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Anthropologists in the Dutch public sphere

15 January, 2009

There appears to be a lull on the blog, as my colleagues at Macquarie are (I guess) off to do fieldwork. So, as I have been silent here for a while, I’ll take the opportunity to share my first impressions of anthropology in the public in the Netherlands, as I experience it having just arrived at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam.

While this is not Norway, where anthropologists are constantly in the news (though Thomas Eriksen did have a guest appointment at this department for a while!) it does seem that the media are more interested than, say, in Australia in what anthropologists have to say. In December alone, my departmental colleagues (including PhD students, who are considered staff) have been interviewed in the media on religion, Gaza, environmentalism, and Suriname. There is also a feature article in the popular Volkskrant of the type that we are by now used to, about corporations hiring anthropologists. This is true also for Philips, one of the Netherlands’ best-known multinationals, which has a Futures, People and Trends team. (The article notes, though, that anthropology students are often unaware of how trendy they are, as are their teachers who sometimes advise them to write in their CV that they studied “social sciences.”)

I guess one reason for this higher profile is that the Dutch press simply has more in-depth debates on social issues than the Australian one. Another may be that PhD students are often treated as authorities on their own right. A third, and perhaps more specific to the VU, is that within this department there is a strong research stream to do with religion, which is clearly a hot topic for journos (even though research here is mostly on neoprotestant conversion rather than Islam; but the VU also is a hub for Muslim students. Apparently, the fact that it is a university that has religion in its charter is considered a plus by many Muslim students, even though that religion is Protestant Christianity). And finally, there is a separate department of organisational research within the faculty of social sciences, whose members define themselves largely as organisational anthropologists. This is interesting, as such departments tend to be within business schools and thus fairly isolated from mainstream anthropology.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 January, 2009 12:34 pm

    Hey TTD! Good to hear from you — it’s like receiving a letter home. Why do you think the press takes anthropologists as serious commentators on public affairs and current events in the Netherlands and not in Australia? Here in Oz, as you well know, it seems like the only time we hear from reporters is when they want someone to comment on some strange exotic tribe. Like recently I got an e-mail from someone wanting me to advise them on Egypt for a show called “Bizarre Worlds with Andrew Zimmern” (in which I was reassured that “The show despite the name is a respectful look at the different aspects of other cultures”). As for current events, no one thinks of consulting an anthropologist for commentary, unless that current event involves an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Is it something about the history of the discipline in different countries? Or something about the media in different countries?

  2. 19 January, 2009 8:27 pm

    Good to hear from you too! I think Eriksen has speculated somewhere about the unusual public profile of anthropologists in Norway. I think here in Holland it is a combination of positive and negative factors (and some of them are mentioned in the post). For one thing, the media have much more analysis and even essays by public intellectuals. For another, a lot of the questions anthropologists are asked about have to do with immigrants, especially Muslims, and their religion (a bit the way they are asked about Aboriginal issues in Australia). In Australia, it would probably not be publicly acceptable for “experts” to talk about immigrants, as they (unlike Aboriginal people) are judged to have qualified “spokespeople” of their own. Maybe the higher profile of continental anthropology has to do with the fact that, as a discipline, it has not gone through the kind of post-colonial self-examination that English-language anthropology has (though individually, anthropologists are influenced by it). So it may be both less reflexive about itself and less hesitant to speak out about public issues.

  3. 20 January, 2009 11:15 am

    Hi TTD. So you’re saying that is both the case that anthropologists in The Netherlands are more willing to speak out about public issues and their opinions are more sought after by the media. Here in Australia it would seem that neither is the case. Like Lisa said, anthropologists here are mostly contacted about stories that fall into “the weird and the wonderful” category — stories that are “fascinating” rather than “important”. Aboriginal issues such as native title, social conditions, health and so on are an exception, but commenting on these things is so politicised that many anthropologists, I think, are not keen to enter public debates. There are of course some prominent exceptions.

    What we don’t see in Australia is anthropologists as a broader kind of public intellectual. Public commentary is very much confined to particular areas of expertise but anthropologists are rarely asked to comment on broader social issues. Would you say it is similar in The Netherlands, with anthropological commentary confined to migrant issues, Islam and so on, or are some anthropologists able to move out of the ghetto?

  4. 20 January, 2009 8:03 pm

    That’s a good question. In a way, anthropologists *are* in that ghetto, but then since so much of public debate centres on immigration and Islam etc. (i.e. everything having to do with religion, education, urban planning and so on has a strong component that deals with this) you can say that the ghetto is at the town hall, or vice versa, if you forgive this lame metaphor. Anthropologists are probably not among the iconic public intellectuals (those tend to be philosophers, writers or maybe in some cases sociologists) but they are not marginal, and not doing worse than political scientists.

    Then again, these are only my first impressions–after all, I have only been here two weeks!–so they may be wrong.

  5. 20 January, 2009 9:38 pm

    Those first impressions can be some of the most valuable, I think, while everything is fresh and new. I look forward to seeing more posts as your insights develop!

  6. Michaela permalink
    21 January, 2009 10:35 pm

    It could also be something to do with how academia as a whole is perceived publicly, possibly there is a little more respect for academia in general in European countries such as The Netherlands, possibly more anthropologists in The Netherlands are involved with research projects that directly relate to community (the surrounding community as opposed to a community somewhere far off and exotic) and therefore has more direct relevance to local media….

    …and just as a side note, although anthros may be enjoying more of the media and corporate world limelight in The Netherlands, companies like Philips, who view anthros as “trendy” do not necessarily view academics as “trendy”. I worked for Philips Design over a couple of years as an anthropologist in the strategic design team – which has probably been renamed the futures, people and trends team, which is basically marketing, and found that what was wanted from anthropology was a very surface skimming, “trendy” unacademic, “bite size” vaguely anthropological/ethnographic approach to what was still in all accounts market research, in some ways a good way to market, market research. Also a good way for an anthropologist to make some money out of an undergrad. degree in anthropology, but not necessarily a contribution to the academic world of anthropology.

  7. Karen permalink
    30 January, 2009 5:18 am

    Just letting you know that Dutch organizational antropologists read this blog- and like it! Keep on posting!

  8. 3 February, 2009 2:13 am

    Thanks, Karen, that’s great!

  9. 20 February, 2009 11:59 am

    Hi Pal,
    happy to see that you are now very much settled in the Netherlands, where I was nearly supposed to be before my OZ adventure (though I am still in ‘between’ since I am in Singapore).
    I am learning more about anthropology in Australia and I hope that I will be able to contribute to it. I think that it is very important that anthropologists reach out to the public, even when the situation is ‘political’. Of course, in my case, as an anthropologist working on Muslim communities and topics such as ‘Muslim in prisons’, politics is not an option; it is just part of the research (sometime unfortunately so).

    I hope that we can work together to our ‘Italian’ project one of these days, since, as you may know, the situation there, especially in the Lega Nord areas, is becoming even more desperate for Muslims but also Chinese migrants (and the reality is increasingly ignored by mainstream mass media).

    take care
    Gabriele

  10. 22 February, 2009 9:34 am

    Dear Gabriele, good to hear from you! I absolutely agree with you about the importance of “public anthropology.” I hope too that we can do our project in Italy. It sounds like you will be in Sydney soon? By the way, my new email is p.nyiri[at]fsw.vu.nl.

    All the best,
    Pal

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