Tag Archives: Public Anthropology

Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself,  who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States,  it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.

The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries.   This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.  This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.

These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t   a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together.   And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.

If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction.   The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.

The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.

A number of  strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change.   Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.

This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.

As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory   we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?

Mana: How an Austronesian concept became a video game mechanic

Today The Appendix (“a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history”) published my piece “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic“. I’m very happy with the piece (tho there are a few typos I want to fix), which is meant to be accessible to a broader audience — i.e. ‘public anthropology’. I wanted to blog about it here in order to get people to read it and to draw attention to a great young journal with a lot of energy behind it. But more importantly, I wanted to talk about how this article happened, and what the production process says about public anthropology and scholarly workflow. Continue reading

Who Majors in Anthropology? An Infographic and a Request


A little irked by the tone and skepticism with which some ask the question, “What can you do with a degree in anthropology,” I’ve decided to address the quandary with an infographic. Often, I’m confronted with the assumption that after finishing my Bachelor’s in Anthropology, I would find myself behind a bar or waiting tables. From my perspective, my question is “What can’t you do with a degree in anthropology?” I’ve taken at stab at answering this question here (after the jump), but I want help from Savage Minds’ readers to find lesser-known examples of influential former-anthropology students. Continue reading

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.

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Unconventional Anthropology: Re-Reading Gerald Berreman

Is anthropology alive? Gerald Berreman asked this question in 1968. The Vietnam war was raging. Some anthropologists were collaborating with the U.S. government and military. Others were advocating for a value-free, politically-neutral social science. Berreman was not among either of these groups. Instead, he was participating in the UC-Berkeley Vietnam teach-in in 1965, was exposing CIA-academic schemes in the Himalayas, and was asking hard questions about social responsibility for anthropologists all the while conducting important research in India on caste, polyandry, race, religion, environment, and more. Long interested in experiences as well as structures of social inequality, he called social inequality “the most dangerous feature of contemporary society.” Anthropology, he believed, must speak to this danger and thus should not only announce its knowledge, but also act on its “implications and consequences.” We must see that “our knowledge is used for humane changes.” Anthropology must engage the world.

Reason, passion, and courage: these are the traits Gerry Berreman argued an anthropologist needed to address the problems of our times. These traits are as important now as they were when he wrote this forty-five years ago in Current Anthropology. He advised that anthropologists needed moral sensibilities and not just technical proficiencies to recognize the implications of our research. We needed to be involved with public policy. We needed to be responsible. We still need to be all of these things. Continue reading

From slinging food to anthropology

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up where I am–a graduate student nearing the end of my formal education in anthropology–and where I am going next.  In my other life, I was a photographer (I spent most of my 20s walking around with Leicas and view cameras, taking pictures of all sorts of random things).  But my occupation–how I made money–was undeniably in the restaurant industry.  I started working in restaurants when I was 15.  I got a job in a pizza place answering phones.  I made about 15 bucks every two weeks and thought it was amazing to have that amount of cash.  I worked with a bunch of older surfers who were my heroes.  What a life.

Later I worked for a chain of restaurants that sold pies and “home-cooked” American food.  Let’s call it “The Olde Pie Shoppe” to keep things nice and anonymous and avoid any lawsuits.  That was a four-year experience in the wonderful world of corporate food production.  I will never forget the weekly pre-work meetings where the managers tried to encourage us all to think of creative, interesting ways to make our straight-from-the-freezer foods sound appealing and desirable (like chicken fried steaks).  After that, I started working as a bartender.  It was a good move for two reasons: 1) I never really liked the whole singing-birthday-songs-at-tables thing, and 2) bartending meant a lot more money.

I’m pretty sure my interest in anthropology began when I was working in food service.  Continue reading

Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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Are you there Internets? It’s me NAD*

*North American Dialogue; with apologies in advance for acronym abundance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay A. Bell

I recently became the Associate Editor of North American Dialogue (NAD). Part of the AAA Wiley-Blackwell basket of goodies, NAD is the peer reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA). I was brought on to help with the journal’s “brand issues”; namely its recent conversion to a peer reviewed publication and its history as being, um, well CUNY-centric. I am pretty excited about working with SANA on NAD. As a relatively recent section of the AAA, SANA has done much in the way of establishing anthropologies of North America as politically and theoretically important. As the incoming Associate Editor, I am hoping to pick your savage minds about publishing, social media and related issues. In particular, for those of you whose work is North American (and we mean that as broadly as possible), what would you like to see from this publication? From the digital gurus in the crowd, I want to hear about how or if social media should be used to draw a broader public to scholarly work?

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Media at the AAAs: Toward Greater Accessibility

[This is an invited post by Lavanya Murali Proctor. Lavanya is a linguistic and cultural anthropologist who believes that the academic class system is incompatible with the principles and ethics of anthropology, and therefore we can—and should—be at the frontlines of this battle. She lives online at @anthrocharya].

Many contingent faculty have noted that the AAAs are very expensive, and therefore exclude those who cannot afford to go—a fairly large number of anthropologists. At the Chicago meetings, I spoke to a few members of the AAA governance on this issue. They said that the AAA aims to increase accessibility broadly defined. This is no bad thing considering the meetings are inaccessible in a variety of ways to a variety of people, which problems anthropologists rehash every year (for example, unaffordable to adjuncts or hard to navigate for anthropologists with disabilities). The focus, in increasing accessibility, is on media and technology.

