The search for anthropology in public, part II

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I always check out the anthropology section (see part I here).  A curious habit, or custom, or something like that.  What can I say?  I have my routines.  I like to see what happens to be on the shelves and compare that to my own understandings of what contemporary anthropology is all about.  I imagine that this is some sort of litmus test that tells us something about the state of anthropology in the public sphere.  Maybe, maybe not.  More about that shortly.  So, the last time I did this informal empirical investigation, the results were similar to past experiences: not phenomenal.  The most “anthropological” books included:

  1. Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson

  2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

  3. 1491 by Charles Mann

  4. Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

Bateson’s was the only book I saw that was written by an actual anthropologist.  How it is that only one anthropologist happens to be in the anthropology section is beyond me.  This was a particularly skewed sample, I’ll admit–usually there’s at least a Wade Davis, Margaret Mead, or even Sir James Frazier in the mix.  Not this time.  The rest of the section was incredibly eclectic, and included everything from books by Drew Pinsky to one by Maira Kalman (which does look pretty cool, though not what I would define as anthropology).  Some of this eclectic-ness had to be due to some restocking malfunctions, undoubtedly, but overall the section on anthropology was, as is often the case, a strange and somewhat askew reflection of the discipline.  Yes, that is an opinion.  And now, it’s time for some questions:

  1. What’s the situation in your anthropological neck of the woods?  Do I have bad data here, or is this a consistent trend in bookstores?  Is your local anthro section pretty good, or is it stuck somewhere between 1890 and, well, the History Channel?

  2. If you could choose five books that best represent contemporary anthropology, what would they be?  What five books would you be proud to see gracing the shelves of your local independent and/or mega-bookstore?

  3. Who cares?  What do the contents of local bookstores really tell us about public understanding of and access to contemporary anthropology anyway?  In these days of e-books and Kindles, is this all just a red herring?  When it comes to discussions about “public anthropology”, should we be looking in different directions (and places) altogether?  What counts as “the public” anyway?

It is highly possible that using a bookstore as a gauge for measuring public anthropology is hopelessly outdated.  It might make more sense to start tracking Google, Bing, and searches instead.  Or maybe we should think about the public in a completely different way–less about access to popular or mass culture and more about communication with certain pockets, segments, and key components of society.  Still, even if less and less people are going to bookstores these days, this residual evidence has to mean something.  If anthropology isn’t even well represented all that well in the old paradigm (print-based), what does this mean for newer modes of dissemination (e-books and so on)?

Harry Wolcott, in his book The Art of Fieldwork, recounts the words of publisher Mitch Allen: “The writers of qualitative research are also the buyers of qualitative research.  It is a closed system” (2005: 134).  Does this statement still ring true?  Anthropologists produce a massive amount of information each year.  So where does it all go?  Where should it go?  More importantly, if anthropological information dissemination is caught in a closed loop, why is this the case?  Is it because everyone is simply too busy–and stressed out–to worry about these kinds of issues?  Is it because the structural powers that be completely determine the situation?  Do the demands and regulations of tenure limit how and where anthropologists publish?  Is that the main issue?

Maybe, in the end, engaging with wider audiences isn’t worth the risk and effort in the current political economy of academia.  Maybe it’s impossible to rework the system at this point.  Or maybe it’s just not a priority.  But if there’s one thing that I have learned from anthropology, it’s this: social systems, even the most apparently entrenched, are anything but immune to change.  And the direction of that change may be heavily influenced by wider “structural conditions,” but the actions, decisions, and choices of the actors themselves can, in the end, play a crucial role in shaping the systems in which we participate.  Right?  Or is that just a bunch of nonsense that we all promulgate in lectures and seminars but don’t really buy into on a day to day basis?


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

27 thoughts on “The search for anthropology in public, part II

  1. If i was to pick five books for non-anthropologists to read they’d be as follows:

    1. Beyond Culture by Edward T. Hall
    2. The Interpretation of Cultures by Geertz
    3. Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
    4. Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow
    5.The Vulnerable Observer by Ruth Behar

  2. You bring up an interesting point. I often find myself wondering on the trolley home after work how all this arcane social theory that I’m invested in for my research applies to contemporary society. I think this train of thought is more prevalent nowadays with all of the sorts of ‘archaeologies of the present’ that are going on, but either way, its good food for thought.

