On Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists
Posted by dlende on March 3, 2010
By Daniel Lende
How can anthropologists reach a wider audience? Good debate on that question has sprung up in recent weeks at Savage Minds, Culture Matters, and Ethnografix. We’ve also written about this question here. Now it’s time for a synthesis.
Five Ideas for Reaching a Wider Audience
-Write about something specific
-Make our work relevant to readers
-Move beyond critique
-Provide alternatives and how-to ideas
Write About Something Specific
Sometimes our love of anthropology as a field gets in the way. Most people are interested in specific topics, not the latest theoretical debate. They get engaged by stories and want to learn something concrete or new.
So rather than writing jargon-laden versions of “OMG anthropology is the best ever,” we should write about the topics and stories that capture people’s attention. Once we have their attention, we can also communicate why anthropology matters. We have great material, we just need to use it better.
As Ryan Anderson at Ethnografix writes:
Nobody–or very few people–are going to read books that are ABOUT the discipline of anthropology itself. And it seems to me that many of [our] general audience books are more about anthropology and its UNIQUE perspective and less about an actual subject, event, or issue…
As an analogy, this is like the difference between publishing a book that is ABOUT photography versus publishing a book that is a photographic essay. Huge difference. One will appeal mostly to photographers, and the other might have the possibility to appeal to a much different audience, depending on what it’s about.
To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson:
“Photography is nothing – it’s life that interests me.”
So what does that mean for anthropology? Maybe it means that we need less books about anthropology and more books by anthropologists about the ideas, subjects, events, issues, debates, stories, and experiences they know best.
Anthropologists share that passion with Cartier-Bresson – it is life that interest us. That is our strength. More than any other field, we embrace human life. Rather than foreground our reflexivity or the importance of this theoretical model or that, we should focus on what captures our own attention. Other people outside of anthropology also care about people’s lives, and they want to learn more – focusing on that will build a broader audience.
The proof is in the pudding, the saying goes. And here on Neuroanthropology.net, our most popular posts fit this “about something” model. Co-sleeping, barefoot running, and post-traumatic stress disorder all focus on a specific topic.
Make Our Work Relevant To Readers
Some of the recent online debate has centered on what anthropology can learn from journalism. This is an important topic, particularly for learning how to best communicate with a broad audience. But the simple fact remains – we are not journalists, we are anthropologists.
So if we are going to write about specific things, how do we still convey the richness of anthropology? Chris Kelty over at Savage Minds gives us some insight:
Anthropologists work slowly, but that can be an advantage. It means that a longer term sense of what counts as “relevant” and how to connect current problems that seem new to long-standing structural and cultural transformations is a great way to do exactly what Brian suggests. Just because our work analyzes a time and period that is now outside of the current news-cycle attention span does not mean that it cannot be made relevant to what’s going on today…
Cultural anthropology has a different temporality than journalism, even though they often cover very similar topics. So the art of “making it relevant” is also the art of seeing cultural change and significance at different scales, connecting the just-forgotten with the all-too-present. A lot of what cultural anthropology has to offer is the re-framing of persistently polarized debates. Ours is not a logic of discovery, but one of assertion and reorientation.
A similar ability to illuminate human experience is apparent in recent public anthropology books by biological anthropologists. These authors center their books on specific facets of our lives, covering topics that range from motherhood to genetics and even our very skins. Then they use their research and insights to assert new truths and re-orient the reader from their “common sense” assumptions.
Still, what we do as anthropologists is only one side of the “making it relevant” equation, for it places the focus solely on ourselves while ignoring the reader. As Merry Bruns, a science journalist, commented on Kelty’s piece, “There has to be a reason someone will want to read the story. What interests most people? Stuff that that has relevance for them. We all want to know ‘how does this affect me? My kids? My world? My mortgage?’.”
That question – how does this topic affect the reader? – is a crucial one. Our three popular posts on co-sleeping, barefoot running, and PTSD are immediately relevant to large groups of readers. Parents, runners of all sorts, and veterans and their families want to understand specific aspects of their lives. They want information and insight. We can provide both.
