Tag Archives: popularizing anthropology

When Cultural Anthropology Was Popular: A Quiz

Guest post by Paul Shankman

Cultural anthropologists are often concerned that their work is not getting the public attention that it deserves. Yet just a few decades ago, cultural anthropology was familiar to a broad audience who thought it to be interesting, thought provoking, and even life changing. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the work of a number of cultural anthropologists found an appreciative public, and their books sold well. These anthropologists wrote in plain English, on eye-catching subjects, and for commercial presses rather than academic presses. Looking back, their work may elicit a mixture of admiration, amazement, embarrassment, and even dismay. Can you identify these anthropologists? (Answers follow the questions.)

THE QUIZ: Continue reading

Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

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Carl Hoffman > Jared Diamond

Carl Hoffman is a travel writer who has recently turned his attention to New Guinea, where he produces grisly stories of cannibalism, murder, and The Smell Of Men. Jared Diamond is a scientist with decades of experience visiting New Guinea whose books attempt to humanize the people who live there. As an expert on Papua New Guinea, I was really surprised  to find that I was much more impressed with Hoffman’s understanding of Melanesia and its people than I was Diamond’s. So how could I like a cannibalism-obsessed journalist more than a scientist who admired Papua New Guinean’s parenting skills? Continue reading

Writing Together

We’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on authorship in anthropology. The overwhelming majority of anthropology books are written by a single author. This is understandable if you look at the conventions of fieldwork, as well as the hiring processes of universities, for which co-authored works weigh far less than single-authored ones. Yet to us, this seems a real pity, as our experience has been that co-authorship has a number of great advantages.

Increased productivity
Although we both have very different careers – Pál being a full-time university professor and Joana being a „free-lance anthropolgist“ and running an internet start-up – we have (in addition to many single-authored works) over the last 10 years written dozens of articles and three books together, as well as devised e-learning courses and workshops. One of the reasons for our large output has been that we were able to cover very different audiences in a few strokes. Not only has nearly all our writing been published in both German and English, we also wrote up different versions, one academic, the other targeting a general audience.

With different audiences in mind and living in different social spheres we had access to a large pool of research ideas, thus Pál made us study the lifeworlds of Soviet theoretical physicists and Chinese migrants in Eastern Europe and Italy, whereas Joana got us into the comparative study of mass tourism and pushed our exploration of the pervasive uses of culture outside of anthropology, which would eventually lead to Maxikulti and Seeing Culture Everywhere. Pál was sceptical at first – is this academic enough? Is this interesting enough? – but never regretted having been persuaded. Not all of our ventures ended up in serious research or writing – trips to a monastery in Serbia and to a Mennonite farm in Belize yielded only titbits and a trip to the Turkish coast to study Russian tourists, only a car accident. But they were all fun.

Reaching a larger audience
With access to different networks, we published in academic journals such as Current Anthropology and  Development and Change, as well as in mainstream German newspapers and magazines, such as business monthly brand einsGeo and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Writing together also counterbalances our weaknesses: Pál‘s tendency to write too densely and Joana‘s inclination to overgeneralize.

How do you write a book together?
Many people ask: „How does writing together actually work?“ Except for a short while, when Pál was at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, we have never lived in the same city. Instead we have met in dozens of different countries. When Pál is doing fieldwork, Joana might join him for a few days to get the feel for the place necessary to write about it. We also travelled to many places together, from Central America via Eastern Europe to Russia and China, doing „fieldwork light“ along the way.

When our writing is not based on detailed fieldwork by Pál, we usually devise an outline together. Then it is Joana’s task to collect and aggregate the relevant theses and case studies, as she – as a generalist — has a better overview of relevant anthropological material. After this we meet (in Budapest, Sydney, Nice,  Berlin or Luang Prabang to name just a few of the places) for two or three weeks of intensive writing, both sitting in front of one laptop, with Joana often proposing a general structure of the argument and Pál argueing against or refining it and coming up with the final formulations. Back in our respective homes Joana starts the first revision, sending it back to Pál for a final edit. Thus it is a real joint venture and we feel that very few, if any of our output could have been written by one of us a alone.

And last but not least, one of the main rewards for co-authorship is the fun and inspiration we get from working together.