February 1, 2010

Get the message to the people, or something like that

Should anthropologists write for a more general audience? Why or why not? Why is this such a debate? For some reason, it is. I think that it makes sense to find ways to speak to different audiences, considering the fact that anthropology is supposedly about humanity or some such thing. So why not spread the message? Why not get into some debates? Why not try to put anthropology out there? Why not publish in various formats? Don't anthropologists have something interesting to say?

Unless, of course, the purpose of anthropology is actually to produce PhD dissertations, journal articles, and monographs for university bookshelves and undergraduate reading lists. Maybe that's the problem. Is that the final goal? Is that the most important goal? Should there be other goals?

Here's the thing though. Nobody--or very few people--are going to read books that are ABOUT the discipline of anthropology itself. And it seems to me that many of the general audience books are more about anthropology and its UNIQUE perspective and less about an actual subject, event, or issue. The kinds of publications should, in my view, be more about the subjects and less about pushing an anthropological perspective per se.

As an analogy, this is like the difference between publishing a book that is ABOUT photography versus publishing a book that is a photographic essay. Huge difference. One will appeal mostly to photographers, and the other might have the possibility to appeal to a much different audience, depending on what it's about.

To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson:

"Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me."

So what does that mean for anthropology? Maybe it means that we need less books about anthropology and more books by anthropologists about the ideas, subjects, events, issues, debates, stories, and experiences they know best.

That's my thought of the day.


J.M said...

I think that's a good thought of the day. Discipline promotion is repellent, and pityful.

Daniel Lende said...

I love that quote from Cartier-Bresson. And for public relevance, I agree - if we can show how life interests us as anthropologists, then we'll capture readers and show off the appeal of anthropology.

Ryan Anderson said...


Thanks for the comment. Ya, I agree. Less about "what anthropology means" and more doing anthropology and explaining by example would be good.

Ryan Anderson said...

Hey Daniel!

I love that quote. It gets right to it--photography isn't about cameras and lighting and rules of composition; it's about the subjects that photographers are attempting to document and tell stories about.

The same is the case with anthropology. If we talk about what we know, and address our research and the issues that we're dealing with, anthropology will come through loud and clear.