Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity!

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Since graduating from high school, I’ve several times worked as a salesman, first flogging reference books door-to-door over summers while an undergraduate and later, while writing my dissertation, getting involved in the ‘design consulting’ business where I helped sell something a lot less tangible.  Sales was a great training ground for an anthropologist: nothing prepares you for quickly manufacturing social relations like slogging around door-to-door with a sample case, and a large lecture room of first-year students is a lot easier to sell than a skeptical dairy farmer in Wisconsin.

Marquesan tattooing (rear), by Von de Steinen.

I’ve often given anthropological colleagues advice that could have been taken verbatim from my stints in sales school — they would probably be mortified if they knew about the dual purposing.  At times, I worry about my colleagues because I think that a whole series of situations in academia actually resemble sales situations: job interviewing, ‘open day’ for prospective students, grant writing, and even the first few lectures in an introductory class, when you’d be well served if you could persuade the assembled students that you’ve got something to say worth hearing.  

Anthropologists sometimes don’t seem terribly good at selling what they do. If you couldn’t convince a starving man to eat a sandwich, how can we persuade diverse audiences to pay attention to anthropology?

After my previous post on the ‘Vital topics forum,’ reader Jason Antrosio asked my opinion about Ulf Hannerz’s article from the same American Anthropologist: ‘Diversity is Our Business.’  Since I had been banging on about anthropology promoting itself as the study of human diversity, Jason probably assumed, quite reasonably, that I had already read Hannerz’s piece.  Alas, I hadn’t.  One of the many downsides of being laid up at home is that I only read the forum online and hadn’t really browsed the contents of the latest AA because my hard copy is likely still sitting in my office mailbox.

Hannerz’s piece, ‘Diversity is Our Business,’ is well worth the read not just because he explores how the field is misrepresented in the public eye; Hannerz asks what we might do as a field to counter-act anthro-bashing.  He wades into water that I prefer to plunge into neck deep here: what kind of brand is ‘Anthropology,’ how do we tell people about what we do, and do we need to perform a bit of brand management?

Perhaps provocatively, in drawing on a characteristic current vocabulary, I would argue that anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand. Those who feel ill at ease with that term, thinking that in its crassness it sullies their noble scholarly pursuits, can perhaps just as well continue to call it “public image” or even just “identity,” but in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that “brand” is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in. (These days, too, not only corporations or consumer goods are linked to brands but also for example cities and countries.) Brands should attract outsiders: customers, visitors, members of the public. At the same time, they should preferably offer a fully acceptable identity for whoever may count as insiders to reflect on and be inspired by. (Hannerz 2010: 543)

Hell, yeah, we should think about Anthropology as a brand! With no trace of irony, I’d argue that we get serious about our collective self-promotion as a discipline.  Hannerz gets off to a good start, but I think we could even step up the campaign a bit, making use of the traditional strengths of our discipline to promote our intellectual and research potential.  And I’m going to take this opportunity, as well, to reply to some of the issues Daniel outlined in his piece, Anthropology and Publicity, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

Anthropology bashing

Hannerz begins his discussion with a reflection on Pres. Barack Obama’s use of ‘anthropological’ to describe when, during his campaign, Obama apologized for sounding out of touch.  Obama said he was sorry that he sounded as if he was ‘talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters.’ As Hannerz explains, the assumptions embedded in this apology grate for anthropologists because Obama takes for granted a public stereotype so at odds with our self-conception (and so ironic given that Obama’s late mother was an anthropologist):

Here it seems to me, then, that the candidate Obama assigns a stereotypically distant view, lacking in empathy, to anthropology—and then proceeds to sketch, as its opposite, precisely the sort of close, contextualizing understanding that we as anthropologists are much more likely to claim for ourselves. And from this particular source, we may find the stereotype so much more surprising because we might have thought this candidate should have got his anthropology right—but more about that later. In any case, here is an instance of a recurrent phenomenon that we might call “anthropology bashing.”  (Hannerz 2010: 541)

According to Hannerz, ‘anthropology bashing’ comes in four basic flavours:

  1. Anthropologists are portrayed as cold and distant observers, ‘at worst, as someone who uses his skills to manipulate situations in ways which are detrimental to the human beings about which he has built up an expertise’ (Hannerz 2010: 541).  This image is of the ‘handmaiden’ of colonialism, a superior-feeling expert at manipulating natives, depriving them of their patrimony, and speaking in place of the cultures that we study.
  2. Anthropologists, in contradiction, are depicted as bumbling, incompetent observer who does not get even obvious realities right,’ as Hannerz puts it, less capable of ‘getting it’ than locals or even amateur observers.  This image is the anthropologist as dowdy professor-type who is ill-suited for life beyond the Ivory Tower but utterly oblivious to this fact.
  3. As part of academia, Hannerz also worries that we are ‘easy target for a kind of populism that proclaims that research in and about far-away places is useless and that money devoted to it is therefore not well-spent.’  Here, Hannerz suggests that anthropologists are particularly prone to populist abuse, such as the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’ given by US Senator William Proxmire, often to projects that receive federal funding but have the bad luck to possess titles that Sen. Proxmire found easy to mock.
  4. Finally, Hannerz argues that anthropologists are bashed as being anachronistic and slightly out of date, pictured in pith helmets and safari suits with a mirthful chuckle that our field even still exists.  Ironically, I believe that one of the senior administrators at my own university had a giggle at our expense for this very reason, as if it was comical to think that anthropologists still were out there, wandering around, doing this funny old anthropology thing we do.

I could fiddle with this classification, but I think the list is quite good on the whole and demonstrates the key problem: not a single critique, but a lack of control over how we are perceived. Anthropologists need to invest more in getting our version of what we do before the public eye rather than let ourselves be defined by others.

If we look closer, what we find in a lot of the critiques are caricatures of us put forward by other people: indigenous ‘advocates’ who attack anthropologists, cultural studies scholars who try to make game of us, and the out-of-touch who assume that, if they don’t know what’s happening, there must not be anything happening in our field.  We often don’t take strong stands against these caricatures, or we take nuanced opposition to them that doesn’t do much to abate the more powerful rhetorical thrust of the criticism.

