Anthropologists Engaging with Media

“Anthropology,” James Peacock said in a 1995 address at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, “boasts brilliant observers, cultural critics, writers, and creators, yet few if any of us have produced books that we (not to mention others) crave to read, films that we crave to see, or music that we crave to hear.” Eighteen years have passed since Peacock spoke these words. So, have anthropologists today heeded his call?  Are the crucial issues of our time receiving public reflection from anthropologists, if not in books, then in popular media? What are some of the obstacles that prevent us from doing so more often?

With every passing year, I see more anthropologists using their regional and topical expertise to weigh in on social issues in the media. In this post, I’d like to address two possible ways that we as anthropologists can communicate with a lay public—media appearances and Op-Eds– and the positives and negatives of both.

In 2011, during the so-called “Arab Spring,” local media in Orlando would often call my college’s PR department looking for academics to weigh in about what was going on. I did a few local TV appearances and radio interviews, which were largely unsatisfying. One local anchor, before we went on camera, asked me about my experiences conducting research in Morocco. Once we established where Morocco was, he asked whether “they” made me wear a headscarf, or whether I ever felt threatened “over there.” This was representative of my experiences, though I did have a few longer, more thoughtful interviews with the local access cable station and NPR. In retrospect, although a small minority of those interviews were rewarding, they were also time consuming. And when I watched the shorter clips on television, I was disappointed at how much they edited. Syria! Things look bad, says a local academic. Egypt! Mubarak’s days are numbered, says a local academic.

My experiences with Op-Eds have been more positive.  The disadvantages: in only six hundred words, the writer has take a firm stance about something (i.e. “The Mayor must protect the rights of people to freely assemble”), which may be challenging for anthropologists accustomed to longer form writing that teases out multiple layers of complexity. But it’s also a worthwhile exercise to be succinct, and to select only the most expedient phrases and evidence to support your position.  The problem with complex arguments is that the general public doesn’t necessarily want to read them. In this era of 140 character tweets, we are moving even further away from the complex argument than ever.  So if anthropologists want to be part of the debate, we may have to carry the conversation on others’ terms. That said, working within the Op-Ed format, I haven’t personally had issues with editors trying to radically curtail my expression.

There are a number of valid reasons not to engage with media. One is simply the time it takes. An Op-Ed has to be written immediately after an event happens in order to be relevant, and writing an informed one requires keeping abreast of all the relevant knowledge about a particular issue. At the same time, academics are trying to keep abreast of developments in the field, journal articles, and our own teaching responsibilities. Another issue is the structure of rewards in traditional academia. Media engagement is usually only a small part of what counts for tenure, if at all, a point made nicely here at the Culture Matters blog. A third challenge is that one’s regional and topical expertise may simply not relate to what’s going on in the news these days, although I would still encourage people to think about making connections wherever possible. Here’s a great example from anthropologist Matthew Bradley of how he found an outlet for his expertise on snowshoes.

To me, this issue of communicating with wider audiences is becoming increasingly crucial, particularly as anthropologists are constantly forced to defend the value of an anthropology degree in an environment that insists on quantifying knowledge. To write for the public is to demonstrate that anthropologists have knowledge, expertise, and thoughts worth considering, and that we value civic engagement.  In a future post, I’ll offer some tips for writing Op-Eds, and also discuss how graduate programs and other entities, like the Center for Public Anthropology, are encouraging students to learn to engage with the public this way.

My perspective here is limited to what I’ve experienced in the academic world, but I’d like to hear from others who are differently positioned in society. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of anthropologists doing media appearances or writing for the popular press?

An associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College, Rachel Newcomb is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and writes book reviews for The Washington Post.  Her books include an ethnography, “Women of Fes,” and a novel, “The Gift.” For more information, you can visit her website.

10 thoughts on “Anthropologists Engaging with Media

  1. My perspective here is limited to what I’ve experienced in the academic world, but I’d like to hear from others who are differently positioned in society.

    This past February I participated in a not at all anthropological TV spot—an interview about snowshoeing—and my experience was much better than yours in Orlando. There were certainly some genre specific things going on which were a little disorienting, though. The interviewer wanted a couple of very specific pieces of information (visual pull quotes, I think it is fair to say). I’m a shy person and was quite anxious about the whole affair, but I must say that the interviewer was quite good at putting me at as much ease as possible in the short period we spent together. And I was very impressed with her interviewing skills. At one point about half an hour into the shoot we were walking to set up another shot and chatting when she glanced behind us and said to the cameraman, “I finally got him to open up and you weren’t recording?!?”

