April 1, 2010

Anthropology as a Repository of the Exotic? Or: Anthropology and the PR Problem

A couple of things have me thinking (again) about the nature of anthropology--as if I ever stop wondering about that.

The first was this post over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative, which finally generated an interesting discussion--thanks mostly to David Picard. As I already noted in another post a while back, I was a little surprised that the initial request by Mr McDermott was not received more critically. His request was, after all, basically flying in the face of contemporary anthropology, with the stated intent of finding some good "remote" and "colorful" festivals and people to photograph for the pages of National Geographic. Overall, I took issue less with the request itself than with the fact that the photographer had certain understandings about anthropology that made it seem reasonable to make such a request.

The second thing that got me thinking about all of this was a book called "Global Transformations," which isn't exactly new. But it's still pretty relevant, if you ask me. Anthropologists have, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, tended to focus their skills and attention on the so-called "Savage Slot." So in some senses it's not really a surprise that someone would consult an online group of anthropologists in search of exotic photographic opportunities. And this is a PR problem that lies squarely at the feet of anthropologists themselves, if you ask me.

Why is it that the "general public" (whatever that really is) often thinks of either Indiana Jones, dinosaurs, insects, or the so-called mysteries of 2012 when they hear the word "anthropology"? I'm not kidding about this. I have answered the "what exactly is anthropology again" question more times that I can count. At least some people get somewhat close when they ask if that's kind of like what Ross from "Friends" did (no, that was paleontology). How did this fate come to pass? Why is it that 19th century ideas about culture pervade public media discourses? David Brooks, Samuel Huntington, and Lawrence Harrison are just a few examples of the ways in which the notion of "culture" has been hijacked and used to support less than spectacular arguments about human society. This is unacceptable. But sitting on the veranda of the university and talking about all of the complexities of culture isn't going to get anyone anywhere.

Again, I refuse to blame the media, the public, or even Herbert Spencer for these issues. This is an internal issue that anthropologists need to address. It's a matter of public dialog and communication, and it's a matter of making contemporary anthropological positions and ideas known. Media matters, and so does design, presentation, and dissemination. What do I mean by that? I mean that dense ethnographies are great and all, but there there has to be some other forms of knowledge production, presentation, and dissemination if things are going to change. If political scientists and economists can get their ideas out there, so can anthropologists. Important point: this is not about writing "easy" ethnographic or anthropological publications. It IS about rethinking how we use and engage with media, for starters.

I think that part of the basic issue lies in the overall image of anthropology, which to me is stuck somewhere around 1890 or so. A lot has happened since then, of course, but for some reason the public perception of the discipline seems to be about 100 years or so behind the times. Why? Maybe this is due to some of the political disasters that anthropologists ran into in World War I, World War II, Vietnam, etc. Maybe.

But how long are anthropologists going to hide behind "complicated" excuses before they move on and start getting ideas out there in the public sphere? Yes, 19th century anthropology was anything but perfect, and Ruth Benedict's mid 20th century notions about national character were, well, WAAAAAAY off the mark, and yes Vietnam was certainly "problematic" to say the least. But those are not reasons to remain silent and disconnected. In fact, that's all the more reason to enter the larger debates and discussions.

The issue here is like publishing a mistake on the front page, and then only issuing a retraction on page 67 the next day. The front page mistake lives on if nothing is put out to counter it. Maybe that's why certain themes about national tendencies hold sway in a lot of public debate (people from the Middle East are like X, people from Africa are Y, and Americans are Z). Nonsense. Down with the massive stereotypes! I am not arguing for a unified political party or position; I AM arguing that it's about time that the diversity of anthropological insights and voices see the public light of day (or at least we all work in that direction).

This is definitely NOT a problem of relevance. Anthropologists study everything from health care to immigration to race to genocide to political economy to poverty to war to violence to international development to social networking sites like Facebook. There is relevance in spades when it comes to contemporary anthropological work. Relevance, in fact, is the least of our worries. So what is? Reputation and recognition. Anthropologists are constantly mistaken for the fictional 19th century version of themselves, and this presents some obvious problems. Being mistaken for someone who wears a pith helmet and observes the "natives" is worse than being non-existent.

I agree with Trouillot. It's time for anthropologists to ditch the "Savage Slot" once and for all. And, for the most part, I think this has already happened within the discipline--now it's a matter of making this clear to the rest of the world. Exoticism isn't what anthropology is all about, and it isn't what anthropologists should be known for. Anthropology, as I see it, is not about the strange and exotic; it's about human experience in all times and places. Right? The goal isn't to make fetishize the strange, but instead to foster dialog and discussion about the multiplicities of human thought, history, behavior, and experience. This doens't mean that anthropologists should stop studying people and places all over the world--it means that we should work hard to avoid having our work cast in exotic, romantic terms. It means that anthropologists have to reshape public ideas about what anthropology is really all about (and this isn't going to happen at the annual AAA meetings). This requires not only an active participation in the production and presentation of anthropological texts, films, articles, websites, and presentations, but also a forceful (and engaging) interaction with wider audiences.

There are lots of anthropologists out there doing timely, relevant, and important work. More than enough. Now it's time for more people to hear about it, and for the closed academic debates to become a part of the unwieldy--yet critically important--wider public discussions about humanity, politics, and society. Why are economists a part of wider public debates and arguments? Because people have actually heard of Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, and (just ask the development folks), Milton Friedman.

If we're really lucky, the wider public has heard of someone like Paul Farmer, or maybe someone like David Attenborough. Maybe. More often, the most recent public figure that people can recall is someone like Margaret Mead. There's nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that several decades have passed by in the mean time.

In summary, it's time to step out of the shadow of the 19th century. It'll be a good day when the general public hears as much (or more) from Leo Chavez about immigration as they do from Lou Dobbs.


Jeremy Trombley said...

Nice post, Ryan. I just watched a full episode of Bones for the first time, and cringed every time she said "anthropologically speaking." Because each time what came out of her mouth was not very anthropological at all (men are wired to be protectors? really?). I think it's incumbent on all of us to set the record straight when people or the media get it wrong and to make some noise about what it is we do. See Eriksen's Engaging Anthropology for a model of how it might look.

Just to play devil's advocate - does it really matter if the general public knows who we are and what we do? I mean, can't we keep doing it without their knowledge? Sure, we may never be as powerful as the political scientists or as influential as the economists, but we can do our part in our own little way.

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks Jeremy,

I suppose it doesn't matter if the general public knows what we do...but then, for me, I am not sure what the point is if very few people ever hear about our results, ideas, and conclusions.

I am not arguing for more power, really, but instead some more public engagement, since I think that anthros have something pretty valuable to contribute to some important public debates.

Also, I think there are many different ways of going about anthropology. I think there is room for people to do their own part in their own way, and also for other forms of interaction and engagement.