Anthropology in Public

In connection with this debate at SM, I noticed these observations at Open Anthropology:

I wonder if much of what we as anthropologists engaged in blogging are in fact engaging in is public anthropology, or simply anthropology in public. I will not be naming names, and take the charge that I am criticizing a “straw man”, to avoid any unnecessary skirmishes (I have enough battles on my hands already)–from what I have seen, most anthropology bloggers are in fact writing for an audience of anthropologists online, and the discussions, even when vibrant, retain a private quality. Sometimes the posts that are published fit in with narrow professional concerns that they could only be of very limited interest to a wider audience, apart from members of that audience who are curious to gain insights into academic professionalisms. We are not generally communicating anthropology to non-anthropologists, or drawing on non-anthropological blogs in our own conversations, or producing an anthropology that is less self-consciously anthropological because it is too immersed in the give and take of a public debate to pause and ask aloud: “I wonder what Ralph Linton would have said about this?” Some of us seem to be too busy trying to impress professional, even senior colleagues, as if blogging were a shortcut to professional prestige previously gained through print publications, knowing the “right people” and having the “right pedigree”, and lots of hand shaking at conferences. The tone of assessments can resemble that found in the comments of anonymous peer reviewers in print journals, that is, sometimes rather elitist and haughty: “overly simplistic”, “spurious argument”, “specious”, “outmoded dichotomy”, not a good way to invite dialogue. In other words, it’s as if “work” has followed me “home” when I read some of the blogs, when in my case I often seek a break, a refuge, and a space for doing something different, or something that goes against the norms of the workplace. Otherwise, the question I would be directing to myself is: what’s the point of blogging when there’s beer and television?

Well, as noted here, there may be no divide between beer and blogging. And blogs are the new TV: on demand, interactive! Yet, I wonder if any of us here at SM recognize ourselves in Maximillian’s description? Two responses. Yes!: This online world is so open, dynamic, multi-media-ed, polyvocal, synthetic, syncretic, hybrid, assembled, contemporary – in short, so very 2.0 – it seems like anything is possible, and anthropological discourse could work in this environment in inventive new ways and draw in whole new audiences. On the other hand, readers of Anna Tsing are people too, we are a public. Do we not count? Does all writing on the web have to be snappy and quick, tilted toward a general audience? Maximillian has captured something here, to be sure, but what I notice often elsewhere on many anthroblogs is simply collation of interesting articles about, say, hormones and risk taking, from the New York Times. Newsflash: we are all reading the New York Times online. We all saw that article. One thing I like about SM’s sometimes arcane discourse is precisely that it remains rooted in literatures that I find fascinating and that I frankly don’t really see discussed elsewhere on the web (could be my own fault though).

17 thoughts on “Anthropology in Public

  1. To me, the obvious answer is that there should be blogs that approach both communities. Blogs aimed at a professional audience helps build communication within the field. In just lurking on various anthropology blogs, I’ve learned a lot. OTOH, there should also be blogs that build communication between anthropologists and non-anthropologists in an effort to break through the (perceived?) dehumanizing process of the ivory tower’s gaze.

    I think any single blog shouldn’t attempt to do both, although both types of blogs could (and perhaps should) be hosted on a single site.

  2. Why do so many academics fantasize that there is a public out there waiting to be addressed by them? And why do they at the same time believe that they always need to apologize for doing what they do best: reading and thinking?

    It seems to me that talking about what fascinates and interests you in an open and comprehensible way, inviting reaction, is only to be commended. Keep it up, SM.

  3. Many thanks for your post, Strong. I agree with your comments and with those of Marshdrifter above as well. I do not know if “public anthropology” is the goal of any given anthropology blog. My sense is that if it were a goal, for me, for SM, or most of the other anthropology blogs I have seen, that we are not doing a great job at communicating with non-anthropologists, even very well-educated ones. That’s not always true, but it is my general sense from trying to read these blogs with the eyes of a non-anthropologist and feeling like I have intruded on the private space of a particular clique. Now, everything is allowed of course, and I am not, and would not want to be, in the position of dictating what there is room for. Nor can I preach from any position of moral superiority (assuming that public anthropology is morally superior?) since I myself seem to shift tactics and audiences repeatedly.

