Whether its in the study of anthropology or as a communications person for organizations, I’m a big advocate of speaking and writing in ways that everyday people can understand. I may not have always been good at it – like that first year of anthro classes, when I came home calling everything a social construction – but I’m pretty attuned to it. I think it comes from being an auditory learner. I notice buzz words and insular lingo quickly. When you do that, the next thoughts are, “Who’s using those terms? Why? Do others in the room know what that term means?”
I often explain my trajectory from anthropology to journalism by pointing out that the core methods are the same: observing, listening to people, asking questions and writing. Audience is a big difference between anthropology and journalism, though. For all the hand-wringing about public relevance within the discipline of anthropology, not many anthropologists succeed at reaching a non-academic audience. You don’t often see phrases like “transnational flows” or “the post-colonial moment” in newspapers. (Not that journalism doesn’t generate its own buzz words!) Yes, this limits the analytical contributions of journalism, but it does mean people read what I write every week. And if there were more space and value placed on analytic journalism, I know there’d be ways to do it that don’t require a college degree to understand.
Lately I’ve been listening to the “New Books in Anthropology – East Asian Studies” podcast. I’m enjoying the intellectual stimulation, the return to my anthro roots, as well as the foray into a cultural area I’m unfamiliar with. But while most of the polysyllabic words and phrases are ones I know from my former studies, their dominance makes it unlikely that I’ll tell my neighbor about what I just listened to next time we chat.