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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Students Are Not Natives – So Why Do We Treat Them That Way?

Tim Ingold Black and White
I have been re-reading Tim Ingold’s Anthropology Is Not Ethnography (pdf), and this time was quite struck by his discussion of teaching and students near the end of his Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology.

As educators based in university departments, most anthropologists devote much of their lives to working with students. They probably spend considerably more time in the classroom than anywhere they might call the field. Some enjoy this more than others, but they do not, by and large, regard time in the classroom as an integral part of their anthropological practice. Students are told that anthropology is what we do with our colleagues, and with other people in other places, but not with them. Locked out of the power-house of anthropological knowledge construction, all they can do is peer through the windows that our texts and teachings offer them. It took the best part of a century, of course, for the people once known as ‘natives’, and latterly as ‘informants’, to be admitted to the big anthropology house as master-collaborators, that is as people we work with. It is now usual for their contributions to anthropological study to be fulsomely acknowledged.

Yet students remain excluded, and the inspiration and ideas that flow from our dialogue with them unrecognized. I believe this is a scandal, one of the malign consequences of the institutionalized division between research and teaching that has so blighted the practice of scholarship. For indeed, the epistemology that constructs the student as the mere recipient of anthropological knowledge—rather than as a participant in its ongoing creative crafting—is the very same that constructs the native as an informant. And it is no more defensible (89-90).

This description resonated with me because it captures how students are often treated in the university system, where students come to be civilized and taught. They are our natives to be colonized.

Ingold’s words also give voice to some of the alternative ways that I think about teaching – of working with students, of developing their desire to learn and engage, of working on skills that will stay with them long after a class. Hence my efforts at creating community-based work and online reports with them. For me, all of this is anthropological – a way of being, of seeing things, of learning, of comparing. Ingold writes:

Too often, it seems to me, we disappoint our students’ expectations. Rather than awakening their curiosity toward social life, or kindling in them an inquisitive mode of being, we force them into an endless reflection on disciplinary texts which are studied not for the light they throw upon the world but for what they reveal about the practices of anthropologists themselves and the doubts and dilemmas that surround their work. Students soon discover that having doubled up on itself, through its conflation with ethnography, anthropology has become an interrogation of its own ways of working (89).

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Cynthia Mahmood and Political Violence

Cynthia Mahmood is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and a great colleague of mine. She is also now a star on YouTube. Here Cynthia explains how she approaches understanding political violence as an anthropologist:

About six minutes in, Cynthia discusses the present case of Pakistan, and expounds further in a press release accompanying the video, U.S. must help calm nuclear-armed Pakistan.

“Right now, we’re finally seeing that the heartland of the region’s instability, in fact, is in Pakistan, and that the problem President Obama is having to deal with is not just what to do about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, but what to do about the very serious and urgent danger that a nuclear-armed nation is on the verge of either collapse or takeover by radical Islamists.”

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.


Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
Boca d' Rio does a bananeira
As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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