Who will read the baby boomers?

There is going to be a lot less anthropologists in the future. This is partly a statement about the precarious state of our economy, but really it’s mostly a statement about how ridiculously well-funded — I mean, world-historically well-funded — the academy was between 1945 and 1977. The result was a huge amount of baby boomer anthropologists who produced a huge amount of baby boomer anthropology. My question is: who is going to read it all?

If you are an anthropologist of the Pacific you can find the senior Micronesianists, say, and they can give you the oral history of their discipline, including its origins literally from nothing to the present day. They know which anthologies and articles were ground-breaking, and which edited volumes were central to the academic networks that produced them. In the coming decades, though — and I don’t want to sound too grim here — the group of scholars to whom this oral history was transmitted is not going to be a couple dozen people, its going to be a couple of people.

Even as the oral learning is attenuated, we will still have the publications: the glorious, thick, un-DRM’d publications. Publications that do not wink out of existence if you don’t pay your monthly rental free to Ingenta, publications that don’t have special software designed to keep you from copying passages into your notebook. But in an era of scholarly decline, will there be enough personnel necessary for these works to be read in any serious way? As archival and unpublished work comes online, the amount is going increase exponentially. We will have a feast of digitized fieldnotes, diaries, and dissertations, and no one (or at least not enough) people to read them.

The situation is aggravated by anthropology’s penchant for particularism. We have fine regional syntheses (in PNG, for instance, edited volumes like Papuan Borderlands and Children of Afek) but most of our synthetic and generalizing papers derive from what Sahlins called “uncontrolled comparison”: reading tons until it comes together in your head, and then writing it up. This is a time-honored tradition, but requires large amounts of exactly what we lack: scholarly work cycles. Without any sort of rigorous metanalysis — or even standards for structuring our articles, wading through the literature is a rewarding but laborious project which is not fit for our upcoming shortage of labor.

Despite the interest in tagging, crowd-sourced vocabularies, decentralization, and so forth, if I were a funding agency these days I would begin developing programs that promoted scholarly synthesis using new technology but with very old-fashioned goals: to start synthesizing, cataloging, and summarizing the work that has been done in the past half century. In a world of increasingly restricted budgets, where we have less and less scholars with more and more to read, it represents an important, achievable, and timely goal for anthropologists working today.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

12 thoughts on “Who will read the baby boomers?

  1. Hi there,
    Although I don’t think anyone could disagree with your conclusion that more synthesis of existing research is a good idea, it seems to me that the premise of this piece — that there will be “less and less scholars” — is far from obviously true, and moreover not really necessary for your conclusions about the merits of synthesis, re-reading, etc. I don’t think there are good historical statistics on the faculty population in our field or on job availability, but if you look at the number of Ph.Ds in anthropology being awarded in the U.S., it’s held steady at roughly 500 per year for the last several years. By comparison, it was 215 in 1970 and 367 in 1980. It’s true that it doesn’t seem to be growing much at the moment, but we’ve yet to see anything like a clear post-baby-boom decline. And I haven’t heard of massive job cutbacks in anthropology departments either; have you? Possibly anthro jobs and enrollments will decline somewhat over the coming decade, but slow attrition strikes me as much more plausible than massive shrinkage.

  2. I actually think their will be more anthropologists but they won’t be the normal academics of past. They’ll be increasingly employed by businesses (a trend happening today) as businesses realize the value the field has to offer.

  3. I think there will actually be “fewer” anthropologists, although a gangrene epidemic might cause there to be “less” of us.

  4. Yes… to echo Tac’s observation, perhaps fewer “academic” anthropologists and more working in applied fields, especially in healthcare and consumer research.

  5. [Anthropologists wi]ll be increasingly employed by businesses (a trend happening today) as businesses realize the value the field has to offer.

    Not to be a nudge, but while I can understand what ethnography can offer businesses I am more foggy on what anthropology can offer to the same. An ethnographer could prove quite valuable in helping a company figure out how to market their new line of cereal so that consumers will buy it rather than one of the other 57 pre-existing options, but I would think an anthropologist would be more likely to tell them, “Look, there are really only four kinds of cereal in this aisle anyway, I don’t understand the need to help perpetuate an economic system which continues to dedicate precious resources at convincing people otherwise.”

    Not trying to be a troll here, I just don’t really buy that anthropology + business = something of value to business. When I think of good anthropology in the business world I think of June Nash. That stuff is good for humanity but it isn’t really good for business in the “what’s good for General Motors” sense, now, is it?

  6. Like many anthropology graduate students at Chicago in the Dark Ages, I did a short stint working as a “research analyst” at Social Research, Inc., a famous contract research firm founded by Burleigh Gardner, a former academic anthropologist who had become disenchanted with academic life, and wanted social sciences to do something useful. After research in the American South he had worked on the Yankee City study with Lloyd Warner, and had a good sense of how to study U.S. cultural and social groups.

