Glory Days – Anthropologists as Journalists

Brian McKenna, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, has a great piece in the August 2010 newsletter of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Starting on p. 11 (the newsletter is a pdf), McKenna has a piece entitled “Doing Anthropology as an Environmental Journalist.”

He uses his 2002 article in City Pulse, Can Glory Days Return to Lake Lansing?, to discuss how he crafted a very effective piece of reporting that was also a very effective piece of public anthropology.

You just have to love how he uses a great hook at the beginning, and then seamlessly transitions to the broader “this is what this piece is about” while still maintaining relevance. Some great writing:

Lake Lansing just wants to be left alone. In the Prohibition Era, bootleggers raised hell in a house on stilts that sat in the belly of the lake – site of a men’s social club – while a lookout warned of an impending sheriff’s raid. By the time the police boat reached the moated fortress, all alcohol had been hurriedly dispatched into the lake through a trap door.

Over the years, the lake has imbibed more than its share of bad whiskey. Septage, arsenic, fertilizer, dog poop, gull dung, mercury and just about everything that people throw on the ground for miles around the 450-acre waterworld winds up in the lake. “If you spit on the sidewalk,” says Pat Lindemann, the Ingham County drain commissioner, “it goes into the lake.”

But what I really want to highlight in McKenna’s SFAA piece is how he demostrates how to connect core anthropological analysis with journalistic writing. He calls it using “The Anthropological Dozen.”

In every journalistic article I write I try to incorporate what I call “The Anthropological Dozen.” These questions help insure a muckracking result.

Very briefly, here they are: 1) holism (how do disparate phenomenon connect?); 2) fieldwork (from lab tests to participant observations); 3) What’s taken for granted (Did the Ojibwa help create this lake?); 4) culture (how is capital behind what’s behind); 5) cross-cultural justaposition (how did Indians and colonialists use the lake?); 6) Getting the native’s point(s) of view (Who are the natives? What are the ways in which the “native points of view” are ignored, omitted, or supressed?); 7) Contradictions and ideologies (Do people say one thing and do another? Are there dialectical tensions in the terrain of inquiry?); 8.) Origins and history (human origins, the origin of the state, the origin of a nation, the origin of a given institution, the origin of a name, the origin of a place. How have things transformed since the origin?); 9) epistemological critique (Begin with a “reification of names” in your analysis. Do names – like “Lake Lansing” in this instance – accurately capture the idea/object represented?); 10) conformity/resistance (what are the modes of resistance that the less powerful play?); 11) privilege the most powerless; and 12) analyze social change.

McKenna goes on in his essay to provide examples of these various techniques in action, and also to describe how he got the necessary information as journalist/anthropologist through interviews, library research, and the like. And all on a four day deadline!

Here is just one example, focusing on the writing part:

The colonialists originally called it Pine Lake for the stand of beautiful white pine trees on the east side of the lake – the largest stand in Ingham County. But the white pines were soon destroyed for their wood resources in the second half of the 19th century. According to Raphael, the biggest logging operation was conducted by a John Saltmarsh, whose name ironically revealed his intent. He “assaulted the ‘marsh’” in the winter one year, sending the logs over the lake ice on sled runners. They were stockpiled for export behind the new train depot. Saltmarsh also owned a picket mill, to make the fences that would set the enclosures around the new form of land division around Lansing: private property.

Notice how I translated academic parlance into civic voice. This is journalism as a public anthropology, a syncretism (McKenna 2010b). Think of it as converting ethnography into a good story. There are villains, dramatic tensions, metaphors and ample use of quotation to enliven the narrative.

Link to the City Pulse article, Can glory days return to Lake Lansing?

Link to the Society for Applied Anthropology August Newsletter

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