Three Places to Avoid if You’re New to Anthropology

If you’re just starting out in anthropology, let me do you a favor. I want to point out three items that are NOT resources for learning more about anthropology, though they may seem like it at first glance.

1. Anthropologie. This is obvious for many of our readers: Anthropologie is a clothing and home décor retailer in the United States, UK, Germany, and France – not a store where you can find the course readings or cool skull things for your office. In fact, there is no clear connection between what Anthropologie sells and what anthropology is. I’ve heard stories of anthropologists shopping at Anthropologie who have tried to strike up conversation with employees about anthropology, only to be met with blank stares. Furthermore, Anthropologie’s ridiculously high prices for frivolous products are totally counter to anthropology’s long relationship with social justice and political economy. Instead: If you need anthropology-related goods, try patronizing your local bookstore or buy from the local artists wherever you do your research.

2. AnthroCon. This one is a little less obvious. In college, I had a colleague excitedly announce in our student anthropology club meeting that AnthroCon would be in Pittsburgh that year. Having never heard of it, I googled right away to discover something I was not expecting: AnthroCon is furry convention and it takes place in Pittsburgh every year. You may wonder, “What does that even mean?” From Wikipedia: The furry fandom is a subculture interested in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities and characteristics. Examples of anthropomorphic attributes include exhibiting human intelligence and facial expressions, the ability to speak, walk on two legs, and wear clothes. Furry fandom is also used to refer to the community of people who gather on the Internet and at furry conventions. Furries read and write fan-fiction or even develop their own “fursonas” (fur + persona) and dress up in costume. While I’m not sure if it really is a true characteristic of the community, there is a strong stereotype of furries that participants have a sexual interest in their activities, and there are plenty of sexualized animal illustrations in a quick Google Images search (which is NSFW) that confirm that bias. Anyway, we get to “AnthroCon” because furry fandom revolves around anthropomorphic animals and furries are also called “anthros.” While I’ve never been to an AnthroCon, I can almost certainly guarantee that they you won’t find a book room with killer discounts on Duke University Press publications and DER films. (Email me if I’m wrong.) Instead: If you want to hang out with anthropologists and familiarize yourself with the latest news, hit up a regional or national anthropology conference or area studies conference!

3. r/Anthropology. r/Anthropology is a subreddit (or community on Reddit) that is ostensibly about anthropology. A cursory glance at the topics shows that the community seems more occupied with current events in popular science that are related to archaeology, paleoanthropology, and human biology and evolution than they are about the discussions going on within. There are some cultural and medical anthropology conversations going on, but not a lot since the community relies heavily upon popular media. I thought it’d be a good idea to promote Savannah Martin’s latest guest blog, “Bidding ‘bon voyage’ to La pensée sauvage” there. Not surprisingly, most of the comments were not far removed from some of those gems in the comments here on Anthrodendum or on Facebook or Twitter: I was treated to the completely uninteresting and unoriginal reminder that Lévi-Strauss meant this thing, not that thing, and it’s all just a pun that I don’t understand (despite my conversational fluency in French), as if no one here at the blog knew these exciting insights into the true meaning of “Savage Minds.” What did shock me about r/Anthropology was that as soon as I reminded Savannah’s critics that Whiteness and being White plays a huge role in how we view the world – and more specifically, that many White anthropologists who are confronted with the possibility of accidentally hurting People of Color seem to default to a defensive stance bound up in their Whiteness rather than a culturally relative and sensitive position that we learn in anthropology – I was called a racist. One person even claimed that, as a test, I should substitute all of the times I used “Whiteness” with “Blackness,” and sure enough I would realize I was being a racist. Huh?

Racism – you may not know – is a combination of racial prejudice and institutional power, and therefore it is largely understood in the social sciences that one cannot be racist against White people. That someone on r/Anthropology claimed the opposite, and that no one challenged their position (though many supported them) tells me that these particular community members are not familiar with what I had believed to be a very Anthro 101 understanding of race and racism. At that moment, I realized that if I wanted to carry on, I would be investing a great deal of time and energy into attempting to educate people that seemed to have a very fixed definition of racism for themselves – I opted out. I’ve gone on plenty of these noble quests before and I won’t dissuade anyone else from doing it, but I just don’t have it in me right now.

I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations right off the bat, and so I thought perhaps that this was just one bad experience. I returned the next day to the subreddit to find two new topics up for discussion. “Are White people a different species than everyone else (because of their Neanderthal DNA)?” was is thankfully deleted and “Can anyone tell me why [A]frican genetics are so dominant?” In the latter topic, the author wants to know why Black-White biracial kids look more Black than White, a question based on deeply undereducated misunderstanding of molecular and population genetics and with all the makes of a springboard for an argument against miscegenation and for eugenics. They might as well be asking, “Why are Black genes so aggressive and threatening?

