Anthropology: It’s not just a “promotion” problem
Just read this guest column in the Orlando Sentinel by Ty Matejowski and Beatriz M Reyes-Foster. It was written a while back, but still worth a read. Good on them for writing this piece. It’s all about anthropology’s “branding problem”:
Cultural anthropology’s branding problem is largely superficial. Anthropologists possess unique knowledge and skill sets that have real-world value. Anthropology helps us understand the world in a way that cannot be reduced to numbers or captured in surveys.
The marketing industry is increasingly recognizing the value of anthropological methodologies. A recent Atlantic article highlights the way in which ethnography and participant-observation are used in market research. Moreover, the World Bank recently elected an anthropologist, Jim Yong Kim, as president.
Anthropologists need to take better ownership of our brand. The complexity of anthropological concepts such as “culture,” “power” and the “global” should not dissuade anthropologists from engaging in meaningful public discourse.
In short, the argument here is that anthropology suffers from a PR problem. While this may be true at many levels, I think there’s quite a bit more to the story. Sure, anthropologists should go about and promote their field and all of that. Fine. Great. But the deeper issue here, in my view, is more about how we actually think about and practice anthropology rather than whether or not we are marketing ourselves well enough. I think that once we deal with the former some of the PR issues will fall into place. The short version of my argument: we don’t just need to promote ourselves, we need to change. The “we need promotion” argument assumes that we are doing everything right, and we just need to get ourselves out there in the public view. As if all is right in the house of anthropology, and we just need some good press on CNN. I disagree. I think we need to actually change how we do anthropology.
Despite their overall argument about branding and promotion, Matejowski and Reyes-Foster hit the nail on the head when it comes to identifying the true problem that plagues cultural anthropology these days: our collective silence.* And this silence isn’t some accident or fluke–it’s how we do things. It is what we produce. It’s really not all that hard to figure out why the vast majority of people outside of academia have no clue what contemporary cultural anthropology is all about. For the most part, we really only talk to ourselves (although there are signs that this is changing, finally). For example, over the course of the past year or so, cultural anthropology did find its way into the news fairly often, but usually for all the wrong reasons. Still, as Matejowski and Reyes-Foster explain:
Many cultural anthropologists have remained aloof amid this tumult. This remoteness is surely compounded by today’s academic environment. Public engagement counts little toward promotion and tenure and may even be viewed dismissively by fellow academics.
We are stuck in our own little silos. Often literally by design. Look at graduate school training. What does that training produce? More academics, who are theoretically supposed to get university jobs, get their own students, and do more of the same. It’s all about building of specifically academic credentials: going to conferences, getting internships, writing papers for awards, seeking grants. It’s a big, and very insular, loop. It’s a factory designed to produce people for tenure track academic positions that no longer exist (at least for the vast majority). But the factory keeps working. Everyone thinks they’re going to make it. Everyone thinks they will be the one who bucks the trend–if they just work harder, write more, get one more grant, or impress that one person at a job talk. But there’s no place for all these people within this system because academic tenure a dying, endangered beast–and there’s not much of a place outside of the system because an extremely small percentage of people outside of the world of academia have any clue what this “anthropology” thing is all about.
Is this because we just don’t have anything to offer?
The answer to this question is an emphatic NO. That’s not the problem at all.
Whose fault is this?
So what happened? If we have lots of great ideas, and if there’s plenty of good research going on, what’s the problem? It’s a matter of dissemination, folks. Sure, we produce all kinds of research and knowledge, and that research/knowledge is translated into various forms of media: papers, books, presentations, grant proposals, and so on. But where does the vast majority of this media end up? Where does it go? Right back to…us. What this means is that we may write great books about cultural and power and globalization, but we are also the main consumers of our own ideas/media. Again, this is no accident. This is how we currently operate. Sure, cultural anthropologists work all around the world, with all kinds of people, and speak an astonishing range of languages. But look at the books and papers we write! Listen to our presentations! Who are we speaking to? Ourselves.
Ok, so why is this happening? Well, it all comes to down to our values, or, more to the point, what is currently valued in academic anthropology. Does public engagement really matter in academic circles? Nope, not really. What about teaching–do we really value teaching? Somewhat, but it’s nowhere near the most important, valued aspect of an academic scholar (and of course, teaching is basically another form of public outreach that’s sitting in front of us day after day). What really matters in this system is research, getting grants, and getting published in the right journals. The ultimate values–the ones that everyone is working toward–are based upon the academic job market. This is what counts. This is what gets you a job. Getting these things is what moves you up the ranks. So it’s no surprise that graduate students, post-docs, newly minted PhDs, and other junior scholars spend every waking moment trying to grasp these ultimate academic achievements. In essence, as Matejowska and Reyes-Foster point out, there’s little time for any sort of meaningful public engagement:
Many anthropologists, already burdened with increased class sizes, decreased institutional support, and ever-growing pressures to publish and secure research grants simply do not have the time, resources or motivation to publicly voice their opinions.
