What Do They Want From Us?

A friend of mine keeps harping about The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s by Kent Flannery, so I’ve finally read it. The article describes a meeting between four archaeologists. The narrator is an archaeological Everyman, trying to find his way in the ebb and flow of theoretical fads, empiricism’s rising and falling esteem, and a changing academic landscape. Into his life come the Born-Again Phiolosopher, a poor fieldworker who discovered fame and fortune in the critique of others and the development of universal Laws; the Child of the Seventies, driven by blind ambition and making his career by repackaging (and sometimes stealing) the work of others; and the Old Timer, a down-in-the-dirt hands-on fieldworker (think Jack Palance in City Slickers
) recently forced into retirement by his department for his atavistic faith in culture as a unifying anthropological concept.

I’ll let you read the article — it’s quite amusing — but I want to highlight one of the Old Timer’s responses to the Child of the Seventies’ desire for some kind of relevance to the world outside of archaeology:

“…What does the world really want from archaeology?

“If I turn on a television, or walk through a paperback bookstore, I’ll tell you what I see. I see that what the world wants is for archeology to teach it something about humanity’s past. The world doesn’t want epistemology from us. They want to hear about Olduvai Gorge, and Stonehenge, and Macchu Picchu. People are gradually becoming aware that their first three million years took place before written history, and they look to archeology as the only science — the only one — with the power to uncover that past.”

I can’t endorse this wholeheartedly — I think there’s something to be said for epistemology, though it’s surely not the main gist of either archaeology or ethnology, and I think we should be wary about the desire for consumable romanticism among the public. That said, though, I think it’s a useful question when thinking about what a “public anthropology” might look like. What does the world really want from anthropology?

Here’s my tentative and necessarily incomplete stab at an answer:

  • They want tales, descriptions, and souvenirs of the strange and exotic. Some people read anthropology like others read fantasy novels or romances — as a kind of escape from their everyday world. As noted, there’s a danger in this — few anthropologists want to be guilty of packaging exoticism for easy consumption by a bored or frustrated audience. But we may as well acknowledge that this is one thing that people want of us. Fortunately, I think they want more than that, too.
  • They want understanding of people whose lifestyles and beliefs strike them as strange, exotic, and even threatening and wrong-headed. I don’t think this is merely wishful thinking on my part — people actually do want to understand. Maybe not all people, maybe not all the time, but at least some people want to understand the world that lays beyond their immediate experience.
  • They want security. This follows from the above — if the strange and alien can be understood as rational and even normal, it follows that it becomes less threatening.
  • They want solutions to the social problems around them, or at least the possibility of solutions. People want to know that the problems they see in their societies are not inevitable, that they are solvable and that someone is working to understand these problems and propose solutions.
  • They want the satisfaction of knowing that they are not racists. This is a hard one — I think many people immerse themselves in anthropological and other social scientific writings to reassure themselves that they are not prejudiced, something like Ozma’s take on the reception of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
  • They want to understand their place in the world. People want to know, in the words of the poet in Wings of Desire, “Why am I me, and not you? Why am I here and not there?’When did time begin and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun nothing but a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear and smell just a vision of a world before the world? Does evil really exist and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who is me, wasn’t there before I was? And that one day I, who is me, shall no longer be what I am now?”
  • They want to know about the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, we have little to offer in this regard.

As I said, this is a tentative, off-the-top-of-my-head approach to the question, but I think it’s a question well worth asking as we as a discipline and as individuals consider what we have to offer to our society as a whole. Not all anthropology has to be public anthropology, of course — much of the internal debate, what the Old Timer refers to scorningly as “epistemology”, can certainly be carried out “behind closed doors”, as it were — but I don’t think most of us get involved in anthropology just to argue the ins and outs of logical positivism. I think we generally have a desire to make some sense out of our increasingly global society, and to share that sense with those beyond our disciplinary boundaries. If this is the case, then, asking ourselves what our would-be audience wants and expects of us is certainly warranted. I would like to know how others would answer the question — and maybe how (or whether) we can live up to those answers.

21 thoughts on “What Do They Want From Us?

  1. “How can it be that I, who is me, wasn’t there before I was? And that one day I, who is me, shall no longer be what I am now?”

    if any of my anthro students ever throw this one in my path, I’ll be calling upon the ‘wan smile’, the ‘grim smile’, and the ‘hiding-under-the-table’ for sure…

  2. don’t know how I created the strikethrough, above. was not intentional!

