The Opposite of Anthropology?

Christian Lander, originator of Stuff White People Like, is profiled in the Los Angeles Times today. It’s bad enough, of course, that we’ve already had an extensive discussion of whether or not it’s about race or class (Lander claims the latter), or whether or not it’s funny or lame (i think the consensus was more the latter); now it seems that he is One Of Us. That is, anthropologist (not freak). “Christian Lander, anthropologist of Stuff White People Like” reads the headline, “Christian Lander has turned his popular blog into a satiric ethnographic book.”

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the intuition that makes “anthropologist” work in this way. It’s obviously not Margaret Mead or Indy, our more conventional betes noires. In fact, there is something strangely on-target in this usage: the idea that anthropologists cleverly reveal the deep structure of the seemingly close at home or obvious. I’m not sure whether we should induct Lander or not… but if we had a real professional society representing us, maybe they would seize on this and leverage it something funny… maybe something about first contact with an isolated tribe of academics?


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

27 thoughts on “The Opposite of Anthropology?

  1. I think he should be inducted only after putting “the” before every use of “white people.” Extra credit if he uses “peoples” as well.

  2. This seems not so hard. The blog is about a culture (our question was in some sense whether it is about the culture of a “race” or of a “class.” The blog describes the customs and institutions that are part of the culture, with the only partly implicit idea that these reflect larger values of those of the people who are said to organize their lives by that culture. Hence an “ethnography.”

  3. comet jo: sure, that’s why it seems accurate on the face of it, but it’s also part of the reason anthropology has such a poor public face. If that’s *all* we do, then who needs us, Lander does a much better job, and deserves his agent at William Morris and his big book deal, and we do not. But if we do more than that, then what? This is a bit of a rhetorical question, since I know well what that more is, but the challenge is reducing it to enough of a sound bite that we might say “Lander the anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologists would…”

    perhaps I should turn this into a contest. Best answer wins a complimentary copy of my new book… a real one 🙂

  4. Perhaps it would be better if he titled it, “Stuff Nacirema Like.”

    The usage of “anthropologist” in this context also reminds me of a curious example I encountered watching CSI:

    Slaves of Las Vegas Season 2 Episode #030

    Lady Heather: “The most telling thing about anyone is what scares them. And I know what you fear more than anything, Mr. Grissom.”

    Grissom: “Which is?”

    Lady Heather: “Being known. You can’t accept that I might know what you really desire because that would mean that I know you, something, for whatever reason, you spend your entire life making sure no one else does.”

    Grissom: “Lady Heather, you’re an anthropologist.”

    Lady Heather: “More tea?”

  5. Chris, would you be willing to say that while Lander is not an anthropologist that he is an ethnographer?

  6. Chris, would you be willing to say that while Lander is not an anthropologist that he is an ethnographer?

  7. He is decidedly not an ethnographer, as that implies he has an actual method. I see him as a cultural commentator. Perhaps, though, he’s best described as an “armchair anthropologist,” which makes him way behind the times as an anthropologist, and yet, decidedly current as a humorist.

    Incidentally, I think it’s spot on a lot of times, and I can take a good joke, but my Indian spouse is, apparently, whiter than I am.

    But enough. Please excuse me while I go eat some sushi in a restaurant with lots of Asians, complain that my parents didn’t raise me speaking foreign languages as a child, and threaten to move to Canada.

  8. Anyone remember that Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City described herself as a “sexual anthropologist”?

    Stuff White People Like, Indiana Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, Temperance Brennan (Bones). Anthropology could be burdened with much worse associations.

    Then there is the most true-to-life media representation of all: Dr. James Krippendorf.

  9. This seems to go back to a frequently recurring topic of discussion amongst anthropologists about who should represent them, or rather, which are appropriate representations. I am reminded of the discussion of a couple of years ago about whether Kate Fox, author of ‘Watching the English’, was an anthropologist or not, am ongoing discussion within Anthropology Today, and similar discussions within the Royal Anthropological Institute about whether Bruce Parry’s tribe was a good representation – despite the fact that he never claimed to be an anthropologist. Okay, so the observations lack a certain depth that as professional anthropologists we would like to see, but for the general public? Is it not better that people are made aware of our existence, even if we are misrepresented? Students attracted to our departments by these will soon realize that there is so much more than can be presented on a blog, popular book, or TV series.

