January 31, 2010

Anthropology, journalism, and relevance

Over at Savage Minds there is a recent post about "anthropological journalism". This is an issue that has been on my mind a lot lately. Why don't we hear more from anthropologists? And why is anthropological writing so damn boring (not ALL, just a LOT)? What can anthropology learn or borrow or steal from journalism?

Some of these issues came up while I was reading a couple of books for class: Renato Rosaldo's Culture & Truth and Catherine Lutz and Donald Nonini's "The Economies of Violence" (in Anthropological Theory Today). Rosaldo's book is all about pushing the boundaries of anthropological writing. There is no reason why we have to be limited to a formulaic (and often excruciatingly tedious) form of communication. Lutz and Nonini argue that anthropologists might be wise to take some cues from investigative journalism (they are talking specifically to anthropologists who deal with the relationship(s) between violence and economics, but I think it applies elsewhere).

Why not push the boundaries? Why not find different ways to write? Why do economists have so much weight in public opinion? Don't anthropologists have something to say about the VAST MYRIAD of issues they study, investigate, and turn into textbooks? I think so.

Anyway, here is my comment that I posted over at Savage Minds:

For me, it comes down to this: why are we producing all of this information? What purpose is there to anthropology? What are the end goals? Teaching? Publication of textbooks? Journal articles and tenure? Why are we sending people all around the world to collect information about different people, situations, and issues?

I can understand the aversion to mass media, and to journalism. I understand the fact that anthropologists are concerned about getting it right, and about making sure that the correct interpretation comes across--and they are worried about the ways in which their ideas/information will be incorporated into larger media circles.

The only problem: there really is no way to perfectly control meaning. So that means anthropologists can either remain silent and keep things under control, or they can start to participate more frequently in these discussions. The only way to influence meaning is to actually take part in the continuous discussion.

I hear plenty of views about international development and politics from the likes of political scientists and economists...but not too much from anthropologists--who often have a pretty different perspective to offer.

The site "Contexts" was already mentioned above. I think that is one possible model that we anthros could look into for some ideas and inspiration.

Also, in my opinion, since we ARE media producers, I think that a part of our methods training SHOULD be media production. This means classes in film, classes, in photography, classes in web design, and yes, classes in writing as a part of the standard canon of teaching. Why not?

Writing especially. A lot of anthropological writing is pretty damn opaque and boring--and this isn't something new. Renato Rosaldo spent a lot of time talking about that in his 1989 book "Culture & Truth". Anthropologists have to write all the time--why isn't there more of a methodological focus on the craft of writing. It's not as if good writing just happens automatically. I think that one or two creative writing classes might do wonders. Open up the possibilities.

ckelty wrote [in the comments section]:

I don’t think current anthropology is so resistant to being “news-ified” or that the resistance to simplification is the problem or that the public understands anthropological theories less than it does quantum mechanics (!). I think the problem lies in the failure to clearly an carefully outline the “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts” (to use the NSF’s language) of any given piece of work.

I agree with you that the problem is not whether or not the public can "understand" anthropological theories. In my opinion, anything can be explained...as long as you don't write in jargon ridden nonsense. Anthropology is certainly NOT quantum mechanics.

I am not sure if the problem has to do with a lack of intellectual merit. I think that those journal articles are published for a specific audience, and in many cases are not applicable or relevant to wider audiences. But that does not mean that anthropologists have NOTHING to contribute--there are anthropologists working all over the world, on all kinds of issues. There is no lack of relevance, but there is a lack of Op-eds and articles that speak to different audiences. This is a matter of finding various ways to communicate information to diverse audiences.

Why do economists and political scientists have so much pull when it comes to international politics etc? Because they're out there saying something? Because they're publishing magazines that people actually read. Because they publish books that larger audiences actually find interesting and accessible.

In order to take part in these discussions we have to be willing to actually make some mistakes. Maybe that's the roadblock.

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