    [In addition to HTML, our comments support Markdown syntax. Since there was a hyphen before your line it turned it to strikethrough. I fixed it. – Kerim]

  3. As I said, this is a tentative, off-the-top-of-my-head approach to the question, but I think it’s a question well worth asking as we as a discipline and as individuals consider what we have to offer to our society as a whole.

    Do we really consider what anthropology has to offer to each of our societies as a whole (btw: you don’t live in the same society that I do)? Why should it offer anything in particular? Why should I particularly think about what I as an individual, or you as an individual offers each of our societies as a whole, given that I don’t see this same question being levelled at anyone else – and if I did set up this question, why would the production of a set of articles and ethnographies that make up the career of a social anthropologist count as anything important or worthwhile?

    Who are we justifying our existence to? And why, exactly?

  4. Tigerbear,

    This isn’t about justifying our existence. This is about moving otwards something we can all “public anthropology”. A I said, not all anthropology has to be public anthropology, but if contributing something meaningful to society is your bag, then it is probably worthwhile asking what society considers meaningful, no?

  5. I think this speaks to larger issues going on in academia. Anthropology has really done a crappy job of selling itself general public. I think this puts anthropology in a precarious position. Since many of the social sciences are under attack by certain conservatives (though not all) and state budget cuts, we as anthropologists need to help sell our discipline to those “outside” of anthropology. Anthropology is particularly vulnerable to attack because of its association with multiculturalism. A number of individuals on the right and within state legislatures believe that multiculturism is a threat to the economic and social well being of the United States. Others believe that anthropology is useless because non-Western cultures are dying or dead ends that need to be modernized. Others believe that most people share a number of universal values (including “Western” things like monogomous marriage, individualism, etc.)and that any differences are superficial. All these ideas cause anthropology to appear to be at worst an insideous political force polluting the minds of college students or at best an obselete dying “science”.

    Anthropologists need to make the public aware of what anthropology is and what it can contribute to society. A good start would be focusing efforts on outreach programs in local schools and communities and/or publishing texts aimed at the general public. There seems to be a general disdain for these types of programs/texts from many established anthropologists. I think that this is very short sited. If we are not careful, we might wake up one day and discover that most anthropology departments have been cut from universities,

  6. I would like to add that every discipline has to continually justify its existence. Publishing books that are only read by a handful of academics helps does absolutely nothing other than create a closed community which does absolutely nothing for society or for anyone outside that community. Why should people care about anthropology (and keeping anthropology departments in existence), if anthropologists don’t give anything back to society? While it is true that teaching is a way through which anthropologists can give back to the community, there are enough “important” theorists out there (both in anthropology and other social sciences)who don’t give a damn about teaching and instead focus on their “important” ethnography or theory book that gets read by a tiny minority of anthropologists.

  7. Hehheh. I agree with most of what you said, except that I’d like to register myself as someone on the *left* who thinks that multiculturalism is occasionally a threat to individualism. But I don’t feel the need to oppose the existance of anthropology, because I don’t think anthropology has inherent normative implications, nor that it inherently supports the sort of multiculturalism which threatens the sort of individualism I find convincing.

    And while there are certainly individual anthropologists who disagree with me on both of those, I think I have the better argument.

  8. The Old Timer’s epistemology quip is probably intended to mean we dont read archaeology to learn about Foucault (although to be honest books like Reading Material Culture do a better job than most at translating that kind of thing). But he’s wrong in a different sense: various publics do look to anthropology and archaeology for answers to questions about knowledge and belief. Although, I wish this could be avoided, since politically it usually degenerates into debates about truth claims, or comparisions of how much or little ‘we’ know compared to ‘them’. Rather than epistemology, the real importance of anth and arch should be framed in terms of Ontology – here we can be as empirical as you like, but also fulfill the true craving, which is not “what do others believe” but “how do they live, what was it like” i.e the kinds of things oneman identifies.

    A really great new book is by Cornelius Holtorf. You can read a draft version . It is a very sophisticated look at what public archaeology is, and its place in popular culture.

  9. I agree with what people are saying here, about the value of public intellectualism and taking anthropology into the world and all. But a part of me wonders — is there *no* space anywhere for work pursued for its own sake, even if only a small number of people will be interested in the immediate outcome? I mean, some weird projects that maybe wouldn’t seem super relevant or justifiable at the moment of their undertaking can lead in important directions. When we decide what anthropology is good for, can we also have a section cordoned off for “might be good for nothing, but interesting anyway”?