    My experience was such that the editing process stayed in the hands of the interviewer and the cameraman, who were not put in a huge time crunch. To the best of my recollection she said they typically did the editing for a piece like the one I participated in over the course of a single day. Features have that luxury.

    The experience certainly changed the way I look at televised interviews. I always see the battery module and lavalier mic now, think about the editing, and can usually pick up whether the interviewee was prepped beforehand. Anyone participating in a TV interview will end up enlightened about the media, if nothing else. Best case scenario, they will also enlighten the broader world a bit, too.

  2. Rachel, I think it is worth thinking about how this post relates to the #Solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation over on Twitter, especially in light of anthropologist Sarah Kendzior’s contribution to it. I am on vacation and so don’t have time for a longer intervention/comment at present, but I do think that this question of media engagement needs to be further deconstructed to make clear the race/gender/color- (positionality-) specific constraints of this issue of anthropological media engagements, especially in light of increasing academic repression in the neoliberal corporate academy. Especially for those without the benefit of tenure, for whom ‘academic freedom’ really doesn’t exist.

    I also think about this issue given that you teach in Florida and I was just on a blog discussing the realities of academic abuse and precarity in which another commenter mentioned that Florida conducts extensive background searches on applicants for academic positions. What if an untenured anthropologist’s public engagements, say in discussing issues of strict inequality in the US, angered officials at his/her university such that the person was retaliated against by the university, such that the university did what Berkeley did (as discussed on the Daily Kos) to peaceful Occupy protesters who were slapped with unethical stay-away orders to intimidate them and unconstitutionally strip their free speech rights? We should be more honest about who can and cannot be a media ‘expert’ (and still be considered a “legitimate member of the community”, anthropological and otherwise) and how often ‘expertise’ and how ‘meaningful’ one’s perspective is is a function of how race/color/gender structure perceptions of ‘legitimate’ authority–and how should get to speak v. who should be ‘spoken for’ (or else be punished for speaking the truth to power that anthropology is supposedly about–though not really, in actual practice, especially around the practices which led to the creation of the #Solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter hashtag).

    Everything written above also relates to what you have written about anthropologists writing ‘outside’ their fields of expertise. I’d problematize this part of the post/discussion by asking: But what actually constitutes an anthropologist’s field of expertise? For example, I think all Florida anthropologists could be speaking out on the background check issue (especially given how easily it can be used as part of larger practices of academic repression and retaliation for peaceful and legitimate political dissent) regardless of where an anthropologist actually does fieldwork. And training in anthropology graduate programs should be critical and *ethical* enough to make it easy for students to understands such issues of structural inequality and differential vulnerability to abuse–again, regardless of geographic location of one’s field site.

    Then again, many of these proverbial dots never get connected precisely because Anthropology’s ‘white public space’ issues discourage anthropologists (especially non-white/Black ones, particularly without tenure) from writing about these issues of structural inequality and everyday violence/white supremacy. So this post on media engagement is definite not seperate from the previous discussion of graduate student professionalization given the ways in which publicly engaging structural racism in the US, by anthropologists of color, is discouraged.

  3. Thanks for this post, Rachel. I’m also coming from an academic perspective, but so far, I have not had any major negative experiences with talking to the media about my own research or giving an opinion on someone else’s. I’ve found that I’m generally only contacted by credible media outlets, though — LiveScience, CNN, Discovery News, etc. — perhaps because my flavor of anthropology tends towards the scientific. I had a fantastic experience once being interviewed about my research on the Canadian program Quirks & Quarks, since the host was a consummate professional and quite good at his job.

    I encourage my graduate students to be open to public appearances and requests for information; in short, to offer themselves up as anthropologists of whom the public can ask questions. I live and teach in Florida, where our governor has famously said that we don’t need more anthropologists, so it’s crucial for us to be out there, on the ground, talking to people about what we do and what benefits the anthropological perspective can have. This past semester, I taught a proseminar called Presenting Anthropology to encourage MA students to reach out to the public. It was a lot of fun; some students got instant rewards from direct public engagement, and others created long-term projects that are just now coming to fruition.

