Do anthropologists have a moral obligation to make their work accessible to the people they are writing about? The answer, to me, is an obvious ‘yes’. Although as someone who has blogged for almost a decade I seem to think that the public waits with baited breath for a description of my breakfast so I am maybe not the best person to ask. Still, I think most people can agree that anthropologists have a moral obligation to share their research with the community where they worked as well as the public. But how much of our scholarly output should be this sort of work?
Some people argue that anthropology needs to be better written so that it can be more accessible to the general public — this is part of a general sense that anthropologists write in ‘jargon’. I am not particularly happy with this critique of anthropology as ‘jargon’. First, I agree that anthropologists need to write clearly and beautifully and without unnecessary jargon — but this is just to say that many academics are atrocious writers whose style we put up with because we are interested in the content of what we are saying. The most successful academics are those who write clearly and accessibly: the Benedicts and Geertz’s of the world. So it is not just the pubic that deserves some clear writing. (and please note what a kind thing I’ve just said about Geertz’s style!)
That said, I’m often struck by the way people believe anthropologists use jargon ‘unnecessarily’ while they rarely complain about the technical prose of geophysicists or molecular biologists. Granted, some would denounce geophysicists and anthropologists in the name of a thorough-going anti-intellectualism. But for most people the distinction seems to be that geophysicists ‘know something’ while anthropologists simply do not, and therefore hide the relatively common-sense nature of their knowledge in ‘jargon’. This I have less time for.
Beyond some basic stylistic issues there is a deeper question of what genres anthropologists write in. At times it seems like some people (Eric Lassiter I’m looking at you) would argue that all of our output as anthropologists should be written for the communities we work with and, contrariwise, that only way to treat our collaborators in the field is to do our best to turn them into anthropologists like us — a fate that, frankly, I wouldn’t wish on a lot of people.
Am I wrong in thinking that this sort of approach restricts the genres in which anthropologists can write to a very narrow band? And, ironically, when taken to an extreme such an approach could result in the situation which we have now, but in reverse: anthropologists who feel compelled to write only accessible pieces for a general public. Is this the future want? I am genuinely uncertain what most people’s answer would be. Votes for ‘yes’ seem to give up anthropology’s claim to specialist knowledge that requires training and expertise — or, as they might say, perhaps they are just coming clean on what a pipe dream that is. They also seem to be unconcerned with the idea that anthropologists can and should write in several genres, each of which appeal to different audiences.
Let’s return to the jargon issue. I often have students who complain that they must write ‘in jargon’ in order to be taken seriously. Often times, these students mistake obfuscation for alternate genre standards. What is ‘jargon’ on some occasions in ‘beauty’ to others. Need I remind one here of Lévi-Strauss?
So: is it ethical in principle to say things about people that they cannot understand (technical work) or that is written in a genre they don’t care for or ‘get’ (disciplinarily-defined beauty)? Beyond the obvious answers — that we should not only write in these ways, or that there are pragmatic lengths we must go to to make sure people do not misunderstand what we are saying in these specialized works and get made at us — this is a question that anthropologists have not answered. At least as far as I can tell.
My feeling is that the answer is yes, it is ethical in principle. In practice, of course, there are power dynamics, limited time to produce in many genres, and a variety of other factors that shape how we think about our work and our relationship with members of the lifeworlds we describe. But in principle? I think the answer is no yes. But I’d be interested in hearing what others think.