Making public anthropology: putting it all together

Erin Taylor recently posted this thread over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative:

It’s long been my belief that anthropologists can increase their public visibility and engagement by working together, especially cross-promoting each other’s work. The PopAnth website has been using social media (TwitterFacebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn) to bring attention to articles written by anthropologists in newspapers, on blogs, in books, and so on.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with Tricia Wang (Ethnography Matters), Matt Thompson (Savage Minds / DANG) and Ryan Anderson (Anthropologies Project / DANG) about furthering collaboration. We agreed that it would be a great idea!

DANG are already bringing together all kinds of people who are interested in open access, digital anthropology, blogging, and so on. For this reason, I suggested that the DANG website might be a good place to put information that can help anthropologists in their public engagement: stuff on open access, guides to writing for the public, ideas on how to get published in newspapers, and so on.

But that’s just one idea. My question is: how do we best coordinate?

There are indeed a lot of us out there who are thinking along similar lines, and we’re often off on our own doing our own things.  This is good, on many levels.  But I also think we could use a bit of collaboration, working together, and finding ways to move the idea of a more public anthropology toward a reality.

My initial response is this: I think there are at least three primary concerns here.  First, we need to find a way to coordinate across our various projects and bring all of our conversations together into one place.  Second, there’s a need to create some sort of central, organized resource where anthropologists can find resources about open access, writing for the general public, publishing, etc.  Finally, I really think there’s a need to finally create a venue that specifically targets non-academic anthropologists.  This last point is key, I think.  A lot of the sites and projects that are pushing for a more publicly engaged anthropology are actually only going to appeal to anthropologists (and maybe some outside the field).  In short, we’re still promoting a lot of our ideas to ourselves for the most part (this is definitely the case with the anthropologies project, despite the original goal of bringing anthropology to wider audiences).

So what about solutions?

1) Coordination.  Maybe we need a site that is easily accessible, where anyone can comment easily so that the conversations flow with few barriers.  Daniel Lende suggested using Tumblr here.  That could work.  Or maybe a dedicated Facebook page?  Maybe a series of open threads on the DANG site?  Other ideas?  Basically, it would be nice to have a central place where we can all keep the fire burning.

2) The central resource for anthropologists.  Well, to me it makes sense to finally create this central place either on the DANG site, or on the Open Access Anthropology site.  This idea has been floating around for a while, so maybe now is the time to make it happen.  This is doable.

3) The public venue for anthropology.  I think it’s about time that we all put our heads together and create something that is meant to move our ideas and conversations outside of our inner circle.  I am talking about either a publication or online magazine/project that will have a wide readership and appeal.  Something that’s not made just for anthropologists.  Personally, I have always wanted to see an anthropologically-informed publication that gets inspiration from a combination of publications like Nature, Adbusters, the amazing magazine Colors, Science, what ASA has done with Contexts, and so on.  There are plenty of publications that we can look to for inspiration.  I think we need something that can rival (and challenge) dominant media venues and publications.  To really bring contemporary anthropology out into the open.  Content + solid, interesting, compelling design.  Hmmm?  We have the ideas, we have the fascinating research.  Why not?

Ok, ideas?  Thoughts?  Comments?


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.

19 thoughts on “Making public anthropology: putting it all together

  1. Thanks, Ryan! Regarding Point 3, last month PopAnth had around 90,000 readers. I’d hazard a bet that maybe fifty of them were anthropologists. So that still leaves a general audience of roughly 89,950. Not a bad start! Maybe we should have a serious, collective look at how we can learn from PopAnth, for a start. What’s it doing right, what could it do better?

  2. Hey Erin. Thanks for your comment. Definitely not a bad start for Popanth. I think there’s plenty to draw from for inspiration there, and from some of the other anthro sites that routinely put up good, solid content (neuroanthropology, living anthropologically, etc etc). But I think the shortcoming of a lot of sites–at least in terms of really trying to push anthropology into a wider public sphere–is that the sites are often named and presented in ways that mark them as academic, insider, and so on. So for that reason–regarding point number three–I think it makes sense to look at some pubs/sites that work in spheres beyond academia, get some ideas, see what’s working. Design is key, of course, but so is solid content. Colors and Adbusters happen to be a couple of my favorites, so that’s why I listed them. But Contexts provides a nice model as well. I have always been partial to magazines like DoubleTake, Aperture, etc, but that’s because I was a photographer in my other life. Let’s see what we can brew up here….

