CM gets a mention in American Anthropologist
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.