January 14, 2011

More from the anthropological soapbox

This post has inspired another small rant about anthropology, communication, and media. Here goes:

Anthropologists have plenty to offer. They study all kinds of pretty relevant and interesting stuff. Look at the work of people like Setha Low, or Philippe Bourgois, or Karen Ho. More people should hear about Ho's book, especially considering the economic madness of the last few years.

The issue, as I see it, has less to do with actual relevance and more to do with communication of ideas and information. I don't really think it's a matter of covert infiltration or anything of the sort. I don't think this is a PR matter, or that what is needed is a large campaign to get the public informed about "what anthropology is all about" (as if there is some unified, singular "thing" that we call anthropology anyway). I use these analogies way too much, but here goes anyway: Good photographers make good photographs--all the time. Good writers write. It's a lot more interesting to look at the content of a photographer's work (ie the point of the work), than it is to hear them talk about cameras (at least for most people).*

In many cases, a lot of anthropologists end up doing the equivalent of talking about their cameras far too often, when they need to just go "make some photographs." The vast majority of the general public isn't going to care much about insular, jargon-laden, conversations that are really only meant for other anthropologists--just like most people who like good documentary photography don't necessarily want to hear about the inner workings of the newest $5000 digital camera.

Anthropologists just need to do what they do, do it well, and then communicate their ideas in various settings. More attention to the actual production of media (film, photography, online content, and writing) would probably be a good idea, especially since nobody outside of academia even thinks about reading American Anthropologist.

There is an old saying in writing: "show don't tell." I think this applies to anthropology. As I see it, anthropologists don't really need a bunch of PR pieces that advertise how great and useful anthropology is (stuff like this starts to sound like a recruiting commercial)--they just need to do good anthropology and get their ideas out to different audiences. Less pieces ABOUT anthropology and more pieces that ILLUSTRATE ideas, concepts, and analysis (hopefully in a somewhat interesting and readable manner).**

End of rant. You are now free to move about the Interwebs, folks.

*I believe that the shelf life of this particular analogy might be expiring soon. But that doesn't mean I am going to stop using it. And you can't do anything about it.

**Yes, I realize the irony of this post. I am advocating the idea that anthropologists should stop talking so much about anthropology and just go do some anthropology. And YET, here I am writing about anthropology. Fortunately I am immune to the terrible strains of cognitive dissonance.

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