  3. PS: Point number three should probably read “A” public venue for anthropology, rather than THE public venue.

  4. Hey Ryan, thanks for bringing this discussion over here (wouldn’t have found it otherwise). Have you ever heard of Github ? It’s a collaboration tool for programmers where individuals (or organizations) can upload their content and have it peer reviewed/commented on/shared. I think it fulfills a number of your requests:

    1. It allows anyone to look at the code/papers and comment (so long as they have an account – which is as easy as making an account anywhere), these comments and peer reviews are public, easy to do. [And if github doesn’t work out, I would still stress not using facebook, it’s over-saturated with content and quickly becoming more of a tool than a platform].

    2. While it’s not exactly central to this community of anthropology blogs/sites, it is central in that every blogger has an equal opportunity for popularity. What I’m trying to say is, if you host it on one of the established sites, their may be conflicts of interest (tbh though, I don’t know the community as well as others do, maybe it would not have any conflicts…). Github provides an equal platform for everyone, although those you upload work and comment often tend to become more popular.

    3. As far as public, this is about as public as code-sharing gets, and let me stress that although it was created by programmers, it can host any kind of text-based content (articles, papers, etc). When you post content, it becomes public on your profile and anyone can see it. [Another idea in this point might be a email listserve. Magazines/Publications take money. Furthermore, if you really want to challenge dominant media, why not go digital – it’s at least a bit more fair of a playing field than print is].

    There are a few counter-points about github though. For one, there is a small amount of technical jargon that goes along with uploading content. Github has worked on this (making it less technical) and has a desktop app that makes it a bit easier, but all the same – there would be some learning curve (which I’d love to help anyone overcome if they are interested). Second, github will not aggregate the anthropologically-based content on it’s own. There would need to be some effort to create a “directory” of anthro-github users (so we can find each other), or a site that aggregates the content automatically. If there is sufficient interest, I’d be willing to work with others to make this site. I am a student in computer science and do this kind of work for fun (it’s also why I love github). You might be thinking that I am a Github salesman, but unfortunately I am not (that would be a kickass job), I am just a student computer scientist that uses github and loves anthropology.

    I do think that this could work very well and hopefully we can discuss it further, and let me know if you have any questions.

  5. I still think one of the main issues is who is going to put in the work. A main website needs some people to take charge. A tumblr site could be more participatory, with an editor approving pieces (or not). Grad students seem to like tumblr more, so that might open it up. But basically whatever it is, needs at least one person to put the time in to make sure it has plenty of fresh and current content, so that the audience grows and people know it’s a good site to go to.

  6. That’s a good point, Daniel (about the fact that someone has to do the work!!). I like the tumblr idea, and actually think it could work for both coordination and a certain amount of public engagement. But the only issue with something like tumblr is that the content can become this massive flood (like twitter) in which it gets hard to sort through it all.

    So that’s where some sort of site that collects, organizes and presents content is good. This is what Erin etc are doing with PopAnth. And I think the design there is good–there are a lots of good features and the potential is great. I think it’s a good start, but I also really think putting “anthropology” in the title limits the potential audience. To me it comes across as a site by and for anthropologists, like many of our sites (I have the same issue with anthropologies). So, I think it would be good to come up with a site name and style/theme that are fundamentally influenced by anthropology, while not necessarily spelling that out literally in the title. Again, I think Popanth has a lot of the right elements, and combined with the content coming from various sites and authors, there’s real potential for something that breaks out of the anthro blogger/academic circle and into some more wide discussions. But that’s just my take on things. I’d like to hear what some others think.

    Also, I realize that my point #3 above is a bit big, and it’s more of a long-term idea. And it’s just one idea I threw out there. Something like that is going to require massive amounts of work, and probably getting either the AAA or CA or someone on board. Who knows–again it’s just an idea I put on the table, something to think about.

    I think a website is more feasible in the shorter term (and there’s no shortage of work there either). In the end, it’s all going to take work and require a lot of collaboration and participation–at least from a core group.

  7. Ryan, I am excited by what you and Erin and the others in your core group are up to. Given my background in advertising, I see your group as similar to a creative team assembled to pitch a new project. Already the conversation is lurching toward technical questions, which is better, GitHub or Tumblr, that sort of thing.

