I just read a post over on Daily Kos called “Paul Ryan’s Magical Economic Worldview: The Austrian School.” First of all, it’s pretty funny. Second, it brings up some important questions about how we talk about that whole “economics” thing. Check it out, it’s an entertaining (and irreverent) read with some good points made along the way*. But that post also left me wondering: Where on earth are the anthropologists in these kinds of debates about human behavior, economics, and policy? There’s no shortage of conversation about economics among the “general public” around the world, so why is it that we don’t hear all that much from anthropologists? And by “all that much” I mean basically never. It’s not like we have a shortage of experience with this stuff. I mean, Malinowski was talking about economics and human nature and all kinds of good stuff almost 100 years ago. So what’s the deal here? Where are the anthropologists? In the US, for example, we hear a lot from the likes of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, the folks at the Von Mises Institute, and a whole slew of other economists and “experts” who find their way into print, radio, TV, and internet discussions. Many folks even listen to Glenn Beck, of all people, about economics. No, really: people listen to Glenn Beck.
Where oh where have the anthropologists gone?
So, thinking in a strategic sense, how can anthropologists become a more engaged part of these kinds of discussions? Seems to me that we have a lot to offer, and have for decades. So why are the economists getting all the air time? Is it because they try harder? Are they better looking? Do they have better ideas? Are they paying people off at CNN, Fox, and the New York Times? Or are we stuck in the proverbial bull pen of public debate because this sort of engagement with wider audiences isn’t really “our thing”? Are we being shut out of the conversation? (I highly doubt it.) Is this kind of thing “too political”? Or are we too busy “counting yams” (a nod to this recent post at the OAC about the passing of Eric Hobsbawm) to participate in these kinds of larger conversations? What gives?
I’m looking forward to the day when someone trots out the usual “humans are all self-interested rational actors” line and at least one anthropologist is called on as an expert to offer a slightly different take. And when I say “slightly” I mean something like this.** So how do we get there? How, dare I say, shall we step outside the halls of academia to once again engage in public debate? I’d say it’s about time we regain the public voice we once had in the long past days of Boas, Mead, and Benedict.
Or are we too busy for that sort of thing these days?
*You can also see my plug for anthropology in the comments of the post.
**David Graeber is one of the anthropologists who has done a great job of expanding the discussion beyond academia, closed conferences, and peer reviewed papers. And he deserves a kudos for that. I think we need more of that sort of thing. But it doesn’t mean this is an either/or issue. I think we can do solid academic work AND engage in these kinds of wider debates, issues, and discussions. It might help if this sort of thing, along with teaching, “counted” a bit more in how we evaluate up and coming anthropologists. Just sayin.