What we cannot do is to continue to rely on the strange and the different as our privileged form of relevance. While we have critiqued our exoticism theoretically and methodologically, we haven’t shifted much in how we appeal to the public. We often use our exotic facts and images to shock students and get a reaction from audiences, as well as to show off our own adventurous spirit. However, as John McCreery commented over at Savage Minds:
The plain fact of the matter is that what used to be shocking, titillating, or fascinating about anthropological observations has largely ceased to be so. Cable TV and the Internet have transformed the once-exotic into the numbingly familiar. For students and members of a lay public now comfortable with current programming like Robot Chicken, there is very little in what anthropologists offer to cause more than a mildly raised eyebrow…
A raised eyebrow doesn’t do much in this extreme media world. As Kelty says, we can escape the escapism by shifting scales and stepping outside present debates using our anthropological eye. This same idea is echoed in McCreery’s later point that “how we approach the topics we choose” makes anthropology different. We focus on specific things, and we build relevance through conveying anthropological understanding to the reader in a way that matters to them.
One good storyline is to insist that human variation is a fundamental human fact, not a glossy picture. Confronting fundamental human difference, that yawning chasm of mis-understanding, is still a basic anthropological mission. My medical anthropology students reacted viscerally to a video of spirit healing earlier in the semester. Showing them that was enough at that point in time. Helping them to understand that has been the work of the rest of the semester.
Storytelling often works in one of two ways – taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary, or taking the extraordinary and making it ordinary. Most of our work as anthropologists focuses on the extraordinary, and that has great appeal on its own. Making it ordinary, or understandable, to people is a way to capture the reader’s ever-present question of, How does this affect me?
Unfortunately the basic anthropological storyline does not embrace a model of taking the extraordinary and making it ordinary, of making it relevant to people. Rather, we take the extraordinary and make it complicated.
A story has more elements than an interesting topic and a point that the author conveys to the reader. We can build appeal in three others ways: evoking a time and place, creating empathy, and using our personal experience.
In discussing public anthropology, Rex at Savage Minds writes that it’s the ethnography, stupid: “I imagine public anthropology to be well-written descriptions of lifeworlds that are important or interesting to a general audience, and written in such a way to bring them to life and make them seem vivid — in other words, great ethnography.” Bring a time and a place to life through apt descriptions, specific characters, and a sense of engagement will help us capture a wider audience.
Brian McKenna, writing on anthropology and journalism, stakes out a similar position:
One thing is certain. We need a new wave of writers and journalists, unafraid to do the most radical thing imaginable: simply describe reality. Their ranks will largely come from freethinkers, dissenting academics and bored mainstream journalists who rediscover what got them interested in anthropology in the first place, telling the truth.
Third Tone Devil adds another important element – our ability to develop readers’ empathy through evoking a time and place – over at Culture Matters. “Anthropology could reach the ‘public’ better if it sometimes let down its analytical ambitions and foregrounded its evocative/empathic possibilities… [Anthropology] can complicate matters for the ‘general reader’ not just by analytical deconstruction but also by creating unexpected empathies in ways that are more akin to art or fiction.”
We can evoke emotions and empathy in readers, and that is a way to create understanding as much as any idea. Indeed, the best ethnographies often do this, placing us in the struggles and dilemmas of people we do not know but care about through experiencing their life world.
Finally John McCreery emphasizes another important element to how we gain and communicate relevance – personal experience. In his work on Japanese advertising, what makes his approach distinctive is combining anthropology with “personal experience, in my case nearly three decades as an observing participant in the industry.”
Evoking a time and place, creating empathy in readers, and relying on personal experience all provide ways to convey to the reader, How does this affect me? By literally affecting them – giving them an experience of a different place and creating a connection to what is happening there – anthropologists can directly impact their audience. It doesn’t have to all be about mortgages!
Move Beyond Critique
Anthropologists often get caught in the idea that our job is to be critical. That is our way of being relevant, of critiquing others’ simplistic assumptions about the world and coming back to our main message of, “It’s complicated.” For example, when discussing development and anthropology, Maurice Bloch says that the anthropologists’ “role is one of caution. Because we have learned that easy answers don’t work. So we anthropologists will always have a negative role [in public debates] and I think that’s right.”
Jovan Maud highlights the same problem:
One of anthropology’s great strengths — the ability to use rich ethnographic data to speak from the particular and challenge received truths or all-too-neat models and theories — can also be part of the problem. In this mode, anthropological critique can become an endless repetition of the refrain that “things are more complicated than that.”
In other words, one problem with critique is exactly in what Maurice Bloch says. It casts us in a critical or negative role. And the simple fact of the matter is that people get tired of listening to critique. They tune it out, and find ways to belittle the person doing it, oh there’s the anthropologist again, whining that the world is not a better place.