    This is the point at which someone needs to say, “First, what is our strategy? Who is our target? What do we know about their habits, interests, feelings? How will our product “anthropology” address them? What, if anything, do we want them to do besides turn up regularly to visit the site or recommend it to others? Yes, we will need editors, both to solicit contributions and to act as gatekeepers? What is our editorial policy?

    It is frequently observed by advertising creatives that having a strategy improves creativity. It provides a focus and the dissipation of energy that occurs when everyone is just thrashing around with nothing settled.

    A strategy is not a straitjacket. The strategy you start out with may not be the one you end with. The strategy’s function is to serve as a framework within which serious work can begin. As the project evolves things may come up. The strategy may change. But having a strategy to start with means that suggested changes don’t blow up the whole project as a new brainstorming free-for-all erupts. The focus shifts, but focus remains.

  8. I went to the DANG website out of curiosity and what I encountered was a stone wall. No way for anyone outside the charmed circle to contribute. Same with Savage Minds. So please if you are serious about this “open source” idea I keep hearing about, then you need to think very seriously about opening up some portals and letting in a little air. Thank you.

  9. Victor, with all due respect, the barriers you have encountered are features, not bugs. DANG is a backstage area where people involved in developing websites and other forums can get together without being constantly overrun by drop-ins. Savage Minds is a group blog, whose founders have, wisely I think, agreed to restrict primary authorship to themselves and those they invite to contribute. That, in my view, is why Savage Minds continues to flourish where, for example, the far more open Open Anthropology Cooperative is languishing. There is, as Harlan Cleveland observes in a great book called _The Knowledge Executive_ a fundamental contradiction between “let every voice be heard” and getting anything worthwhile done. “Let every voice be heard” is a sure recipe for a quagmire in which the best-laid plans sink forever.

    So what are folks like you and me to do? We can start our own websites and accept the burden of providing a continuing stream of new content and promoting them well enough to attract visitors. Alternatively, we can take advantage of open sites like OAC, bearing in mind their quagmire-like nature and realizing that as parasites, who take no responsibility for keeping them up and running, we are ultimately at the mercy of those willing to put in the effort. Or, I suppose, if we were willing to put in the effort, we could talk to some of the people who run the more closed sites to see if there is something we could do to help them out. Who knows? We might get invited to join the inner circle. That’s what happened to me with Erin and Gawain on PopAnth.

    What does no good for anyone is standing on the sidelines and grumbling about being excluded. If you want to play, learn the game, try out, might even make the big leagues.

  10. A point on names. I agree completely with Ryan that a name without “anthropology” in the title is best. But then, what about things like National Geographic or Psychology Today? These indicate to me that the problem is not so much the name as it is the branding.

    My personal feeling is that, while there is definitely room for more websites, we definitely need a strategy and a purpose. As John says, what are we trying to achieve? If our goal is to get more anthropological voices out there, is another website the best way to achieve that?

    Building a site takes a huge amount of time and energy. To build the kind of site that Ryan wants we’d need a very good business strategy indeed, investors, designers, programmers, you name it. It takes even more work, and years, to build up an audience. If you don’t have those resources, you’re not likely to achieve much more of an audience than PopAnth has already. So, why reinvent the wheel?

    I’d urge all of you who are truly interested in creating a new, competitive website to come and participate at PopAnth first as an author and an editor. Why? Because we’ve come the closest thus far to achieving what you’re describing. You can get a first-hand look at what works and what doesn’t. These are valuable lessons that you’ll need if you want to embark on a bigger project.

    For me, the most efficient way to get anthropology’s voice into the public sphere is to invest our time and energy into practicing our writing for the public and mentoring others. We will get the most readers, and have the most impact, when we write for venues that already have established brands and reputation. But most anthropologists have no clue how to get their work published in commercial venues. I think our first move should be to start a conversation between the anthropologists who are writing professionally (such as Agustín Fuentes, Paul Stoller, Rosemary Joyce, Kate Clancy, Gillian Tett, etc) and those of us who want to do this kind of writing. There are also people like David Slattery, Kate Fox, and Ted Polhemus who write popular anthropology books. I’m already developing an anthropology RSS feed that includes all these people. I’ll share it with everyone when it’s ready.

    Maybe we could invite professional anthropologist authors such as the above to write about how they got started in writing, what their strategies are, and so on. And collect writing advice and make available information about where people can publish. That sort of thing. Possibly a simple website and a series of workshops, or something like that, on the professionalization of popular anthropology.