For example, when criticized for being complicit in colonialism, most cultural anthropologists will tend to roll over and go along with the criticism, conceding that, in fact, anthropologists have given indirect assistance and even philosophical justification for colonialism.  I think that this is a losing strategy in the public sphere.

Cui Yin Mok at the Open Anthropology Cooperative (Why isn’t anthropology more popular?) similarly argues that anthropologists have sort of lost their mojo as they’re carrying too much self-critical ‘baggage’ that stops them from better describing their field to the public.

Anthropology’s troubled past and its roots in colonialism might have led to several decades of soul-searching and identity crisis within the discipline. In that same time that anthropologists have spent trying to get their confidence back and stand up again, other social sciences have long made their impact on the popular consciousness, which eventually filters down the generations as received wisdom or general knowledge).

The subtlety of our self critique is read into something far more blunt edged and damning, such as the assertion that all anthropology is inherently exploitative of the groups that anthropologists study. I could go on about the critique of anthropology as ‘inherently imperialist,’ but I think it’s over-wrought and dangerous to ourselves that we keep conceding, and even repeating the criticism (and, in the long run, does not serve the communities with whom we work that we let ourselves be taken out by such a formulaic objection).  It’s one thing to teach these important critiques to our grad students, another entirely to repeat them to reporters from the New York Times.  We need to think about our audience more carefully and what we are seeking to accomplish.

For example, among anthropologists in Australia, heated ad hominem criticisms of each other’s perspectives on the Northern Territory ‘Intervention’ in primarily Aboriginal communities pop up reliably on the Australian Anthropological Society’s list-serve.  Unfortunately, the loudest and most virulent internal critics seem too often to set the tone, and the resulting discussions often generate more acid than clarity.  No one, non-anthropologist, could look in from the outside and say, ‘Anthropology sounds like a great idea,’ given the incivility and incendiary comment, and the frequent rhetorical flourish of rubbishing our entire field for its unforgivable past sins.  These discussions are publicly available but, fortunately, usually carried on in private.

Brand Anthropology, in need of a spruce up

Certainly in places like Australia, anthropology has a name-recognition problem; people just don’t know what anthropology is.  But even among those who recognize ‘Anthropology,’ we still have a brand problem; people think that they know what we do, but have no idea we’ve been up to for about the last twenty years.  Our brand needs updating:

The problem is, rather, that what people think they know for a fact is wrong. For a long time, we maybe have thought of this as mildly irritating but not terribly important. I would argue that we may now be in turbulent times when we can ill afford to not take the matter seriously. We may not be able to put an end to all anthropology bashing, but we can try harder to be clear, and consistent, about how we want to be understood. (Hannerz 2010: 542)

Like Hannerz, the more I am involved in administration of anthropology programs, the more I perceive our disciplinary branding problem as a serious issue (and I’ve not yet been fully-fledged head of department for longer than a few months).  The danger isn’t simply that the public doesn’t get what we’re doing; weak disciplinary identity translates into a harder slog attracting undergraduates into our classes and majors, lower interest in our PhD programs, and greater difficulty for our graduates getting jobs.

At least in Australia, our departmental budgets are directly linked to these numbers – low enrollment means less research support, financial cutbacks, and even decreased staffing (retirees don’t get replaced without numbers to justify them).  Healthy numbers mean increased budget, new hires, post-doc appointments, and other support.  Hannerz hopes that this iron financial logic will eventually weaken, but I’m not persuaded it will, at least not at publicly-funded institutions (nor am I willing to sit and wait and pray that the tide turns before too much damage is done):

Perhaps it will eventually—I would hope sooner rather than later—be understood that universities cannot be run quite like businesses, that their multifaceted cultural roles demand some particular care, and that different disciplines may work according to different logics. Meanwhile, it seems particularly important that we take some care to cultivate an understanding of what anthropologists do that is readily understandable within the wider society and also acceptable to ourselves. (Hannerz 2010: 542)

So for these practical reasons, I agree strongly with Hannerz that ‘we may do well to offer a message that can also reach circles in which there may be no strong curiosity about what we do but that can still affect the circumstances of our lives: journalists, politicians, academic administrators . . . even school teachers, parents, voters’ (Hannerz 2010: 542).

I don’t think we can afford to labor forever in obscurity, writing only for ourselves and our graduate students. The cloistered academic community is not merely economically and politically fragile; intellectual reclusiveness is also a staggering dereliction of our intellectual responsibilities, especially when public debates about things like ‘human nature’ and the ‘culture of poverty’ are taking place with serious potential implications.  But if we’re successful in attracting public attention, we want to be ready and put an accurate, positive face on our discipline.

Cui Yin Mok puts the question this way in an excellent discussion, Why isn’t anthropology more popular?;

Why is it that pop science, pop sociology, and pop economics exist (and are so well- received), but not pop anthropology? Why is anthropology so foreign to people when it seeks to understand the latter? Why do people still think it’s something to do with ants or birds or, at best, dinosaurs?

A rebranding: ‘Diversity Is Our Business’

Hannerz recommends that we need to think about our brand, Anthropology, and what constitutes a ‘good’ brand.  According to Hannerz, a good brand is ‘quickly grasped and clearly understood’; the brand has to be simple enough to translate into instant recognition without completely misrepresenting what we do.

A good brand, Hannerz discusses, has to appeal to potential audiences, both inside and outside of the field.  People in the field have to feel included and well represented, and people outside the field have to be attracted to learn more about anthropology or to feel that anthropology is relevant to their lives.  To say that ‘anthropology is what anthropologists do,’ for example, might appeal to an insider’s ironic sense of humour about the state of our field, but it severely fails to appeal to outside audiences, and might even be used against us in some contexts, where the solipsism can be taken seriously.