    But I would have to agree with you about the representation of anthropology in bookstores. It runs the gamut from BN not even having a section on anthropology outright, to Borders having 1 shelf (yes just 1 shelf), to local bookstores like Half Price Books having an entire anthropology section usually. HP tends to actually have a pretty interesting selection, but that may be due to my proximity to Ohio State’s campus more than anything. I’ve picked up classic ethnographies like Barth’s “Nomads of South Persia” and other things there for pennies.

    But to speak to the other question, I’ll give the answer from an archaeological perspective (in no particular order):

    1. Nicole Boivin – Material Cultures, Material Minds: The Impact of Things on Human Thought, Society, and Evolution
    2. Norman Yoffee – Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations
    3. Bruce Trigger – Understanding Early Civilizations
    4. Tim Pauketat – Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi
    5. Kenneth Feder – Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology

    (chosen for readability, interest to the general public, quality of prose and ‘informativeness about what we do, why we do it and how, without too much technical business’)

  3. @Ixak: I have actually seen Geertz’s Interpretation of Cultures at B&N every now and then. That’s a good choice. Thanks for posting your list.

    @ckelty: Bookstores are these great places where you can get lattes, smoothies, and other fine beverages, of course.

    @Kyle Olson: There was this bookstore in downtown Santa Cruz that had a pretty great anthro section–much of this was because of all the castoffs from the university. Gotta love that though–I got some great anthro (and other) books for CHEAP. Thanks for providing your list of books–I was hoping to get some responses from some of the arch folks about this. Glad to see Trigger on your top five.

    For the record, here’s my list (with a cultural anthro bias, sorry):

    1. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf
    2. Culture on Tour by Edward Bruner
    3. Liquidated by Karen Ho
    4. Paradise in Ashes by Beatriz Manz
    5. Righteous Dopefiend by Bourgois and Schonberg

  4. HPB tends to be very good with having academic books in my experience. At the one near my house there’s one bookcase of anthropology and two bookcases of native american studies, which contain numerous books written by anthropologists.

  5. When it comes to discussions about “public anthropology”, should we be looking in different directions (and places) altogether? What counts as “the public” anyway?

    The notion of the public intellectual is attractive, but I just don’t know that there is an audience for him/her in the United States. While there is a certain self-licking ice cream coneness to anthropology as housed in academic departments, I would assert that anthropologists based in academia are a woefully underutilized pool of SMEs. More so the likes of David Stoll and Michael Brown than the likes of relentless critiquers of the discipline and citers of Bakhtin, IMHO.

    Bookstores are these great places where you can get lattes, smoothies, and other fine beverages, of course.

    Are you maybe confusing bookstores with university libraries?

  6. @MTBradley:

    “The notion of the public intellectual is attractive, but I just don’t know that there is an audience for him/her in the United States.”

    Why do you think that is? Folks like Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman certainly generated a following (for better or worse). Does this mean that we may only see public intellectuals from certain disciplines? Is anthropology unsuited to more public dialog/interface?

    @John M:

    Thanks for the WSJ tip and the reminders about some of the anthros that are getting themselves into the public sphere in some different ways. Tett is a good example, and I’m guessing that many readers would not primarily associate her with anthropology per se. Maybe, then, the concern should not be about the recognition of “anthropology” in public, but instead looking at how anthropologists can engage with issues that are relevant and important to wider publics? Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t really matter if people know that the work of Tett, for example, was accomplished by an anthropologist.

    Still, one of the issues that comes up whenever I think about this is the fact that many people associate anthropology with something that’s about 80-100 years outdated. Maybe that’s just me. But this kind of image doesn’t help when debates about the relevance and importance of contemporary anthropology find their way to places like the floor of the US Congress (not to mention university admins, etc).

  7. @Ryan

    How about putting together the two remarks in your last comment?

    First, though, ask yourself how many of today’s top entomologists, ichthyologists, sociologists or political scientists you can name? Then, consider an idea that ad industry people call “relevance.”

    This “relevance” is not relevance to an argument. It is relevance to the concerns of the people you are trying to communicate with.

    Would David Graeber have made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal if debt were not a huge and now very hot political issue?

    Would Gordon Matthews been reviewed in The Economist if a whole lot of top business people hadn’t spent time in Hong Kong and low-level trading by third-world people become a big deal for people interested in smuggling, terrorism, etc.?

    Would Gillian Tett’s career taken off like a rocket if there weren’t a whole lot of people interested in how the esoteric financial instruments manipulated by hedge funds came into being?

    Now think of the things that most of us study? One might argue that the political postures our theorists adopt should be relevant to everyone—though, since they aren’t perceptibly different from those of most left-progressive intellectuals they don’t give us much of an edge. But “should be” (our position) isn’t the question. The question is, who are our target audience and what is top of the mind, of most concern, to them?