    We certainly are members of the public, and why shouldn’t we have a place where the work of Anna Tsing is referred to if that is what we like? I cannot object. I can only say that while we are a public, let’s remember that it is a small and specialized public, and that sometimes we can be overzealous about our turf, and that if our aim is to have a broader impact then I don’t think we have achieved anything other than mixed results, so far. Tsing might need to be translated, connections made to better know literatures and ideas, etc. In my piece on “Trivial Terrors” I could have made use of Foucault, but I chose Orwell, not just because I think he is the better author who makes many of the same points in more memorable language, but also because his work is now better known to a wider readership than Foucault.

    I could stretch “public” and say my classes are public too–they are in accessible buildings, in downtown Montreal, anyone can enter, and sometimes that is what happens (I have met some very incisive and articulate young homeless persons this way, who just wandered in and sat at the back of the class). I am not sure anyone would call this anything more than accidental, or potential, public anthropology.

    I should end this message before I bore anyone any further–let me just add that I am not one who gets New York Times news alerts, so I actually do appreciate it when I read, for example, the Aime Cesaire obituary on Savage Minds, which alerted me to the NYT piece, and then others. Bloggers I read tend to individually consult a wider or different array of news media than I do, or have time for, so I very much appreciate having my attention directed by “human filters”. I use Google Reader, subscribe to dozens of blog feeds, and a dozen Google News Alerts…and then lack the time to even glance at them.

    Thanks again for the discussion, I hope others will add their comments. I am sure most if not all anthropology bloggers are asking themselves these same questions.

  4. Well, Mary, because it is not a fantasy at all. It is the actual experience and practice of some anthropologists, and here I include myself, to interact with a public, non-academic constituency.

    I don’t think we need to apologize…but the repeated theme in anthropology these days is, “oh, woe be me, why is the world ignoring us so?” So let’s give some honest answers and experiment with new possibilities.

    Sorry, was I attacking Savage Minds? Mary seems to think so…I don’t.

  5. Mary,

    In my experience (granted, in the archaeology subfield), there is a small eager audience, as Maximilian mentioned. This group generally has their own reasons for their interest (e.g. art), and largely don’t fully understand what archaeologists do, or maybe just don’t care. I assume this is true for the other fields of anthropology.

    Then there’s another small (but somewhat larger group) that thinks we’re still doing what we did back in the 1920s (e.g. stealing their cultural secrets for our own glory, desecrating burials and sacred areas, looting treasures, &c.).

    Most people just don’t care. There isn’t much time or interest in the pure sciences rather than the applied sciences. The growing attitude towards science these days is it has to be useful. Is anthropology useful in any substantive way or is it just fun? Obviously we think it’s important, but if it is so important, there ought to be more of an effort to share it with non-professionals.

    Gate’s plan sounds pretty useful to me. If it’s so bad, perhaps this should be explained through improved communication, rather than the appeal-to-authority soundbites of “I’m an anthropologist and that’s a bad idea”.

    Anthropology is a discipline of observing. Perhaps we need to be somewhat more evangelistic about what we do. Obviously we’re not going to make everybody interested in it, but we could encourage those already interested, educate against misconceptions, and hopefully increase the level of interest and appreciation.

    With increased interest comes increased opportunities for our field. In archaeology, this may be a bit more tangible as I have to convince people why that 2000 year old campsite in their backyard is important, but I think this is important for all of anthropology as well.

  6. If SM seems conflicted about doing anthropology in public or doing public anthropology, its probably because some Minds are doing one and some are doing the other. I, for instance, tend to write mostly ‘anthropology in public’ pieces while Oneman aspires more to do ‘public anthropology’. But as useful as this distinction is, I think it has problematic foundations.

    I agree with Mary, actually, that anthropologists are fascinated with the idea that they know The Truth that must be Made Public. This position actually shares something with the idea that blogging about our conference experiences may create ‘paradoxical forms of closed access anthropology’: both are rooted in a vaguely missionary (‘evangelical’) sentiment which assumes that anthropologists don’t have anything to learn, and they know what other people need to hear.

    This goes against a fundamental premise of the open access movement: that you cannot decide for others how they will understand your work. It also goes against something that I believe in personally and very deeply: that the central way to respect others is to assume that there are things about them you are not able to predict or understand and that, most importantly, they may know something about you that you don’t.

    And yet this self-certainty seems to be part of a deeper disease. Another anthropological obsession is helping perpetuate the traditional cultures of small communities. The exception, however, appears to be their own. Perhaps this is because of the previous thing that I noted — that they imagine themselves to be large and powerful.

    I guess in the end my difference with Max is that he sees anthropology as ‘work’ that can be thankfully cast aside when he gets home to the ‘refuge’ of the Internet, television, and beer, whereas I see anthropology as a way of life that is worthwhile in itself and deserves perpetuation through living practice. Being a professor is one way to do it, the Internet is another.