Basically, my short experience on r/Anthropology leads me to believe that it is what would happen if you took all the horrible things you’ve heard about Reddit and turned it loose with only an introductory anthropology course under its belt. Again, this was a fleeting experience, and I could be wrong, but then again, I don’t know a single person in my admittedly huge professional network that spends any time (or significant time, at least) on r/Anthropology, and no one has spoken up to say I should give it another chance. I could be wrong, but I will say there are definitely better places to find community. Instead: If you’re looking for an internet community of anthropologists, you should probably stick to Facebook and Twitter.

So unless you’re looking for overpriced home goods, Tony the Tiger costumes, or an internet forum that would make Madison Grant proud, it’s best to avoid these places.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

11 thoughts on “Three Places to Avoid if You’re New to Anthropology

  1. Hey- moderator for /r/anthropology here. We are trying to encourage more anthropologists to engage with the sub, and with /r/askanthropology (same mod group). However, the vast majority of the subscribers to both subs are not professional anthropologists. There are many students (who occasionally ask ignorant questions, but seem open to anthropological answers), and there are many race-realists (who are not at all open and twist any attempt to engage).

    We’ve had a massive uptick in racist posts (like the one you’ve described) recently (or at least that’s my perception, I haven’t been a moderator for very long). We’re trying to keep a lid on those kinds of posts, and to be honest we’ve banned quite a few people for not sticking to the sub’s rules. I think it would be great if more anthropologists visited the sub (and reported racist and offensive posts) to create a better community. I’m an archaeologist, and I would agree that my communities on Facebook are much more vibrant, but they exclude the young people who are using reddit. I think it’s great to engage across multiple platforms, and I invite you to help us make /r/anthropology and /r/askanthropology better. That’s how you build community, right? You get involved.

  2. Cool. Let’s do it. I’m more than happy to stick around and keep working at it, as long as I know the mod has my back. Frankly, I just assumed that since almost no one agreed with me, that’s just how the sub was and the mods were fine with that. But sure, I’ll give it a go. See you there!

  3. I had a good laugh at this post – very true, reddit is a scary place for informed anthropology sometimes. I was following your original post of this blog on there with all the Levi-Strauss comments. r/AskAnthropology is definitely a little better than the more general subreddit you mention. It tends to have lots of good answers when people as unfortunately racist questions and/or bake similar assumptions into the background of their question. On another note, reddit has a huge audience and I think has at least some role to play in changing public imaginaries for the good. I do my duty every once in a while and try to answer some askanthropology posts to the best of my ability, and maybe, just maybe some readers will learn something and pass it along to friends and family :). We need more informed anthropology in the the net! Keep fighting the good fight.

  4. Another mod for /r/Anthropology here (and as archeo mentioned, /r/AskAnthropology, which is a much better community).

    I honestly thank you for this post – sometimes I feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle against trolls of the worst possible kind, and unfortunately people do not report enough, so we are actually underwhelmed by the sheer amount of users that come in bad faith, sometimes straight from other subreddits.

    Me and archeo joined the mod team quite recently, because the older mods were themselves kind of overworked but didn’t know who to trust with the subreddit – we all also have very busy personal and work lives (I’m teaching and writing a PhD thesis atm). I tried to make some changes in /r/AskAnthropology, which again is the better one of the two, but even there all I faced was the apathy from the community.

    So we are left with a weird problem — we cannot change the whole subreddit by ourselves, because that’s not what reddit is for (unlike a blog, or a twitter, or even a Facebook group, a subreddit cannot survive without direct user engagement); but other anthropologists do not feel welcome in the subs, and do not feel like engaging with the dumpster fire that is reddit (and I don’t blame them). So we’re left with the laypeople and the racists.

    I think this post is, in a way, good for B̶i̶t̶c̶o̶i̶n̶ the subreddits. If other anthropologists feel like joining us, either as mods or as users (and especially as flaired users), that makes our work so much easier.

    We need good posts, and good comments, to have a thriving community. We have been trying to achieve that critical mass for a while now, and all of our attempts have failed.

    Maybe this will be the breath of fresh air that will clean up the miasma we’re going through.

  5. Also, reddit is an awful place for actual anthropological discussion. I’ve tried before, and even when you have good discussion happening, the way threads work make it a headache and more trouble than it’s worth it.

    I see it solely as a place where anthropologists can try to engage with the public. If the public is as venomous and trollish as you’ve seen, I honestly don’t blame myself for that – that’s a reflex of the reddit platform itself.

  6. Thank you for posting this. I’d like to return to your point #1. One of the things that got me into blogging was the realization that http://www.anthropology.com redirects to the Anthropologie store. Don’t think we’ll get that one back unless there’s a serious capitalist crisis. We do have http://www.anthropology.net, although this somewhat inconsistent blog is holding down potentially valuable real estate. If we had 50k we could buy http://www.anthropology.org.

