February 3, 2011

The search for anthropology in public, part I*

There has been a lot of discussion of late about the pubic recognition (or lack thereof) of anthropology. Daniel Lende has yet another post that has other links that you can follow to catch up if you haven't been keeping up with your anthro-blog quota over the last couple of weeks. The most recent discussion, which was started by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology PLoS, traveled to Savage Minds, then to the Open Anthropology Cooperative, and now back to Neuroanthropology, is about "branding" anthropology. Why? Because, in general, the wider public has about as much exposure to anthropology as Latin grammar. That is to say, not much. Whose fault is this, you ask? It's all on the anthropologists, who, for some reason, don't seem to like putting their ideas out in public anymore. Remember when Margaret Mead was a well known public figure? Ya, that was several decades ago. Hence all the discussions about public exposure, branding, and such. Basically, anthropology has a PR problem--and it's not because their work is irrelevant. It's because their primary publication model is based upon the same philosophies that are behind Fort Knox.

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about finding anthropology in public, so I need to move forward. I have this habit. Every time I go to a bookstore, I make sure I check the "anthropology" section just to assess the state of affairs. Call it professional interest, or something. I made a few visits over the winter break, and I just happened to make another quick check just tonight. My overall assessment of the situation: not good. If you're lucky you might see a book by Wade Davis, maybe one by Clifford Geertz if you're really lucky (Interpretation of Cultures is fairly common), and maybe one by Margaret Mead. Jared Diamond is almost always there. Other than that, the anthro section tends to be a little dated, a little strange, a little eclectic, and quite often...pretty boring. It's true. When it comes to having a larger selection of interesting texts that might have a chance of appealing to a wider audience, the historians, political scientists, and the sociologists are winning hands down. Even the economists are winning--by far. It's true. People have heard of Paul Krugman, and they actually buy his book.s So what's the deal here? Why is anthropology so, well, absent? Is this how things are looking in YOUR local stores? Do I just have faulty data, or is the situation really this grim?**

*There may or may not be a Part II to this post.

**Yes, it's true. This conversation isn't all that interesting and is only going to appeal to anthropologists who are sitting around trying to figure out how to explain--again--what they spend all of their waking life doing.

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