Hannerz suggests that a good brand for anthropology is: “Diversity Is Our Business” (Hannerz 2010: 544).  This particular disciplinary identity has continuity with what we already do, and have done as a field since at least the early twentieth century.  Hannerz also suggests that ‘diversity’ clearly identifies a distinctively anthropological contribution to knowledge, one that is understandable to academic and popular audiences alike.  How well does the brand fit?

To what extent are we as individual scholars ready to identify the study of human diversity as our major concern? Possibly each one of us, when asked about our research interest, will spontaneously come up with some rather more specific answer: “Micronesian kinship,” “Latin American squatter settlements,” “software needs of small enterprises, ” “Hausa praise singing,” or perhaps “the transnational impact   of the Bollywood movie industry.” The problem of diversity as such, however we understand it, may not figure that prominently in our personal scholarly preoccupations. But what we should be aware of is that what all these remarkably different specialties add up to, in a collective intellectual enterprise, is that ever more encompassing, yet never ever complete, knowledge of human diversity. We all add our pieces to the very large jigsaw puzzle. And in that way, the understanding of the shared enterprise also offers us an umbrella for all our individual diversity, an umbrella that on the whole should allow us to get on with things….

Proclaiming diversity to be our business may thus allow us mostly to get on with what we do, while under an umbrella recognizable and not too puzzling to the world outside. It may provide enough room, too, for internal distinctions and cleavages—philosophical, social, political, stylistic—which may be of intense interest to members of the anthropological community but of little significance to others. Yet the brand is also likely to raise certain kinds of questions concerning our assumptions about diversity and our values, and even if not each one of us will be equally engaged in thinking about answers to these in some more organized manner, we can hardly all disregard them. (Hannerz 2010: 544)

I made a similar point to a reporter from The Australian when asked about anthropology; collectively, anthropologists study human diversity, but the breadth of the subject is so great that we do so by focusing intensely on one part and sharing our research with each other.  Branding ourselves as studying ‘Diversity’ puts a positive sense on the variation in our discipline, circumventing the coherence problem of such a broad-ranging field, and from my experience, it’s one of the strongest selling points of our discipline to prospective students and other potential publics.

Hannerz goes on to make the case for ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a unifying concept, but I don’t think it has the legs of ‘diversity.’  Fair enough, Hannerz is into cosmopolitanism, and that’s a great thing to be into, but it doesn’t provide the same kind of leverage that the simpler, ‘Diversity Is Our Business,’ gets us.  Moreover, I think it grates up against the popular perception that anthropologists do archaeology, human evolution research, peasant societies and other small-scale groups.  In other words, I think ‘cosmopolitanism’ fails as a brand because it could alienate large parts of the internal audience (anthropologists) and doesn’t make intuitive sense to a public that has out-of-date views of what we do.  ‘Diversity,’ in contrast, draws a clear arc between what people do know about us, and what they might not yet know.

Hannerz cautions that, if we get serious about making diversity our niche, we will need to deal with the areas of ‘intercultural communication’ and ‘diversity management,’ fields he once referred to as ‘the culture shock prevention industry’ (Hannerz 1990: 245, cited it 2010: 545).

Again, I agree with Hannerz, but I’m far less upset by this or hesitant at the prospect of working in applied fields than he appears to be.  Intercultural communication and ‘diversity management’ are potentially enormously interesting areas for anthropologists, although we will need to find ways of pitching our ideas to these audiences that are helpful to them without over-diluting what we have learned as a field.  But this challenge — how to simplify and clarify with integrity — is one we face constantly in undergraduate teaching.

In my own experience working in this sort of field, I put together a ‘re-entry’ course for students returning from study-abroad and service-learning in the developing world while at the University of Notre Dame.  The experience was one of the best I’ve ever had teaching (and produced some of the most satisfying final projects I’ve seen from students.  In addition, students from across the university could see the relevance of anthropological topics for what they had seen overseas and for their future careers in a range of areas, including engineering, medicine, politics, and education.

Like all undergraduate teaching, working in these environments demand that we think very hard about our audience, recognize where they are, and think strategically how we might move them in ways that they will find helpful and that we will find ethical. That is, when I work with a group of students heading to Latin America for a service-learning project, I have to think long and hard about what I’m seeking to accomplish and how to do it.  It’s important education, even if it requires us to pitch at a level that we might not think is ideal.

Hannerz thinks that a focus on diversity can be both retrospective (studying ‘traditional’ anthropological subjects) and ‘in the avant-garde of describing what is growing and what may be coming’ (2010: 547).  He points out that anthropologists have been central in theorizing about cultural blending (hybridity, creolization), variations of virtuality, and new forms of diversity.  I agree, although I think that ‘old timey’ diversity is still alive and quite well, and even a sharper political question as old empires increasingly find growing pockets of linguistic, religious, and social diversity growing at the heart of the metropole.

Problems with Diversity Is Our Business

There’s a few immediate problems with using ‘Diversity Is Our Business,’ some of which are insoluble but might not invalidate the whole procedure.  The first and most obvious is that not every part of anthropology is about ‘diversity.’ That wouldn’t be an enormous problem, except that Hannerz goes on to be unnecessarily specific, in a passage that made me wince:

It is probably clear that just about every time that I have referred to diversity, I might as well have said “cultural diversity.” But then culture is a contested concept, forever in the public arena, and for the last 20 years or so inside anthropology. (Hannerz 2010: 546)

Why does Hannerz feel the need to write, ‘I might as well have said “cultural diversity”’?  Why qualify ‘diversity’ with ‘cultural’?  What do we gain for Brand Anthropology by sharpening the focus the particular use of diversity only to ‘cultural’? Aren’t anthropologists interested, too, in biological diversity, linguistic , if we follow Hannerz’s own inclusive logic of seeing the field as complementary specialists?