  11. Oh, I forgot to say, I think that the word “anthropology” in “Neuroanthropology” is an asset, not a burden. Daniel and Greg have successfully made it into a brand. Conversely, I think Contexts fails. They may have given it a generic name but they still have the association’s logo displayed prominently!

    And don’t forget that being an anthropologist is a crucial part of personal branding. How does Psychology Today sell Agustín Fuentes as an expert? By pointing out that he’s an anthropologist in an academic institution. And how does Oprah’s website present their anthropologist-author? “Anthropologist and relationship expert Helen Fisher, PhD, explains what sustains good marriages.” Anthropologist. Expert. PhD. These are our assets. This is what will get people to listen to us.

  12. Sean: thanks for bringing Github to my attention. I’ll look into that.

    John: Ya, I agree that coming up with a solid strategy is key.

    Victor: I’m not sure what you mean about the stone wall at DANG. There are plenty of places to post comments, and there’s a contact email. Feel free to share your comments here as well. The whole point of this thread was to open up a place to talk about this public anthro thing.

    Erin wrote: “Building a site takes a huge amount of time and energy. To build the kind of site that Ryan wants…”

    Of course. It all take a ton of time and energy. But again, point number three was just an idea, perhaps an ideal that I threw out there. I have *always* been interested in publications like Colors, Adbusters, etc and how they manage to mix social commentary with design. So that’s my bias. And since starting in anthropology I have been surprised at how we are able to take pretty exciting, fascinating material and make it pretty dull.

    “It takes even more work, and years, to build up an audience. If you don’t have those resources, you’re not likely to achieve much more of an audience than PopAnth has already. So, why reinvent the wheel?”

    Well, I don’t know. It all takes years of work. If there’s a need to make something new, or a desire, then maybe it’s possible and maybe it’s not. It all depends on what people are thinking. The reason for reinventing the wheel or coming up with something completely different is when things aren’t achieving desired results. If everything is working fine, then there’s no need for change.

    “For me, the most efficient way to get anthropology’s voice into the public sphere is to invest our time and energy into practicing our writing for the public and mentoring others.”

    I agree.

    “Oh, I forgot to say, I think that the word “anthropology” in “Neuroanthropology” is an asset, not a burden. Daniel and Greg have successfully made it into a brand.”

    Daniel and Greg have a great site that puts out some of the best anthro content there is online. My argument was *never* that the name of their site–or any others that have some variant of “anthropology” in the title–is somehow a burden. My point was that I think keeping up that same trend with a site/pub/project that seeks to push into the public sphere might not be the best route. Just an opinion. I was thinking it would make sense to come up with a name that draws from anthropology but doesn’t literally spell out the word in the title. That’s all.

    “Conversely, I think Contexts fails. They may have given it a generic name but they still have the association’s logo displayed prominently!”

    Ok. I mentioned Contexts because they’re doing a good job with design and content…as a potential source of inspiration. To me their site looks sharp (along with some of the related sites like Sociological Images). Good stuff.

    “And don’t forget that being an anthropologist is a crucial part of personal branding…”

    I’m not saying that we need to ditch all references to anthropology. Of course authors should highlight the fact that they’re anthropologists. It was a simple idea: don’t literally name the site “anthropology xxx.” But again, that was just me sharing my ideas.

    “‘Anthropologist and relationship expert Helen Fisher, PhD, explains what sustains good marriages.’” Anthropologist. Expert. PhD. These are our assets. This is what will get people to listen to us.”

    I actually disagree with you here a bit. While I think highlighting credentials can be one way to encourage people to listen to what anthros have to say (as a way of asserting authority on a subject etc), I don’t think that’s the only–or even the best–avenue. The whole “expert” thing is great and all, but here’s what’s really going to move wider audiences: excellent writing, solid arguments, and compelling stories presented in interesting ways. We have thousands of experts…and yet they aren’t being heard for a range of reasons. Often because we present fascinating work in incredibly dull ways.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  13. Hey Sean, just a quick question–why do you prefer github over tumblr? I am looking into the site right now…

  14. Why do I prefer Github over Tumbler?

    Github allows anybody to participate. Now, let’s be clear that this does not mean a decrease in the quality of content. The best (chosen by the community) will still be shared/discussed more. Tumblr needs a single owner or core group to commit full time – which can be hard to ensure. If we are trying to build a larger community, we need to make it easy to participate, encourage new voices to speak up.