    At any rate, I’ll be very interested to read your upcoming post on op-eds, since I have no experience writing them. It seems to be a genre that more anthropologists are getting interested in, but I wonder if we are, in a sense, preaching to the choir in that the kind of people who read op-eds are the kind of people who don’t discount the anthropological perspective?

  4. Hi Rachel, I am an anthropologist-in-progress (an MSc rather than PhD). I actually discovered anthropology and was inspired to study it whilst working as a PR person for business consultancies led by anthropologists (more detail:

    During my PR career I spent a lot of time explaining what anthropological insights can bring to business, for my sins. With a large number of anthropologists working in business, whether from choice or necessity, I would argue that the effort they expend on raising the profile of the discipline, albeit for commercial ends, makes a contribution to public understanding that should be considered alongside public anthropology in the sense of group-focused advocacy or confronting structural issues in society.

    Sadly enough, the media interest (still!) lies mostly in participant observation or ‘ethnography’ as a fly on the wall approach to research: this provides the all important real people angle. Of course, the work also involved supplying anthropological takes on topical business issues in article and interview formats (with clients benefiting from media training to overcome any nerves…).

    An enduring personal bugbear is that in the Anglophone world the media seem to have psychologists on speed dial when in many cases an anthropologist would be more appropriate. In an effort to address the imbalance in a small way I aim to get together a small group of anthropologists able and willing to write topical blog entries to pitch a collaborative blog to a major UK publication which has just launched a (grit teeth) psychology blog. Anyone reading this who is interested please let me know.

    Incidentally TH Eriksen’s book ‘Engaging Anthropology’, relays his experiences with the media as a proactive and high profile public intellectual in Sweden and is very instructive if you haven’t yet encountered it.

  5. @Mateo, I’m glad your experiences in front of the camera were better than mine. And you’re right, we do get something out of these appearances in an experiential way, not only in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of how these types of things are filmed but also in case they happen again.

    @Discusswhiteprivilege, you bring up a number of excellent points. Tenure makes it easier to speak publicly, race perhaps even moreso. Gender would be another factor – the vast majority of opinion pieces are still written by men, who are also more likely to be called upon as “experts”… The types of issues about which one can speak comfortably is another question, there are “safe” topics happening far away from us and uncomfortable topics that hit closer to home and thus threaten the speaker/writer in various ways…. I’m not surprised to hear that Florida conducts background checks, esp. considering how negatively it views anthropology, but I haven’t read anything specific on this issue – let me know if you have any references, because that would certainly be a good topic to speak out about. Finally, thanks for noticing my 1995 error – I’d written it out by hand and typed it up as 13 instead of 18.

    @DrKillgrove, your experiences with the media are also heartening to read about. I would love to see the syllabus for the Presenting Anthropology course you taught – I’m really interested to see how you got your students to engage with the public.

  6. Rachel: you may recall that Bill Beeman, then at Brown, wrote an op-ed for the Anthropology News several years back (I think it was in the early 1990s, around the time of the first Gulf War), encouraging anthropologists to use that medium to have a voice in public affairs. He himself was an active op-ed writer on Middle East issues. I’ve seen more and more anthropologists writing columns, op ed pieces, and essays — Tanya Luhrmann has a regular NYT column, following the success of her popular book on Pentecostals, for example. Readers of this blog will certainly be familiar with David Graeber’s media work. Your note here is an important call for more such engagement, perhaps a measure of how far we have left to go. Barbara

  7. Rachel, thanks for your response. This is the UC/Berkeley repression as discussed in the Daily Kos to which I referred:

    I did not see any Berkeley Anthropologists speaking publicly against these intimidation tactics (against free speech and legitimate dissent), but we can have a conversation about why, especially given other issues of retaliation and cyberbullying which have been raised (and often censored) on this site, which directly relate to the larger use of State/police-sponsored repression tactics at Berkeley and other UC campuses. (So while I chuckled at Chris Kelty’s Agamben/’state of exception’ quip from his Open Access post, it is also a deeply untrue and disingenuous reference in relation to the actual brutal repression going on on UC campuses and in the academy more broadly, wherein rights and protection from State violence are in fact tied to race/color/gender and tenure-status.)