To be blunt, Hannerz drops the ball here.  He generates more problems than he solves by assuming that ‘diversity’ is ‘cultural diversity’: he needlessly alienates European social anthropologists, biological anthropologists, some linguistic anthropologists, probably a fair few archaeologists, and perhaps even some cultural anthropologists.  He also foregrounds, implicitly, an understanding of ‘diversity’ that I think is increasingly anachronistic, certainly in areas of research like neuroanthropology, we find that all sorts of biological diversity is also crucial for understanding humanity and that ‘biological’ and ‘cultural’ diversity are difficult to disentangle.

Why not just say that we study ‘human diversity,’ including all sorts of that diversity, and just leave it at that?  The less-specific formulation doesn’t raise the alienating specification that anthropologists study ‘culture’ (not true about all of us), nor does it assert the problematic culture-biology ontological distinction.

In addition, by specifying ‘cultural diversity,’ Hannerz staggers directly into the nightmare zone of cultural anthropologists’ auto-deconstruction and habitual theoretically hair-pulling around the ‘culture concept.’  In his piece, Hannerz plows headlong into an eye-glazing paragraph about not succumbing to ‘culturalism’ and all the problems with the concept before offering a painful analogy to cognitive psychology research on information chunking that reveals he really doesn’t know what the research was about.  If a writer as engaging and clear-sighted as Hannerz goes off the tracks with the mention of ‘cultural,’ why do we need to interject this unwanted specificity?  Isn’t the point of a good brand that it leaves vague and under-determined what is best left out?

I say that ‘diversity’ alone works fine.  You can say ‘variation’ if someone needs greater clarification.  But then, if pushed, anthropologists should just respond that we deal with all sorts of diversity: religious, cultural, linguistic, biological, neurological, psychological, genetic, historical, prehistorical….  In other words, the core identity of the ‘Diversity Is Our Business’ brand is that anthropologists work from the broadest sample we can of human variation in order to try to understand humanity.

This branding clearly differentiates us from other academic ‘brands’ (like psychology and sociology) and cements the distinctiveness of our field (I’ll come back to some other ways).  This differentiation is especially important for departments that are struggling in a management environment that is looking for greater ‘efficiency’ by amalgamating programs; at Macquarie, for example, we have had to fight off efforts to amalgamate our department to other academic programs in the last five years.  Moreover, ‘diversity’ has a certain timeliness that can help precisely with these sorts of administrative rejiggering that can threaten chaos in even established departments.

Saying that anthropology is about understanding human ‘diversity,’ including through comparison with other primates and hominids, including cultures and civilizations we only know through material remains, may be a big enough tent to welcome in all of our colleagues.  But either because I’m a cultural anthropologist first and foremost, or because I think that the branding problem (and sales problem) is much deeper in our part of the field than elsewhere, I want to hatch a brand revision in social and cultural anthropology that, if successful, will be an attractive bandwagon for other anthropologists to jump on board. I think we’re going to have plenty of space, but ‘Diversity Is Our Business’ is only one part of the rebranding campaign I’d propose.

Before anyone has a go at me for not realizing how ‘brand management’ and licensing have been part of the hollowing out of manufacturing in the developed world, and the way that sophisticated ‘brand management’ has contributed to the concentration of monopoly capitalism, please understand that I get this (see, e.g., Klein 2000).

What else should we do with our brand?

Okay, so what’s the pitch?  We’ve got a new motto, ‘Diversity Is Our Business,’ which although not terribly snappy, is certainly better than our old motto (which was either ‘cultural anthropology is what cultural anthropologists do’ or ‘cultural anthropology is the critical post-colonial deconstruction of folk theories of subjectivity’ or something like that, depending on who you asked).   What else have we got?

I’d like to suggest that we include in our campaign the following to promote Brand Anthropology.

  • Anthropologists make discoveries
  • There are lots of anthropologists doing interesting stuff
  • Anthropologists are in the field
  • Anthropologists do science
  • Anthropologists do advocacy

What have you discovered lately?

Much of the science press is built around ‘discoveries.’  When I recently pitched a series idea to a documentary maker, she came back to me with the response, if I can paraphrase: great ideas, interesting material, but none of the ‘discoveries’ that we really need to build a series around.  Whether it’s university press releases, online science magazines, or even mainstream news, science makes news when it makes discoveries.

So how do we rebadged some of what we do as ‘discoveries,’ especially in cultural and social anthropology?

First, I think we need to study fields that do ‘discoveries’ well.  One example is evolutionary psychology, practitioners of which seem to repackage ideas over and over again and sell the latest permutation of their research as ‘discoveries,’ even when a) there’s already a number of articles on the subject, and b) much of what was ‘discovered’ was already assumed at the onset, in the research design phase.  Moreover, evolutionary psychologists are very good at getting press — frighteningly good.  Comparing the number of column inches in popular press dedicated to ev psych and to anthro, you’d be justified in thinking that evolutionary psychologists outnumbered anthropologists by about ten to one.

My advice is, don’t be hatin’, be emulatin’.  Do what evolutionary psychologists do and learn to promote your publications as discoveries.  Within our broader discipline, archaeological anthropologists and paleoanthropologists do ‘discoveries’ the best, but linguistic, cultural and social anthropologists should also learn to use this vehicle for promoting our research much more broadly.  A new specimen or find during a dig is a great vehicle for promoting a sense of discovery, but there’s no reason why we can’t use the logic more broadly.  The launch of a report or a volume or even a good journal article with some juicy ‘data’ should be treated like a discovery.

We need to use publication of research-based articles in our discipline’s flagship publications as vehicles for sharing anthropological results and anthropological ways of thinking more broadly through the science press.  To do this, I think we have to focus on ‘results’ and ‘findings,’ even if some of us are trained to be suspicious even about this way of talking about knowledge production.  Is there anything in your work that could be called a ‘discovery’ that you can then piggy-back a broader discussion of something that interests you?

For example, in my fieldwork, based on my own apprenticeship, I believe that I’ve discovered that the vestibular system of capoeira practitioners can make use of a lot of unusual information in order to maintain their balance when they do handstands.  Even though I don’t have laboratory data, I think I can write this up as a ‘discovery’ in a way that will get attention through a press release, and this gives me an excuse to talk more broadly about my theoretical interest: that physical education leads to cultural variations in biological systems, such as the sensory systems.

