I’m not going to link to a certain New York Times columnist who inspired this post. His piece about how there are no good public intellectuals anymore is a pathetic attempt to troll the academic community. He clearly doesn’t read widely enough to know better. Or he does, but he chooses to pretend otherwise. I do, however, want to say something about anthropologists as public intellectuals. It may be an obvious point, but it is something I think all too often gets overlooked when we have these discussions. The thing is, anthropology is full of public intellectuals. You see anthropologists across all different forms of media, from leading newspapers to blogs, to local talk radio. You see anthropologists working on behalf of communities all around the world as well as working as bridges between communities. And you see anthropologists working daily with the large portion of the public that is in school, training the next generation of public intellectuals.
So, if that’s true, why does the discipline always seem to be in a crisis about the state of our public intellectuals? Why do we feel so marginal to public discourse? Why do we barely even get mentioned in debates like the one that erupted in response to a certain op-ed columnist? I think I have an answer for that. Anthropological expertise is shaped by the ethnographic method. That means that anthropological interventions in the public sphere tend to be grounded in specific ethnographic encounters. The anthropologist who studies religion will offer insights in faith, while the anthropologist who studies nuclear weapons will have insights on national security, and the anthropologist who studies ecology… etc.
This has a number of important consequences. First, it means that the public generally doesn’t see the anthropology behind these interventions. Even if the discipline has accumulated a body of theory shared by many anthropologists, the very nature of how we engage in public often means setting this theory aside. Jargon that fills our journal articles when we are talking to each other is carefully avoided when talking to a wider audience. There is nothing wrong with this, but it means that people rarely see the underlying concepts and ideas which are shared by the many anthropologists who participate in the public sphere.
Secondly, anthropological publics are often different from the imagined community newspaper columnists think of as their public. An anthropologist of Japan might find it more important to publish something in a Japanese paper than an English one, and someone working in a Native American community might find it more useful to speak out at a community meeting than to write an op-ed. Our interventions are often specific and local, which doesn’t make them any less “public.” In fact, they might be more effective for this very reason, but it does make us less visible at the national level.
This brings us to the third point, which is that while in an ideal world anthropological insight would probably be very useful for shaping government policy, the kinds of policies most anthropologists would recommend are unlikely to mesh well with our current political economic climate. That is to say, the facts have a liberal bent so most of our leading institutions don’t want to hear the facts. For instance, certain Times columnists might have to rethink their rescue crusades if they actually read ethnographies of sex workers, and that would put a cramp in their style. Much better to stick to intellectuals whose work can confirm one’s common sense understanding of the world while simultaneously seeming to give empirical proof that this common sense understanding is correct.
So, what should we do? Keep calm and do anthropology.
[Note: The title of this post is taken from something Rex often says when we talk about the blog (and whether it constitutes “public anthropology”). It just perfectly captured what I was trying to say here…]