February 20, 2011

Anthropological Sundays #1: Anthropology?

Ok, I'll go ahead and admit it: anthropologists aren't all that well known these days. Whenever I tell people that I am in grad school studying anthropology, I am often met by somewhat bewildered looks. Not all the time--sometimes people seem pretty interested and answer "cool," or something like that. But more people seem to be a little perplexed, and tend to respond with something like, "Anthropology? Is that the study of dinosaurs?" Or my favorite: "How are you going to make any money doing that?" And while those answers can be a bit disconcerting (to say the least), they are actually pretty telling. Anthropology, when it comes to larger public discussions and debates, tends lead a fairly invisible existence. Is this because the general public is simply too disinterested in what anthropologists do? Not really. Is it because the general public is just a lazy, uneducated bunch? No, I don't think that's it either. It's because anthropologists don't publish much of their work in accessible formats. Most of the really good contemporary anthropology--from cultural to physical--is bound up in academic journals that are by no means geared toward non-academic audiences. If you read this types of publications, you know what I mean.

When was the last time any anthropologist was well-known outside of academic circles? In the days of Margaret Mead? Mead was a pretty well-known public figure in her day and even wrote for Redbook magazine for a short period, which certainly expanded the boundaries a bit. The most frequent reference to Mead I see today is the famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does." Who hasn't heard that one? I see that quote all over the place--on posters, used as a tagline on blogs, in books, and even in political speeches. Hey, it is a good quote--no complaints here.

These days, I think that Jane Goodall is probably the most widely recognized anthropologist around, even though many people don't necessarily link primatology with anthropology per se. Goodall, in fact, was one of the first anthropologists that I found fascinating when I first started studying anthropology as an undergrad--along with Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas . Early on I wanted to be a primatologist, then I headed into archaeology for several years before settling on cultural anthropology. But Goodall was definitely an early inspirational figure (if you get the chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend it).

Outside of Goodall, however, what anthropologists are well-known these days? That's actually a good question. My guess at this point would be that maybe a certain number of people have heard of Paul Farmer , especially after Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains was published. Farmer is a pretty outstanding individual, and his work (in Haiti and elsewhere) is absolutely relevant and important. Overall, though, I'd be interested to know how many people have heard about the projects he's involved in.

The other possibility for a well-known anthropologist today is Robert Sapolsky, who is a neurobiologist and primatologist (if you haven't seen that 2009 presentation in the link, definitely watch it--good stuff). Sapolsky might not define himself as an anthropologist first and foremost--I'm not really sure about that. But a lot of his work is based in anthropology, and it's pretty fascinating. I am especially interested in his work on stress in humans and animals .

Who else? There are a few anthropologists who do get a certain amount of press, come to think of it. David Attenborough is one (maybe), and the more I think about it, he may be one of the most well known anthros out there. And I have always liked a lot of the programs he made, which covered a pretty broad range and often extended far beyond anthropology. Sure, I have my quibbles about some of the ways in which he explains human behavior, but overall I still like a lot of the work he has done. Like Goodall, Attenborough was a key early inspiration who made science and anthropology both interesting and fascinating to me. And he has a pretty cool delivery to boot.

Another anthropologist who gets a lot of media coverage and attention is the ubiquitous Zahi Zawass (you know, the archaeologist who is always on the History Channel). He certainly gets his name out there, although his methods are a bit, well, suspect. He's certainly a showman, and he definitely borrowed some of his schtick from a 1981 film by Stephen Speilberg . But he doesn't exactly have the best of reputations in the field, all things considered. There is always a delicate balance between ratings and accuracy, and Dr. Zawass has seemingly made his stance on that matter. Entertaining, yes, but he might not be the best representation of what anthropology is all about. Just sayin.

So it seems pretty true that anthropologists aren't exactly the most well-known folks out there. After thinking this through, my guess is that Goodall, Attenborough, and Hawass might be the most publicly known figures, and some people may have heard of Paul Farmer. Beyond that, I'm not sure who else people have heard much about. I think there might be some archaeologists who are fairly well known, such as Brian Fagan and maybe Michael Coe. Archaeologists do get a certain amount of press, especially when they work on high profile sites around the world, and National Geographic might be the most successful forum for making that work public. Paleoanthropologists also garner some attention, but I am not sure how many of them are actually all that well known by name. People like Tim White, Richard Leakey (and the rest of his family), Don Johanson certainly garner their fair share of attention when they discover very old human stuff, so to speak . I think these findings do generate a certain amount of public interest, and they are absolutely fascinating (for anyone who likes to read about the discover of early stone tools, evidence of bipedalism, and such), but I am not sure how much of this actually "sticks" in the larger public data bank.