If someone publishes an interesting article with a bit of data in it, even if it’s interview based or historical, we need to get used to writing press releases that share what is new, but also simply expose people to what we do. It takes a bit of savvy and some practice to get the evening news version of what you do, but it’s great practice for other genres as well, such as the introductory lecture, the inter-disciplinary reception conversation, and the ice-breaker with the particular patron for your anthropology research program.

Publications are hungry for content and many newspapers have gutted their science reporting, so why don’t we get better at serving our work up in easily digestible form?  I’m always surprised that, after I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald or New York Times or Guardian about a ‘new discovery’ in evolutionary psychology or neuroscience or studies of perception, I look up the press release from the host university, and the text is virtually identical! That is, newspapers and magazines are running with what they’re given, simply giving a light re-edit to press releases from researchers’ host universities and maybe doing a short follow-up interview on the phone.

So find out who your media officer or public relations people are at your university and give them some example of a discovery for a press release and write your own coverage! C’mon anthropologists, if other serious scientists can occasionally strut for the media without losing their credibility, why can’t we do it a bit more?  (Crass, yes, but it’s actually a lot of fun to have your students see you on TV – I did a segment as a ‘talking head’ on fight clubs for a documentary and then one on ‘man caves’ for a tabloid TV show, and my classroom Blackboard discussion sections lit up: all the students were surprised and really charged to come back to human evolution class.)

As Julienne Rutherford suggested over at the BANDIT blog, young scholars on the job and grant market should get used to pitching your work: the 30-second ‘elevator’ version (or TV news version) and the 2-minute ‘cocktail party’ version (or phoned-in radio interview). The good news about media work is that, once you do it, the process gets easier and reporters start coming to you for reliable comment.  And don’t be afraid to get some media training as an academic!  (See, for example, this video from the University of Leicester: Their Medium Your Message – Advice on Working with the Media.)

(Just one warning: As I always tell my students about media training, never, ever say anything on video that you do not want to hear played back out of context.  Video editing, especially, can be brutal in taking away any subtlety or nuance to what you say, so you should take your time and think before speaking.  They will edit out silences while you think.)

Selling each other’s work

The thing about a brand is that, if it’s working for you, you have your brand functioning on a lot of channels, through a range of products, that all end up reinforcing brand recognition.  A brand fights for head-space in consumers, so pervasiveness is key. Obviously, ‘Anthropology’ is not like MacDonalds or Nike or Harley-Davidson, but it is a shared resource that we in the field all benefit from or suffer because of if we fail to promote and protect it.

Although I don’t expect Anthropology to achieve anything like brand ubiquity, I do think we can keep an eye to promoting the collective endeavor, including the fact that our colleagues are doing really fascinating stuff.   Promoting the collective brand means standing up for the field, not losing sight of the big picture that we gain from a vital discipline, and selling the whole of the discipline, not just your own work.

I do a slide show about anthropology for our University’s ‘Open Day,’ and I’ve been told that it’s consistently one of the highest-rated presentations, even though Australians really don’t know what anthropology is.  At some point, I’ll put up those slides on this site, but the lynchpin of the presentation is that I blast through a list of what my colleagues do, what some of our PhD students do, and what our Honours students do, highlighting about a dozen interesting research projects all over the world in rapid-fire succession.  And there’s groovy pictures such as my colleague Lisa Wynn interviewing a belly-dancer, Jaap Timmer playing ukelele in the Solomon Islands, and my student Paul Mason learning to play a drum in Indonesia.

In other words, rather than look on the disciplinary diversity as a branding problem, it becomes part of the Brand promotion by letting it show in a blistering quick, ‘oh wow, mum, look at what they do!’ series of snapshots. So you don’t just say ‘Diversity Is Our Business,’ you have at your fingertips concrete examples of wide disciplinary diversity that you can talk about.  This requires actually paying attention to other people’s projects, but it can make selling the discipline easier; to be honest, I often find giving glib thumbnail versions of other people’s work less of a challenge than doing the same for my own.

When a colleague gets his or her act together enough to get a press release put out or a media event or a book launch, we need to go to bat for each other, help make sure that there’s a crowd, and reflect in productive ways if we get asked for public comment.  Sure, one person’s gain is sometimes another’s loss, and there are zero-sum dynamics in academe, but the bigger picture is that, over time, we need a healthy discipline, and even if I lose something in the short run (I didn’t get the same grant or my book is not being promoted equally).  We need to realize that too much carping at each other can drag down the collective effort and undermine Brand Anthropology.

Don’t underestimate how hard this public magnanimity can be: trained to critique intellectual work to shreds, you can suddenly find yourself at a loss for something nice to say when a reporter calls you to ask you about the importance of Claude Lévi-Strauss or to discuss the press release from a colleague with whom you politely argue about Latin American politics at every meeting of the Latin America colloquium.  I’ve been in both situations.  But we need to promote each other’s work because, ultimately, we are promoting our field.

The outsiders will not understand the subtleties of your critique or recognize that you just have a slight problem with the interpretation of fieldwork that you otherwise respect and admire; no, they will focus on your criticism, and your one-sentence critique will likely wind up in print or on the air, out of context.  And the public will only understand that you don’t like the research you’re being asked about.

So, when asked to talk about other anthropologists in public channels, I suggest we get in the habit of talking about the common ground, focusing on what we have to offer. If you must critique, consider offering your critique in the ‘additive’ mode, suggesting that you’d like to see more research on the subject, a follow-up project, additional questions.  That is, consider suggesting that you want more anthropology, not that you just can’t stand what is on offer.

Off-road intellectuals, embrace the exotic

Sometimes, I’m confronted with a person asking me, what’s the difference between what you do and what psychologists or sociologists or cultural studies scholars do.  With the increasingly blurred boundaries between disciplines and inter-disciplinary borrowings, the question can be hard to answer.  Especially when someone is aware, for example, of psychologists studying cognitive diversity or sociologists doing subcultural studies, the question is tricky to answer is a simple way, so I resort to ‘fieldwork’ as the Brand Anthropology differentiator.

