Anthropology and Publicity

Last month Radboud University Nijmegen hosted a conference on Anthropology and/in Publicity. The main conference featured talks by Ulf Hannerz, Annelies Moors, Thomas H. Erikson, and Mathijs Pelkmans.

As part of the conference, Martijn de Koning and Henk Driessen organized an excellent collaborative blog Anthropology and Publicity.

As anthropologists we have been discussing the issue of public anthropology (and most of all what it actually is) amongst ourselves. With this workshop and weblog we want to try to bring together people who in different ways have already engaged with the issue. The focus of this meeting will be the dissemination of anthropological knowledge to relevant groups in the societies to which anthropologist belong and the societies where they conduct their research.

The organizers made the innovative move to invite outside bloggers to write pieces specifically for the conference. These essays gave the conference attendees specific material to react to, and also demonstrated public anthropology in action.

Alongside the introductory post, seven anthropologists gave their takes on anthropology, how we relate to the public, and how we can generate greater public impact. Below I’ve captured some of the main arguments of each post, but I highly recommend you go read the essays in their entirety.

Henk Driessen & Martijn de Koning, Introducing Anthropology and Publicity

The focus is on the dissemination of anthropological knowledge to relevant groups in the societies to which anthropologists belong and those where they conduct their research. We will address the reasons for the underexposure of anthropological knowledge (albeit there is considerable variation in this regard according to national anthropological traditions) and explore ways to improve its dissemination and application in society.

Since the emergence of academic anthropology, the discipline has had the double mission of, on the one hand, describing and interpreting cultural differences and, on the other, generating cross-cultural knowledge about humankind. The inherent tension between the particular and the general requires a balancing act on the part of anthropologists and complicates the translation of anthropological knowledge for ‘consumption’ by the wider public, media and policy makers. Given the increased complexity of societies in a globalizing world, anthropological knowledge has become potentially more relevant, yet remains underexposed to wider audiences.

Peter Geschiere, Publishing in the GAY-KRANT (‘gay journal’)


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). Still, I would never dare to pose as an expert on gay isssues in African contexts vis-à-vis my colleagues, for instance.

What is the conclusion of all this? Maybe that the relation between research and social relevance works the other way round as we would want it. It were not the research topics that I chose that made my work socially relevant in this case, it was rather an unexpected turn of events that made at least my general research experience relevant.

Kerim Friedman, Bourdieu vs. “The Total Intellectual”

I think there is also a problem with Bourdieu’s conception of the public role of intellectuals, one which derives from a narrowness of vision. Bourdieu felt that “doing politics means exposing oneself to a loss of authority,” allowing one’s politics to be used as a means for discounting one’s academic work. But many academics engage in the public sphere not through the op-ed column, but through political action – including, at times, Bourdieu himself. I think this is particularly true of anthropologists, many of whom engage in local politics as partners with the communities they study.

When people decry the lack of public anthropology, I think of all my friends and colleagues who are engaging in collaborative anthropological endeavors at the local level. I believe the problem is not that these anthropologists suffer from a loss of authority, but that these local interventions are not seen as mattering as much as the op-ed pages of the major American newspapers. Anthropologists should be careful about letting the mainstream media define “the public” for us. There are many publics and the ones anthropologists are involved with matter as much, if not more, than the one inhabited by pundits and policy wonks.

Daniel Lende, Public Anthropology: The Example of the Culture of Poverty

To have a public voice, anthropologists must respond to public debates. We have to engage what people are talking about, and make ourselves part of that conversation.

My post The Culture of Poverty Debate proved timely. But its subsequent success depended on other dynamics. The consistent effort my colleague Greg Downey and I have put into our Neuroanthropology blog meant the post got featured high in Google Search results. PLoS also facilitated our blog being listed with Google News. And I reached out to people on Twitter, pointing them towards my post while highlighting other reactions to the NY Times article.

By being timely, building a voice, and taking advantage of online dissemination, anthropologists can engage the public…

I believe anthropologists [also] have the responsibility to offer alternatives and options alongside critique. After a while most people will tune out continued criticism unless there are useful points on how to improve local practices or policy or even just how to understand a problem better.