The question I’d like to throw open to the readership of this blog is this: do you have any suggestions for participatory media technologies that can be used at the meetings that would allow those currently excluded to be included as presenters and collaborators and not just audiences (within the parameters of limited bandwidth)?

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Anthropology After No Future

London's Overthrow

“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”

—Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

Sarah Kendzior’s interview from the summer over at PolicyMic started making rounds again on my facebook feed recently. If anything, it seems to resonate more now.

I spent this past Thanksgiving with a bunch of orphaned activists and grad students. At some point, I foolishly started asking people for advice on grad school, assuming I’d find similar sympathies with more perspective. But I was shocked: several people told me it wasn’t that bad, that they enjoyed it, that it was better than anything else they could be doing—and even that finding jobs wouldn’t be that much of a problem.

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Making public anthropology: putting it all together

Erin Taylor recently posted this thread over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative:

It’s long been my belief that anthropologists can increase their public visibility and engagement by working together, especially cross-promoting each other’s work. The PopAnth website has been using social media (TwitterFacebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn) to bring attention to articles written by anthropologists in newspapers, on blogs, in books, and so on.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with Tricia Wang (Ethnography Matters), Matt Thompson (Savage Minds / DANG) and Ryan Anderson (Anthropologies Project / DANG) about furthering collaboration. We agreed that it would be a great idea!

DANG are already bringing together all kinds of people who are interested in open access, digital anthropology, blogging, and so on. For this reason, I suggested that the DANG website might be a good place to put information that can help anthropologists in their public engagement: stuff on open access, guides to writing for the public, ideas on how to get published in newspapers, and so on.

But that’s just one idea. My question is: how do we best coordinate?

There are indeed a lot of us out there who are thinking along similar lines, and we’re often off on our own doing our own things.  This is good, on many levels.  But I also think we could use a bit of collaboration, working together, and finding ways to move the idea of a more public anthropology toward a reality. Continue reading

It’s been a week now since US representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith published an article on USA Today about “rethinking science funding.”  Their main point is supposedly that we need to take a closer, critical look at how we fund science through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  On the surface their argument seems reasonable, even “common sense.”  Below the surface, it’s little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences.  And it’s nothing new from Cantor, Smith, and their cronies.  As a graduate student in anthropology–and a recipient of a dissertation grant from the NSF–it’s pretty infuriating to see these two politicians trying to intervene so recklessly into the funding process.*

I understand the need for both accountability and clarity in the whole grant process.  Are there things that need to be changed?  Problems that need to be addressed?  Absolutely.  There are always ways to improve how things work.  Definitely.  But what Cantor and Smith are proposing, despite some of their benign-sounding rhetoric, is not just some altruistic attempt to “help” make things better.  In fact, what they are doing is more like a witch hunt than the “we’re doing this for the people” line they’re trying to sell to the US public. Continue reading

Open Access for the Few?

Hardly a day goes buy that I don’t see an email, Facebook post, or Tweet asking for access to some academic PDF or another. I’m all for anything that erodes the awful paywall system that academic publishers have erected in order to preserve a broken model, but it bothers me that the reality of the current system is that a small coterie of academics have the equivalent of open access, while the rest of the world is blocked out. If I really need access to an article right now, I’m pretty sure someone at a major research library would email me a copy, but if someone who isn’t an academic wants that same article they are unlikely to be able to call upon their social network in the same way. What is really absurd about this system is that it is the people least able to pay for access who are the most likely to have to pay.

Anthropologists Engaging with Media

“Anthropology,” James Peacock said in a 1995 address at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, “boasts brilliant observers, cultural critics, writers, and creators, yet few if any of us have produced books that we (not to mention others) crave to read, films that we crave to see, or music that we crave to hear.” Eighteen years have passed since Peacock spoke these words. So, have anthropologists today heeded his call?  Are the crucial issues of our time receiving public reflection from anthropologists, if not in books, then in popular media? What are some of the obstacles that prevent us from doing so more often?

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We need more mainstream social science, not less.

Nicholas Cristakis’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” has a lot of things going for it. I appreciate his call for more hands-on teaching of research methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the application of social scientific knowledge. To make this point, unfortunately, he mischaracterizes the social sciences as “stagnated”, “boring”, “counterproductive”, and “insecure”. He calls on us to “change[] the basic DNA of the social sciences” in order to “evolv[e] with the times” as the natural sciences have. What’s more, his piece mischaracterizes the natural sciences in important ways. Christakis’s piece is remarkably data-free and lacks any concrete reference to the social-scientific work it stigmatizes and merely asserts our dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t have much space and was writing for a popular audience, which probably explains this fact. An account of how the social and natural sciences actually work, however, makes clear that the difficulties of the social sciences stem from quite different sources then those that Christakis points to.

The first and most obvious difficulty that the social sciences face is funding, pure and simple. Compared to the natural sciences, we receive peanuts. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NSF got roughly 5.5 billion dollars from Congress to spend on research. Before you press the ‘Read More…’ link in this article, ask yourself “what percent of that was spent on social sciences?”

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