We underestimate how compelling the idea of fieldwork is to the general public at our own peril.  When I talked to The Australian, I told them that anthropologists were ‘off-road’ academics, the researchers who went where no one else would go.  If you don’t think this is an important identity resource for Brand Anthropology, turn on any documentary channel and see how crucial the character of the ‘intrepid field researcher’ is to virtually any genre of scientific documentary.  Why we don’t make hay with this symbolic resource is beyond me.

The nice thing about ‘fieldwork’ is, like ‘diversity,’ it can be vague enough to take in all four fields (even if it’s not actually true that all anthropologists do fieldwork).   People already get that we do fieldwork, whether it’s digging in the desert, following primates in the bush, interviewing and observing people in peasant communities, or recording rare languages.  Arguably, even the least academically engaged parts of the public have some vague association between anthropology and fieldwork, even if it’s images of Indiana Jones (when I was waiting tables before heading off to grad school, the other waiters chipped in to buy me a fedora – they were joking, but I’m sure that they didn’t have any other reference to draw upon).

So we should just get over it and embrace it.  Sure, Indiana Jones was an anthropologist.  And that guy in the movie, Medicine Man.  Absolutely, anthropologists, yup.

If there’s a man or woman in a rainforest or in the tundra or in some remote area studying how people live, odds are, they’re anthropologists.  That’s exactly what I say.  While not 100% true, it’s not obviously wrong, and better to include these examples than to run from them because the public finds these examples profoundly compelling. Does the image need updating?  Absolutely.  But not by running from it; rather, it’s be asserting that it’s still contemporary, that anthropologists now go into war zones, follow people traffickers, study the effects of development projects, work with indigenous groups…

Too many anthropologists, in my opinion, are squeamish about one of the coolest, sexiest things about our field: we go study people where they are. I can even explain this to my relatives back in Missouri.  Psychologists bring people into labs or interview their undergrad students; cultural studies folks read their magazines and study the films they make.  But anthropologists go to the field, and watch people in their native habitats.  Again, I realize that it’s not strictly true that we all do fieldwork, but this is a crucial point of differentiation with other academic fields that study humanity.

And, no, I never bring up the word ‘ethnography.’  I’ll save that for the first day of ‘Intro to Anthropology’ class when I get longer than two minutes to explain.

When I was interviewed by The Australian about anthropology, I just told them that, especially in Australia, anthropology had a name recognition problem because of this failure to identify the whole of the field, rather than a speciality:

…the diffuse nature of the field is the source of an image problem. “Name recognition,” he [that’s me] says of anthropology. “No one knows what it means.” Asked what they do, anthropologists tend to identify themselves by their specific interest. “We tend to focus on the area of our specialty and not the big picture, such as `migrants in Thailand from Burma’ [apologies to Joe, but I was just thinking about his project at the time], instead of saying, `I study human diversity’: if you add us all up, that’s what we do.”

The nice thing about playing up the exotic, to some degree, is that it can have positive ways of rebounding back upon our research in our home societies, renewing interest in topics that might seem tired or uninteresting without the analytical curve out to the exotic and back. Lucy Suchman has pointed out how ‘Brand Anthropology’ plays in corporate circles where our association with indigenous groups and non-Western groups actually rebounds upon anthropological studies of more familiar subjects:

That is to say, the anthropological gaze, insofar as it is defined by its traditional attention to the Other, vicariously renders exotic those on whom it is turned. Factory floors, corporate offices and ‘middle class’ homes, assumed to be so transparently familiar as to not warrant anthropological attention, are turned into sites as mysterious as the colonies once were by the mere fact of the anthropologist’s presence: in her making of the familiar strange, the presence of the anthropologist in the ‘tribal office’ transforms what goes on there – the banal and ordinary activities of the working day – into the mysterious and correspondingly interesting. The anthropologist, in short, renders ‘us’, the reader addressed by these media stories, as exotic Other. It is this I think, perhaps more than any of the other dimensions, which explains the ‘human interest’ ascribed by the media to these sightings of anthropologists in one’s own back yard.  (Suchman 2007: 7)

Certainly, this exoticization of the familiar can work to our advantage because we at least make the familiar interesting to some degree.  I come up against this all the time in my economic anthropology course, ‘Wealth, Poverty and Consumption.’  A number of students have said that they love the juxtaposition of familiar topics – markets, money, rational choice theory, debt, trade – with that spicy anthropological addition of the exotic – potlatch, ‘negative’ reciprocity (cattle raiding, vendetta), spirit money, bride wealth,… the list could go on.

That is, exoticization works as an intellectual strategy and done well, leverages open the familiar in new ways. I love doing the lectures in that economic anthropology class because I can just see the tide turn when, after I’ve explained the anthropological examples and gotten the key terms across, I can see the students wondering what familiar example I’m about to rip into with anthropological eyes: the videotape The Secret when talking about cargo cults or lavish celebrity weddings when discussing potlatch or coupon cutting, food stamps and gift cards when I’m discussing diversities of currencies.

Don’t talk about how, just do.
Ryan Anderson from Ethnografix suggests that one of the problems with anthropologists’ inability to reach a broader public is our attachment to talking about anthropology itself, especially the boring nuts and bolts of methods, disciplinary intellectual history and issues that have no intellectual purchase outside our field.  He offers this explanatory analogy to explain the shift we need to make in his post, More from the anthropological soapbox:

I use these analogies way too much, but here goes anyway: Good photographers make good photographs–all the time. Good writers write. It’s a lot more interesting to look at the content of a photographer’s work (ie the point of the work), than it is to hear them talk about cameras (at least for most people).

In many cases, a lot of anthropologists end up doing the equivalent of talking about their cameras far too often, when they need to just go “make some photographs.” The vast majority of the general public isn’t going to care much about insular, jargon-laden, conversations that are really only meant for other anthropologists–just like most people who like good documentary photography don’t necessarily want to hear about the inner workings of the newest $5000 digital camera.