  10. Ozma, I’m sure there is space for.. let’s not call it “private anthropology”, because that seriously oversimplifies the ways that anthropology is intertwined with a whole bunch of other social institutions and processes — not least of all those that give us the livelihood to continue resarch at all — but perhaps “niche anthropology”. My post wasn’t intended to suggest that anthropologists should only be pursuing research that is immediately utilizable, nor even that within the context of public anthropology we should necessarily “give the public what it wants”. The ground-level, foundational directive is and has to be do solid research, whatever the subject.

    There are internal debates — should I use the ethnographic present? — that however important they might be to the discipline probably don’t have much of an audience outside of other anthropologists. There are probably particular fields of study that will only ever interest a handful of people, though I can’t think of any particular characteristics that would necessarily confine a subject to “niche” status. Obscurity isn’t any guarantee — consider work on PNG male initiation rituals, which wouldn’t seem to have much bearing in most people’s lives, but which have become important in the debate over social acceptance of homosexuality (among other things). Plus, you never know when the US might invade New Guinea…

    That said, I think there’s a reasonable anxiety among many anthropologists that we are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the societies in which we live. There’s something unsatisfying about pouring one’s time and effort into a project whose results will only ever be read by a handful of people that probably already agree with you in the first place. From a practical standpoint, more and more anthropology departments are facing reduction in size, conflation with sociology departments, or even elimination — for those of us who feel that anthropology makes an important contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself and the world, the increasing barriers between us and “the public” are discouraging.

    I don’t think we all have to jump into public anthropology. I do think there’s lots of room in the discipline for some Benedict- or Harris-style popularizers — I’d love to see someone take on the role of a Steven Jay Gould for anthropology! I also think there’s room for a consideration of what our work offers to the rest of society, even where, in the particular instance, there might not be much immediate use.

  11. There’s also no reason why we should hope to have some use or effect for the widest public possible: the anthropological audience constitues its own public in a sense. The role of undergraduate teaching shouldn’t be overlooked – hopefully we have some impact on the thinking of future doctors, lawyers, MBA’s, politicians etc…even if they dont consciously remember the classes they took.

    Pre-WWII in the UK there was Royal Commission on university teaching, and prominent academics (Frazer, Rivers, Haddon, Duckworth etc) met to discuss practical measures for the organisation of teaching anthropology – with MPs and others noting its importance for the education of administrators and colonial officers. Maybe that is our most traditional public, though books like Holtorf’s show how much is/has changed.

  12. I think I’ll reiterate by saying that the issue of public awareness goes beyond usefulness of anthropology to the public. It contects the directly to the ability to get funding and the ability to have anthropology departments continue to exist. Within the educational debate many of the social sciences have become coded as useless. Anthorpology is one of the ones that is especially to code as useless because of the reasons I noted above. If we can’t sell the utility of teaching and funding anthropology then anthropology is largely doomed within the United States. Again I ask, why would the administration of public university or the NSF fund anthropology if legislatures or the public feel that anthropology has no value (beyond perhaps entertainment value)? It would be relatively easy for a politician (or a university adminsistrator) to push for the elimination of an anthropology department or anthropology science grants with very little backlash from the general public or students.

    I got into anthorpology because I think it does have something of value to ad to society. (Even if it is as simple as articulating that people in other countries might have different values than “Westerners” or “Americans”.)Even if you don’t think that anthropology has any larger society value, as an anthropologist, you still have to justify your existence to the sources of funding that ensure anthropologies existence. No funding=no more anthropology (or anthropology limited to the rich or a small handful of colleges).

  13. AGSG — I see what you are saying, but I think it’s as important to articulate an alternative to that strategic pragmatism as it is to adapt to it (hopefully we can do a little of both). If all academics have to live or die by those rules, anthros might be able to squeak by — in a broom closet in between the hulking citadel of the biosciences center and the political science/public policy/ government administration building — but what about medieval studies? Art history? Literature? and so on. Like, I do think in an atmosphere/moment that says “if it ain’t useful it can eff off!” we shouldn’t *just* fall all over ourselves to prove we are useful. We should also be arguing that that is a pretty impoverished view of human potential and creative social existence.

  14. Ah, a nice thought provoking post by Oneman . . . always makes my day. I wanted to let these thoughts simmer in my brain a bit before responding.

