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Anthropologists in the public sphere

17 May, 2008

I just received my March 08 copy of American Anthropologist (and it’s only May!! — that’s what you get when you live in Australia) and was reading Matti Bunzl’s article, “The Quest for Anthropological Relevance.” Bunzl’s article is a call for greater public engagement by anthropologists, and an attempt to explain “the persistent failure of contemporary anthropologists…to play a more prominent role in the public sphere.”  His key argument is that the lack of public intellectuals amongst this generation of anthropologists boils down to the dominant epistemology of our discipline. In short, he argues that anthropologists from the 1990s on are so busy complexifying the world that they can’t take enough of a powerful stand on any position to have any traction in popular culture.

Just as I was furrowing my brow and thinking, “Yes indeed, where are today’s Margaret Meads?,” my dad sent me a link to a Der Spiegel interview with Lila Abu-Lughod on the occasion of Israel’s founding and Palestine’s nakba. “Ah,” I thought to myself, relieved, “here we go! An anthropologist in the public sphere!”

It was particularly timely given that Bunzl credits Abu-Lughod’s 1991 article, “Writing Against Culture,” with the most persuasive argument for the epistemology that he criticizes.  Now, mind you, Abu-Lughod is no pundit, and this is an interview, rather than a regular magazine column, but it’s always exciting to see an anthropologist in the mainstream news, and a quick read of the interview will convince anyone that
Abu-Lughod is hardly suffering from an inability to speak to the public because she’s too busy complexifying the world. (As my dad put it in his e-mail to me, “no wasted words, she goes straight to the real point. I admire her, both for her clarity, and for her guts.”)

Bunzl’s article is well written and his point well argued, but I’m not convinced it’s our dominant epistemological paradigm that keeps anthropologists out of the public sphere. I suspect that there are a few other factors that are more influential. For one, I know that many anthropologists are skeptical of writing for the popular press, because all too often their arguments get distorted by editorial processes over which they have little control.

For another, the incentive structures at many of our universities do not favor anthropologists who write for the popular press. I don’t know how this is factored at other institutions, but at Macquarie University, at least, an article written for the popular press is formally valued at 1/10th (one TENTH!) the value given to an article published in a peer reviewed journal. The weighting of our publications affects not only our performance reviews as academics, but even the funding that our department receives.

In other words, I could write ONE article for American Anthropologist (Category C1, Article in Scholarly Refereed Journal, weight: 1.0) or TEN for the Sydney Morning Herald (Category L, Other Public Output
Substantial scholarly contribution to newspaper or magazine that must be in area of expertise of author, weight: 0.1) and Macquarie would see it as the same amount of work, in spite of the fact that the latter might have a significant impact on public opinion, while the former is virtually guaranteed to have no impact whatsoever.  And I don’t think I get ANY credit for contributing to Culture Matters, even though the world is far more likely to read my blog postings than my book (Category A1, Major work of research: substantial innovative contribution published by recognised publisher or University Press, weight: 5.0).

–L.L. Wynn (cross-posted at Khaldoun)

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    17 May, 2008 7:59 pm

    Great post, Lisa, and so true. The extraordinary quantitative clarity of the Macquarie system, with its point values (to the decimal point), may seem especially absurd, but I’m sure that other systems without strict quantitative formulae for evaluation are equally biased against popular press pieces. I keep telling myself that this will change, but I’m just not sure how, except at the highest level.

    That is, once an ‘intellectual’ crashes through to the level of celebrity commentator–often after leaving behind much of his or her academic credibility–that person seems to become immune to the evaluations of academic colleagues (I’m thinking of folks like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins because I work on brain-related stuff). But until that level, all the interviews in the world, the documentaries, newspaper articles, blogging — they’re all feel like a waste of time. In fact, they seem to only get some junior scholars in trouble without offering any chance of tangible benefit. At the same time, some universities try to encourage academics to do ‘outreach,’ but they generally have not found any systematic way to recognize the outreach that they are encouraging. When I applied for promotion, it was so clear how to report publishing, a bit less clear how to demonstrate teaching accomplishments, but the section for ‘outreach’ was completely unstructured.

    I agree with Bunzl’s point though (even though I haven’t read the full article); I do think that contemporary cultural anthropological theory doesn’t necessarily translate too well into popular press accounts. That is, part of the problem is us, not just the public. It’s not just ‘complexifying’; it’s also discursive constructionism, aversion to causal explanations, and obsession with context (which resists narrative simplification by definition). I’ll have to go into the office and get my copy of AA to read Bunzl’s piece before I write too much more, but I think that, if we are really going to engage with popular audiences, we’re going to have to do more than just write simplified versions of the same articles that we might submit to Cultural Anthropology.

