Posts Tagged 'academia'

To whom we speak: Anthro vs. Journalism

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.

Shermanata Grange Square Dance

Anthro speak: A social ritual among an agricultural group of middle-aged and elderly natives of Perry County, Pennsylvania.
Journo speak: Square dance at Shermanata Grange. January 2013

Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology

Last week an anonymous person using a fake email address left a comment on one of my posts declaring that an undergraduate degree does not make me an anthropologist. In fact, I agree. A degree (bachelor’s or graduate) doesn’t necessarily mean a person will adopt and utilize anthropological perspectives. Rather, it is my ability to employ critical thinking about culture, socialization, power, and human relationships in my life and work that makes me an anthropologist.

Nevertheless, the comment did bother me. I am open to discussion and debate but not with people who leave derogatory comments anonymously. (Leaving a fake email means that the person wouldn’t receive notifications of any follow-up comments.) I find that to be as petty, offensive, and unproductive as the jerks who shout out truck or car windows at bicyclists just for the thrill of scaring them.

But rather than dwell on that negativity and waste my time defending my authenticity to an audience who likely agrees that education is about what you actually learn not the letters after your name, I decided to have a more positive conversation with my dear friend/anthropology life partner, Emily Channell, about the relevance of anthropology as well as its future. Emily is a PhD candidate at City University of New York, where she also teaches undergraduate anthropology courses.

KN: In our initial discussion about the comment on my blog, you noted that anthropology is seen as a dying discipline and said, “If we reject all the various forms of anthropologists, then we condemn anthropology to death.”

Why is anthropology considered a dying field, and what non-academic forms of anthropology do you find exciting?

EC: The question of whether or not anthropology is a dying field has been through a lot of debate. If we think of anthropology as the study of “culture,” then I think we can see both how it might stagnate and also the potential for non-academic forms of anthropology. If it remains exclusively for academia, then eventually anthropologists will run out of places to go, people to study, and things to say. But it also has an incredible ability to change over time.

I think kinship is a great way to look at the way anthropology can change. People studied kinship since the 19th century, then in the second part of the 20th century people considered it dead until David Schneider studied American kinship in 1968 (somehow no one had really thought of doing that before) and then critiqued the whole idea of kinship in 1984. And now kinship has been revisited over and over again to make it still relevant.

So anthropology has this amazing ability to reinvent itself. But, most of the time that reinvention remains in the ivory tower. This means that the image the public typically has of anthropologists is still that of Margaret Mead or Bronislaw Malinowski, even though our ideas are significantly different than theirs. I think anthropology is a dying field because it insists on being so bounded and remaining within academia—as if people on the streets can’t understand culture!

Continue reading ‘Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology’

Digital Ethnography!

I love this digital ethnography of South Phoenix, created by a professor of Urban Studies at ASU.

I also love that she’s done projects like this with her students. Bringing creativity and experiential learning to academia is where it’s at! Especially with anthropology, which I consider to be most useful when it encourages people to look at and understand their surroundings in new and profound ways.

What I’ve Learned Since College

My ability to criticize neo-liberal policies and ideologies is definitely a result of studying anthropology (strengthened through participation in clubs like AU Trade Justice and friendships with people like Andrew). I left college with some serious skepticism about anything that focuses on individuals as the source of large-scale social change—especially when the primary directive for the individuals wanting to make a difference is through shopping (i.e. fair trade or green consumerism). Why the skepticism? Because these idealistic outlooks usually obscure the ways that government policies and global economic practices need to be changed to achieve the large-scale goals they are talking about.

The problem with this anthropological perspective is that idealistic people tend to take it as a personal condemnation and a belief that individuals can’t do anything useful to address the enormous injustices of the world. (In my mind this response is kind of similar to the way that some individuals react to discussions about injustice in the first place—getting defensive and angry because they feel that you are blaming them. See “Systems Not People” for a critique of this type of defensiveness against feminism).

To be honest, I consider the “but if you’re saying this solution isn’t good enough then you’re saying we can’t make a difference” response un-nuanced, unimaginative, and annoying. However, I’m willing to admit that in my undergraduate years I didn’t have very good suggestions for individuals who asked “what can I do?” after actually recognizing structural causes of injustice. It’s a question I’m still asking myself daily, because I do believe that we each have a role to play in creating a better world. As I’ve taken this anthropology show on the road I’ve seen many people wanting political change and a fair amount fighting for it, which has taught me a few lessons that I’m slowly sorting and processing. The major one, which I sort of knew in college but hadn’t understood fully or first-hand (especially since I lived in a city where there’s no end to non-profits telling you about the individual difference you can make in the world’s problems): whatever I can do to address injustice won’t be done alone. Real change requires collective action and power.

As I said, I’m still processing what I know about that last statement, and why I know it, so for now I’ll write a bit about what implications this lesson has for anthropology. To me it suggests that people who want to be public anthropologists need to do more than “give back” to the communities where they work. It means that these anthropologists need to commit themselves to social movements (large or small) that are fighting for positive change in those communities. Yes, this conclusion is not very specific as it’s totally dependent on your locality and research topics and there’s lots of nuance to social movements, etc. etc. Nevertheless, I think it gives more direction to public anthropology than the basic tenets of “helping your research participants” or “making anthropological viewpoints more widespread.”

Of course there are some anthropologists who will argue that involving oneself with activism is beyond the duties of researchers, or perhaps even against scholarly principles. What would I say to those anthropologists? Keep your ivory tower! Keep your scientific distance! I don’t want it. Because I don’t think just “doing no harm” is a strong enough directive for anthropologists—or human beings in general.


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