But you know what? I don’t really buy the “lack of time” argument. Now, before you get all up in arms and tell me about how wrong I am and how you don’t have time to breathe, hear me out. I am well aware of the fact that few of us have much time to breathe, let alone to speak out to the public on THE BIG ISSUES. But maybe we should ask ourselves why this is the case. Is it really a matter of having no time? Or is it a matter of priorities? I argue it’s the latter: academic anthropology is, by and large, all about academic anthropology. When was the last time you saw anyone from the “public” at one of your AAA talks (and no, your spouse or kid doesn’t count)? Seriously.
Sure, we have a public image problem. And sure, promotion is not a bad idea. But before we start talking out full page ads in the New York Times to announce how great our “brand” is, we might want to do a little soul searching. Maybe we should think deeply about the gaps between the ideals of anthropology and the actual practices of anthropology. If we really think that all we’re missing is some good PR, then we’re completely deluding ourselves. We tell ourselves that academic anthropology is all about humanity, or culture, or exploring the world around us. We tell ourselves that anthropology is all of these great things. It’s all very idealistic–and this is good. This is what anthropology is and can be all about. But we have to face the facts as well. Really. What are we really doing with anthropology? Where does our collective energy go? What, ultimately, are we working for? What are we creating? What values shape and drive us?
What we currently produce is this: THE TENURED ANTHROPOLOGIST. Today’s tenured anthropologist is made to do RESEARCH, attend ACADEMIC CONFERENCES, get GRANTS, write ACADEMIC BOOKS, and publish in TOP TIER ACADEMIC JOURNALS. They also train future TENURED ANTHROPOLOGISTS. All of this sums up the main purpose of this being. This is what graduate programs train students to become. This is what all new PhDs want to be someday. Well, most of them.
We are creating more academics, that’s what we’re doing with anthropology. We’re talking to ourselves…in our papers, our conferences, and our books. The vast majority of our energy goes toward satisfying the demands of our own internal political economy and hierarchy. This is what drives us. We are working to keep our own little insular system afloat, via a mountain of papers and ideas that don’t really see the light of day. We are creating our own illusions. Many of us are driven by a deep belief in the possibilities of anthropology–and the ideals of anthropology–while we effectively help maintain something that is far, far different from those ideals and possibilities. We travel all around the world, telling ourselves that we are working toward understanding humanity, or social change, or making the world a better place. But…what are we really doing?
I don’t think we need to promote anthropology–we need to change it. Focusing graduate programs on training future academics is fine and all, but at some point we’re going to have to do something more. We’re going to have to rethink the end result a bit. We might need to diversify, and work toward really encouraging and fostering some different avenues for anthropology. I think this needs to happen in graduate school, I really do. We can’t keep pretending that teaching students how to do Powerpoints, write academic papers, and go to conferences is enough. We need to really work on writing–for a variety of audiences. We need to dive into the possibilities of various media (video, film, online). We need to push students to get involved, to collaborate, to find ways to communicate and bring the ideas of anthropology to wider issues and conversations. That’s what we need to do.
Ya, sure, we need to promote ourselves better. But you know what? The best way to do this isn’t to worry about promotion per se, but instead to step outside the academy. That’s my argument here. Speak out. Stop spending all of our energies on stuff that counts for tenure. Break out. Change things. Rethink WHY WE ARE ALL REALLY DOING ANTHROPOLOGY in the first place. Why does anthropology matter? And what does it have to add to wider public conversations, disagreements, and debates?
The potential is there. It’s all there. We just need to do something with it. Something more than writing another article that nobody is going to read, something more than just another 15 minute presentation at some annual meeting. Don’t get me wrong–the academic books, presentations, and papers are fine–but they aren’t enough. We need to completely rethink what we’re producing in anthropology. And then we can start worrying about PR.
UPDATE 6/19: The first comment I received [on my other site] raises a good point and I meant to put something about this in the main post: There are lots of people who are working hard to push anthropology toward wider audiences. This includes anthropologists who work for large publications like National Geographic (and other venues),with NGOs and other organizations, and others like Kate Clancy, Daniel Lende, Barbara King, and Jason Antrosio who are really working hard to get anthropology out there via online media. So there are people who are working to make these kinds of changes, and this has to be recognized. We just need more of this.
*The authors of the article I reference are talking specifically about cultural anthropology, but I think this discussion applies to anthropology as a whole.
Cross-posted on Anthropology in Public.
Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty. He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public. You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).