    This requires a strategic perspective on our own research, our careers, and our field — how do we want anthropology to intervene in the public sphere? And as long as an article in the Sydney Morning Herald is worth 1/10th of a refereed journal article, we’ll be amateurs (literally) in the public sphere, doing it for love rather than as a living. So if you want to be an anthropologist in the public sphere, no problem, but it will be a hobby until you’re ready to rival Steven Pinker.

  2. 18 May, 2008 7:41 pm

    I could tell many similar stories, Lisa, this time from Germany. After I wrote a popular book about cultural globalization for a major publisher (from a very anthropological perspective) I was invited to all kinds of round-tables, seminars and academic departments (from political sciences to history and economics) in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – But NEVER once to an anthropology department or conference. The book and many follow-up articles appeared on the reading lists at anthropology departments and I know that the students really liked it, but the institutions themselves kept their distance. The gate keeping-impulse is so great that even Ulrich Beck, one of the few famous german sociologists, is looked down upon by many of his more cryptic collegues as being too popular and not “doing real science”.

    I am in the lucky situation that as a non-academic but popularizing anthropologist, I work with Pál and we manage to produce academic as well as popular versions of our research. The skills and contacts requiered for each sphere really are quite different. I know, Pál often cringes when an editor for the popular work intervenes quite substantially to shorten and simplify an argument, but in the end we generally agree that it was worth it. I am suprised not to see more people collaborating in such as way, as we experience it as a real win-win situation.

  3. John permalink
    19 May, 2008 1:06 am

    I just took a class where we were told specifically not to promote political opinion, and only to write about what we observe. This is 2008, and I have teachers telling me that social science must be objective.

    I was also told that the only person who should be doing analysis is the anthropologist. Aka, my teacher hasn’t read anything in anthropology in the past 20 years…

    This teacher is also a chair, and head of the department. What a joke…

  4. David Taylor permalink
    20 May, 2008 4:06 am

    Sorry, but I’m a little puzzled by Lisa’s response to Matti Bunzl’s essay, a reponse which if anything tends to confirm Bunzl’s view. Lisa surely must realize that pointing to a single anthropologist interviewed in the press hardly counters Bunzl’s basic point, and when you consider that only the anthropologists among Der Spiegel’s readers will have a clue as to who on earth Lila Abu-Lughod is, you understand Bunzl’s starting point. (And Lisa may not be aware that one of Der Spiegel’s English language on-line reporters is married to an anthropologist…) Most of us could name numerous people from political science, history, sociology, even art history, whose names are public currency, but anthropologists? I don’t think so.

    Lisa’s argument about the disincentives to serving as public figures also struck me as strange, for the simple reason that anthropology is not the only discipline that is subject to the constraints she mentioned, and presumably most of the disciplines from which public figures come also find that Macquarie rewards their refereed journal articles more than their NY Times op-ed pieces or that similar constraints and disincentives apply all over. Bunzl was looking for the difference between anthropology and other fields – Lisa’s comments seem irrelevant to that issue.

    One approach to answering Bunzl’s question, which I believe is an excellent one that deserves discussion, is to ask what other disciplines may suffer similar irrelevance. English Lit comes to mind immediately, with an irony that parallels that of anthropology, since English Lit faculty take special pains to emphasize that Literature is Relevant. The most well-known English Lit pundits have made their marks in other ways (e.g. Michael Berube in disability work) or as commentators on knowledge in general (e.g. Alan Bloom). A few have written popular works on their specialties (e.g. Greenblatt on Shakespeare), but very few show up as ‘pundits’ contributing to serious public debate.

    Is it any surprise that Bunzl focuses on ‘writing culture’ in asking why anthropology produces even fewer public figures than English Lit?

    – Dave

  5. 21 May, 2008 4:47 pm

    Dave: good points. Lila Abu-Lughod is probably not famous outside of anthro and Middle East circles. (Actually I don’t know that, but I’ll take your word for it.) And true that MQ’s point system applies equally to other disciplines so it doesn’t just handicap anthropology.

    But my point about Abu-Lughod was not that she’s a famous anthro pundit, just that she’s clearly not hampered from being able to speak meaningfully and coherently to a popular audience because of the epistemology of contemporary anthropology which, according to Bunzl, she encapsulated in “Writing Against Culture.” I think that there are plenty of other reasons why Abu-Lughod and others don’t often venture into pundit terrain.

    You say that “Bunzl was looking for the difference between anthropology and other fields” and I would respond that my argument about MQ’s reward system indeed isn’t an argument about anthropology’s uniqueness, and that this is my point: there are lots of concrete structures beyond epistemology that keep anthropologists from being public figures, and they apply equally to other disciplines. Is Anthro really that unique when it comes to not having public figures? You say you know pundits from polisci, history, sociology, and art history, but I don’t. Mind you I am a pop culture retard, so by all means prove me wrong with a list of Influential Historians, but the only famous academics I can think of off the top of my head are Steven Levitt and Cornel West (someone who, incidentally, was clearly penalized at Harvard for his more popular work). And is West famous because of the epistemology of Religious Studies?

