of a particular type of person. He argues that “The decline of the great protesting intellectuals is thus due not only to the end of the Cold War, but to the depoliticization of Western citizens in a period of economic growth and the triumph of the consumer society” (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Paradox-of-Public/146153?cid=megamenu). Is academic celebrity something we should therefore participate in?

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