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CM gets a mention in American Anthropologist

27 February, 2010

As evidence of the growing recognition of blogging as an important medium for scholarly exchange, American Anthropologist has published a review article (PDF) about anthropology blogging by David Price.  Okay, the article is primarily about Savage Minds, Zero Anthropology and the triple-A’s own blog, but I was more than chuffed to see Culture Matters also got a mention when Price referred to the “high scholarship shown in detailed and thoughtful postings and exchanges by scholars”. It’s very nice indeed to be mentioned in the same breath as Savage Minds, which is after all the blog we’d like to be when we grow up.

I was alerted to the article by Rex’s equally chuffed post on Savage Minds, which also led him to post some interesting reflections on the qualities that make for good “public anthropology”.  In short, good public anthropology is not about dumbing down the material and insights; it is simply good anthropology that is well written and sensitive to its audience.  Rex also reckons that there is a lot more talk about doing public anthropology than actually doing it.  I can’t disagree with him there, though these are important discussions to have.

It’s also interesting that there is so much discussion about public anthropology.  It indexes a certain level of anxiety about how to do it “correctly”, as it were. Clearly there are a lot of anthropologists out there who want to be “engaged” in one sense or another, and who feel a strong desire to be “relevant”, but feel frustrated that the important things they have to say don’t seem to capture a wider public imagination.  And this notion that anthropology should be engaged is something that motivates many to join the discipline in the first place.  Certainly a lot of students are motivated to study anthropology by the vague sense that it can help to make a positive difference in the world.  Many, however, become jaded with writing and attitudes towards the subject matter which almost seems to be designed to endlessly defer action.  Bad or obscure writing is one issue.  But I also think one of anthropology’s great strengths — the ability to use rich ethnographic data to speak from the particular and challenge received truths or all-too-neat models and theories — can also be part of the problem.  In this mode, anthropological critique can become an endless repetition of the refrain that “things are more complicated than that”, especially in this era where even anthropology’s own universalising tendencies — its models of human universals and meta-theoretical frameworks — have long since become thoroughly suspect.  This situation is going to be frustrating for those who want to use anthropological knowledge and methods in a more programmatic way, but I would also suggest non-anthropologists also find this frustrating.

Perhaps anthropological discourse that attempts to engage in public debate works in precisely the opposite way to other kinds of popular scientific discourse.  Surely a lot of people like popular scientific literature is because it takes things that they recognise are very complex and simplifies them, making them more graspable and manageable.  Anthropology often works in the opposite direction, taking things that people think are relatively simple and pointing out that they’re a lot more complex.  The process of denaturalisation that is so core to the anthropological project, and which many of “us anthropologists” find so stimulating, is just plain annoying for a lot of people.

Perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps we need this. Perhaps it is important that anthropologists challenge reified notions of identity, or static notions of culture.  Perhaps it’s a worthy job to remind people that identities are fluid, changeable, indeterminate — that any theory seeking to stabilise these notions is looking for trouble.  Perhaps we help to keep the social body nice and limber, able to deal with change and diversity.  But I’d say we’re never going to be wildly popular in this mode.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 February, 2010 7:43 am

    I guess it was nice that AA featured a short paper on blogging, but I found it somewhat insulting to anthropological bloggers. First, it was very short. Second, Price spent most of the text on trivial matters of internet discourse that everybody already knows. He devoted only 5 paragraphs to the blogs. The three paragraphs on Savage Minds were ok, but there was little space for comment in the single paragraphs on Zero Anthropology and the AAA Blog. There was no space in the piece of any kind of analysis of what goes on in anthropological blogging, how it relates to other lines of communication in the discpline, etc. Perhaps getting some space is better than silence, but I still don’t think that mainstream anthropologists take blogging seriously.

  2. 28 February, 2010 10:00 pm

    I wonder if anthropology could reach the “public” better if it sometimes let down its analytical ambitions and foregrounded its evocative/empathic possibilities. I suppose anthropology’s strength is the combination of the two. It can complicate matters for the “general reader” not just by analytical deconstruction but also by creating unexpected empathies in ways that are more akin to art or fiction.

  3. 2 March, 2010 7:50 am

    Writers and commentators like Krugman, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman get quite a lot of air time–partly because of the fact that they participate in mediums that the public reads. I think it would be a good thing to hear from the James Fergusons and Leo Chavez’s and Anna Tsings of the world now again, especially considering the ways in which social and cultural issues are often discussed.

    Part of the issue is that few people outside of anthropology (and a few other disciplines) actually reads the main anthropological publications. You certainly don’t see American Anthropologist at Barnes and Noble–so how is the public supposed to have any clue what anthropologists are talking about.

    For that reason, I think blogs are a good start–at least toward reworking how anthropologists communicate and use media. Maybe it would be interesting to come up with an anthropological answer to publications such as The Economist and Foreign Affairs.

  4. 4 March, 2010 6:34 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Michael, I agree that the article didn’t contain anything that people familiar with anthro blogs don’t already know. But here in Australia at least there are a lot of anthropologists who are as yet not at all familiar with blogs. Any attempts to reach that particular audience and bring blogs more into the anthropological mainstream is, I think, a Good Thing.

    TTD, I agree with you. I’m not sure to what extent the whole “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange” — an ambition that anthropology shares with art movements like surrealism — is recognised as an affective process. Also, the process of “conversion” that a lot of students report, of becoming suddenly “switched on” to anthropology, is also very affect laden. It’s probably worth thinking more about the role affect plays in constructing anthropological, though I don’t think this should be opposed to anthropology’s “analytical ambitions”. To drop analysis entirely would render our writing as something other than anthropological, though I don’t necessarily think that analysis and theory need be all that overt.

    Finally, thanks Ryan for pointing out that it’s not just important what anthropologists write, but where their writing appears. This point reminds me of a recent post by ckelty on Savage Minds which emphasised the technical aspects of getting writing out to a wider public, i.e. working out how the media works as a system, being more proactive in sending out press releases, hiring competent science writers who understand the genre conventions in order to get the message out and so on. The general insight is that the secret is not just to be found in the style of writing or the choice of subject matter — though these are naturally important — but also by recognising and exploiting the mechanisms through which any scholarly writing comes into the wider public sphere.

Trackbacks

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