    Anyway, I remember one little project I was given, to catalogue the sugar suppliers that confectioners in the U.S. used – a potentially mind-numbing task that could have been completed with a long series of quick phone calls. I expanded it a little to trace supplier/purchaser networks, which was a tad more interesting, but in the end I had produced a basic ethnography – a description – of industrial sugar production and consumption. Useful, maybe, but not very interesting.

    Especially when I read the classic study Social Research had done for the Ralston Purina people years earlier, who started off simply wanting to know how many people fed their pets this or that kind of pet food. SRI expanded this into a fascinating study of how people view their pets, what role pets play in families in new suburbs versus old rural/urban settings, etc. The study was done in the days when pet food was basically horse meat, or was clearly marked as industrial waste – the parts of pigs and cows that could not, in those days, be processed into anything else.

    The SRI report was a deep study of families, new patterns in demography, and the meaning of animals and pets. The first and simplest recommendation was that people want to feed their pets the same food they eat, so Ralston should develop and market its pet food accordingly. Sounds obvious to us many decades later, but at the time it revolutionized the pet food industry – and produced a genuine anthropology of pets, not just an ethnography of pet food, which is what Ralston originally expected.

    SRI prided itself on going beyond the basic ethnography to get at underlying issues, meanings, patterns, etc. Erving Goffman used his work at SRI as the basis for his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and the SRI book series on topics as varied as birth control and cash machines at banks makes very clear the differences between the run-of-mill market research in those days, which resembled what we think of as ethnography, and the deeper studies that SRI produced, which were much more satisfyingly anthropological.

  7. @Barbara

    A fascinating bit of history. You wouldn’t happen to know the name of the team leader othe Ralston-Purina project, would you?

    Let me add an anecdote. While I was working for Japanese ad agency Hakuhodo, I was in a room when the new VP for marketing at Coca-Cola, an ex-Green Beret and totally tactless SOB was berating his research staff along the following lines.

    “We’ve been doing research in this coountry for forty years. Why is it that nobody can tell me who drinks our products, what they eat, what they wear, what music they listen to? What are we paying you for!?”

    Coke had tons of demographic data, with consumption broken down by sex, age, income, etc. But the VP couldn’t find anyone who could help him understand the people behind the numbers.

    That was, however, over a decade ago, and sketching customer “personas” is just part of the normal toolkit in market research these days. Ditto for things like refrigerator surveys, consumer photography, and digital/video diaries. Like everyone else in business these days, the business anthropologist has to be thinking 24/7 about how he or she is going to add value to the project at hand and the bottom line in the long run.

  8. I do not recall who worked on the Ralston Purina project — I was there briefly in the early 1970s, SRI had been in business since 1946, and the study was at least 20 years old by the time I read it. The one remaining luminary from my era is Sidney Levy, who is an emeritus prof. of marketing at Northwestern, and he might recall more details.

    You may be interested in googling Social Research, Inc, to get a sense of the scope of the work they did — pioneering in what was called “motivation research” in the late 40s/early 50s — using a variety of social sciences.

  9. This is partly an example of the problems we have archiving grey literature. But I think it also — after some meanderings in the conversation — points out the problem that I started with in my blog memory. Institutional memory requires certain sorts of institutions and certains sorts of people who take seriously the goal of remembering. I think in the future we will have a dearth of such people.

  10. Rex:

    I agree, though the situation with the report I mentioned is a little more complex. Research that is proprietary is usually by its nature hidden away, accessible only to those who bought it, and often for the brief period in which it is used, or not. The company that I mentioned – Social Research, Inc. – was aware of this problem, and found a number of strategies to try to circumvent the issue, if imperfectly.

    One was to broaden the narrow scope of a client’s project, and to publish the non-proprietary portions. This may be less obvious than a lot of academic publishing, since the work was highly interdisciplinary, and could end up being published in journals of anthropology, sociology, marketing, psychology, etc. Often the authors, such as Sid Levy, had academic positions that were foregrounded, rather than the SRI origins (as in Goffman’s Presentation of Self).

    A second approach was to use a client’s research to piggy-back research on a completely different subject, often by simply sticking a set of new questions onto the end of an interview. I believe that Lee Rainwater’s book And The Poor Get Children: Sex, Contraception, and Family Planning in the Working Class, was based on this kind of tacked-on research, and was one of a number of books published in an SRI series.

    Third, a series of narrow studies could be used to draw larger conclusions. Burleigh Gardner’s books Human Relations in Industry and The Factory as a Social System were based on this approach, and grew out of Gardner’s special interest in the anthropology of work (he has worked on the famous Hawthorne study – from which we got the “Hawthorne Effect”). Gardner sold numerous ‘employee satisfaction’ studies to businesses all over the country, and was adept at pulling together the outcomes into more general analyses of work.

    Gardner himself wrote an autobiographical piece about all of this that appeared in the first edition of a collection celebrating an anniversary of the Hawthorne Study, and it offered another approach to the problem of memory that you mentioned, but I noticed that the editor dropped it from the second edition…

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