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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The Uncultured Project

The Uncultured Project is about fighting global poverty, about one man’s decision to try and make the world a better place. It’s a story told through a website and promoted on YouTube.

Imagine leaving behind your friends, family, possessions, and a full scholarship to a good university – all to go halfway around the world to a third world country just to help the poor.

This is exactly what I did.

And I’m using YouTube to tell my story.

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Funerals and Food Coping in Rural Lesotho

Lesotho Funeral Home
By Brandon Sparks

Imagine you are hungry. You have been hungry for weeks, with no end in sight due to a heavy drought that severely diminished your land’s production. Your gravely ill sister lives with you, as do her two young children, further straining your limited food supply. Then your neighbor dies. You do mourn, but you also feel relief – relief because you will be able to take your family to the funeral. There they will be able to eat.

This post examines food crises in Lesotho and the role funerals play in coping with these food shortages within a rural town and neighboring villages. In my senior thesis written on the costly funerals in Lesotho and the impact of HIV/AIDS on their practice, I found that the local Basotho people use funerals as a food coping mechanism. Lesotho often suffers from periods of drought that place a burden on food resources and force people to look for methods to supplement their daily food.

Lesotho VillageI will begin with a brief look at the factors behind the food shortages, followed by a description of funeral practices and how families are able to use them to for food coping. Lesotho is a small country in southern Africa. Through a quirk in British rule, it remained independent from South Africa and is now the only country to have its entire border completely surrounded by another country. The terrain is mountainous and has earned Lesotho the nickname of “the roof of Africa.” Less than eleven percent of the land is arable and farmers are at the peril of periodic droughts.

Lesotho also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with some estimates as high as thirty-one percent of its over two million population carrying the virus (Brummer 2002). The high percentage stems from Lesotho’s history of labor migration to the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, where Basotho men would contract the disease and then bring it home to their families in Lesotho.

The attraction of mining employment to Basotho (from Lesotho) men comes partially from the lack of opportunities at home. Agriculture production has dropped in the past fifty years due to deterioration of the land through erosion, mono-cropping, and overgrazing, insecurities in the system of land tenure that inhibited farmers from securing their holdings, population pressure that increased exploitation of arable land, and environmental factors like hail, frost, and drought (Murray 1981). These factors, coupled with population growth, mean that the frequency and severity of food crises has increased in the last century.

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Critique – Making a Difference

Critique is option #1 in our Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, and the principal way most anthropologists approach being relevant. Relying only on critique can be problematic – it emphasizes passivity over engagement, promotes an academic idea of change, and can keep us from developing ideas and getting data about other ways of making a difference. But critique also has a real-world impact.

Amidst a wealth of work, I have highlighted two prominent books as well as recent examples of putting critique into action. I also cover how critique is often most useful when used to improve our own efforts.

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

Jonathan Marks’ 2003 book What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee is an excellent example of critical work in biological anthropology. Marks draws on the breadth of anthropology to produce a trenchant analysis of both science and popular ideas about genetics and human nature. As the American Scientist review says, “A trenchant assault on genetic reductionism and a spirited call for a more critical science, one better informed by the perspectives of anthropology and the humanities.”

James Ferguson’s (1994) The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho is now a classic in the anthropological critique of development. Ferguson shows how poverty and powerlessness are reduced to technical and bureaucratic problems, even as the state extends its realm of control locally. As the American Political Science review puts it, “He strips the development community of its conceptual attire and leaves it naked for all to see.”

Open Anthropology is Maximilian Forte’s admirable effort to put critical analysis to use, both with respect to the field and to the current state of the world. Open Anthropology aims to “transform anthropology into something that is neither Eurocentric nor elitist,” while also focusing on critical issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military is co-opting social science through projects like the Human Terrain System and Minerva. With Open Anthropology, critique is now online.

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Expanding the Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference

Last month’s The Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference outlined how people’s work can have real-world impact. The idea was to get people’s attention and provide them with ideas about what to do. It worked. The Top Ten Ways became a popular post and provoked good discussion.

Now it is time to take the next step – not just what to do, but how to do it. Over the coming weeks the series Ten Ways To Make A Difference will provide examples and references for each type of engaged anthropology. The examples will come from both biological and cultural anthropology, and cover how each option applies to anthropology itself.

The post serves as the master list for Ten Ways To Make A Difference. As each part of the series comes online, the corresponding description will become a live link to that post.


