This Anthro Life + Savage Minds: Writing “in my Culture”

A podcast and blog walk into a bar…


This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 1
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins

This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. In this series we’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text.

You can check out the the first episode of the collaboration titled Writing “in my Culture” here.

If you’re interested and anthropologically inclined you may know that the theme of the upcoming annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November 2017 is “Anthropology Matters!” This theme is stirring conversation among working anthropologists in and out of the academy, professional and in-training. For a seemingly light statement, Anthropology Matters! has strong gravity, and begs the question, to whom does anthropology matter? Who can it matter to? What makes anthropology relevant? Where does anthropology take place? And who is taking it there?

To begin exploring these questions, we were joined by Savage Minds writers Alex Golub and Zoe Wool in our first episode. With Zoe and Alex, we found ourselves digging into what anthropology as critique looks like in the era of blogs and podcasts. Early in the episode several key questions came into focus: what does anthropology, as a discipline, have to offer in terms of critical thinking? Is open access through a good thing? And how does one effectively engage someone who thinks differently from you?

Where do the anthropologists talk?

Today, anthropological conversations can be widely accessed through podcasts and blogs, video series and popular books, or in the more traditional settings of a university classroom, library, and online journals. The latter traditional conversations, accessed from a university setting, take time to produce, must endure a peer-reviewed process and are also restricted to specific audiences, often behind high-priced journal or university paywalls. Despite the flood of more open-access and informal media, this issue still poses a challenge for anthropologically minded audiences in and outside of the academy today.

When Savage Minds was founded in 2005, the issue of access was even more problematic. Blogging was a fresh and exciting form of online discussions. For Anthropologists like Alex Golub, Carole McGranahan, and Kerim Friedman blogging was an opportunity to have ungated conversations on anthropological subjects, theories and theorists, and the discipline. 12 years later, the blog is bigger than ever and one of the longest running anthropology sites on the Internet. In short, they were on to something.

One of the benefits of blogging anthropology is a faster turnaround for written works that are not subject to the traditional peer-review processes for journals. Blog pieces can be reviewed much quicker for style and content. This quicker turnaround means that posts are released at the same time as issues are happening, whether in the field or elsewhere. This can be critical for anthropological interventions to provide context for events. An added benefit is that readers are able to interact with the author’s arguments in the comments section, allowing for critical conversations to take place, almost as quick as the blog is posted. But the digital challenge is it can be all too easy to cut and copy a pithy statement or idea, or grab a nice sounding quote to back up or refute an argument. As Zoe cautioned, “We want to keep knowledge embedded in the context of its production, so we can critically approach it,” highlighting the importance of preserving both the context surrounding a pithy quote and an author’s intended meaning. Without context, critique has little meaning. Or, with great open access comes great responsibility.

What do anthropologists say when they talk?

Anthropology is a critical discipline that constantly analyzes the structures behind cultural norms and places local events in broader geopolitical and historical contexts. Zoe said it best: critique “is not about judging something or assessing something as good or bad. It’s about bringing into relief the structures through which something is evaluated in the first place.The role of anthropology is to critique, not denunciate – perhaps best illustrated by the image of the Internet troll. Bringing these points together, as Alex articulated, the point of conversation is to change minds, not call something out or judge unduly. We’d further that another point of conversation is to open minds. And critique – through putting context before events – is one of our most effective tools for doing so.

Channeling Ruth Benedict, Alex offered a way of nudging this idea to fruition: add the words in “my culture” to the end of every sentence you say (i.e. this movie is great in my culture, we wear socks in my culture, blogging works like this in my culture, etc.). Doing so helps when trying to understand that an individual view is but one of many.

The process of coming to know one’s social world is inculturation. It takes place consciously and unconsciously, implicitly and explicitly. Acculturation, on the other hand, is coming to learn another social world, a meeting between multiple cultures. This isn’t easy; like learning a second language it takes time, patience, and critical thinking. And learning to think critically involves learning to work across these two social forces.

One of the aims with This Anthro Life’s Conversations series and Design + Applied minisodes is to promote actionable steps to further critical thinking. For example, during the divisive 2016 US election, we produced an episode on Myths of American Democracy, to help foster critical thinking about elections and how people think democracy should work. Likewise, on an episode with Jara Connell on recent protests, we directed our attention away from particular events to critically engage the question of what makes a protest successful? With corporate anthropologist Dr. Andi Simon we took a direct approach to actionable steps in our Applied + Design minisode series. In our first minisode, Dr. Simon shared wisdom on critically considering stagnation and embracing change even though we may resist it, whether in the workplace, the university, or elsewhere.

Yes, it’s a tall order for a 30 minute podcast or a 5-10 minute minisode, but we love the challenge. And this is the challenge present for all critical thinking forums, balancing content, context, and conversation. This challenge is what makes collaboration so important.

With this series one theme we aim to explore more deeply is this deceptively simple sounding, yet complex idea: anthropology matters because it shows us how to have productive critical conversations in times of conflict.

Check out the  first episode Writing “in my Culture” with Zoe Wool and Alex Golub, subscribe to the podcast (iTunes, Stitcher, Android or by email), and please join us for a conversation in the comments below or on Stay tuned for next week’s conversation with Leslie Walker and Ed Liebow from the American Anthropological Association.

This Anthro Life

Adam Gamwell is a Design Anthropologist, co-founder of TAL and a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. He co-hosts the show, and serves as Creative Director and Executive Producer. He is also a Research Fellow and Consultant for Bioversity International. His expertise lies in design, food research, science and technology studies, and audio and media production. Find Adam on Twitter or adam AT thisanthrolife dot com.

Ryan Collins is an Archaeological Anthropologist, co-founder of TAL and a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. He co-hosts the show, and serves as Education Designer. He is also an active member of el Proyecto de Interacción Política del Centro de Yucatán (PIPCY), in Yaxunah, Yucatán, México. His expertise lies in the comparative development of complex society, urbanization, and Mesoamerican studies. Find Ryan on and Twitter or ryan AT thisanthrolife dot com.