    I imagine you could get information on the background check issue from your school’s HR department (hopefully). I don’t presently have a link to a news story to send, but can email you about the other conversation I mentioned.

    Also apropos of my previous comments on which anthropologists can and can’t (in practice/reality v. theory) ‘engage media’ and ‘the public’, and how this relates to (your previous post on) professionalization and the post-graduate school/academic job market, I would like to give a concrete example of the proverbial dots which often aren’t connected and aren’t part of the media engagements anthropologists are usually making–especially when not White and pre-tenure. For some time now I have been vocal about (and retaliated against because of) Berkeley Anthropology’s ‘white public space’ issues and how they relate to faculty demographics and the ten-year absence of a Black faculty member–especially fully tenured, as John Ogbu was–in the department (Karen Brodkin et al. can write about these topics in the eponymously-titled 2011 AA article, I, however, cannot without being smeared as a crazy Angry Black Woman and violent ghetto thug, but I digress, slightly). For years I have accurately observed that the same ‘white public space’ issues (and causes for them) that are addresses in the Brodkin et al. article exist in the Berkeley department. I was making these observations well before they were confirmed in 2011 by the Brodkin article, including in Chris Kelty’s own Savage Minds post titled “DDR or Receivership”, which directly raised the question of if everything really is fine in the department or there are in fact hostile climate issues. My comments about racial/racist cyberbullying via the department’s forgrads list were censored; the tenured White male Berkeley Anthropology professor insisting the department had no ‘white public space’ issues was allowed to invalidate my statements of fact. Interestingly enough, especially given that the person speaking over me was a contributor to the book Writing Culture, I was not seen as an informant to be listened to because I actually am in a position to be on the receiving end of racial discrimination–v. a White male full professor (it makes me think of one of the graphics from #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: White people will decide if there is racism happening, because we get to decide everything else. Coming from me the quip will sting and enrage, but is Stephen Colbert delivered the line would the SM readership still be offended? Some of us can speak truth to power, especially publicly and satirically: and some of us can’t, no matter how much truth we’re speaking.) I think we need to be honest about what kind of professionalization on the way to media engagement (via a TT job) this (kind of (public) censorship) does and does not produce.

    Three years after this Savage Minds censorship, and after my continuing to speak up despite ongoing retaliation to try and silence me, especially so as not to ‘engage the media’, Berkeley has finally decided to hire a faculty member who specializes in the “Anthropology of Race”. (And this is a public job posting, so what reason will now be given for censoring the analysis I am about to offer?) But as I have pointed out, and was doing prior to the job posting/position becoming available–and which is part of the larger terrain of topics of structural racism in anthropology which is not front-and-center ‘media engagement’ because of anthropological ‘white public space’–there is a clear pattern of discrimination and disparate hiring practices, even if ‘unintentional’: when Alan Dundes died, which was the year after John Ogbu, his position was filled in about a year by a full professor. Ten years to fill John Ogbu’s position, and by an assistant professor not a full professor? Yes, this is about issues that many anthropologists should be paying attention to and publicly writing about in the ‘mainstream media’. Because structural and institutional racism (and sexism) exists within anthropology too–not just outside it. And this issue of hiring is not separate from Geoffrey Miller’s fat-shaming comments or Kate Clancy et al.’s sexual harassment survey and research. For a candidate to be ‘acceptable’ for such a position will depend on how they look and that they are not running up against implicit biases which cause faculty to see a person–despite the quality of their ideas and ability to produce insightful scholarship–as a fat, loud Angry Black Woman (or “frightening” “loud/argumentative” “disruptive” “small, very dark-skinned South African”, as I have been described–and I’ve made the same “excellent points” to you that I’ve had to people who hate me because of my race/color/gender, and retaliate against me for making said points publicly). Similarly, the ideal candidate can’t come across as an ‘angry’ or ‘threatening’ Latina/o or Black man (so yes, let’s connect the proverbial post-Trayvon-Martin dots as instructed by Melanie Bush and others on the AAA Blog, and remember that perceptions of ‘good fit’ and ‘appropriate’ ‘non-threatening’ behavior are HIGHLY RACIALIZED such that simply speaking authoritatively about racism when white anthropologists don’t want to hear it can get to labeled a scary, violence-prone ghetto criminal and/or Black Power militant, as I was on the previous ‘state of exception’ Savage Minds).

