Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part III: The Anthropological Brand

In this guest blog series, Savage Minds has provided me with a space to untangle and unpack some of my recent thoughts on anthropologists, hipsters and such. My first post focused on defining terms, and my second post drew parallels between hipsters and anthropologists in terms of their position at the margins. In it, I wondered what the implications were for producing an anthropologist who could be a celebrity or public intellectual. In this third post, I want to take a brief moment point to what we wear and the images we cultivate.

The Embodied Styles of Anthropologists

For reasons which will become clear, this post about embodied styles will be a somewhat short one. I considered leaving it out entirely, but the cacophony of voices, the blaze of students, the horn-rimmed glasses, the landscape of mac products, the sea of Starbucks coffee cups and the snippets of obscure and esoteric conversations overheard in passing at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association are too dear to my heart to abandon entirely.

Upon first attending the national conference as an anthropologist-in-the-making, it was comforting that at times, the celebrity academic was indistinguishable from anyone I might sit next to on a bus, but it was also startling when the name tag came pinned to the lapel of a flamboyant and/or uniquely styled figure. I continue to appreciate the embodied statements anthropologists make about themselves, whether it be through corduroy jackets and thick, but manicured beards, or pashminas and intricate jewelry. I’ve found anecdotally that anthropologists are willing to share more of their individuality and sense of self in their embodied selves, whether it is at a conference or on campus. It also signaled to me that, while broadly inclusive, the category of anthropologist was visibly and stylistically marked in ways that reflected disposition, fieldwork, and disciplinary training. Part of learning to be an anthropologist is about learning how to sound like one in one’s writing, but it is also how to look like one in appearance. Clearly, the hipster is likewise marked by and affiliated with particular styles of clothing, hair and brands.

As I suggested in my first post, embodied styles are mediated by the capitalist world we live in – what we purchase and the brands with which we affiliate have become deeply entwined with the roles we inhabit. Like hipsters, we often consider our look to be a statement about ourselves and the world around us. Like hipsters, anthropologists are often proud of their refusal to participate in the mainstream (see the second post). Others, however, have made more sophisticated observations than I.

Carole McGranahan (with Kate Fischer, Rachel Fleming, Willi Lempert, and Marnie Thomson) wrote a brilliantly enjoyable and cathartic reflection on ‘Conference Chic’ for Savage Minds, which has far more to offer on the topic than I. A more recent series has been examining clothing in the field with a more practical bent,  which suggests that plenty of others are thinking about these matters.

The Intellectual, Anti-Mainstream Brand

The relevant reflection here, however, lies in thinking about the production of ourselves as academics. Although we wouldn’t articulate it quite this way, anyone in the competitive academic marketplace knows that scholarly expertise and knowledge is part of what the university is selling, and it is packaged in brochures and on websites – and this may include our style and image. And style and image are part of our brand.1 Although this has always been an issue (think Michael Foucault), with the rise of TED talks and other “rock star,” celebrity scholars drawing crowds in MOOCs these embodied styles become a recognizable part of brand, and can be leveraged for obtaining jobs, book contracts and success. There are celebrity academics who are immediately recognizable from a distance, and who have cultivated an image that both aligns with and furthers their academic image. This is not to say that such scholars are not producing intellectually rich work, it is just to point out that these embodied ways of being in the world are deployed (consciously or not) in the pursuit of careers (which is also highlighted in the other Savage Minds posts).

I invite here other reflections on how academics (and anthropologists in particular) position themselves by cultivating a particular image or brand, of which embodied style is a part. In an era of the nearly complete corporatization of the university, how does one succeed in academia without commodifying one’s own knowledge, self and image? For practicing anthropologists, one must actively do the same for non-anthropological audiences to obtain contracts, communicate with clients, funders, etc.  And of course, as we are more than just a discipline, it is also important to note how decisions about style also intersect with other positions from gendered, raced and classed ones to endless variations of sci-fi geek, hipster, preppie, cosmopolitan, etc.

