On Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists

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
-Build appeal
-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.

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