Anthropology: Growth and Relevance, Not Popularity

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Anthropologists can suffer from Jared Diamond envy. Here in the United States we bemoan when Diamond’s latest book rises on the bestseller list. While he might deliver anthropology-lite to the masses, he’s not even an anthropologist! goes the lament. It’s not even good anthropology, others add. Undergrads could take it apart.

Then the questions begin: Where are all the popular anthropologists? Why don’t we have one or more Jared Diamonds ourselves?

This pursuit of popularity is a mistaken one, I believe. It’s as if we want to turn Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a Jerry Bruckheimer action movie:

Anthropology isn’t really built that way.

Pursuing Relevance

Far better if we pursue relevance. Doing so means broadening our concept of popularity. We can find audiences that more closely match what we do as anthropologists. These might not be the mass audience some of us crave. But they might be the right audience.

A good example of this type of relevance is Liz Bird’s Asaba Memorial Project, which examines the impact of a terrible 1967 massacre during Nigeria’s civil war. Bird recently put together a video on this work, which has been taken up through social media in Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora.

This work focuses on local relevance rather than mass popularity. 6000 views is nothing like Diamond, but as more and more anthropologists take to these forms of dissemination, our reach will grow. We should aim for the long-tail of the world, rather than swinging at the fences hoping for that mega-hit.

Growth Matters

Growing the field also matters. Increasing over overall size is key to increasing our overall impact. Anthropology is a small discipline. Growth means that we can research more of the world’s diversity and better address the myriad problems we face today.

Training more students also means more people access what we do. Most of our students go onto careers outside the discipline, and that’s a good thing. They carry anthropology with them, and then they start to solve the problem of how to make anthropology relevant to a particular job or issue. It’s the sort of grassroots growth that will last.

Given how we work as a discipline, our impact often comes through how we intersect with others. Skulls and artifacts need to be seen, often touched, to truly appreciate, and then context provided to understand their import. Field work is a day-to-day endeavor, something achieved over the long-term. Our “it’s complicated” message requires time to convey, and works better if there’s interaction that can help illustrate what’s going on.

What anthropology does isn’t easy to package into sound bites.

We need people to have an impact, not stars.

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