    An assistant professor can be controlled trough fear of not getting tenure–especially for speaking too frankly about, say, racist bullying and sexual harassment in one’s own department. So, if you are a department deeply committed to the ‘zero tolerance for sexual harassment’ and antiracism statements of the AAA, and don’t have retrograde ideas about Black people needing to ‘respect boundaries’, then you are happy to hire a full professor of the Anthropology of Race, who can speak freely, including to the media, about structural inequality both inside and outside your university. It is too bad the old Savage Minds is MIA. Because now is the time to revisit that exchange I had with David Graeber about how the academy inculcates the ‘habits if fear’. When you want a ‘diversity hire’ who will ‘know his/her place’ in your departmental and societal hierarchy, you hire an ‘a appropriate’ non-White assistant professor not in a position to challenge White ‘superiors’, not in a position to speak up for students who may be sexually or racially harassed/bullied/retaliated against, who will be formed from employment ‘birth’ into someone who will allow ‘white public space’ to go unchallenged even after getting tenure.

    So, to answer the question of are there important topics not being engaged by anthropologists in books or otherwise? Yes, certainly. Many. And enough of them such that most of what I’ve written–despite touching on and linking together multiple issues of structural inequality (which are deeply connected to media representations of ideal female bodies and ideal femininity)–will be dismissed and or enrage people such that that they write me off as ‘just some stupid and bitter Black woman who is an academic nobody, so who cares’.

    How we professionalize anthropologists, and who we see as worthy of supporting to be an anthropologist (via graduate training/support/mentorship and academic hiring practices) directly affects the kind of anthropological media engagements one is and is not going to get. So yes, it is not lost on me that Melissa Harris-Perry is not an anthropologist (or that she is not dark-skinned; yet another honest conversation anthropologists really don’t want to have… )

  8. It is worth thinking about the non-response to my last comment–yes, which can be written off as ‘Angry Black Woman with an axe to grind’. Unfortunate as thinking critically about #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen is actually a way to directly engage the questions raised by Rachel’s post.

    ‘Anthropology as White Public Space’ discusses the problem of *race avoidance* in the discipline (yes, LITERALLY a disciplining disciplinary strategy… ). It is worth thinking about this–both for anthropologists and those posting on and writing about #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen–because it seems that many anthropologists don’t really get how and that this Twitter conversation IS *media engagement*. A Black feminist started a Twitter conversation which got global/public traction and resulted in an op-ed in The Guardian and ignited multiple blog posts and journalistic commentaries on media outlets like Salon and The Huffington Post, for which Rachel Newcomb writes. It touched on issues discussed in several AA articles and AAA research on racism and sexism in anthropology. It raises the question of why so few anthropology books on issues of intersectionality and everyday practices of white supremacy in the US aren’t written. It raises issues directly related to Geoffrey Miller’s fat-shaming tweet and the AAA ‘zero tolerance for sexual harassment statement’–which plenty of anthropologists were happy to tweet support for and write blogs about at places like Psychology Today at NPR (e.g. Rosemary Joyce and Barbara King, self-acknowledged feminists who are also White women and anthropologists): definite MEDIA ENGAGEMENT. Yet one sees almost none of these same anthropologists who were tweeting against fat-shaming and sexual abuse/harassment tweeting about or blogging about #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. The silence is itself a rejoinder–and a powerful, and yes, public, one at that–both to why the hashtag was created in the first place, and Rachel’s questions about topics not being publicly engaged in anthropology and what prevents anthropologists from engaging them.

    With their unexamined racism/implicit biases and the race avoidance it produces, anthropologists often stand in their/our own way. We could easily be so much more publicly relevant and influential if we could stop being so ridiculously racist (despite insisting we’re not). Eh, but what would I know since I’m just a silly Black woman who looks like a violent ghetto criminal and does not look like what most anthropologists imagine a Real Anthropologist–or ‘expert’–to look like. One usually only sees women who look like me in mainstream media playing maids in ‘The Help’ or convicts in’Orange is the New Black’. And as Jenji Kohan acknowledged earlier this week on Fresh Air, in a conversation completely related to #Solidarity, without a pretty white woman as one’s ‘Trojan Horse’, one just can’t have certain conversations about Black and Latina women’s lives–yes, even in anthropology.

Comments are closed.