Bright Ideas and Popular Anthropology

Recently there have been a couple of posts – on Savage Minds and Neuroanthropology – discussing how anthropologists can appeal to a more general audience by changing their writng style.  On Neuroanthropology, Daniel and Greg discuss their distaste for Thomas Freidman’s approach to writing as well as the lessons that anthropologists can learn from him – to identify a formula that resonates and use it to convey anthropological ideas.  On Savage Minds, Kerim talks about the distinction between ideas as sunflowers – discrete objects that can be picked, shared, and placed in a vase (i.e. most of the ideas presented in TEDtalks) – and ideas as bougainvillea – twisted and entangled, not easily separated from the roots, and not easily put on display in a vase (i.e. most of the ideas presented in academic journals).  To me it’s nothing new to suggest that, by writing better – that is, less academically – anthropologists could appeal to a wider audience.  Obviously writing to an appealing formula or disentangling ideas from their academic contexts would make a lot of anthropology much easier to digest, but the question I have is why is it important?

This all seems like more bemoaning the state of the field to me – something I think we need to get past.  Like it or not, there are only ever going to be a handful of anthropologists who can successfully write popular books.  David Graeber seems to be the most salient example of recent years.  This is because writing to a popular audience is a finely honed skill, which most of us don’t have the time, energy, or even need to work on.  We write academically because that’s how we learned to write to one another, and there are reasons for academic style writing frustrating as it might be.  The same is true for science – there can only be so many Neil Degrasse Tysons, Carl Sagans, or Stephen Jay Goulds – the rest will continue to write in highly specialized languages because that’s how they learned to write, that’s how they have to write in order to succeed at their work, and because those languages afford them the nuance that gets lost in TEDtalk speak.  The same is true – will always be true – for anthropology.

Furthermore, those books that catch  popular attention tend to latch onto trends in popular intellectual thought.  Graeber has latched onto critiques of big banks, and global financial institutions at a time when a lot of people suddenly went into debt, when Europe and other parts of the world are plagued by a debt crisis, and the global economy is generally slugging along.  Mead latched onto a renewed interest in sexuality and a taste for exoticism that was characteristic of the early 20th century intelligentsia.  Let’s face it, most anthropology doesn’t connect to the major trends going on at any particular time.  My own area of environmental anthropology, for example, may have gained traction in the 1990s or early 2000s, but as the global financial crisis took hold, people became more concerned about their paychecks than they are about the rainforest.  Even in the Occupy movement, environmental issues have been secondary to issues of debt.  That means that, although I suspect that I could write a decent popular book, it wouldn’t necessarily gain much traction outside of a select audience (unless I wrote about food – that seems to be the one area that environmental issues can really catch hold right now).

The point is that all of this is okay; I don’t need a popular audience to validate the work that I do, and neither do most anthropologists.  The fact that most anthropologists are not writing popular books is, in my opinion, not a fact to bemoan.  Rather, my primary concern is in making sure that the research that I do is relevant to the people who are affected by it, which can be done through writing, collaborative or participatory methods, activism, or any number of approaches.  This is a distinction in the discussion over the relevance of anthropology that is rarely made – the distinction between relevance to a vaguely defined popular audience, and relevance to a specific audience affected by the work a specific anthropologist is doing.  While I think it’s fine to pursue the former, and I certainly won’t begrudge those who are successful in that arena, I think for most anthropologists focusing on the latter is enough and my sense is that most do try with varying degrees of success.  In the end, I think we need to ask ourselves why we want to appeal to an audience – popular or otherwise.  Is it because we think the ideas we have or the work we’ve done will make a difference to that audience, or is it merely out of vanity – to make ourselves feel important and influential?  Appealing to a popular audience is not something we ought to pursue for it’s own sake, but a means to making a difference in the lives of the people with whom we connect.  If an anthropologist can write a book that makes a difference to a popular audience, then by all means they should (Graeber’s book on Debt is probably one of those books), but let’s not waste time bemoaning the lack of popular anthropology books merely for the sake of having popular anthropology books.

One thought on “Bright Ideas and Popular Anthropology”

  1. i personally have big questions about, intellectual culture in general, the ‘information age/economy’, etc.

    on one hand its nice to encourage intellectual culture as something different from discussing the olympics, sports page, john stewart, sales this week, colorado shootings etc.

    on the other hand this also can lead to a competetive culture — many people are angling for another ‘shock doctrine’ so they can give talks, etc (or graeber, or jared diamond — which was pretty big essentially pop anthropology).

    i saw someone just give a talk on a book from akpress on global warming —the their own particular digestion of the ‘facts’ and solutions. i see this stuff actually as maybe some meaningful effort, but also as possibly another regurgitation of say ‘gore’s inconveniant truth’ marketed to a different audience —who needs another brand of potato chips, excerpt to start an economic cult.
    or, maybe ‘let a 1000 sunflowers’ bloom in walmart. after all hawaii had its own bioeconomy.

    to an extent, thats why it might be fun to try ‘anonymnity’ rather than reputation building of power. (eg wikipedia). but could one run the information economy as a general assumbly (eg like a revised athenian democracy)? this is one question that is basically avoided, except in academic literature (where the anwers are profuse and as complex as desired—‘np-completenss or godelian).

    one wont see many eco-publishers asking if they should close down to save resources.

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