Anthropologists just need to do what they do, do it well, and then communicate their ideas in various settings. More attention to the actual production of media (film, photography, online content, and writing) would probably be a good idea, especially since nobody outside of academia even thinks about reading American Anthropologist.

There is an old saying in writing: “show don’t tell.” I think this applies to anthropology. As I see it, anthropologists don’t really need a bunch of PR pieces that advertise how great and useful anthropology is (stuff like this starts to sound like a recruiting commercial) — they just need to do good anthropology and get their ideas out to different audiences. Less pieces ABOUT anthropology and more pieces that ILLUSTRATE ideas, concepts, and analysis (hopefully in a somewhat interesting and readable manner).

I don’t agree with Ryan if he thinks that this is our primary problem, but I do agree that excessive self-reflexivity is actually a drag on our potential ability to reach any public, and I certainly agree with his suggestions about strategy for public presentation!  The obsessive need to talk about methods can sometimes be a sign of disciplinary insecurity, as if, in the absence of being able to actually banish epistemological problems raised by reflexivity, we find ourselves compelled simply to rehearse our doubts over and over again.

Again, I don’t underestimate the importance of reflexivity as a self-corrective and theoretical exercise within the discipline, simply the wisdom of fronting these discussions when we face the public.  As Ryan says, ‘show don’t tell’; produce compelling anthropological accounts based on good research and save the discussions of the camera (or the ethnographic method) for shop talk with other anthropologists.

Don’t like ‘science’?  Get over it…

Some of the twists and turns of our recent debate over ‘science’ in the AAA mission statement has revealed the degree to which some anthropologists do not understand the significance of the concept of ‘science’ in the public sphere.  Yes, I’ve been to enough social studies of science conferences to know the critiques of ‘science’ well enough, but the point is, you have to think about your audience.  Critique ‘science’ all you like, but pay attention to where and before whom you’re doing the critique because you have to understand what the audience thinks you’re arguing against.

The irony is that anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists, should be acutely sensitive to the way in which messages depend upon the context in which they’re received.  The problem with the critique of ‘science,’ which I support, is that it very much depends upon a specific context; outside that context, the critique of science is baffling and frankly a little alarming. In some contexts, if you’re against ‘science,’ you’re advocating for its opposite: idealistically motivated and morally grounded accounts, rather than evidence-based arguments; relativism; I don’t even know what else – Creationism…

That is, culturally anthropologists should be acutely sensitive to the oppositional nature of definition and recognize that arguing against ‘science’ in the public sphere can put us in league with some strange bedfellows. And you know what they say if you keep waking up in bed with folks you don’t want to be around – stay off the sauce!

In this sense, although I like his post very much, I disagree with Thijl Sunier when he writes about Publicness and Confrontation:

Anthropologists are required to turn their data into quantifiable ‘facts’ that policymakers can apply. Anthropologists are required to submit to scientist methodologies and replace them with standardized quantitative data collection. The requirement to anthropologists to submit to the international ethical code for social scientific research downright denies anthropological methodology as a crucial and necessary approach….

Rather than submit to these scientists pressures, anthropologists should make clear that their public role is precisely to confront scientist and quantitative methodology. In my own field of research, Islam in Europe, there is a constant ‘policy pressure’ to quantify Muslim religious practices and community building. I consider it my public task as an anthropologist to make clear that the ways in which Islam takes shape in Europe is becoming ever more complex and ever more multi-stranded, rather than present these complexities into figures about more or less integration into host societies, more or less religiosity, more or less radicalism, more or less loyalty to the country of residence. The public task of anthropologists working in this field is precisely to unmask this reductionist quantifiability and to do justice to the life worlds of Muslims in changing circumstances. (h/t again: Daniel for Anthropology and Publicity)

I understand where Sunier is coming from, but I think taking the role ‘precisely to confront scientist and quantitative methodology’ in public is a losing battle, and one that I’m not sure I want to be any part of.  I want to be part of using diverse scientific methods, including ethnography, to do better social science. I think we (especially cultural anthropologists) need to confront bad science, not with critiques of science, but with better science, and argue that what we do is a form of ‘science’ not opposed to it.

To argue as Sunier has that the complexity of the situation, for example, of Muslims in Europe, demand that we stand against quantitative methods, themselves, as if empiricism was the enemy, digs us into a very deep hole, I’m afraid.  I know that Sunier hopes to get much more complex and subtle discussions of Muslims’ diverse realities into the public discussion, and I think that the goal is excellent, but I think one part of that has to be to produce the data (quantitative and otherwise) that makes the complexity impossible to ignore.

For example, the case that Sunier is trying to make, that Muslim populations can’t simply be captured with simplistic variables, could be amenable to empirical methods of all sorts, including quantitative methods.  A good quantitative bit of data, springing from precisely the sensitivity to the complexity of the situation that Sunier obviously understands, could probably do more to short-circuit the rush-to-policy than any number of polemical confrontations against science itself.  I agree with Sunier’s goals, but as the public debate lines up, I’d rather try to convert the other social scientists that fight them; I think we have a better chance with the social scientists than we do with the ideologues and politicians.

I worry that, too often, when cultural anthropologists get into their really deep anti-science critique, the audience is often left wondering what the hell we want in place of science: Intuitive flashes of insight?  Faith?  Mysticism?  Bottomless complexity about which we can say nothing concrete?

I think Brand Anthropology has to say, ‘We do science,’ even if you feel like you’ve got to cross your fingers behind your back or mutter, ‘but we also critique science,’ under your breath when you do.  Otherwise, anthropologists throw open the door to a raft of misunderstanding and seem to be taking up an oar in the wrong boat.

Don’t like ‘advocacy’?  Get over it…

Before anyone starts to think that I’m a traitor to my subfield, however, I also think biological anthropologists and our more empirically-minded socio-cultural colleagues need to realize that advocacy is also a great public face for Brand Anthropology.  One of the great things about working at the University of Notre Dame when I was there, for example, was that the Department of Anthropology didn’t just have great academic anthropologists and biocultural theorists, it also had profoundly inspiring activist anthropologists, and these were disproportionately cultural anthropologists.