    I wonder how much Max’s (and others’) certainty that ‘outsiders’ could never find the details of our lives interesting or comprehensible without ‘translation’ stems from their own ambivalence towards their vocation? To be honest, I think it is actually SMs willingness to chew with its mouth open that is best example out there at the moment of living with ‘no divides’.

  7. For the first few years of Savage Minds I wrote for a generic “public” but as we started getting more and more regulars – most of whom seem to be graduate students in anthropology or allied disciplines – I find that I write more and more for our actual readers rather than hypothetical readers.

    According to Google’s stats, more than 44% of the 500-800 people who visit Savage Minds each day are returning visitors. That’s a lot for a blog – and a good number of you don’t just visit – you participate as well.

    Moreover, there are also now more and more anthropology blogs, and so we are more likely to be in dialog with them than with the mainstream political blogs.

    I think there is perhaps something about the nature of anthropological contributions to the public sphere which makes it difficult for us to assume the authoritative mantle that political science and economists do on their blogs. I’m still thinking about what this might be … But I find it interesting that such critiques should come at a time when this blog seems to be getting much more involved in public discourse – whether it is anthropology in the military, or the events in Tibet, it seems that Savage Minds has been very active in the public sphere as of late, and not in a purely academic way either.

  8. Rex, Mary’s lead point was that it was a fantasy to think that anthropologists have an audience “out there”, and while they are not passively waiting to be addressed by anthropologists they actively seek the collaboration and inputs of anthropologists. That’s not a theoretical statement–it is an observation based on experience, and not just my own.

    I worry that you seem to have reinforced a divide between theory and praxis: “a vaguely missionary (‘evangelical’) sentiment which assumes that anthropologists don’t have anything to learn, and they know what other people need to hear”. They way I have learned is by engagement, mistaking what I think other people need to hear, hearing back from them, and reworking my engagement. I don’t think one can separate the two. Moreover, the simple point I make is that we have something to say, and should say it, and not just among ourselves. Otherwise if we take your path to its ultimate end, we will end up in silence.

    My point about the refuge from “work” may have been misunderstood–work is what I mean by the routines of professionalism, the encrusted ways of doing that uphold a particular regime of knowledge production, that is both closed access and elitist, among many other problems.

    But yes, you are very right to note my ambivalence towards my own vocation. I would not be blogging in the first place if I had no such ambivalence, and given the history and current state of our discipline more of us need to be, and many thankfully are, ambivalent.

    Lastly, yes, I realize there is a diversity of views among people at SM, including the fact that your group does include a very well known “public anthropologist” whose work, like all of yours, I very much respect (speaking of Thomas Hylland Eriksen). On the other hand, you end with a statement that generalizes for everyone at SM, so I am not sure what the stance is after all.

  9. Please forgive me for abusing your generously open comment section–I see ample room for discussion here and would love to eventually hear from many other anthropology bloggers as well, including or especially Lorenz Khazaleh whose own blogging was an inspiration for me to create Open Anthropology (I have been working with The CAC Review since 2004, and part of my response to Mary stemmed from that experience). With your permission, I would like to invite their comments.

  10. Max feel free to invite whoever here… as long as you don’t mind them doing ‘anthropology in public’ instead of ‘public anthropology’… 😉

  11. bq. I think there is perhaps something about the nature of anthropological contributions to the public sphere which makes it difficult for us to assume the authoritative mantle that political science and economists do on their blogs. I’m still thinking about what this might be …

    Two things perhaps:

    1. Anthropology tends to be particularist, so we don’t have a consistent “take” we can apply to every issue that comes along–in other words we can’t be the anthropological equivalent of Freakonomics because aside from Marvin Harris, there is no such thing.

    2. There is a lot of economics and political science that is “Western common sense” dressed up as an academic discipline, while there is much in anthropology that runs counter to such culturally sanctioned ways of thinking. I think this makes our attempts to speak with an “authoritative mantle” something of an uphill struggle. Mead, Benedict, Boas et al managed to do this to some extent but that me be because a liberal (vs neoliberal) moment was more receptive to their critique, which could also claim to be the voice of “progressive” authority in a way that is no longer possible.

  12. Interesting debate. I agree with all of you and think one should try to approach both communities – both the “professionals” and those interested readers outside of the academy.

