February 26, 2009

Why anthropology?

As someone who is just about done with his MA, and who is awaiting acceptance (and rejection) letters from several doctoral programs in anthropology, I have been wondering about how funding cuts will affect my chances of success. I have also been thinking a lot about the relevance of anthropology, and my future in it. This news, via Kerim at Savage Minds, about potential cuts at Florida State University, is not all that surprising. It seems that the humanities are taking a severe hit in these dire economic times, and anthropology is one of the targets.

When funding gets low people start talking about cutting programs, disciplines like anthropology have to justify why they should continue to receive support--this is what Kerim refers to in the title of his post. I pretty much applied to doctoral programs during one of the worst years in a LONG time, and I know it. I have already heard quite a lot about many programs taking less students, and having a lot less funding available, in this round of applications. This has forced me to really think about why I am in anthropology, and whether there really is a viable future in it.

That's a damn good question.

I think the anthropological perspective is incredibly relevant these days. Every time I see the "experts" talking about geopolitical issues on MSNBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and so on, I wish that a different perspective was also a part of the analysis. Political scientists and economists tend to take a certain perspective on matters, while many of the intricate details get lost in the rhetorical mix. I forget who wrote this recently (I think it may have been someone on Savage Minds), but the mantra of anthropology could be something like "It's more complicated than that."

Sure, it might not be very catchy, but I think it's important to pay attention to the details, to the complexities of what is actually happening throughout the world. And I think this is something that anthropologists do very well. The details matter. Pundits, political scientists, economists, and commentators can talk about GDP, the IMF, the World Bank, USAID, "structural" issues, recessions, international trade, and globalization all day long--but they often gloss over the specifics of how key events play out in different parts of the world. Anthropology is, in my opinion, very much about mediation, about filling in the gaps between various people, groups, and institutions who come into contact with one another.

Anthropologists work all over the world, and they do some pretty amazing work. Their work is relevant to our contemporary world. So why hasn't anyone heard of this work? Why doesn't anyone in the public know what anthropology entails these days? The issue is the fact that anthropology, as a discipline, has to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to disseminating information (and also has to find ways to do this ethically). About a year ago I read this book, in which some anthropologists sought to challenge popular political pundits like Thomas Friedman, Robert Kaplan, and Samuel Huntington. While the anthropological arguments, in my opinion, could have been a little stronger in some cases, I think the book was an excellent attempt at communicating to another audience via a different media and style--and that's part of what I think anthropologists need to get better at. There is no reason why people like Huntington and Friedman should get so much airtime, while the general public still confuses anthropologists with paleontologists and/or entomologists. No, we don't study dinosaurs, and no, we don't study insects.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that anthropology needs to "dumb down" their arguments and turn into some pop-culture focused discipline that produces only soundbites. NOT AT ALL. I am saying that the discipline needs to improve the ways that it communicates information and ideas. Anthropologists can't just speak to themselves and expect to be highly regarded. If they're going to be relevant, then they need to communicate their ideas across different social, political, cultural, and ideological boundaries.

4 comments:

Benni said...

Thanks for the post, the book is next on my shopping-list. Btw, have you read Thomas Hylland Eriksen's "Enganging Anthropology"? (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Engaging-Anthropology-Case-Public-Presence/dp/1845200659). Written from a European anthropologist's perspective, it's a very good read and sensible demand for a more open and public anthropology.

R.A. said...

thanks for the comment benni. i haven't read that book yet, so looks like i need to get get that one too! and the library keeps growing. thanks for the suggestion...i am always looking for books that cover the open/public anthro topic.

Van said...

R.A.
To quote you "It's more complicated than that."

The media is in the business of selling air time. Even National Public Radio makes decision about what their listenership "wants to hear" as the listenership makes the donations, even though they are non-profit. If anthropologists and other social scientists don't inspire the audience, the media won't come to anthropoligists looking for interviews. If social scientists come across as disconnected from the everyday concerns of the proletariat, the media won't have much time or interest in what they have to say.

Another element is that most (not all) anthropologists come across as inaccessible, and overspecialized. An office manager in Cleveland has a hard time understanding the value of a dissertation on the social dynamics of single clan of farmers who live in isolation from electronic communcations, electrial techology, and running water. Even the anthroplogists who do ethnographies of urban gangs appear to value the interests of murderers and drug users over the interests of people who are trying to raisse children who don't join gangs. Let me stress that I am refering to appearences, and I understand that the value of these studies can't be considered in isolation from the body of social science research, but it is the responsibility of the scientist to articulate the relationship of their work to others if they want to be understood.

As you say, "Anthropologists can't just speak to themselves and expect to be highly regarded." It is tempting to communicate only with those who understand you, but this leads to intellectual inbreeding in short order. And intellectual inbreeding is at least as destructive as genetic inbreeding in the long run.

R.A. said...

Van,

"If social scientists come across as disconnected from the everyday concerns of the proletariat, the media won't have much time or interest in what they have to say."

I agree with you 100 percent. Why would people listen or be interested if they cannot relate to what social scientists are talking about? Relevance matters.

"Another element is that most (not all) anthropologists come across as inaccessible, and overspecialized."

Agreed.

"...but it is the responsibility of the scientist to articulate the relationship of their work to others if they want to be understood."

Again, I completely agree. I do think that a lot of anthropological work has plenty of relevance, but the case often isn't made for it. And that's why I think that anthropologists have to really work on using different forms of media, and different overall presentations of their work, to start communicating to different audiences. The dialogue needs to open up, that's what I think.

Thanks for your comment.