December 11, 2010

Anthropology, the AAA, and PR: Some thoughts and ideas from the trenches of grad school

Daniel Lende has yet another good overview of the whole AAA "science" fiasco, including some indications that things may be moving in a positive direction. And just today he posted a humorous reflection on the ISSUE, which has been getting its fair share of attention.

Three authors at good old Savage Minds have posted their latest views on the issue. Alex "Rex" Golub calls for a kind of participatory ethnographic self survey to figure out "what anthropology means":
What if, as an alternative, we started a grassroots movement to say, in a public and synthesizable way, what we thought anthropology was about? An anthropologist’s creed, as it were. They would have to be short, a paragraph each, and address (hopefully in the same order) a concrete number of issues: what the word ‘science’ means to them, what disciplines are adjacent to anthropology, what research methods are important, the role of the analyst, the appropriateness of politics involvement, and so forth.
I think this idea makes sense to a certain extent--but only for an internal conversation among anthropologists themselves. And maybe, all things considered, this is the kind of thing that anthropologists need in order to think about the field they are a part of. Maybe we shouldn't rely on some behemoth organization like the AAA to define the parameters of the field. Although, I don't really think that's the case anyway. So I like the general notion that Rex has here, but I think in this case the audience is just US, so to speak, and so this only addresses part of the PR problem that anthropology faces. I am pretty sure that the vast majority of non-anthropologists would find this sort of thing about as interesting as listening to a bunch of economists discuss their favorite statistical models. Not. Exciting.

Kerim Friedman, however, thinks the whole idea of coming up with some anthropological creed is next to impossible, considering the diversity of practices and ideas that encompass the field. Kerim takes a completely different route:
Instead of trying to define the discipline as a whole, we are better off thinking of ourselves as social scientists, writ large. To the extent that we function within anthropology departments, publish in anthropology journals, and hang out with 6,000 anthropologists at the annual meetings, we are anthropologists. But within that there are multiple “anthropologies” which function more-or-less independently of the whole. We can (and often do) choose to wear multiple hats, defined by our training (“Temple Anthropologist”), specialty (“Linguistic Anthropologist”), politics (“Marxist Anthropologist”) etc. Sometimes all three (or more!) at the same time – including all the contradictions which come with that.
And I think Kerim makes some good, tactical, and strategic points about some of the drawbacks of coming up with overly restrictive or narrowly defined boundaries about anthropology. Still, this is yet another conversation that has a lot of internal relevance and little to do with the wider PR problem that anthropology seems to face (for some reason or another). And that brings us to Strong's post, in which he brings Mary Douglas from the bullpen to give us some insight about "Science and the Sacred." The comments in this post are particularly interesting, including the very first one, by "Conan the Pseudonymous," who reminds us that public understanding is by no means the central aim of all anthropology--and I think this is important to keep in mind. While increasing public understanding is, in my view, definitely a critical objective, there is really no need to reduce the entire discipline to this goal. And then there is Strong's comment buried way down in there, which I like a lot:
Generally, I think the importance of anthropological work for the public is negligibly influenced by planning documents. What matters is the work that anthropologists are actually doing.
I agree with this point. And that's why I don't think what we need is an ethnographic study of ourselves in order to move forward. I am not sure what producing a bunch of internal definitions and statements about "what we do" is going to really change much in terms of public understanding of "what we do," even if it might be a fruitful exercise for some adherents (maybe). This kind of internal conversation is great and all, but where does it lead? To thousands of personal statements and definitions? As Kerim argues, can there even BE some uniform, all encompassing, detailed definition of what anthropology is really all about?

Besides, I feel pretty comfortable with some fairly basic definitions or starting points that can be filled in by the vast amount of (diverse) work that anthropologists do. Anthropology is the study of humanity in all times and all places, through a diverse yet interlinked set of holisitc subfields. (this definition basically comes from Haviland's intro to anthropology text that I use for 100 level classes--works for me). The details of anthropology, of course, can be explored and highlighted by individual work, whether by a cultural anthropologist, a primatologist, or a collaborative combination of perspectives. Nothing illustrates a definition better than case studies and real world examples of ideas put into practice.

Words, definitions, and internally-focused conversations are great...but they aren't ends in and of themselves. They should be a means to an end (ie actually doing anthropology). Ultimately, the search for the "perfect" definition of anthropology reminds me of photographers and other technophiles who end up talking endlessly about their lenses, cameras, film types, or software programs and rarely actually produce any photographic work to speak of. It also reminds me of a saying I heard somewhere: "Writers write." Plenty of people talk about their newest book, or talk about how they are GOING to write, but the real ones are out there actually producing something. The same goes for anthropology: anthropologists DO ANTHROPOLOGY, and the best way to illustrate what that means is to actually publish and disseminate well thought-out and executed anthropology through diverse forms of media. Don't read this as a "less theory more action" argument, because that's not what I am saying at all. What I AM saying is that all of these internal conversations have to lead somewhere--and that "somewhere" includes the dissemination of anthropological knowledge outside of the discipline itself. Because that's part of the point, right?

Public relations may not have been the primary issue here, but it has become part of the story. And there is definitely a bit of PR problem with anthropology. The ways that the AAA handled this particular "incident" is a case in point. So maybe this is a good time to for everyone involved to rethink how and why we engage with and utilize particular forms of media. Why is it that so many members of the general public don't have a solid understanding of what it is that anthropologists actually DO?

American Anthropologist is great and all--but that publication is geared towards anthropologists (ok, and other academics). It would be nice to see a well-designed anthropological publication that features articles and commentary from contemporary anthropologists. You know, something that can sit alongside--and provide a valid, strong counterpoint to--publications like The Economist, Foreign Policy, Time, and other media that has a pretty broad readership and distribution. Just an idea. You're never going to see American Anthropologist at Barnes & Noble, that's for sure. And this isn't to say that there is a need to put AA in such places--but maybe there IS a need to have a different type of publication that reaches other audiences while still providing critical commentary and an informative presentation of ideas (print, online, etc).

It would be nice to see the thoughts of, say, James Ferguson to challenge the ideas of Thomas Friedman, just to give one example. After all, anthropologists do some pretty fascinating and incredibly relevant work, if you ask me (bias alert). I still argue, however, that the ASA is far ahead of the AAA when it comes to rethinking the direction and style of communication and dissemination of ideas to wider audiences. So maybe that can be used as a source of inspiration, who knows? Fortunately, I think there are plenty of people out there who are already leading the charge in this direction for anthropology, and I'll be interested to see where things go.


Conor said...

does this mean that anthropologists cannot be called "social scientists"? Should we call ourselves "public understanding-ists" instead? Hmmmm.

Ryan Anderson said...

Ya, now there's a term that just rolls right off your tongue!