  7. Thanks for your article, I was especially amused about Number 1, because that shop is kind of the first thing that always pops up when you Google ‘Anthropologie’ as a German. When people try to understand what you study they then just get more confused.

    I have just one question.. as I’m from Europe where the debate surrounding race as a scientific term mostly ends with a reference to american anthropology my understanding of this issue is very limited.. But what I don’t understand is why it seems so impossible to you that one can be racist against people with white skin?

    Attributing a certain view to everyone who is ‘White’ can be seen as creating a racial prejudice. And I’m sure there will be at least one ‘Institution’ that prefers people who do not have white skin colour, but some other. Pretending that people with white skin are never reduced to the fact that they have white skin seems to me as absurd as pretending people will never be judged by their appearances. This does not mean I do not see that people with otherwise coloured skin are more prone to be discriminated. I just don’t see reasons for excluding people with white skin from that problem.

    Maybe you can help me understand why you would argue like that?

    Paul

  8. Hi Paul. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I do understand that the terminology can be a little different in different places, especially because we have different national and historical relationships to racism, colonialism, and imperialism, so you’re not the only one who has expressed confusion about my statement. I should’ve been more clear that this is a largely American phenomenon. Let me copy and paste something I was just explaining on Reddit to someone who asked a similar question: “The prejudice-plus-power formulation of racism actually comes from American liberation theology in about the 1960s or 1970s, if I remember correctly. It’s par for the course in African Studies, Feminist Studies, anthropology, and other fields that take a political or social justice perspective. Institutional racism is certainly a type of racism that involves deeply entrenched, systemic, and mostly unconscious forms of discrimination against non-White people, but interpersonal forms of racism require power too. At the end of the day, the argument is basically that White people, because of White privilege, will always have the upper hand against People of Color. I, as a White male, can never cry racism (nor would I want to) if someone discriminated against me for being White, because…well, I’ll be fine. I have way more opportunities and open doors, and frankly I’ll just go do something else. So in the original thread when I was talking about Whiteness, I was absolutely saying that it can change the way we think (which is the whole point of the privilege discourse) – that doesn’t make me a racist, it just means that we all have subjective positions and identities that influence the way we see the world, and Whiteness and White privilege are no different.” Thank you.

  9. I am surprised at this characterization of https://www.reddit.com/r/Anthropology/. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the range of information there and people’s careful answers to each other. Yes, there IS that ridiculous “why are African genetics so dominant” post. It’s not a site for deep specialist conversations about anthropology – but what public site would be? It’s a nice popular site for discussing anthropology as non-experts understand it. I firmly believe there’s a place for that in this world. It’s a gateway or a portal for those who might begin to delve into it more.

  10. As a longtime reader of SM/Anthrodendum, I am dismayed by the quality of this article. Where are the editors?

    The bits on Anthropologie and AnthroCon (Points 1 & 2) read like BuzzFeed clickbait. These are two paragraphs of zero substance to anyone subscribing to this blog. Unless you’re here by complete accident, you’re probably well aware that Anthropologie does not carry Fredrik Barth’s early work. And please, please, don’t argue that these two points were just meant to be funny… because (A.) they weren’t really, and (B.) even if one could argue that they were, that’s full TWO-THIRDS of your entire article devoted to setting up a fairly basic joke. You’re wasting everyone’s time.

    As for r/Anthropology. Wow. Just wow. Way to dismiss an ENTIRE community based on assumptions (as you readily admitted in the comments) “supported” by a tiny, biased sample of posts. While I am not a member of this community, I sure am glad that there’s a place where professional anthropologists engage with students and enthusiasts. I apologize to you, dear author, that these non-professionals don’t all subscribe to discussing topics using frameworks and language, which you, an American PhD student, deem appropriate. Maybe they’re first year students, maybe they never went to college at all? Some perspective, please.

  11. Hi H. Kamienski. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response to what you have correctly noted is a low-brow blog entry. Just to clarify, Anthrodendum (it’s just Anthrodendum now, because some of us believe SM to be racist) has no editors and I’ve been – for better or worse – empowered with publishing whatever I like, within reason. You may take a look at my past posts to see that many of my articles are exactly the Buzzfeed listicle flavor that you’ve identified here, followed by invited posts and absurd book reviews (sometimes the books are absurd, sometimes the reviews are absurd). (I even lampooned Buzzfeed one year for April Fool’s.) I’m so happy that you’ve joined me on this wild ride that seeks to bring some Millennial-focused humor into a blog that has a very diverse authorship and portfolio of topics. As for r/Anthropology, a community of which you are not a member, you should go check it out. They’re having a fascinating conversation – as we speak! – about how some ridiculous article on some major anthropology blog correctly identified some problems in their community and how they can move forward to clean the place up. I aspire to create such change with my blog posts, ya know? Cheers!

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