  8. @Jason:

    I just read through your post. The results are pretty interesting–Linton’s piece, Ongka’s Big Moka, Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. All classic anthropology, but definitely on the out-dated side.

    You know, the first cultural anthro classes I ever took also focused really heavily on very early anthropology as well…Boas, Benedict, the Linton piece (which is still a favorite of mine), Napoleon Chagnon and so on. But it was somewhat of a shocker a little further down the line when I started learning about more contemporary anthropology (and how much anthropology had changed). I am all for teaching the classics, but I think that it probably makes sense to introduce the anthropology of today as well.

    I’d love to hear what the class says at the end of the semester. I like the idea of asking questions like this at the very beginning of a class, and then again at the end.


    “This “relevance” is not relevance to an argument. It is relevance to the concerns of the people you are trying to communicate with.”

    Ya, that’s a key point to keep in mind–and this points to the need to think about what audience(s) we have in mind. The idea of the “public” is pretty vague after all. I have just been reading through a long, related thread about some of these issues on the enviro-anthropology listserv, and a few people suggested it might be a good idea to look closer at what we mean when we talk about engaging with the public. Are we talking about mass media publics, city planners, developers, health officials, politicians?

    “The question is, who are our target audience and what is top of the mind, of most concern, to them?”

    Ya, exactly. Either look at issues that speak directly to the concerns of particular audiences OR find ways to bring up relevant issues and highlight their importance to those audiences. I think there is something to be said for bringing up certain issues that some audiences either don’t know much about or don’t care much about–but that requires some creativity in argumentation and presentation. Anyway, thanks for the good points.

  9. In India, I found that books by Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, Amitav Ghosh( In an Anique Land, The Imam and the Indian) are available in some book shops. In the old days, I saw books by Claude Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Frazer(?, The Golden Bough), Mead etc. I am just a general reader and might have got some of the names wrong.

  10. The Borders near me is closing and as a result I wandered in to the anthropology section to check for deals and the selection wasn’t terrible. Mead, Davis, Frazier, and Hurston were all there of course but there were also multiple books by Levi-Strauss, a book by Renfrew, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett, a book on Cuban diaspora with an anthropological component, and several others I’m sure I’m forgetting.

    As for what this says about contemporary anthropology; not much. All of these books have one thing in common: they are easy to read and understand without a background in anthropology. Book stores exist to make money so they will stock what they feel will sell best, books by anthropologists who that are just as good, or better as writers than they are as scientists.

    Also, 1491 is a good book and what made me decide to study anthropology. Mann may not be an anthropologist but he is a good historian and an excellent writer.

  11. Thanks Josh. The shelves of the local bookstore probably don’t tell us much beyond what bookstore buyers think anthropology is all about. So the same, sometimes a bit outdated stock tends to be in many stores, even if some of them are 80 plus years old.

    I haven’t read 1491 but I have heard some good things about Mann’s writing. The interesting thing to me is that a lot of the more publicly-oriented writing about anthropological issues is actually being written by non-anthros (Mann, Diamond, etc). My only question is why more anthros don’t write these types of texts.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comment.

  12. My only question is why more anthros don’t write these types of texts.

    Isn’t the explanation pretty straightforward, and applicable to lots of academic fields as well as anthropology. Young scholars are socialized to believe that only “serious scholarship” is valuable. The message is reinforced by institutions that only count peer-reviewed publications when making tenure and promotion decisions. Thus, while scholars are young and ambitious, they focus on producing what their peers and those institutions find acceptable. Anyone who has time to produce a big book with wide appeal while starting to teach, grinding out the academically necessary, and, in many cases, starting a family as well has to be a superhero. Then, by the time that tenure is (if it ever is) achieved, the habits that have led to success are firmly set. Rare is the old dog who is ready to learn new tricks.

    Given these mechanisms, it is predictable that the writers of big, popular books will turn out to be individuals who have not pursued academic careers in the fields about which they are writing or, for whatever other reason, have found themselves freed of the constraints imposed by academic discipline. Thus, the combination of tenure plus talent (one thinks of names like Carl Sagan, Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond) is an extreme outlier in the academic context.

    No big mystery here.

  13. It appears that we have some “structural” issues going on, no?

    Precisely. And that is why well-intentioned, and perfectly rational, chides like Rex’s reminders that open-source anthropology needs people willing to step up and supply the necessary sweat equity are likely to fall on largely deaf ears. Insofar as academic publishing is part of the academic institution which holds a monopoly on the means to satisfy aspiring scholars’ hopes and dreams of academic careers, any proposed solution that leaves the institution intact is, most likely, only a band-aid.

