We Don’t Need Another Hero

This quarter’s American Anthropologist reprints two distinguished lectures from AAA conferences past, including Jeremy Sabloff’s excellent “Where have you gone, Margret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals.” Even though I was in attendance at the 2010 conference in New Orleans I somehow missed this talk. You can be sure that my absence had nothing to do with Bourbon Street, seafood, bread pudding, or cruising city neighborhoods with lost cab drivers looking for avant garde art installations. Nothing at all.

Which is a shame, because I’m heartened by the AAA’s earnest interest in exploring the public role of our discipline although I am skeptical as to whether this will amount to more than a trend to be tossed aside when something else bright and shiny catches the discipline’s attention. Maybe I’m reminded of similar calls for anthropology to be interdisciplinary only for that to amount to so much lip service. You can’t make a career publishing in journals of history, American studies, or education. If you want to be an anthropologist you are expected to publish in anthropology journals. Interdisciplinarity be damned.

If you are a dues paying member of the AAA then you can read the text of Sabloff’s plea for heightened public engagement behind a pay wall. While blogging does feature in his essay (with mad shout outs to Daniel Lende and Michael Smith), whether the Association’s decision to pursue a toll-gated publication regime managed by Wiley-Blackwell is at odds with his call for public engagement is, unfortunately, not addressed.

Did you see what I did there? Public. Publication. Eh? Eh?

To the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Sabloff pines for the day when our discipline had a public intellectual in Margaret Mead, one who captured the nation’s imagination, her commentary circulating freely in popular culture. Excepting the important contributions made by practicing anthropologists and professionals engaged in cultural resource management, Sabloff rightly perceives a great gulf separating anthropology from mainstream American society as well as public policy.

We need a celebrity intellectual, he writes, on par with Richard Dawkins, Henry Louis Gates, Paul Krugman, or Cornel West. Sabloff convincingly argues that the structure and traditions that bind professional academia inhibits the creation of such figures. (It’s worth noting that Mead spent the bulk of her career outside the tenure track at the American Museum of Natural History or laboring as an adjunct professor.)

Indeed, I am struck by how the American academy functions as a highly efficient Frankfurt School-esque Culture Industry, siphoning off organic intellectuals from their native communities and sequestering them in ivory towers of silence. Its spooky how effective it is at reaching that goal. Almost as if by design.

The academy gives little incentive for anthropologists to engage the public, with the emphasis falling instead on the publishing of research. Calls such as Sabloff’s for the expansion and reevaluation of criteria for hiring, tenure, and promotion to include such outreach dovetail nicely with ongoing discussions here at Savage Minds and elsewhere on the state of academic publishing. I think this connection should be explored further.

While anthropology does have a figure like Paul Farmer, he is rather low profile in terms of his pop culture cache. For Sabloff we need anthropologists represented in “highly visible media,” butting heads with Bill Maher, taking phone calls from Katie Couric, and trading jokes with John Stewart (his examples).

I thought these choices were kind of odd and to be honest they rubbed me the wrong way. There are anthropological shows on television already or at least shows where a relationship to anthropology is overt and lies on the surface: Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Antiques Roadshow, the lamentably deceased Postcards from Buster. What Sabloff seems to be saying is that while there currently exist shows on, say, the History Channel that are relevant to themes in anthropology, authentic anthropologists do not play a starring role in them and so mainstream society does not associate them with the anthropology “brand.” But this is not my main beef.

I’m going to come out and just say it. We don’t need another Paul Farmer.

No! Wait! I take that back. We do need more Paul Farmers. We need as many Paul Farmers as we can get, the man is incredible. Maybe what I mean to say is that I’m no Paul Farmer and I hazard to guess that you, gentle reader, are no Paul Farmer either.

I’m definitely not showing up in “highly visible media” any time soon but I am really, really good at teaching Introduction to Anthropology. I think getting more of us engaged in public policy is a terrific idea, but I’m not sure what the policy implications to my research on American Indian theatrical productions for tourists would be. Urging the AAA to get someone to helm public relations sounds keen. But what does it have to do with my everyday responsibilities?

What if instead of celebrity intellectuals we think of what can be done with the AAA’s rank and file. There are, relatively speaking, very few elite professors at prestigious universities compared to the large cohort of professionals at land grant, directional and second tier state schools, HBCU’s, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. There are hundreds more adjuncts and small timers. If public anthropology is to become a social movement within the field we don’t need rock stars, we need foot soldiers. Encouraging professors to get behind a television production initiative sounds worthwhile, but it also sounds really easy. Especially for me because I won’t have to do a damn thing!

I guess begging anthropology to produce celebrities rings hollow to me. Like one time at a SANA business meeting someone rose from the audience to say, “SANA should do something about xyz” Really? And how do you suppose professional societies ever manage to do things? SANA is you. What you’re actually saying is that you should be the one doing something about xyz, only you don’t realize it yet.