    There is a simple solution for more public and inclusive blogging: Think a bit more like a journalist! As a representant for “old media” (I’ve been working as journalist for print media since the early 90s), I suggest the following:

    – Write the full name instead of the nick name: Lots of nicknames in blog posts might give the impression that this is an internal debate and the blog is mainly directed at friends and colleagues, but not at the general public

    – Explain abbreviations: IRB? Most (?) American anthropologists might know that IRB stands for Internal Review Boards, but readers outside the USA (like me) might never have heard of this before. Even after having written about HTS before, it must be explained in a new post like “Human Terrain System (HTS)”. You might have noticed that I even explain AAA in my blog as not everybody might be familiar with this abbreviation.

    – Translate: As Maximilian Forte writes, “Tsing might need to be translated, connections made to better know literatures and ideas”. Translation is neccessary not only for people outside the university, but even for anthropologists, the majority of the 44%, as we are all specialists with different interests all therefore read different books.
    And when writing “I wonder what Ralph Linton would have said about this?” one could try to find references online and link to it. Also, when using scientific/technical terms or difficult words, link to a wikipedia-entry or similar.

    So, it is possible to engage in both public anthropology and anthropology in public at the same time.

  13. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Uninteresting debate. Besides, I can’t think of any topic more restricted to anthropology, more internal and irrelevant to other people, more alienating, than the question of whether anthropology (and/or its blogs) are relevant and/or alienating. Please stop talking about yourselves. It’s boring.

  14. Following up on Maxmillian’s observation that,

    bq. Mary’s lead point was that it was a fantasy to think that anthropologists have an audience “out there”, and while they are not passively waiting to be addressed by anthropologists they actively seek the collaboration and inputs of anthropologists.

  15. _Whoops. Hit the wrong button. Continuing, however, my response to Maximilian’s observation._

    When I think about Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, Vic Turner and Clifford Geertz, one thing that strikes me about them all is the way in which they used anthropological research to engage in the great conversations of their day. Malinowski took on classical economics with the kula, Freud with the sexual life of savages; Mead spoke to widespread anxieties about adolescent rebellion; Benedict tried to understand “the most alien enemy” the United States had ever encountered. Vic Turner was constantly engaged with philologists, historians, literature, theater and performance studies people. Geertz involved himself in all sorts of intellectual debates. None, however, was into critique for the sake of critique, the kind of small-minded nya-nya-nya, gotcha! that seems so pervasive these days. Geertz, for example, begins his essay on “Thick Description” with a graceful bow to Susan Langer and goes on to demonstrate the relevance of Ryle’s “winks and twitches” to interpreting the settlement of a sheep-stealing case in Morocco. He is always building on ideas discovered in other fields, neither using them like cookie-cutters nor seeking to destroy them, but, instead, thinking about how they illuminate anthropological problems.

    None of these folks wrote or write for “the public.” But all did or do try to write for what Robertson Davies called “the clerisy,” serious readers with broad intellectual interests. By addressing the sorts of questions that the clerisy of their times had on its collective mind and reaching out to include in their thinking the work of people outside their disciplinary boundaries they became, in the best sense of the word, public intellectuals.

    There is something similar today going on in the work of the Science and Technology Studies people, like Michael Fischer and our own Chris Kelty, i.e., serious conversations with people in other disciplines, grounded in mutual respect and unmarred by the defensiveness of people who seem, at times, desperately insecure about what they are doing.

    Could be worth thinking about.

  16. Agreed! Let’s stop self-licking our ice cream cones, and get back to the big picture: the total inanity of this Minerva business! I mean…one can support/debate the idea that military intelligence requires local (even anthropological) knowledge, and one can debate the ethical implications of using civilian universities to fill that need. However, let’s line up the ducks:
    -HTS staff with no area expertise, no language training, and probably NO IDEA what’s going on on the ground.
    -Six digit salaries for said HTS folks.
    -A clearly plagiarized publication (Counterinsurgency Handbook, or whatever)
    -Minerva Consortium $$$$$$$$$, getting proposed into existance and then shoveled around in private meetings.
    -Multi-million dollar budget for HTS (a project of debatable quality, see above)

    All in the context of:
    -A military that ALREADY HAS highly specialized schools to train area specialists (in language too!), and that also already has access to title vi funded language training programs.
    -McFate’s post-PhD marriage into the military contracting/consulting establishment.

    Um, does anyone remember the gold toilet seats of the Iran-Contra era? Maybe anthropologists should be mad about being used as cover for an incredible boondoggle lining some people’s pockets with wads of money. It will make us look stupid in the long run.

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