(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)
(2) Develop basic knowledge of problems. Rather than keeping to analysis, embrace our role as being able to speak directly about the causes and consequences of significant problems.
(3) Investigation. Take critique and go after something that matters to the public, whether that’s a community or the effects of a misguided policy.
(4) Advocacy. Use our understanding and our position as scholars to help advocate for change, to both represent the local point of view and to speak from our status as an expert. (Yes, expert – that research you did and the degree you have help grant that in the eyes of others.)
(5) Involve the community in your research. Besides making for better research and applied outcomes, involving the community in your work yields direct and indirect benefits, through salaries, skill development, idea exchange and more.
(6) Develop concrete community or applied outcomes. Start by having these outcomes as a goal from the beginning, along with more traditional outcomes like peer-reviewed articles. Then do community-based research to make sure your applied outcome is relevant.
(7) Focus on developing or changing policy. Yes you can. As anthropologists we know plenty about unintended consequences, we also know a lot about what works locally. Put that to use.
(8) Get the word out. Communicate your work in an effective and popular way. Write an op-ed or a blog post or, gasp, a popular book. Remember that communication can also be informal. As anthropologists we can act as conduits, communicating among different constituencies in the field, different parties at the negotiating or policy table, or even different fields’ perspectives on a problem.
(9) Help develop organizations. Organizations do make a difference. They can bring people together in common cause and provide a framework through which to work. Indeed, organizations can take all the points made here and ramp them up to the next level.
(10) Create interventions or programs. Have a good idea? What about your community partners? Then try it out to see if it might work. Other fields do it. We can too. Do some investigation, get community involvement, and also check on what other fields recommend. And then see if our anthropology ideas make a difference. Remember, it’s always good to evaluate how effective your program is!

Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

Skin A Natural History“Public anthropology” is often presented as primarily an effort of cultural anthropology. For example, the University of California Press Series in Public Anthropology focuses on ethnographies. Yet a broader public anthropology is inherent in its own description:

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws anthropologists to address major issues of our time in ways that readers beyond the discipline, find valuable. Many anthropologists write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

Rob Borofsky echoes this broad conception when he writes, “Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas.”

Biological anthropologists do public anthropology. They write for broad audiences and address social problems and public concerns. Their books move from the very body we live in to the importance of human variation, the origins of violence to assumptions about human nature and reproduction. Biological anthropologists have provided advice and information on caring for your child, looked at how our present-day environment can shape human health and behavior, and shown how to engage in primate conservation.

Here are those books, the ones that show public anthropology in action. The title links to the Amazon book listing. These books are recent, accessible, competitively priced, and compelling – all useful for increasing their public reach.

Public Anthropology Books by Biological Anthropologists

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000), Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books.
Hrdy “unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, ‘mother love,’ and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility.”
98% Chimp
Nina Jablonski (2008), Skin: A Natural History. University of California Press.
“This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body’s largest and most visible organ showcases skin’s versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness… Penn State’s anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious.”

Jonathan Marks (2005), What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. University of California Press.
“So why should one venture through the 307 remaining pages of this book, if the main message is obvious from the start? I can see two good reasons. First of all, because it is fun… The second reason is that the subject of this book is extraordinarily important. Many scientists and physicians deal daily, in one way or another, with human variation and its consequences. However, only seldom do we have the time to reflect on the assumptions underlying many concepts, even apparently simple ones, in this area.”

James J. McKenna (2007), Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media.
“Cosleeping is one of the most delicious experiences in parenting, and Dr. McKenna’s carefully researched and thoughtful advice separates the myths from the marvelous reality.”

Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham (1997), Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Mariner Books.
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures… they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare.”

Meredith Small (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor.
“How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone… [This book] will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting.”

E.O. Smith (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers University Press.
“This book will be completely accessible to laypersons, and yet equally thought provoking for scientists.”

Karen Strier (1999), Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press.
This book “outlines the fight against extinction of the wooly spider monkey. Muriquies remain one of the most endangered primates, but the detailed profile drawn up by the author and her fellow researchers has provided crucial information in their fight for survival. In all areas Strier has carried out impressively thorough and precise research, outlined here in a very readable form, accessible to specialist and laymen alike.”

Other Recent Popular Books by Biological Anthropologists

Why limit ourselves to just eight? After all biological anthropologists have written many popular books. Here is a wider listing, ones that might not hew to a strict definition of “major issues” and “critical concerns” that comes with public anthropology. But these are certainly books that interest a broad public.

Continue reading “Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists”