When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.
Various bits of social media began vibrating rapidly recently when it was discovered that white supremacists had fooled Google into providing inaccurate information about Boas and cultural relativism. The situation is now apparently resolved, but it isn’t a new problem. Old-timey internet veterans will remember that martinlutherking.org has been run by Stormfront for, like, decades. But this latest kerfuffle should give us the opportunity to think about our priorities as anthropologists writing for the general public today. In a previous post, I argued that there is a difference between the older ‘heroic’ public anthropology and ‘new’, more important public anthropology. Today I want to expand on this point and emphasize that we need shift our conception of public anthropology away from older, moribund genres and to newer, more important, but less familiar ways of reaching the public.
Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.
Trump’s victory yesterday was the result of many factors. The politics of academic publishing was hardly an important part of the elections results. Large for-profit publishers like Elsevier and Taylor and Francis did not secretly elevate Trump to victory, nor would the outcome have changed if voters in Florida had access the entire run of Anthropology and Humanism. But this election did raise issues that central to open access as a movement. It was about truth, credibility, and authority. It was about how the same fact pattern can be interpreted in different ways. It was about judging for yourself the quality of partial and possibly biased information. And what comes next is even more relevant to our academic values. In the next four years we will see many people pushing back against accepted truths — that African Americans face discrimination, that the holocaust occurred, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and much much more, I’m sure. Now, than, we academics need to explain what scholarly and scientific knowledge is, why it is important that non-experts should take it seriously, and how open access is central to a vibrant, functioning democracy.
The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes. Continue reading
Jay Ellison’s recent letter on trigger warnings made the rounds of social media late last week, and this week the story continues to circulate. It’s a topic that hits close to home for me. I have two degrees (MA and Ph.D.) from Chicago. As a student, I worked part time in the Social Sciences and Humanities division and full time in Physical Sciences, punching down cross connects in building basements and visiting faculty offices to explain what ‘the web’ was. I sang the Sunday service in Rockefeller chapel, was married at Hillel, and had the reception at Ida Noyes (long story). At one point when I was writing up my Ph.D., working part time, and serving as the Starr Lecturer in anthropology, I joked that I was student, staff, faculty, and alum — simultaneously. I’ve been told that my latest book is featured on the front table of the Seminary Coop. What could be more Chicago then that?
That said, there are many people more connected to the university than I am. I am just an alum. But I still feel connected to my alma mater. That’s why I’m writing this letter to argue that Ellison’s letter is on the wrong side of this issue in general, and in violation of our university’s long-held academic values in particular.
In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be from Yale). Continue reading
I do not normally write about my duties as a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa on this blog, since the blog isn’t associated with UHM and most of what I do in the classroom and committee meetings doesn’t belong on the Internet. But the Australian National University’s (ANU) recent decision to cut its School of Culture, History, and Language (CHL) deserves to be widely noted. This decision is not the first restructuring at Australia’s flagship university, and it will probably not be the last. But it is unique for its severity, short-sightedness, and the damage it will do to Australia’s well-earned reputation for excellence in studies of Asia and the Pacific. I would urge all readers to sign this petition to preserve the school. That said, there is one benefit to the ANU’s cuts: The increasing prestige and eminence of my university as a world center for study of Asia and the Pacific.
Last week marked the launch of Sapiens, a brand new website bankrolled by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The unveiling is especially welcome to those of us who think about public anthropology, since it will mean the end of Wenner-Gren’s seemingly endless social media campaign announcing that Sapiens will soon be launched. At last — after receiving five email which announce that Sapiens is not launched yet, and then invite me to click through a link to view a web page announcing that Sapiens is not launched yet — Sapiens has finally launched!
After scrupulously refusing to retweet non-news about the site, I was quit curious to see what final form Sapiens would take. So, is Sapiens worth the hype? Has a new day in public anthropology arrived? Can all other anthropology blogs now End? The short answer is that Sapiens is a major new voice in online anthropology, with a bucketload of skilled staff, quality features, and gorgeous web design. But if the Sapiens staff are hoping to transform how the public understands anthropology, they may be disappointed — this website is just one more voice in an already crowded online space. That said, with funding, legitimation, and editorial freedom from Wenner-Gren, Sapiens could make an impact in an already-crowded field.
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Kevin Karpiak. Kevin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. His work focuses on policing as a useful nexus for exploring questions in both political anthropology and the anthropology of morality. He is currently completing a manuscript based on his dissertation research (UC Berkeley 2009), entitled The Police Against Itself: refiguring French liberalism after the social, which provides an ethnographic account of the ethical work undertaken by police officers, administrators, educators and citizens as they experiment with new forms of sociality “after the social moment” in France. He also maintains both apersonal blog and a group blog on the Anthropology of Policing. -R)
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been exploring the tragedy involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in a course I teach entitled “Policing in Society.” My goal is to use the event as a concrete opportunity that can give students practical experience in using the tools we learn in class for conceptualizing “police,” “society,” and their relationship. An added benefit is that it allows students to form and articulate their own positions in regards to such issues.