  10. I’ve made a poll on my website ( – it’s in spanish) about who is the favourite fake-anthropologist/archaeologist.
    This were the results:
    – Henry “Indiana” Jones: 15 votes (48%).
    – Temperace Brennan, from “Bones”: 7 votes (22%).
    – Lara Croft, from “Tomb Rider”: 5 votes (16%).
    – Dennis Alan, from “The Serpent and the Rainbow “: 2 votes(6%).
    – Charlotte Lewis, from “Lost”: 1 vote (3%).
    – Bautista Carrasco, from “Vidas Robadas”: 1 vote (3%).
    – James Krippendorf, from “Krippendorf Tribe”: 0 votes (0%).
    – Daniel Jackson, from “Stargate”: 0 votes (0%).
    – Annie Braddock, from “The Nanny Diaries”: 0 votes


  11. Is nobody going to take ckelty up on his competition offer?

    “the challenge is reducing it to enough of a sound bite that we might say “Lander the anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologists would…”

    “perhaps I should turn this into a contest. Best answer wins a complimentary copy of my new book… a real one”

    ckelty, are you reserving the right to withdraw your offer if you only get one contest submission, or is the prize committed, regardless of how lame the submission(s)?

    Just in case the latter holds, here’s my entry:

    “Lander the anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologist would actually mention real people rather than generic types and celebrities.”

  12. What if Lander is doing anthropology? I do sociology, and generally assume that everyone else around me is too—except I get paid to do it. This gives me the luxury of being able to do it all of the time. After several years of this, I have come to sound a little different than most, my ideas may even on occasion be a little more developed/ thorough.

    Lander, apparently, has discovered a more novel way to get paid for this practice than the rest of us—only he’s just joined the cabal. Call it a short cut to the top (maybe we hate him because he’s sooo nouveau riche). Give him ten years of talking and thinking as he is now (remember, all of the time—like us), and eventually he’ll sound like us too (or maybe the material will become so bland, analytic, and esoteric that popular culture will just spit him out).

    “Lander the anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologist would still be doing this in ten years.”

  13. Lander, an anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologist would be using concrete evidence from the practice of real, distinct, nameable (though properly anonymized), sociographically-contextualized people to engage at least one pressing issue in social theory or politics.

    A little long, but hey, my standards for anthropology are reasonably high.

    and a bonus, this time shorter (though it sets the bar higher):

    Lander, an ethnographer? Cute, but a real ethnographer would surprise the reader with his/her findings, even if the reader belongs to the group being studied!

  14. Lander, an anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologist would be talking about WHY there is an uncertainty about whether the real topic is race or class and what that conceptual instability has to do with the persistence of both racial and economic inequality.

    (This may be a more concrete version of Gretchen’s)

  15. Isn’t it somewhat in poor taste for an anthropologist to essentially make fun of one’s culture of study? This is probably a key difference for Lander, who definitely satirizes this specific ‘class’ of people. Also, an academically affiliated, credentialed, trained individual would absolutely have less license to make fun and likely be bound be IRBs and the like!

  16. Here are my rankings so far, with commentary:

    I have to give Chuk maximum style points, but disqualify the entry on the basis that it doesn’t promote anthropology… the principle reason being that it contains a grain of truth 😉 Seriously, the idea that an anthropologist takes longer to do what Lander did in months, is similar to the concern about what separates anthros/sociologists from journalists. When I read a really good NYT Mag piece that’s well researched and jauntily written, I often wonder what more an anthropologist might add… often I can figure it out by asking what I still don’t understand, and whether I can imagine a way to find out. Conversely, too much attention to detail would make SWPL unfunny, and hence unprofitable.

    Comet Jo and gretchen’s answers come closet in my mind. I would even shorten the answer:

    “Lander, an anthropologist? Cute, but a real anthropologist would be talking about WHY they like that stuff.”

    And the answer would have to point to something concrete about the conceptual instability (as well as the concrete social situation) that exists in the morass of race and class in North America today.

