TAL + SM: Anthropology and Science Journalism, A New Genre?

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This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 3
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. 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.

In our third episode of the TAL + SM crossover series, we explored SAPIENS’ approach to producing anthropological content for popular audiences. Ryan and Adam were joined by the digital editor of SAPIENS, Daniel Salas, to discuss the implications of using anthropology to engage the public through journalism. The episode focused on the questions How do you reconcile scientific and anthropological writing, and is this mixture a new genre? Is there a balance to be found between producing timeless “evergreen” stories versus current events focused content for audience engagement?

Be sure to check out the first and second episodes of the TAL + SM collaboration: Writing “in my Culture” and Anthropology has Always Been out There.

What is SAPIENS?

Just over a year old, SAPIENS is a online content producer funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation with the mission to deliver anthropological stories and insights to worldwide audiences. A working collaboration between professional journalists and anthropologists, Daniel describes SAPIENS publications as “webby” kinds of stories that showcase “public anthropology’s footprints across the web”.

The SAPIENS team looks to popular science publication sites like Nautilus, Hakai Magazine, and Aeon as inspiration for how to weave together anthropology and science journalism on their own site. These sites are known for their “influx of content that is intellectual, that is based on scientific reasoning, it is based on offering in depth conversations and dialogues” and, as Adam states, “anthropology is really well poised for these conversations”. As SAPIENS is a relatively new enterprise the team strengthens its base by strategically syndicating anthropology-centric content from other science and political publications including Discover Magazine, Scientific American, Slate, Aeon, and The Atlantic. This also helps clarify SAPIENS target audience.

The editor-in-chief of SAPIENS, Dr. Chip Colwell, describes the work SAPIENS does as creating a “new genre” that incorporates the “key insights of anthropology with the tools of journalism”. The staff of SAPIENS are building this new genre by helping anthropologists and science journalists shape their research and findings into narratives with wide appeal.  

Fact, Fiction, Fidelity and Feeling

Following our conversation with Daniel we were struck by Chip’s concept of “creating a new genre” with anthropology. Now, anthropology is a discipline that dabbles. It’s a creative science that explores the human condition and opens worlds that are at once strange, yet familiar. Any reader of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings will recognize the deep lore and history contained within the pages of the books. Like these works of fiction, anthropology has the capacity to be both descriptive and generative. Anthropologists combine and contrast deep histories with current events, context with happenings; anthropology describes people’s lives so that we may generate other possible ways of being. Along with field interlocutors and through the course of everyday life, anthropologists generate events that can be ethnographically described, and such events offer us imaginative renderings of past, present and future.

More than picking examples that share in deep expression of complex culture and language, whether of wizards, dwarves, elves, and orcs – these tales captivate us in complex webs of other social realms that capture something real. Illustrated well by Carole McGranahan in Ethnographic Fiction: The Space Between, she writes that, “Fiction, for me, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world around me.” The line between fiction and ethnography can be fuzzy. In essence, the goal of a novelist and an ethnographer are remarkably similar, to elicit a deep truth about the human experience. Many works of fiction do this inadvertently. Socio-cultural Anthropologist Elizabeth Ferry and Literary Scholar John Plotz have gone so far as to pair readings of the classic ethnographic text by David Schneider, American Kinship with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Oh the window into early 19th century aristocratic courtship!

However, novels tend to make for better reads. During Freethink 4: On Art, Creativity, and Bringing Awe back to Anthropology, Ryan and Adam spoke at length about the novels they’ve encountered, which instilled a deep and formative sense anthropological curiosity in them. For Ryan, Gary Jennings’ Aztec brought Ancient Mesoamerica to life. Even Michael E. Smith has written on the well crafted world imagined by Jennings, applauding his accuracy. For Adam, it’s hard to go wrong with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, that pulls readers in to care so deeply for a larger-than-life family in the fictional Colombian town of Macondo as if you’ve known them their whole lives.

As Lisa Wynn wrote in Ethnographic Fiction on Culture Matters, “I can only think of a small handful of ethnographies that have affected me in the way that a good novel can.” This sentiment is widely shared. To follow this point, Lisa created an extensive list of ethnographic texts which have captivating qualities, some of which might draw the reader in as well as a novel. An ethnography she points out, Phillippe Bourgois’ “In Search of Respect,” is a rare ethnography that enthralls its readers through gripping emotional complexity and vulnerability that so often characterizes the experience of anyone who crosses a cultural boundary. Yet, many anthropologists write about captivating social experiences, emotional hardships, journeys both external and within. How is it that more ethnographic texts aren’t best-sellers?

Carole McGranahan also poignantly characterizes the writing processes of academics in Genre-bending, or the Love of Ethnographic Fiction. In that post, Carole notes that there are incentivized rewards for particular forms of writing. Perhaps this dynamic is changing (see Getting Credit). But Carole makes the case that ethnographic fictions do more to illicit something deep and real about the human condition that typical ethnography cannot. Carole writes, “In genre-normative ethnography, one can’t invent dialogue or scenarios that never were; one can frame, but not fashion. If I want to relate a conversation, I have to go back to my carefully typed transcripts. In our genre-normative writing culture, there are conventions that require diligence and care. As I write ethnographic fiction, I can transgress those conventions. I can flagrantly put real people in an imaginary situation to envisage an event that probably did not happen.”  This swapping of fact and fiction reveals a generative tension between writing for ethnographic fidelity and evoking feeling.

Ryan was first introduced to Jason de Leon’s The Land of the Open Graves when teaching Latin American Ethnography at Northeastern University. Jason uses ethnographic fiction to tell the harrowing tales of the humans who endured crossing the US Mexican border in the American Southwest. The text, which bounces back and forth between ethnographic and archaeological/or forensic reconnaissance and fictionalized stories, brings the border’s victims to life like a detective discerning crimes from material remains of the victims.

Much like Ed Liebow pointed out in last week’s episode, different career paths have different reward structures. This is worth a deeper reflection when we consider anthropological writing. There is a place for genre bending in anthropology.

Science Journalism, Anthropology, and Delivery

Speaking to anthropology’s genre-bending versatility, Daniel describes anthropology as “a whole universe of little nuggets that can change your perspective of the world and can bring you out of your provincial understanding or conceptions about what people are like, what culture is like, why people believe the things they believe”. Decoupling ethnographic findings from the writing itself, i.e. imagining them as nuggets, helps us conceptualize why anthropology is particularly well-suited for many genres. It’s no secret that data are malleable; the question is how people choose to frame and contextualize them. There’s a reason so many anthropology 101 classes teach Alfred L. Kroeber’s assertion that “anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities”.

As with creative writing, Anthropology employs many techniques that crossover into journalism as well. Like journalists, anthropologists have informants, collect data from the field, and support and contextualize findings with intensive research. In the end it comes down to delivery and time. Sarah Kendzior said it best in an interview with Ryan Anderson of Savage Minds ethnography is journalism that takes too long. I mean that not pejoratively but as an affirmation of the discipline’s values –– long-term observation; scrutiny of methodological practice; respect for history; commitment to understanding local beliefs and traditions.” And of course upending genre conventions and learning to write anthropological data and insight anew takes work. But, Daniel points out, the most successful pieces on SAPIENS are those based on what anthropology does best: overturning common assumptions.


Daniel Salas received a BA in Anthropology from New York University and a MA in Anthropology from the New School for Social Research. He joined the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2011, where he currently holds the title of Communications Coordinator. Daniel has also played a key role in conceptualizing SAPIENS and currently serves as the site’s Digital Editor.

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 Academia.edu and Twitter or ryan AT thisanthrolife dot com.