Op-Eds: What Anthropologists Can Add to the Debate

Anthropologists have much to contribute to civic discourse, but all too often we are bypassed in favor of experts in other fields, such as psychology or political science. Although many of us try to publicize what anthropologists really do, the general public still frequently confuses anthropology with Indiana Jones. Writing an op-ed is a good way to draw attention to anthropology, either by 1) commenting on a topic related to your own fieldwork or expertise, or 2) applying anthropological insights to current events. There are always news events that could benefit from an anthropologist’s analysis. The goal of an op-ed is to take a stance and make a point about those events, presenting facts along the way to support your argument.

The first strategy is to consider how your particular expertise makes you uniquely qualified to share your thoughts on current events with an audience. Some anthropologists work in areas of the world that always seem to be in the news, but for others, the connections may not be immediately obvious. One way to make connections is to enliven faraway topics by evoking real people and situations you know, connecting them with issues that hit close to home. Suppose you did your fieldwork on the fictional island of Tula, which experienced damage in a recent typhoon.  Perhaps you’ve read that the island is badly in need of relief funds, but the news story has been pushed to the back pages and forgotten. You know that many readers simply won’t care about Tula because it seems so far away. As a writer, you might want to share how someone you know was affected by the typhoon. Then place that person in a global context and connect her story to your audience. Perhaps it’s Maria, the single mother whose income from making wood carvings supports her elderly parents and two children, and whose livelihood is destroyed because the typhoon wiped out all the trees on Tula.

Then you need an argument and some facts. You might research statistics about aid for other disasters to argue that the government is doing a terrible job of offering aid in this one. Or maybe your point is that we’re not doing enough to combat the global warming that intensified this typhoon, accompanied by statistics to show that storms have gotten worse or more frequent. These are just fictional examples, but the basic goal is to think about how your knowledge of a place makes you uniquely qualified to connect what’s happening there to larger issues.

The second strategy is to apply anthropological insights to a current issue. So, what is an “anthropological insight,” you might ask? Considering that the majority of the population has never had an anthropology course, think about the most basic concepts you’d teach in an introductory anthropology class, and use those concepts as lenses for viewing social issues.  Often, getting an audience to see something about local culture as not natural but highly constructed is a good basis for an op-ed.  For example, there are things that many Americans take for granted, but which might seem odd to outsiders from other cultures: a fierce attachment to second amendment rights, for example, or a belief in the efficacy of pills as cures, as opposed to preventive medicine. Take a look at some of the “human interest” headlines in the news each day, and think about what an anthropologist’s take on them might be.

A related strategy is to take the writings of a social theorist and apply those to an issue. Recently I wrote about the Reza Aslan Fox News controversy by invoking Edward Said, but why not bring your favorite theorist to the masses? However, if you’re going to use the work of theorists, you have to be sure to simplify their arguments and remove all jargon. (This is also a good exercise for those who teach, since frequently undergraduates also need more of a breakdown to fully understand how complex theories actually can relay profound insights.)

There are a number of drawbacks to writing Op-Eds. For one thing, they require an oversimplification of events. You can only make one point. They don’t allow for an anthropologist to demonstrate the complexities of other cultures, though they do present the opportunity for us to dispel stereotypes. And they have to be written immediately: the moment a news story hits the front pages, op-ed writers need to be feverishly typing away, submitting their 600-word analysis for the next morning.  Finally, op-eds frequently come without compensation. In the online world in which journalism has increasingly been devalued, some online news outlets and local newspapers do not pay.

A great primer on how to submit op-eds can be found here, at the Op-Ed Project, which is particularly interested in correcting the gender disparities among op-ed writers. An anthropology-specific op-ed resource, useful for getting students to write op-eds, is the Center for a Public Anthropology’s Community Action Project.

While we as anthropologists may take for granted even the most basic concepts of our discipline, to others the anthropological perspective appears new and refreshing. For those who have the time and inclination, op-eds are a great way to bring anthropologists in conversation with others over the crucial topics of our times.

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.

9 thoughts on “Op-Eds: What Anthropologists Can Add to the Debate

  1. I think you’re right and this might be a good idea to bring anthropology more to the attention of the general public.
    I’ve just one question: as tsunamis result from earthquakes I don’t see the connection between the tsunami and global warming – but maybe I just miss something.

  2. Thanks Rachel, having pitched articles to the media on behalf of anthropologists and having written features for the national press in the UK myself, I know that your insights will be very valuable to readers.

    A word of caution related to the first strategy however: It can be frustrating (if rewarding when successful) to fight to resurface an issue that editors consider closed (where closed could mean three days old). By all means try, but you will be going against where many think their readers’ interests lie.

    I would also add a third strategy to your list: you can create the agenda. I’m not talking about generating earth shattering news stories but instead about thinking like a journalist and realising that a situation you find yourself in, in work or leisure time, would be of interest to different editorial departments. One personal example: an institutional actor at a fieldwork site was promising to revolutionise mankind’s second oldest profession (farming) using digital technology. I had privileged access to all players as a researcher and realised the juxtaposition would be of interest to the countryside section of a national paper. I told all players about my post-fieldwork plans to write an article, got their permission before writing it and approval afterwards (bonus: I was paid, which meant my fieldwork travel expenses were covered).

    Finally, there’s a fourth strategy: take the way you work as an anthropologist and try to create new, perhaps multimedia, narrative formats that editors consider worthy of coverage. Two examples – UCL’s Mystreet project (http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/29/opinion/mystreet-digital-anthropology) and the Guardian’s banking blog (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/14/bankers-anthropological-study-joris-luyendijk) which is essentially a series of interviews by an anthropologist with bankers as a dimension of his research (note the topicality of the latter: it helps to be involved in a ‘hot’ area)

  3. Excellent strategies! I agree with you about the first strategy – and that’s why op-eds can be extremely frustrating, because you can only submit them to one place at a time, and it’s possible that by the time you’ve submitted to two or three places, the news is no longer news anymore. Some good advice that our college’s PR team has given is that you can aim high on the first day and then take down your expectations for a local newspaper on the second – unless your local newspaper is the NY Times, that is.

    Thanks for the other ideas, and the excellent accompanying examples. Great links, too.

  4. That’s a good idea if someone had the time to compile a list – off the top of my head, two that come to mind are T.M. Luhrmann and William O Beeman.

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