Today I woke up to the usual quarterly flow of new journal alerts into my inbox and was surprised — delighted, really — to see a very complimentary article in the latest American Anthropologist on Savage Minds, Zero Anthropology, and the AAA blog. In another proof of its incredible capacity to do the work of our association, AnthroSource has the article behind a paywall while Wiley-Blackwell has it available for everyone to read (here is the abstract and you can download the PDF here sorry here is the actual link). GG AAA.
It is really a pleasure to be called “bright, engaged and [especially these days] young”. SM has been maturing over time and I think the unstable salad mix of career goals that created the blog has slowly separated out into the oil of a career outside the academy and the vinegar of life inside the ivory tower. Increasingly for many of us Savage Minds has become ‘something we are guilty we do not spend time on now that we have a career’. We are looking to take a producer’s credit on this one — if you’d like to do Public Anthropology in this space… let us know!
I’m glad that we are getting some recognition but I feel a little leery about being labeled ‘public anthropology’ since I think public anthropology is an activity that a) a small group of people have always been doing and b) a thing a much larger group of people constantly talk about doing but never get around to doing –as if just talking about it were enough. I’m hoping my Warcraft book will be ‘public’ — even ‘popular’ — but I can’t really claim to have done a lot of actual anthropology in public, although I do spend a lot of time going on about it.
If you care, however, let me state some theses, or better, hypotheses, about what public anthropology could and should be based on my experience at Savage Minds:
We are the bar at the conference, not the conference
It is the informal discussion that makes conferences interesting, not the presentations. We aim to be that informal conversation.
Public Anthropology is not simplified anthropology, it is good anthropology
I’ve often heard it said that anthropologists must learn to reduce, simplify, water-down, etc. their work if they want outsiders to read it. The assumption seems to be that 1) you know what the public wants and 2) you have a pretty low opinion of them (or alternately, a good dose of self-hatred at the obfuscation inherent in your discipline).
SM has always operated on an opposite set of principles. We’ve argued that
1) we do what we want to do for ourselves and for the work. This seems to be working ok for us so far.
2) People want the real thing. Just because you’re not a professor of anthropology doesn’t mean that you aren’t interested in anthropology like the real deal anthropology, not some fake-o anthropology. It’s insulting to tell readers we will give them simplified snippets of our work but hide the real thing behind a pay-for-content firewall. People tune in because they want to be dealt in. Public anthropology gives them a place at the table, not a view of the game from the back of the room.
3) Anthropologists like well-written pieces that are insightful and to the point just the same way that normal people do. I hear people often complain that they must write obtuse, jargon-laden prose to be successful as an academic. Really? Which one have you read more often, “Balinese Cockfight” or Kinship in Bali? Is it really the quantitative analysis or the sterling prose that drives people to read “The original affluent society”? Where is the jargon-laden theoretical prose in In Search of Respect? I admit there are authors like Foucault and Appadurai whose prose seems stylish to anthropologists and occult to others. But let’s face it, anthropologists don’t need to write differently for a public audience, they need to write better for all of their audiences.
In sum, I think what non-anthropologists want to read is good anthropology. Is that really that surprising?
Recovering from Darcy syndrome
For years anthropologists have been caught in a dilemma: our work is so relevant, so important to today’s world and yet so few people want to read it. How can we make them see the truth? This sort of attitude reminds me of certain evangelical Christians who think that the reason Jews haven’t joined the one true church is that somehow over the past nineteen centuries we’ve somehow just never heard about Jesus. Let’s call this ‘Darcy syndrome’ — the idea that we are the most perfect companion to the public’s Elizabeth Bennett and they just haven’t realized it yet because they’ve been swept off their feet by the twin Wickhams of rational choice theory and sociobiology.
But are we Darcy, or Wiggins? Anthropologists need to take a step back and start assuming that the public knows something about us that we don’t. We must not turn popularizing anthropology into a merely technical problem, the literary equivalent of those scary “how to seduce women through hypnosis” books that Amazon tells you you are interested in because you’ve also purchased some Foucault. Real relationship, healthy relationships, involve listening.
What if we stopped assuming that people needed to know what we wanted to tell them and attempted to disprove our hypothesis: if we recast the narrative of public anthropology as one in which we were totally superfluous, how much violence would this reading do to the ethnographic facts before us?
I’ve gone on for a while, but I think you get the point: in my opinion (which is just my opinion) public anthropology is good anthropology which is sensitive to its audience. It is something we ourselves would like to read, and something we can recognize as our own. And above all, it is something that we need to stop talking about and start doing. Good luck!