    Does that mean the situation is hopeless? No. To me it means that we need to free our thinking from the disciplinary and ivory tower boxes in which it is now imprisoned.

    We might, for example, consider doing a better job with those who take anthropology classes, especially those who major or go on to graduate programs, but wind up finding livelihoods outside the field. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in these days of email, databases, and customer relationship management (CRM) software, outreach programs could without too much effort build and maintain audiences for anthropological research and debate.

    Making it possible for students to maintain access to material now locked behind academic firewalls after they graduate could be another important step.

    It may be overly optimistic, but I find myself imagining a growing community of people like myself, retired or otherwise economically settled and with time on their hands and delighted to reengage with and even do volunteer work on behalf of academic organizations.

    The biggest barrier to all these proposals is, however, the categorical distinction now drawn between those who are “in-school” as students or faculty and those of us who have left school and are now forgotten, except, of course, by the fundraisers whose job it is to tap alumni wallets.

    Could it be time to tear down that wall?

  14. I think the major problem is, if you step outside of peer-review, where do you draw the line? For every Charles Mann there will always be a Gavin Menzies. If an anthropologist writes and publishes a book outside of academia and it is placed on the shelf next to a book with questionable sources, but fantastic claims, does it help anthropology at all?

    How about those who write books that could very well be written by anthropologists and are fairly legitimate in their overviews? Do those help? (In this case I’m thinking specifically of comedian Zane Lamprey’s book and TV-series ‘Three Sheets’ which provide absolutely fantastic sketches of global drinking cultures but does so in a comedic way.)

  15. @Josh

    When ever someone asks “where do you draw the line?” I find myself wondering why the line is there in the first place. If you start by imagining academic knowledge as a treasure to be protected behind the walls of ivory towers lest monstrous dragons seize and hoard it for themselves, you tap into a great, romantic story line (serendipitously my daughter is reading my grandson The Hobbit.

    What if, instead, you imagined it as a commons ideally open to all, the view adopted by the 18th century French philosophies—Voltaire, Diderot, that lot? (I once took a course in 18th century French literature in which the prof remarked that the philosophies often copied whole paragraphs or pages from each other, a practice that would now be condemned as plagiarism. In their eyes, however, new discoveries and what they took to be the best ways to describe them, were public property. They had no truck with the intellectual property claims that both academics in search of tenure and corporations like Disney now see as so important.)

    And then, of course, there’s Merlin, pointing out to the Wart (the future King Arthur) in The Sword in the Stone that the armor that protects their lords when they fight doesn’t do a lot of good for the peasants trampled in their battles. One wonders, pursuing this bit of fantasy, what will happen to our academic knights, armored up in intellectual property, when they run into peasants, who are in fact yeomen, carrying electronic long bows.

  16. “When ever someone asks ‘where do you draw the line?’ I find myself wondering why the line is there in the first place. If you start by imagining academic knowledge as a treasure to be protected behind the walls of ivory towers lest monstrous dragons seize and hoard it for themselves, you tap into a great, romantic story line”

    The line is simply that, a line. Not a wall or even a fence. It does not exist to keep readers away from the literature but to keep the works of credible authors and scholars, regardless of their disciplines or backgrounds, separate from those seeking to cash in or gain notoriety by making unbelievable claims.*

    If there is to be open access then we need to make sure the information is coming from a reliable source, which puts us right back where we are now.

    *I chose Gavin Menzies as an example of this for a reason. In 2002 he wrote a book called ‘1421: The Year China Discovered America’. In his book he claims that a Chinese emperor funded an expedition to map the entire world and was successful. He provided details on artifacts, images of maps, and a whole host of other items to back his hypothesis up. The book was published by Harper and was picked up for a special on PBS which put it in prime spots in many bookstores (which is how I found out about it.) The fervor died down eventually and most of the work in the book has been proven false by various academics. However the book still remains on shelves because it is a truly fantastic story.

    In 2005 Charles C. Mann published ‘1491’. A book that has a couple mistakes in it but for the most part is well researched and provides a more accurate history and view of the pre-Columbian Americas than most history textbooks.

    Neither of these books were written by anthropologists; Mann is a journalist and Menzies was in the British navy. However, there is an equal chance for these books to be put in the anthropology section because of their subject matter and chances are they will be close together due to the authors names and the titles. (In fact, Mann has recently release a follow up book called 1493 and Menzies a book called 1434 so these four books could end up extremely close to one another.) Two of the books are pretty much pure fiction and the other two, or at least one of them, is an accurate history. How does the average person know this though?