Yes, I do have a point, and it's coming up soon.* Am I arguing that anthropologists need to go all "pop culture" and find any way to reach a wider audience? No, not at all. The irony here is that I actually think that a lot of contemporary anthropologists (physical/biological, cultural, linguistic, and archaeological) do some extremely fascinating and relevant work. In fact, every time I teach an intro course to anthropology, many students are genuinely engaged with the course. Many of them ask me why they have never heard about anthropology--and that's a pretty good question. Despite all of the great work, most people outside of the academy haven't heard much about what anthropologists are up to these days. And this is something that needs to change (there's my point).

The obligation to make some changes, as I see it, lies with the anthropologists themselves, who need to find ways to extend their findings and ideas to different audiences--in creative, interesting ways (this is the REAL point). Personally, I think that more people should know about the work of Philippe Bourgois , whose work on heroin addicts in the US pushes the boundaries of what anthropology is supposedly all about. I also think that more people should know about Karen Ho's work, especially her recent ethnographic study of the culture of Wall Street (a fascinating read for anyone interested in economics). One last favorite: Check out Setha Low's work on the anthropology of gated communities . Especially if you grew up in suburbia, like I did. There's some good work out there, that's for sure (and these are just a few examples from cultural anthropology).

Clearly, I think that anthropology has relevance. And yes, as a graduate student in cultural anthropology I am completely biased. But when I look around at all the work being done in the field, especially considering the world around me, I definitely think that anthropologists (and, in fact, many other social scientists) have quite a lot to add to public knowledge, discourse, and debate. This feeling is reinforced pretty much every time I turn on TV news, in fact. The relevance is definitely not an issue. Anthropologists just need to crawl out of their journals and jump into the broad, confusing, complex, and contentious brawl that is public discourse. The only way to ensure that they will actually be irrelevant is if they continue to stay out of the fray.

Ok, enough of the soapboxing. You all know where I stand. I need to go read an article called "Supply-side Sushi" (Bestor 2001) so I can write a little paper and keep the profs happy.

*Very soon, in fact.

PS: A slightly modified version of this is cross-posted here.

UPDATE: A new comment brings up a good question: Is Attenborough really an anthropologist? I have heard him called an anthropologist from time to time, but have always wondered about that. I know he studied anthropology for a certain amount of time, but I am not sure if he finished his degree or not. He might be more accurately called a naturalist, as the comment points out. I think he is sometimes understood as being an anthropologist in some spheres, but I have always wondered exactly what he should be called. A naturalist who treads some of the boundaries of anthropology? An anthropologically-leaning journalist? Who knows? Anyway, I included him on here because he is sometimes promulgated as an anthropologist, at least in some parts. It's actually an interesting question: how do we technically define who is and who is not an anthropologist? I think the same argument applies to Zahi Hawass, who is technically not an anthropologist per se, but more of an archaeologist/Egyptologist (slash TV personality, of course). See what happens when we start talking about the public sphere? Things start getting fuzzy.


Anthea said...

I think that many Brits would disagree with you over the identification of David Attenborough as an anthropologist. He's a naturalist and even from the British perspective of anthropology there's no way that he'd be classified as a "anthropologist".

Anthea said...

I should have added to my previous note that this is otherwise interesting post! I think that the anthropology has considerable amount of relevance to the general public. It's really very useful since it teaches one critical thinking skills, collect, understand and interpret quantitative and qualitative data, learn the important of taking different and perhaps holistic theoretical stance. Anthropology teaches its student directly how to successfully deploy and employ theory and method in an integrated manner.

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks for the comment Anthea. Ya, I think there's a fair argument to be made that Attenborough isn't technically an anthropologist. I know a lot of people who would make that argument. I suppose I put him on the list of public anthro figures because that's how he's promoted sometimes, and how some people perceive him. Hawass exists on that weird border too (he's probably more of an archaeologist).

Good point. It also brings up a good discussion of how/why we define someone as a "real" anthropologist. Does it require a master's or a PhD? Good question. Depends on who you ask. And I guess it also depends on why we define anthropology!

Thanks again for the comment.