Sapiens: Good (Maybe Great) But Not Transformational (So Far)

Last week marked the launch of Sapiens, a brand new website bankrolled by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The unveiling is especially welcome to those of us who think about public anthropology, since it will mean the end of Wenner-Gren’s seemingly endless social media campaign announcing that Sapiens will soon be launched. At last — after receiving five email which announce that Sapiens is not launched yet, and then invite me to click through a link to view a web page announcing that Sapiens is not launched yet — Sapiens has finally launched!

After scrupulously refusing to retweet non-news about the site, I was quit curious to see what final form Sapiens would take. So, is Sapiens worth the hype? Has a new day in public anthropology arrived? Can all other anthropology blogs now End? The short answer is that Sapiens is a major new voice in online anthropology, with a bucketload of skilled staff, quality features, and gorgeous web design. But if the Sapiens staff are hoping to transform how the public understands anthropology, they may be disappointed — this website is just one more voice in an already crowded online space. That said, with funding, legitimation, and editorial freedom from Wenner-Gren, Sapiens could make an impact in an already-crowded field.

At the moment the site is pretty straight forward — a slate of regular bloggers produce themed content, while features run under section names like ‘in flux’ ‘lost in translation’ ‘cultural relativity’ and other tag-like categories. Apparently there is more in the works (for instance, podcasts and videos) but at the moment the genres at play are are pretty straightforward.

I personally am glad that Sapiens is not trying some radical experiment in hypertext or something like that. The content up so far is very strong. The featured piece by Brendan Borrell describes a rare breed of flower and in Brazil and the political conflicts that occur between grassroots people who rely on selling the flower, and conservationists who seek to protect it. By now, this sort of conflict is old news to anthropologists. But it isn’t to the general public, who frequently imagines grassroots/indigenous types to be allies of conservationists against the state/oppressive capitalism. Borrell’s well-written (and, I suspect, well-edited) piece provides non-experts with a clear sense of the contours of these debates. At almost 4,000 words it’s long by journalism standards. I personally would have led the piece with “conservation politics: a surprising new angle!”, but that’s probably why I’m not on the Sapiens staff. If this is the kind of content Sapiens will regularly produce, more power to them!

It’s good — even better than good. But is it the type of thing that will transform how the public understands anthropology? The Internet is chockablock with quality blog posts and feature pieces. Is Borrell’s piece really that different from, say, popanth’s story on U900? Is Sapien’s archaeology blog really going to outshine middlesavagery? Admittedly, I can’t wait for Yolanda Moses to blog on race, or for Hugh Gusterson to blog on… well… the things that make Hugh Gusterson angry. Those will be awesome. But transformative? Hmm…

So I’m glad to have Sapiens join the online anthropological scene, but I think the site is late to market, not early. To me, Sapiens’s desire to commit anthropology in public seems to be driven less by a realistic assessment of how much anthropology is out there, and more by anthropology’s perennial anxiety that it is not relevant enough. Indeed, being late to the game has served Sapiens well, because it had a roadmap to follow — Sapiens’s carefully-scripted social media blitz clearly demonstrates that. As a result, the site will not make the missteps of some earlier, less successful group blogs that reared their heads back in the days before twitter. I will spare you the details of, for instance, the AAA’s initial blogging attempts. Just trust me: I’m glad Sapiens launched in 2016 rather than 2010!

Not new, radical, or different, then. But Sapiens does have the potential to make an impact. The blog has a clear vision and the means to pursue it. It represents what you might call the institutional core of american anthropology: Four field, and focused on social justice and diversity. It’s a school of thought that has long dominated institutions like Wenner-Gren and the AAA, but which often gets overlooked in some of the more heady theory-heavy top-shelf cultural anthropology departments which dominate the academic job market. The AAA has produced a lot of good works in this area, but has trouble getting eyeballs. I think Sapiens could be a new and effective center for getting this message out.

Borrell’s piece has all the hallmarks of this approach — it focuses on anthropology outside of the United States (‘world anthropology’), rather than within it. The anthropologist featured in the story is a woman, not a man. Her work has concrete policy outcomes, is empirical, and connects with local communities. The tone is noticeably different from, for instance, Cultural Anthropology’s rather more baroque “Lexicon For An Anthropocene Yet Unseen“.  Both these approaches belong in our discipline, to be sure, but Sapiens now offers a voice for the ‘institutional core’ view.

Sapiens will ultimately rise and fall on the quality of its content and it’s ability to draw eyeballs. With an actual budget, it will be able to edit and hone. With a strong social network, I am sure that Sapiens will be more able to get a mention in Slate or the New York Times than, say, Geek Anthropologist. These tools may help move its four field, institutional vision back to the center of the blog world. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for quality authors — Sapiens ability to recruit and keep those will end up being central. Which I’m sure they already know.

Institutionally central, using familiar methods to popularize established positions, and well-executed, Sapiens seems less a novel or transformative venture than an exceedingly conventional one. This claim may rankle the higher-ups at the W-G, but I mean it as a complement — and I look forward to more high quality work from Sapiens in the future.

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