    As far as L.L. Wynn (and to some extent gretchen’s answer), I would argue that it is not central to anthropology that the people be “real”– Lander is employing a version of vulgar ideal typical analysis to get his point across, and I buy that. Appealing to real people is similar to appealing to sampling in statistics–it’s an important methodological point, but it’s not the heart of the matter; it can invalidate an argument, but it can’t prove one. I can imagine a very good ethnography that refers only to generic types and celebrities–the challenge would be to make them ideal typically specific, not real per se…

    So I think Gretchen and Comet jo are tied in the lead. Any other takers? Enter as often as you want, voting closes friday. I intent to make my decision as arbitrary and unjust as possible 🙂

  17. Hey there Ckelty, thanks for the nod. Not to pick nits, but I want to point out that I never said it needed to describe or be “about” “real people” to be anthropology. I said, “a real anthropologist would be using concrete evidence from the practice of real, distinct, nameable (though properly anonymized), sociographically-contextualized people…”
    By saying that I don’t mean to knock celebrities or stereotypes. In fact I unequivocally support the use of material about BOTH! I love celebrities! I read Parez Hilton! And I think celebrity and stereotypes tell us TONS!!!!!!
    However, I think a “real anthropologist” would want to talk about how celebrity and stereotypes are related to/emerge in/create contexts of real practice (with people and context and stuff).
    In Lander’s case I wouldn’t just want to know about white people liking coffee, I’d want information about gentrification and Starbucks, about the movie Generation X and the image of the bohemian coffee shop, about the marketing of Fair Trade coffee. I mean, a lot of people like coffee, and plenty of them are not white. But the whiteness of coffee is tied to some real interesting social facts, and those seem to me to happen in practice (and in practices beyond white people drinking and liking coffee).

  18. fair enough… i think I objected to “distinct, nameable” people, but even that is true of most anthropology in a way that SWPL lacks. +1 point for grade grubbin 🙂 and +1 point for using the magic word “contextualized” and you are now in the lead!

  19. OK now I’m going to grade grub too. Here’s the point of my ‘real people’ bit: can you think of any ethnography that doesn’t have some story about a seemingly real (or virtual, if you want to include Boellstorff or Dibbell) person, or some anecdote that presents what appears to be a real person making real decisions about something or other? In contrast, SWPL is just types and genres. We never hear about the life of an individual White Person and why s/he buys a double mocha soy latte.

  20. Once again, Savage Minds, thank you for addressing primary questions in my own budding savage mind. Just this week, I was thinking…why didn’t I do journalism again? There is some really interesting journalism. And then I was reminded that the times I have tried it I felt like I never had enough time to do it well. In a field I find infinitely fascinating and infinitely frustrating (because I still don’t know enough to provide my own answer to Ckelty’s question), it is always refreshing to see current discussion on interesting questions that I always seem to have just been asking myself before I read the post. (and thanks Ckelty for the journalism/soc/anth differentiation).

  21. Also, what would a blog titled “Stuff Anthropologists Like” consist of? Is this it? I ask this after having read the experimental philosophy discussion in a more recent post. Is there an ethnography on what sort of minds anthropologists have that draw them to this line of work? why didn’t we years ago choose experimental philosophy?

  22. ll wynn: okay +1 point for grade grubbing. But let’s get precise. SWPL avoids specific narratives and case material. Ethnography often (always?) uses specific narratives and case material. But neither of these things imply or entail real people, or even pseudonymized real people.

    This is the difference between objectivity understood as representativity and reference to a specific, nameable social entity, and objectivty of the sort Weber taught us about: “not the ‘actual’ interconnection of ‘things’ but the conceptual inter-connection of problems…” The latter is a form of objectivity that transcends the questions about qualities of a social entity, and tends more towards questions about the significance of different qualities across different social entities.

    SWPL actually does neither of these things, but kind of swims in the middle distance, a kind of metonymic theory in which the description of an act of consumption gives rise to an image of a consumer with implied qualities that that same consumer would never cop to directly (or proudly), and which therefore designate him/her as a member of “white people.” Just to be clear, since the discussion in the other runaway thread I started this week seems to suggest that clarity is in short supply: SWPL is not theory, it is not ethnography and it is not anthropology, it’s just the same button pushed over and over again, a button with a vague label like “anxieties experienced under late late late global capitalism by people with disposible income, a sense of irony and a desire to do good.” Ironically, SWPL the book will of course be one of the things SWPL.

    writing unnecessarily long commments when one should be on vacation is also SWPL.