A better rule might be that a little critique goes a long way, particularly if it is incorporated into the work itself rather than added on at the end. Critique is effective if it becomes part of a subject-driven focus and engages something that interests readers, as Greg amply demonstrated in his popular yet critical post on women and sex, What Do Those Enigmatic Women Want?
To sum up, critique can be one role for anthropologists, but it shouldn’t be the privileged role for building relevance. It relies too much on intellectual analysis rather than evoking empathy or addressing how our work actually matters.
Still, if you are going to do a critique, do something more than act like an academic. Have fun with it, as I did in my post on Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct. Make it memorable, as Greg did in We Hate Memes, Pass It On… Or make it something sustained that reaches beyond the academy, as Max Forte does on a consistent basis over at Zero Anthropology.
New Alternatives and How-To Knowledge Matter to People
We can also put our skills to use in other ways through substantive investigation on behalf of community concerns, testing our ideas for making a difference to see if they actually work, and collaborating with community partners to address problems that have both theoretical and applied dimensions. As an example, complete with video, I can point to my own work using an integrative community-based approach that brings academics, students and community partners together.
Getting out of The Ivory Tower was the common theme to the ten ways to make a difference list. Falling back on critique, especially after-the-fact, simply raises the Ivory Tower higher. Tacking on a paragraph in the conclusion, highlighting our “it’s complicated” message, means we didn’t put in the work to answer the questions that matter to others. Engaging broader audiences than our peers and getting data and ideas about what is actually relevant to the public positions us to do more.
As a recent example, Nancy Scheper-Hughes has learned the value of engaging with other audiences and collaborating with journalists of problems of common interest. This work is anthropologically rich; it is also publicly rich. Once a representative of the critical school, Scheper-Hughes now even works on policy: “This is what I have tried to do for the past decade with the Organs Watch project: to make the global traffic in humans for their organs into a pressing social issue requiring a global, multilateral response,” leading to the Istanbul Declaration on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism.
In other words, Scheper-Hughes extended her academic knowledge into the real world. Like many academics, she is very much into developing knowledge, building our tower of facts and theories and descriptions of lived worlds. And the public does care about general knowledge and understandings things better. They just don’t care as much as we do!
They actually care more about what they can do with knowledge. A good example here is Michael Pollan. His book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an excellent example of “anthropology” reaching a wide audience. Pollan placed the question of what we eat into the framework of why we eat what we do, drawing on reporting (i.e., ethnography) to trace food from its origins to our dinner table. Pollan’s book also happens to focus on one topic that is relevant to readers and that incorporates personal experience and the evocation of time and place in ways that illustrate his larger critical and theoretical points.
Michael Pollan has a new book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, where he aims to distill cultural wisdom into memorable guidelines to help people eat better. He described why he wrote this book in a recent interview:
I’ve spent 10 years looking at agriculture, food and health. I’ve done it mostly as a reporter with a lot of research and adventures and explorations. At the end of the day people want to know what to do with this information. What’s the practical import of what you’ve learned? It’s the question I always get when I’m speaking to readers…
I wanted to write a book that would reach as many people as possible. It’s a real radical distillation of everything I’ve been working on. It’s really just to help people to act. It’s about daily practice more than theory.
In other words, Pollan realized all his analysis and exposition didn’t answer readers’ basic questions. How does this work matter? And how can I convey what I have learned in the most effective package?
People do want to know about things, and we anthropologists have delivered there. They also want to know how to do things, and what to do with the insights we provide. Answering those questions, especially by drawing on research and on engagement outside academia, will help our work reach a wider audience.
Anthropologists already understand the importance of developing our own alternatives to the dominant discourses. For example, Thomas Hylland Eriksen in his book Engaging Anthropology: The Case for a Public Presence looks at why meme theory is popular and then challenges anthropologists to develop something better. Similarly, Frederick Barth, as part of an overall examination of public anthropology, points us towards the importance of anthropology of imagining new possibilities.
Joana Breidenbach and Pal Nyiri, in their piece How to Write an Anthropology Book that People Will Read, make the same point:
One reason why intercultural “experts”, as well as books such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, were so successful was that they were offering very hands-on advice, whereas we as anthropologists had just been able to deconstruct simplistic notions of cultural differences without offering alternative visions that were as clear and accessible.
Reaching That Wider Audience
Five ways we can think about reaching a broader public. Want the playback?
Write about something specific, and highlight the relevance of anthropology while telling a story. Remember that a little critique goes a long way (and a little research with an applied or community-based focus goes even further), and address readers’ desire to draw on anthropological knowledge to do things differently.