Lorenz Khazaleh, Public Anthropology: Some Notes, Hopes and Wishes

Based on my experience as science journalist and blogger, here is a short and incomplete list of wishes and hopes for the future:

1) Web instead of paper: … It is much easier to reach new audiences online than offline. Most websites get most of their traffic via search engines. If you contribute to the public commons of knowledge online, people who google “most primitive people” won’t only find stereotype newspaper articles about indigenous peoples but will be challenged by your article that questions the whole idea that there are primitive people…

2) Open instead of closed: … Those who are interested to learn about [my friend’s] research are asked to pay 30 Dollar for her 20 pages article. I wish, more academics would prefer publishing their works in open access journals. And even better: Publish a shorter version, that people without PhDs are able to understand, at the same time…

3) Pub instead of seminar room: The Anthropology Department at the University in Oslo is regularly inviting anthropologists from all over the world to hold lectures in their seminar room. Most of the lectures would also be of interest for the general public. Why not arrange open debates in public libraries, in pubs or other places? And instead of monotonously reading a paper, why not choose more engaging ways of presenting and discussing research? The closing conference of the research project Culcom (Cultural Complexity in the New Norway) that I’ve been working for, was organized like a TV talk show. It was a huge success…

4) A culture of critical thinking: But before starting all those presentations, anthropologists have to take a step back and reflect about their own work, put it into a larger context and ask themselves questions like: What can other people learn from my research? What are its wider implications? For too often after lectures I ask myself: So what? Yes, it was interesting to hear about your research on women issues in this small village in Mexico. But what do your findings tell us more about being a human? Where are the connections to global structures and challenges?

A culture of critical thinking is the prerequisite for public anthropology.

Daan Beekers, “Sorry, I Don’t Speak Anthropologist”

The problem of disseminating anthropological knowledge, I would suggest, is for a large part a problem of translation. When I lived in an international college during my Master’s in England a couple of years ago, I made friends with graduate students working in fields as diverse as literature studies, medicine and theoretical physics…

When I was once talking about the role of flags in crafting a national imagination to a befriended student in Ottoman studies, she simply gazed at me with an ironical look in her eyes, and declared: “Sorry, I don’t speak anthropologist.”

The question of translation, I think, is two-fold. It is a question of translating our anthropological jargon in easy-to-understand language and one of translating our particular methodological language of cultural deconstruction in plain prose that is both understandable and meaningful to those not familiar to our field…

Going from these experiences, it seems justified to say that we are succeeding reasonably well in tackling the first challenge of translation, that of offering academic insights using simple non-jargonized language. Yet, the issue of translating our methodological language of cultural deconstruction and nuance is considerably harder. In recent years we have seen a heated debate in the Netherlands (as in many other countries) that revolves around very essentialist understandings of culture and religion.

John Postill, Publicity Begins at Home

Given this complex and shifting [digital] scenario, how can we hope to disseminate anthropological knowledge by digital means? I have two brief suggestions to make.

1. We should keep doing those digital things that ‘work’ for us as individual scholars and students, e.g. making short ethnographic videos for YouTube, keeping a personal research blog, commenting on other people’s blogs, sharing anthropological contents via Facebook and Twitter, collaborating via social bookmarking sites or wikis, etc. These practices may not be reaching a non-anthropological audience right now, but the learning they entail could well be put to good public use when the opportunity arises, e.g. an unforeseen media event closely connected to our research expertise…

2. Collectively, we should continue to strengthen and protect the anthropological ‘digital commons’, i.e that collegial space in which we co-produce and share anthropological knowledge digitally for non-commercial purposes. In recent years we have made swift progress in this regard thanks to sites such as Savage Minds, Anthropology Matters, Antropologi.info, Neuroanthropology and others.

Thijl Sunier, Publicness and Confrontation

The essence of the anthropological approach is to show the complexities of human existence. The increasing pressure to translate these complexities into simplistic ready-made chunks of digestible ‘facts’ for policymakers runs counter to the very core of anthropological practice and methodology…

It is no coincidence that precisely anthropology, the branch in social sciences that probably most explicitly makes the relation between researcher, research methodology and the object of research into its core problematic, is currently most explicitly ‘under siege’. 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…

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… 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.

Finally, I want to say thanks to Martijn de Koning for inviting me to participate in this innovative project. You can find out more about him and his work at his blog, Closer: Anthropology of Muslims in Europe.

One of the recent posts I enjoyed was The politics of pleasure – The digital story of the nativity. A popular post on his site is Islamizing Europe – Muslim Demographics.

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