  23. Is this grade grubbing? Dunno, but here’s how I would expand my answer. A real anthropologist would also be comparative in some broad sense—not necessarily by comparing (say) race in the US to race in Brazil, but by being open to the idea that things we learn about race in one part of the world might tell us something about how it operates in another part.

    Here I would suggest that a book set in Papau New Guinea, Ira Bashkow’s _The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World_ is helpful for understanding what is going with “. Bashkow argues (p. 244) that

    bq. race is constructed not only in persons and groups, but also in objects, institutions, activities, and places which are interpreted as having racial characteristics. Raced objects provide an illusion of clarity that the actual complexity of racial categories of persons does not support, and so we find that it is primarily through objects that racial characteristics that racial categories find confirmation in people’s lives.

    Bashkow goes on to argue that way Orokaiva categorize objects racially reveals the way they think about the world-both in the sense of a conceptual scheme and in the sense of a set of moral values.

    I think this applies to the “Stuff White People Like” website. I had been hoping to find the time to go through some of the list items in more detail, but the Friday deadline approaches and I haven’t, so let me make a claim about the whole: the objects in the list are all in various ways about the contradictions of being a politically progressive member of what Barbera Ehrenreich dubbed the PMC—the Professional Managerial Class.

    PMCer’s are members of an insecure elite whose status depends on education and achievement and whose class reproduction depends on instilling a set of values (hard work, self discipline, certain kinds of status consumption) into their children. As a culture, we commonly talk about these values in terms of whiteness, though in fact we are NOT talking about the white working class (whose cultural designation as “white trash” is another reflection of the way class is raced in this country). Sherry Ortner has some good work on many aspects of this stuff, including how it is also gendered, how it orders relations between parents and children, and how this all works differently for middle and working class peoples.

    Let me save space by putting the rest of this in bullet form.

    * One consequence of the PMC economic insecurity is an intensification of the cultural importance of “success.” (But in ways that also draw on longstanding myths about mobility. Elizabeth’s Traube’s work on 80’s Hollywood movies is god on this.)

    * This striving for success (and their whole elite status) is uncomfortable for people who identify as politically progressive even as it is deeply ingrained in their psyches.

    * One consequence of this is an embrace of cultural things that signify a rejection of mere materialistic striving. This covers a wide variety of things:
    (a) racial/cultural otherness (#2 religions their parents don’t belong to, #11 asian girls, #42 sushi and many, many, many other items on the list))
    (b) “nature” (# 6 organic food)
    (c) various forms of consumption-as-connoisseurship that attempt to belie SIMPLE versions of consumption as status (#1 coffee, #34 architecture, #40 apple products)
    (d) hipness ((which is a subset of “c”)

    One could go on here, and this would be the substance of a real ethnographic analysis (and why it is different from swpl): it would look at how each of the list items signifies within the broader terms it suggest give them context.

    * Finally, all the cultural things that get embraced as a way of coping with the contradiction between striving and progressivism themselves become cultural capital in Bourdieu’s sense of “what you need to know to fit in with the elite.”

    That last fact is (I think) where the humor comes from.

    And if this is really successful, hopefully, I’ve achieved Kate’s goal of being offering some insight even to native members of the group in question (of which academics are central, definitional, members).

  24. Just to chime in on this dated topic:

    I take it the OP/ckelty is North American and the persons above are all North American? Perhaps what Lander is doing is a bit “too close to home” to really notice what he’s up to. Your media pulls the same trick all the time.

    He sets up all sorts of little traps which I think those predisposed to “North American thinking” might be unawares of; Lander’s “ethnography” (if you dare call it that) is laced with rhetoric.

    Are people here familiar with Ian Hacking’s work? “Making up people”, etc (

    Lander’s work is a work of fiction – he holds a degrees in Media Studies and Film Studies. He is NOT, I repeat, NOT an Anthropologist. His work becomes a “reality” due to people’s reaction to the work – Hacking’s “looping effect”. We – me, you, and most especially, the media – including blogs like this – are creating these fictive “white people”.

    Anyone thought about it in these terms yet?

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