Not Communicating Very Well

Somehow not a single linguistic anthropologist got included in the Forbes Magazine special report on communicating. When they wanted an article on “cross-cultural communication” they went to a zoologist!

8 thoughts on “Not Communicating Very Well

  1. This is, of course, why I spend so much time here ranting about how anthropology can better connect ourselves to the society at large. I guess not *all* anthropology has to be seen as immeidately relevant, but *some* should — whenever I see panels on TV shows discussing some current “controversial” book that shows how blacks are really, really dumb or women really are “asking for it”, I am depressed to see the total lack of anthropologists. We know we have something to contribute, but apparently nobody else does.

  2. This is a frustrating situation. The question is whether it is better to accept it as the price of doing research on esoteric topics or to invest the effort required to market our work more effectively.

    Consider, for example, Malinowski, who was writing and publishing between the world wars, at a time when the members of his primary audience, other European intellectuals, were desperately seeking alternatives to the pre-WWI status quo. By presenting the Trobrianders as exemplars of contradictions to received notions in economics, psychology, religion, etc., he spoke directly to those concerns. It helped, too, that the number of competing ethnographies was small and that, as an author, he had a flair for dramatic description.

    Now the fact that people in different times and places may have radically different beliefs, customs and habits has become common knowledge, not only in intellectual circles but (thanks to TV documentaries) among the “literate” public as well. The current issue of greatest concern is whether anything at all can be said to be of timeless, universal value, fundamentalisms of one kind or another are a common response, and further revelations that things are different in Bongo-Bongo don’t have the impact they once had. Add the fact that there are now hundreds of ethnographies to choose from and more produced every year. It’s a rough world out there for those who explore social microcosms and hope to find something of general interest to say about them.

  3. The really sad thing is that the most widely recognized name in anthropology (outside academia) is probably Deborah Tannen – a linguistic anthropologist! But how many people know that she is a linguistic anthropologist? I don’t think they associate her with the discipline the way Margaret Mead was (and continues to be) associated with the field of anthropology.

  4. That’s funny–I thought Tannen was a linguist–a sociolinguist, to be precise. I mean, both of her graduate degrees are in linguistics. What would make her an anthropologist? (I’m not trying to be snarky–just inquiring into these disciplinaary issues. I’m wondering why Forbes didn’t talk to anyone in Speech Comm./ICC. At least the article “Ten Things You Communicate Unintentionally” cited anthropologist David Givens of the Center for Nonverbal Studies…)

  5. That the media would go to a zoologist instead of an anthro linguist is no surprise. Anthropology PR is non existent. I’d mentioned this at last year’s stillborn AAA mtg in Atlanta when the Atlanta Journal didn’t tap into the local state university’s large, well staffed anthro dept while compiling their frontpage story explaining the AAA’s visit. Instead they utilized a no-name anthro whose comments confirmed the public’s stereotype of anthros as “bone diggers”. A very embarrassing PR event for the AAA.

    During a discussion on the future of Applied Anthro I mentioned that PR needs collaboration in some form, and since anthropology, for now, is a solitary science, bent on isolating itself from the everyman world, our PR will continue to be poor. My suggestion then, and more recently during correspondence with AAA’s president over an article in The Nation, was that AAA must develop effective collaborations between anthros in the public and private sectors. As mediocre as this may sound, MDs do it, and are rewarded with Discovery Health Channel shows and interviews with Oprah [Dr. Oz is an excellent example]. Until anthropology develops the shrewdness of dealing with the media in a more public and down-to-earth manner, it will continue to be overlooked, and this filters over from magazine articles to departmental budgets.

    The public’s exposure to anthropology is limited to poorly written, narrow stereotypes, such as on Third Rock From the Sun, and the more recent Forensic Anthro show on FOX, so their perception of anthropology is of a science that is obscure, or concerned only with digging for human remains. This will not change until anthropology takes PR seriously and addresses all the misinformation currently projected into the mainstream. Such collaboration would mean showing the public how anthro studies are relevant to everyday modern life, not just in a south pacific tribal culture.

  6. To Kerim: Exactly! The unfortunate Katrina disaster touched upon numerous issues particularly relevant to anthropology–racism, poverty, urbanization and planning, public policy…are just a few. Plenty of material to warrant the AAA offering an “expert team” available to help with at least some of the problems brought about by this disaster; and to offer anthropologically relevant public discourse in the media. Could the AAA have possibly collaborated with the Red Cross or another disaster agency to provide help on a more public scale? Hmm. Unfortunately the AAA chose a more conservative reaction that I don’t think was very helpful to the situation or relevant to meaningful PR, leaving other innovative organizations to become more involved, like the ASA’s ‘expert list.’

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