Sometimes people worry that anthropology’s central preoccupations won’t resonate with the wider public. But just one look at Game of Thrones proves that’s not true.
Now personally, I gave up watching Game of Thrones because I couldn’t take the spectacular amounts of sexual violence and just plain violence. But I recognize that’s just me — the show has a wide audience and a loyal following. It’s not a television show anymore, its a cultural phenomenon. It’s the show that made having sex with little people normal.
It’s also a show about complexity and particularity. Viewers are expected to remember and understand the relationships between a wide variety of people, and to appreciate the way the particularities of those people — how they walk, talk, and act — affect the way they make history. The characters on the show are not static either, they grow and change over time. In some cases they undergo complete transformation.
The one lesson (American) anthropologists want to spread across the world is “Its complicated”. In classrooms and publications, our goal is to show the complexity of human life to our audiences. To the horror of nomothetic, model-making sciences for us ‘abstraction’ and ‘simplification’ are often pejorative terms. We want our publics to dig their hands deep into ethnography.
Often times we’re told that seeking a public voice for anthropology requires giving up this goal. We’re told that audiences want short sound bites and simplifications. Complexity, on this account, is the enemy of popularization.
Game of Thrones demonstrates otherwise. Audiences are clearly ready for stories full of real people and complexity. Imagine what would happen in the United States if our evening news moved beyond coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” and told the story of five or six interrelated factions competing for power. Suddenly, America would recognize “its complicated”! Our audiences clearly have the capacity to deal with the “it’s complicated” message.
Game of Thrones is about complexity, but its also about something else: kinship. Yes that’s right: Kinship. LINEAGE SYSTEMS PEOPLE. Today the study of kinship has had quite a comeback as it has morphed into a broader account of relatedness and sociality. But Game of Thrones calls out for the kind of Mancunian account of lineage dynamics that you’re more likely to see in Philip Gulliver than Janet Carsten. There was webs of kinship and dynamics of clanship. At the very least the show deserves to be analyzed in terms of how microhistories become macrohistories.
Can an audience’s interest in the complexities of kinship be kept without tremendous amounts of violence, sex, and magic? It’s a moot question, since pretty much every place we’ve studied has a good amount of each. Make no mistake about it: we need to make ethical choices when we write about salacious topics. But when we do, our audience will be ready.