In Errol Morris’s cult documentary “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” the director juxtaposes interviews of four eccentric personalities to mind blowing effect, including robotics engineer Rodney Brooks. It’s Brooks who in his fantasies of extraterrestrial colonization coins the phrase that Morris gives as the film’s title. You see, in its exploration of Mars, NASA has relied upon a large, elaborate, and expensive robot – if it breaks then you’re out of luck. The robots Brooks proposes to send are about the size of a dinner plate and far less expensive, so you can send many more.

What I’m trying to say is don’t sit around waiting for the next Margaret Mead. And anthropology doesn’t become more relevant to Jose Six-pack once we cross Marshall Sahlins with Marshall Mathers. We can all be public intellectuals of a local, non-celebrity sort. Find something where you are, some way to play a role however small and do it. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to write a grant. Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you. Let public anthropology be fast, cheap, and out of control.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

8 thoughts on “We Don’t Need Another Hero

  1. As a layperson who reads anthropology texts for fun, I was very receptive to this post. In my own experience, it’s easy enough to get people engaged in anecdotes about seemingly strange and exotic practices of, say, unfamiliar tribes living in the Amazon, but more difficult to get them to talk or think about why it’s important to study and seek to understand different cultures. For me, the most important and wonderful reason to study anthropology is the way it forces us to find both similarities and differences between cultures and to broaden our understanding of what it means to be human. I studied philosophy as an undergrad, but I’ve moved away from it as it seems to cerebral. Anthropology deals more practically with questions about the human experience, and ultimately can provide more insight into human “best practices”. Trying to engage the public in a debate about what it means to be human is very important work!

  2. Matt, that last line is a champion. Great post. What I like the most is the rethinking of “public” beyond CNN, MSNBC, or whatever. It’s not just about attracting the attention of mass culture. It’s also about taking part in the communities where we live, etc. I also really appreciate your point that we don’t need to write some massive grant and create some monstrous endeavor in order to do this public anthro thing.

  3. What about someone like Wade Davis? Passionate, knowledgeable, and extremely well spoken. I have turned a number of non-anthropologists on to key issues by linking them to his talks on TED or the Massey Lectures or showing them “Schooling the World.” He could very easily be the next Margaret Mead if he wanted to be and if more of his work was known besides the horrible film adaptation of The Serpent and the Rainbow.

    I’m currently an undergrad anthropology student and as such often get asked what my major is. My answer to the inevitable cockeyed look and follow up question of “what are you going to do with that?” is always the same: “hopefully something important.” At which point I’m usually laughed at and told how I’m never going to be rich because I’m not a business/INR/Poli. Sci/Pre-something major and that I should change before it’s too late.

    Which brings me to what I think the crux of the issue is: money. There is no “real money” in anthropology, rarely are there major publishers who can provide the required PR to get access to the shows mentioned, and the literature tends to stay inside the circles of anthropology as a result. You and I might know that “Young and Defiant in Tehran” paints a sometimes gruesome picture in to the world and culture of one of the US’ enemies and provides some insight in to the future of that country, but how many future or current politicians even know the book exists? Would Penn pay a publicist to get him on some of these shows even if they could?

    I agree that it is our job to share what we know with anyone and everyone who is even the least bit curious, which is probably easier to say than do.

  4. @MTBradley:

    I have a similar reaction when I hear about appointing a “PR” person, for some reason. Hmmm. To me there is a difference between public relations (which has to do with maintaining a certain public image) and doing public anthropology. The latter is more about broadcasting/disseminating ideas and research to wider audiences. I don’t think a PR campaign for “anthropology” is really what’s needed as much as a push to rethink how/why we communicate anthropology.

    And thanks for the link to that newspaper image of Mead. Unreal. I never knew about that whole event.

  5. I love the title, tenor, gusto and passion of this blog post. The history of anthropology with an emphasis of applied, engaged, activist and public anthropologies is the focus of my work- along with contemporary projects around public education and decolonization strategies in Canada. True- we dont need another hero: there are so many to draw upon. How we understand the charismatic characters of our anthropological ancestors is more than interesting. We dont need to even single out Mead. There are folks like Boas and Tax whose political work and public engagements are very seldom taught and carried forward. Their work is just as timely today and their theoretical, political locations are just as timely. We have so many examples of great anthropologists who were interdisciplinary, collaborative and understood that peoples have agency. These are people whose works were deeply reflexive and anti-imperial before we even named the concepts. Really, if we look around, there are so many anthropologists (and it isnt really important whether it is anthropology or not, but this is an anthropology forum so I get that) doing so much public and activist work. To people like Boas and Tax, that is anthropology- it is the point. I’d say- we dont need another hero: we are surrounded by them and there are so many that have been written out of our history. Often due to their radical politics or a re-writing of what their politics were. There is lots to discover still in our own historical backyard and lots to do in our own (literally) backyard.

  6. I enjoyed and agreed with a lot of it- but one other point I would like to add – we still need a presence on all these campuses- and we need to support each other; don’t let positions be eliminated; try to expand classes, and help keep us in the public eye.

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