    (And as for English Lit pundits, what about Stanley Fish?)

    And Joanna, you know I have gotten a couple of e-mails in response to this posting from people sharing private experiences similar to the ones you describe, where they have been penalized or dismissed as populizers by their academic peers. But I think you pointed to a bigger issue in your comment when you said “The skills and contacts requiered for each sphere really are quite different.” It’s hard to know how to Make It Big outside of your discipline. (It’s hard to know how to Make It Big *inside* of your discipline, too!) It’s a struggle to publish an academic book, but it’s even more of a struggle to publish a popular book. Brava for successfully making the effort!

  6. David Taylor permalink
    22 May, 2008 9:53 pm

    Thanks to Lisa for her reply to my quick, if long comment – obviously part of the problem here is the projection of one’s own ignorance onto the world at large. Lisa, take a quick look at the Foreign Policy/Prospect list of 100 “top” public intellectuals (I love Donald Trump-ish notion of a “top” public intellectual…)

    Even with the British bias, there are several historians you should know, and several not on the list, e.g. Arthur Schlesinger, Drew Gilpin Faust, or Doris Kearns Goodwin, who should be known to you. The only anthropologist is Geertz, now gone.

    Stanley Fish is a good example of an English Lit prof whose “pundit” status is for something else – law and legal commentary.

    Also look at Richard Posner’s 2001 book on public intellectuals for lots of other examples; he lists 546 public intellectuals, before selecting his own “top” 100. Even in his later expanded list of 607 people, I count only 7 anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montague – but also Jorge Castaneda, who seems to have made the list simply out of the number of popular citations rather than for being a household name, Lionel Tiger, Levi-Strauss, and Ernest Gellner – and not, interestingly enough, Geertz. BTW, he lists a LOT of other historians – see the whole list on line at

  7. Third Tone Devil permalink
    23 May, 2008 1:01 pm

    I would add people like Jared Diamond and Simon Schama, or Stephen Greenblatt (his Will in the World was a NYT as well as an Economist bestseller).

    I am not yet done with Bunzl’s article, but his departure point, the Gusterson-Besteman volume, is interesting. When Joana and I were writing our book, and this volume appeared, at first we thought we might as well stop. But when we saw the book we realised that, as Bunzl writes, it did not represent an earnest attempt to convince a broader readership that Kaplan, Friedman etc. were wrong; rather, the readership in mind was clearly anthropologists. More importantly, G & B were only deconstructing texts, not offering alternative explanations.

    Bunzl is not the first to offer this kind of criticism. Ulf Hannerz in Foreign News lamented the inability of anthropologists to respond adequately to “one-big-thing” books such as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations by presenting alternative visions that were clear and accessible. “Leaving an intellectual vacuum behind is not much of a public service,” he wrote. And he is right. Thomas Hylland Eriksen recently devoted a whole book, Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence, to anthropology’s inability to affect public discourse. But of course the irony is that these two books, too, have been published by academic presses and are read mainly by anthropologists.

    Joana and I wanted to target Huntington’s and Kaplan’s readership. We ended up with a compromise: the German version of our book has been published by a commercial press (aimed at roughly the Kaplan/Huntington readership, at least in theory), but the English version will be published by the University of Washington Press. Why? The main reason is that we do not know how to get through to commercial publishers. Stephen Greenblatt advised us against even trying, because, he said, even if they publish the book they will (1) interfere extensively with the text and (2) unless it is a commercial success will not keep it on their backlist. I am not sure if these are sufficient reasons not to have tried; after all, as Joana wrote, our German publisher meddled extensively with the text too, but this price might be worth paying.

    On the other hand, some academic presses, including UW and Berg, are now doing “crossover” books like fiction, art, or Berg’s volume on the sari, which is in a coffee-table format but written by Daniel Miller and his colleague Mukulika Banerjee. This is a promising turn. So whether our book will get through to a broader readership is partly a matter of how the publisher will market it.

    But I agree at least in part with Bunzl. I am not sure if this is a matter of epistemology, but it is somehow part of the disciplinary upbringing of anthropologists that they are extremely reluctant to take sides or offer judgements (except, curiously, about anthropologists themselves, e.g. those who are involved with the US Army in Iraq). I see this with my masters students who come from anthropological backgrounds. When they are confronted with court cases in which cultural arguments are used, they are very good at deconstructing them, but extremely bad in proposing alternative, better judgements, even though they know that the judgement that was made is bad. Students coming from other fields are less well-equipped to make judgements but more willing to do so. This may well be what Bunzl is pointing to.

  8. 7 June, 2008 8:00 am

    Great exchange.

    Some of you may be interested in a related discussion of Matti Bunzl’s article on Kritik, the blog of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, which initially sponsored the lecture that turned into the AA article.


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