Just as some sociocultural anthropologists, in my opinion, over-react to ‘scientific’ colleagues, I think some in our field get overly stressed out about advocacy.  Public political agendas have been central to our field for over a century, and I see no reason – and no way – to really back away from that now.

And for the sake of Brand Anthropology, advocacy is bloody good press.  Again, if the public can’t understand the obscure theoretical reasons why the group you study has an especially interesting kinship system or subcultural use of dominant material culture or wrinkle on a folk theory of subjectivity, they do get that anthropologists fight for the underdog, whether that’s intellectually or politically.

Activist anthropology, including working for Indigenous rights, minority rights, disabled rights, and just general recognition of human diversity, is great press for our field and advocacy provides a simple answer to the question, ‘Why bother?’ with an argument that galvanizes a large part of the public. In spite of the argument that necessarily exploit the groups they study (which I think is over-played), we can find innumerable examples of anthropologists working cooperatively with groups on a range of projects — even our more scientifically-inclined colleagues need to recognize how important this is for Brand Anthropology as a whole.  Every anthropological project cannot be justified as advocacy, but advocacy is one way that we do give back to the communities with whom we collaborate, and it just makes sense as a form of communication.

Advocacy can energize and attract young scholars who, over time, may become more theoretically inclined if they stay in academic parts of the field.  Or they may take their background in anthropology out into a range of occupations as activists, and we should be really happy with this.  Yes, some of our students may be a bit over-moralizing for the more scientific among us, but if our business is Diversity, we need to realize that this has inescapable moral and political dimensions.

Advocacy can make even politically progressive anthropologists a bit uncomfortable, however, for we are often called upon to speak with a certainty that we might not normally assume in our academic work and in forums where we might not share all assumptions with our audience. Anthropologist Peter Geschiere, for example, in Publishing in the GAY-KRANT (‘gay journal’)’ writes of his experience publishing a short piece of public anthropology in a magazine that he felt ambivalent about for its middle-of-the-road, even conservative politics:

The article in the Gaykrant took on a momentum of its own. HIVOS, a large development organization in the Netherlands of humanist signature and one of the first to pick up the increasing harassment of gays in Africa, asked me to write a similar article for a collection they were publishing on the issue. This article seems to have turned me into some sort of global expert on gay issues in Cameroon. Since then I constantly receive requests from lawyers from different corners of the world – but mainly UK and USA – to write letters to support the asylum request of their client who claims that he cannot be sent back to Cameroon because (s)he is in danger of being persecuted as gay…

Indirectly my research experience in Cameroon is an asset in all this – it helps to be recognized as an expert by western judicial authorities (and at least as important is the fact that I regularly return to Cameroon).  (h/t: Daniel for Anthropology and Publicity)

More intelligent and subtle anthropological thinkers than I have explored the challenges of anthropological advocacy, but simply on the level of brand management, I think even the most quantitative among us must recognize that strong advocacy is good for the collective endeavour, just as strong applied fields help support even the most theoretical parts of other disciplines.

Of course, in order for this big tent approach to Brand Anthropology to work, we have to respect the contributions that anthropologists of different stripes make to the overall health of the field.  Perhaps that’s the biggest take-away point of this whole piece: good disciplinary promotion means that we don’t spend all of our energy being aggro to other anthropologists.

Brand Anthropology

In a nutshell, I think this is Brand Anthropology:

Anthropologists study Diversity, especially when you consider us as a Group (and not just our individual projects).  We believe that truly getting to know people requires that we go into the Field where they live (or lived), including Exotic places, and get our hands dirty.  And we do both Science and Advocacy and agree that, although our methods our fascinating to us, the public wants us to DO Anthropology, not talk about it.

My definition is very old-school, but I still have not seen anything which shakes my confidence that it is a good intellectual identity.  I think we run from our past and from the associations that already exist in the public’s understanding at our own risk; Diversity, the Exotic, Fieldwork, Science and Advocacy have great legs and we should run with them.

We need to get practiced at taking our case to the public – yes, we will have to get accustomed to not presenting every single argument in its most complex form.  But if we choose wisely, we can pick the simple story that rubs against the grain, highlighting dimensions of social problems that are too often forgotten, short-circuiting or upsetting the most pernicious reductionist stories. We don’t have to fight reductionism with complexity; we can pick and choose our interventions and fight reductionism with compelling counter-narratives (as I think anthropologists like Jonathan Marks do so well).

I apologize, in retrospect, if this sounds too preachy.  I’ve been poking at parts of it for too long, and it’s getting over-cooked for a blog post.  I think I just get disappointed when other anthropologists seem to make the public relations problem more complicated than it really is.

We just need to be in touch with the things that originally drew us into the field – the excitement of the exotic, the power of the science, the conviction that fieldwork produced something valuable, the fervor of advocacy and working for diversity.  Some of us have spent so much time delving into our intellectual specialties that we need to reignite that initial passion from time to time.  For me, it’s teaching human evolution, when I get to talk about really Big Issues to eager young people, that reminds me why anthropology looked so damn exciting more than twenty years ago.



Marquesan tattooing (rear), by Von de Steinen. From Alfred Gell (1999), “Strathernograms, or the Semiotics of Mixed Metaphors,” in The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. London: Athlone. (original online source here.)

Diagram posted online by runningafterantelope from his photostream Great Diagrams in Anthropology on Flickr.


Klein, Naomi (2000) No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto: Knofp Canada.
Hannerz, U. (2010). Diversity Is Our Business American Anthropologist, 112 (4), 539-551 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01274.x

Suchman, Lucy.  2007.  ‘Anthropology as ‘Brand’: Reflections on corporate anthropology.Paper presented at the Colloquium on Interdisciplinarity and Society, Oxford University, 24 February 2007.  (Available through Google Docs here.)

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