    I think that it’s interesting that the comments so often come around to a “well, why do we need to prove that we deserve to exist” debate. While I am into public anthropology, advocacy, activism and so forth and this desire for social action is one of the reasons I got involved in anthro in the first place, I by no means think that there is no room for knowledge for it’s own sake. I fact, I think it’s very sad that North American society seems to be heading in the direction of “if it’s not finance, computers, technology (i.e. something concrete that provides immediate results in the market place) it’s fluffy stuff and unnecessary for survival.” It actually scares me; I worry about the fate not only of anthro, soci et al departments but of art, philosophy, theatre, music and so forth.

    I think that one of the reasons there is much disagreement on the issue of the “uses” of anthro, though, is that many of us might disagree on what is “useful” or not to society. IMO, social usefulness is inherent in the discipline, especially if we manage to reach people (e.g. students) who will not actually become anthropologists but plumbers, lawyers, nurses, teachers, social workers and so forth.

    For one who would see usefulness as being about possibly profit, well . . . I don’t really have anything to say to that. Well, I do, but it would be rude to say here.

    Now, to address the actual question that is posed by Oneman’s post, what does the public want from anthropologists? Well, first of all . . . we need to qualify “public” with “that are actually aware of anthropology’s existence and have a somewhat accurate idea of what the discipline is about”.

    Once we qualify that, then I think that the “demands” made upon our discipline might vary enormously according to an individual or group’ social/political/religious ideologies. Oneman’s suggestions are all quite likely, again, depending on who we’re talking about specifically.

    So . . .here is an additional question that maybe Oneman or anyone else could respond to: is the onus on the public to demonstrate that it wants something from anthro or is the onus on us (those of us who wish to offer something) to show that we have something(s) to give?

  15. we need to qualify “public” with “that are actually aware of anthropology’s existence and have a somewhat accurate idea of what the discipline is about”.

    Or, rather, how do we anthropologists make the public — whatever public — aware of anthropology’s existence and give them a somehwat accurate idea of what the discipline is about? One of the things that’s missing from “public anthropology” at the moment is an effort at PR. I don’t think you have to be entirely cynical about it — unlike many of the institutions that rely on PR to put a good spin on bad news, I think anthropology actually has something positive to offer the public. But we have to put it in front of them — the world isn’t going to beat a trail to our door unless they know there’s a door out there in the woods worth beating a trail to.

  16. Sometimes Anthropologists aren’t sufficiently anthropological in their understanding of their own place within society. As if we have, somehow, been allowed all this time to exist outside of society, beyond the public. We need to understand what we do as a social practice. In some ways anthropological practice is an intimate part of social reproduction in contemporary Euro/American society – especially as multinationalism, and globalisation proceed. Although individual departments may occasionally be closed, it is highly unlikely that anthropological practice will be stamped out for lack of funding. Although current idelogues of economic rationalism might sometimes make it seem like it, we do not live in a world of endless means-ends calculations, and anthropology has no need to answer to those. Our practice (teaching, research) is of course increasingly evaluated in rationalist terms, but the persistence of the discipline as a whole is not in doubt. Its kind of ironic that the question has come up after recent posts about PRISP, and the employment of anthropologists by Microsoft, car companies, etc. I would say anthropological practices are actually on the rise – though not necessarily everywhere within academia.

    It is also important to distinguish Public from Popular. As if the success of the discipline should be measured by the abundance of TV programs we (indirectly) produce! (although we are infinitely more successful in the popular realm than most of the academy).

  17. Tim wrote:

    Its kind of ironic that the question has come up after recent posts about PRISP, and the employment of anthropologists by Microsoft, car companies, etc. I would say anthropological practices are actually on the rise – though not necessarily everywhere within academia.

    This is true. In the UK anthropology is even being used to advertise banks (top left advert). I think only a fundamental lack of confidence in the knowledge anthropology provides could lead people to think that in an increasingly globalised world, anthropological knowledge won’t be important (even if having banks use it to advertise themselves makes you cringe).

    Ozma wrote:

    Like, I do think in an atmosphere/moment that says “if it ain’t useful it can eff off!” we shouldn’t just fall all over ourselves to prove we are useful. We should also be arguing that that is a pretty impoverished view of human potential and creative social existence.

    This is what I was trying to get at above by asking, quite bluntly, who we are justifying our existence to. I think the larger point is: why do we let the argument be framed in that sort of way? Why should we agree to those sorts of precepts?

  18. So, whilst I have confidence in the enlightenment that anthropological knowledge can provide, I see absolutely no reason why I should have to defend the legitimacy of that knowledge, nor do I see why I, or other anthropologists need to shout about it from the hills, or anything of that sort.

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