    Github encourages collaboration between authors and throughout the community. This is achieved through pull requests/forum-style posts/wikis. Tumblr may have articles that were collaborated on, but it is much rarer/harder to do, with github, this functionality is built in.

    Github would remove the need for what dlende was talking about (“some people to take charge”), it puts the direction/growth of the community into their own hands rather than depending on a few key people. This does shift responsibility away from editors and onto the shoulders of anybody who really cares.

    You may want to check out Github Government to see non-code-centric applications of github.


    John wrote: “First, what is our strategy? Who is our target? […] What, if anything, do we want them to do besides turn up regularly to visit the site or recommend it to others? Yes, we will need editors, both to solicit contributions and to act as gatekeepers? What is our editorial policy?”

    I think that what John wrote brings up some great points that are relevant to the decision to use or not use github. If your objective is to foster an audience – github is not a good decision. However, if we want a community I think it has potential. If our target is new writers and discussions, github would be good, if we want pageviews – maybe tumblr might be better. This is a discussion that should be had posthaste.

    On a side note, I think the discussion about the name/title of such a site is irrelevant at this point.


    PS. Is there a reason comments don’t have dates/times?

  15. hello folks- thanks for pulling these ideas and discussion together. I wanted to weigh in briefly on a few of the points as well as throw our site (cool into the mix as a potential thread in the web you all are weaving- and, at the very least, as a spot for those of you that have a idea that may not fit into all the other great sites already mentioned here. Our mission is similar- to share the benefits of our fab anthropological research methods with a wider audience through various avenues. The idea for Cool Anthropology was born after we went to a AAA session in 2004 entitled “making Anthropology cool” and there were, like, 7 very earnest people there with not so many ideas about what to do with their cool research. The discussions are similar still- how do we coordinate, how to not re-invent the wheel, how to be “pop” without losing the real, rigorous research that we do.

    I agree with Ryan that there is room for different avenues (branding ourselves as anthros, not scaring people off by using anthropology, etc.) and, really, while I think collaboration is great and needed, it works well for folks to find similar things in a variety of spots. As far as the crux of this thread goes, I think Daniel makes a really important point about anthros communicating with each other in a more informal, user-moderated format. It’s hard to know what it is about a certain venue that is going to attract folks so putting a lot of work on the front end to set up a specific spot could be a lot of work for little practical gain.

    There may be few of you interested in being the cool anthropologist for an “ask the anthropologist” column or participating in our AAA installation this year. After last year’s rousing success and a lot of interest in re/considering dissemination of anthropological research from the AAA of all people, they have a new dedicated installation hall that we’ll be in all day on Friday. You don’t have to show up to participate but you should swing through if you’re around. The details are here:

    Looking forward to seeing where this discussion goes.

  16. Nice work, Kristina! I agree that there should be a multiplicity of venues and approaches. Mostly I just think it’ll help if we know who else is out there doing similar things. Then we can cross-promote. Just one question: is this site mean more for members of the general public, or more for anthropologists to share ideas about how to reach the public in different ways, or both?

  17. I agree that cross-promotion and sharing ideas is key. Before cool, we had where we tried to gather folks (anthros but public health folks and even NGOs, etc) to share strategies and methods and ideas and, although so many people liked the idea, we were never successful in getting anybody to use it. So, I would say cool anthropology is for the general public although we do have a good handful of anthropologists that weigh in and we put our calls for anthros for events out through the site, so we offer a way for researchers to be more publicly engaged. We would totally be into promoting what other anthros are doing and discussing their projects on the site- with links- in the spirit of knowing what is going on with each other as well as exposing a more public audience to other work they may be interested in. Can our central resource about engaging the public be engaging to the public? 🙂 I see the logic of separating the doing it from the discussion of how to do it but I don’t know that I’m sold that there needs to be a clear delineation. A mission is good though and we’d willingly give what we’ve got to be helpful in either strand of the communication endeavor.

  18. We are not alone.

    FYI: The front page story in the 4 October 2013 issue of Science is titled “Communication in Science: Pressures and Predators.” The editorial is devoted to “Improving Science Communication,” and the introduction to the special section is titled “Scientific Discourse: Buckling at the Seams. The lead article is “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review” with a subtitle that reads, “A spoof paper conceited by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals.”

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