Other posts in the series:


  1. Like most academics, I imagine, I find the idea of branding to be an unfortunate consequence of current economic conditions and neoliberal trends. However, whether we consciously embrace it or not, I do feel that it is a realistic part of a career trajectory in academia. Further, and apropos of part II about the discipline at the margins, Ulf Hannerz (American Anthropologist, Volume 112, Issue 4, December 2010, Pages: 539-551) has argued that we need to re-brand the discipline to speak to core areas relevant to the public today. 

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.

8 thoughts on “Anthropologists as Scholarly Hipsters, Part III: The Anthropological Brand

  1. If you aren’t hip, then you can’t be a hipster. Sorry, but it’s that simple. Fortunately, I’ve devised a handy test enabling any social scientist to quickly and easily determine whether a particular subject is hip or not. I’ll be happy to share the details of my test with readers of this blog – but ONLY upon request. So if you really want to be able to separate the hip from the non-hip, all you need do is: ask.

  2. Victor, nice analysis. I see here an application for three rules I developed while working with a fellow named Paul Guilefoile, the best account executive I ever worked with. We succeeded in taking a chunk of Coca-Cola business away from McCann-Erickson and getting it moved to Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest advertising agency, where we were both working at the time. The rules were developed for language and for advertising pitches. They could, it seems to me, apply to academic dress and behavior as well.

    Use their language. If you don’t, they will think that you don’t understand their business.
    Say something unexpected. If you don’t, they won’t see you adding value.
    Don’t be too specific. Provide wiggle room for others to add creative input. If you don’t, the prima donnas in your field will hate you.

    What do you think? Am I on to something here?

  3. @victor @john actually among the truly hip (something one knows a bit about teaching at the berklee college of music), “hipster” is a term of derision. in other words, “hipsters” are the wannabe hip, those who latch on to trends because they seem obscure but do so after they have played out. the analogy would be those who still publish in AAA on topics like affect or neoliberalism which are, you know, so mainstream anthropology now

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I want to be clear that I am drawing on the hipster here as a figure to hopefully make some interesting insights into the discipline. I am not really interested in the hipster. And taking a cue from linguistic anthropology my goal here is not to determine proper usage of the term ‘hipster’ but rather to examine the various shades of nuance that are in the term. It’s not about which definition is right, but rather how the archetype figures in popular culture. Although partly tongue in cheek, I hope that some of these observations do hit home in a more meaningful way.

    @JohnMcCreery, I think you highlight some of the practical ways we can start to communicate to various non-anthropologists. Thanks for sharing the tips.

    @DJHatfield, I am not talking here about a particular person, but rather the archetype of hipster in American popular culture and imagination. Right in the first post, I attempted to show that there were actually quite a few different things that people referenced with ‘hipster.’ Clearly in the context of your musical friends, the term suggests a particular type of person; however, I can guarantee you that for a large swath of the American public the real McCoy and the wannabes are wholly indistinguishable. And the term is in popular parlance among a wide variety of different groups.

    @Victor and @DJHatfield, personally I am not interested in policing borders. I am not, nor do I claim to be, an arbiter for what is ‘legitimate’ hipsterism or ‘legitimate’ anthropology. I will leave it to others to figure out whether a particular person should be classified as ‘hip’ and whether neoliberalism remains a legitimate realm for inquiry.

  5. @clearly my post-hipster irony was lost somewhere…alas. i’m not in the business of policing borders, either. at least not this week. it’s enough to intervene when a certain earnestness means that someone has missed that i am joking

  6. @DJ, sorry. Point taken. It is cliche, but it is actually very difficult to detect irony with text alone. But even then, with a public space like a blog, I think it is important to point these things out because although you may intend them completely facetiously, some anonymous reader may come along and take it as serious business. Perhaps there is a real value in emoticons.

    ;)

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