  17. @Josh

    Nicely argued. That said, I would argue, as I did with an earlier proposition that Ryan put forward, that the following conclusion does not follow from its premise.

    If there is to be open access then we need to make sure the information is coming from a reliable source, which puts us right back where we are now.

    First, there is the question, what counts as a reliable source? Are academic experts inherently more reliable than, for example, fundamentalist preachers expounding scripture or appeals court judges deciding whether or not laws requiring the purchase of health insurance are Constitutional (you will find a wide range of opinion in both)?

    The underlying premise here is that there is a world of facts in which there are experts who know the facts and, thus, are in a position to judge whether a submission (a) fits the facts and (b) has something new and interesting to say about them. On closer examination, however, the actual practice is one in which submissions are sent to a handful of reviewers, typically no more than three, all of whom have axes to grind in what is most likely an extremely parochial debate. In some cases, they may all be conscientious, fair and open-minded individuals.I have been lucky in this regard. Is this always the case? It is utterly naive to think so.

    Let us, however, put aside these concerns and ask if current arrangements are the only possible ones, for that is the second premise required to conclude that the argument has moved in a circle. The answer, I propose, is no. Because of a personal interest in social network analysis, I am now aware of a growing, and increasingly sophisticated, body of research in an area called citation analysis. Based on what I see there, it is easy to envision a world in which the basic rule in the marketplace of ideas is caveat emptor (let the buyer beware); but consumers of ideas have at their disposal tools for judging credibility based on citation histories. The citation histories and, thus, the scores derived from them will change over time. But, at any particular moment, someone asking themselves whether a source is important will be able to see how widely cited it is, by whom, and how its reputation is faring over time. It is even possible to imagine a future in which conscientious teachers will, instead of requiring X number of sources from peer-reviewed journals, require X number of sources with credibility scores higher than a prescribed standard. Those citing new work whose scores have not yet reached that standard will be required to explain why they expect its scores to rise.

    The ball is in your court.

  18. “Are academic experts inherently more reliable than, for example, fundamentalist preachers expounding scripture or appeals court judges deciding whether or not laws requiring the purchase of health insurance are Constitutional (you will find a wide range of opinion in both)?”

    Considering I have corrected a professor more than once, and that schools are consistently hosting lectures by non-academics I would say that academia is not a prerequisite to being a reliable source. In fields outside of anthropology many of the academics draw more from their own personal experiences in the workforce rather than from the journals and writings of other academics. Those experiences can make a person reliable even if it is, for them, the day to day world. Take the Amazon reviews for “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” for example. ( The reviews of the book include relatives of the girl, the physicians who worked with her, and many Hmong people. None are anthropologists and they provide insight and critique in to a book that has an undeniable anthropological background. While I don’t feel that current arrangements are the only possibility, and I do feel that there are far better ways to do it, I fear that we will end up with another standard that the next generation will have to try to fix.

    Perhaps rather than relying on peer-review we rely on public review of the works? An open forum where new ideas and articles can be posted and critiqued before publishing. Alas, there is a problem here as well: who is going to be interested in reading, reviewing, and critiquing these new works?

    Probably academics.

  19. Clarification: “None are anthropologists”

    I mean that none that I had mentioned specifically, not that none of the reviews were written by anthropologists.

  20. The tricky thing about public review is that a work has to attract enough readers to include anyone interested enough to write a review. One nice aspect of citation indices is that they demonstrate conclusively not only that a work has been cited but whether its influence is confined to a small circle or has spread across disciplines. Citation indices are also much harder to rig, e.g., by having a bunch of friends or bots tweet “Good job” to run up the scores.

  21. You don’t feel that this will exclude new work from gaining any kind of reputation? If there are two papers on the same subject, one that has been around for a decade and one that just came out with new information, the one that has been around longer will obviously have more citations. For some it may just simply be easier to not include the newer article because they don’t want to have to provide a defense for it’s low citation score.

  22. @Josh

    Good question. This is precisely the sort of problem that people who build the indices are working on. Other issues include, for example, authorship practices in different disciplines. In the sciences, it is common for papers to have ten or more authors, with everyone involved in in the research group cited. In the humanities, the norm is single-author and papers with two or even three authors are rare.

    If you’d like to dig more deeply into these issues, I’d recommend a look at the work being done by Loet Leydesdorff’s group at the University of Amsterdam.

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