Building the Anthropology Brand

Greg, in his post Brand Anthropology: New and Improved, with Extra Diversity!, proposed five ways to create a brand for anthropology:

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

How would this work? Greg brings it all together in one paragraph:

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.

Rex over at Savage Minds added his own thoughts on how to brand anthropology in the post, Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think. His branding goes like this:

■ Anthropology: We own human nature
■ Masters of the unexpected
■ The everything-studiers
■ Science? Yes. But more than science.

Comments on both posts brought new ideas and plenty of critique, from presenting only an American view of anthropology, to a lack of practical knowledge, to the need to encompass world society, and diversity as being so 20th century.

So I am a bit cautious about proposing my own “brand” list. Still, I think the lists above are a bit too oriented to students and fellow academics/intellectuals. By that, I don’t mean that they aren’t effective. They certainly can be. I like the ideas in both. But I am concerned that their framing might not be enough to reach that broader public out there – those people we want to get interested in anthropology.

I think Greg is right in thinking about how we need to sell anthropology, in ways similar to other fields are doing (particularly science). We’re making interesting discoveries all the time, our work makes a difference, we do science and more, we deal with diversity, whether it’s down the block or around the world.

And Rex makes a case for our strengths, particularly in the American context. People want to know what human nature is about – they want those answers to fundamental “Why?” questions. The way we develop our “Why” answers makes anthropology both unique and valuable: We bring multiple ideas to bear, we go beyond common assumptions, we bring in the real world when answering why.

But is this enough to make anthropology popular? Is it enough to get anthropology a broad place in public awareness, policy discussions, and the like? I think we can do better. Here’s my list of things we could emphasize:

■ Adventure
■ Real-world science
■ Where we come from
■ Covering the globe
■ Freedom

So those are my five. I’ll explain each in a minute. But first onto things that aren’t there.

I’ve purposely left out Greg’s emphasis on diversity and Rex’s masters of the unexpected. I think the incredible diversity anthropologists cover should definitely be part of the content we provide, and a way to grab attention and challenge “common sense.” But “diversity” and “unexpected” – one is sort of brainy and pc, the other is counter-intuitive. I do think you could make some neat slogans, “Anthropology: We do diversity” and “Anthropology: Expect the unexpected.”

But each places great emphasis on something important within the field as the way to reach those outside the field. We can still value diversity and the unexpected as anthropologists, but I’m not sure they give a broad enough framing to reach a large swath of the public.

I also played around with other ways to capture diversity, as well as anthropology’s fundamental comparative approach. Two of my favorites were “People and primates” and “Evolution and culture.” I do think there is some play in emphasizing that we study people (inherent in the word anthropology itself), and including primates too brings in biology, diversity, and those cute little monkeys. I also think “evolution” and “culture” are broad concepts most people recognize, and capture prominent ways we try to get at our “why” answers. Again, however, I think these characterizations focus on important things within the field, rather than what might matter to a broader public. They are things people will learn once they get engaged. I’m thinking more about those first dates.


Indiana Jones, anyone? I could end my argument right there. But I am also thinking of the magazine National Geographic. As a kid, I loved the adventure, the sense of exploration and discovery, that I found in those pages. And that exposed me to human diversity and people going out to discover things and to the importance of understanding the world.

Students love stories about our trips to far-away places, and how we faced challenges and overcame them. Discovery is fun. Making discovery into an adventure is compelling.

Real-world Science

You really want to know how the world works? You won’t find that out stuck in a lab. Math models, look how well they worked with the global meltdown. You need to get out of the classroom, out of the house, and come face-to-face with the real world.

History is written by the victors. Anthropologists, we tell the real story. Our answers come from people, from the remains they left in the past to what they say and do today.

We make science walk a mile in the real world’s shoes.

Where We Come From

Origins stories are common in religion and in literature, and are a major part of our fascination with science. Anthropology tells one of the most comprehensive origin stories within science.

Evolution points us back billions of years, and human evolution in particular (with the comparative focus on primates!) helps us understand where we come from as a species. Then archaeology provides us with the sweep of human history, from hunter-gathering days to today. Contemporary biological and cultural anthropology look at human variation around the world, the sweep of that biological and archaeology history made manifest.

It really is a magnificent story! I just wish I could write it better…

Covering the Globe

Globe-trotting reporters get lots of attention and respect. So should anthropologists! We go into the hotspots, we tell the stories others don’t, we get the people’s voices. Get the real news here.

By covering the globe – showing our enormous diversity in action – we challenge science too grounded in Western ideas and data alone. We show the limits of the Ivory Tower and the hospital and the policy think tank. In a society that values checks and balances, anthropology counters the “laws” laid down by the often-times myopic congress of science.

Our breadth, and the important role it plays in creating a check on our own excesses, is why covering the globe matters.


“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” declares the Statue of Liberty. That quote has welcomed millions to the United States, a common sentiment for us all. And you don’t think other people around the world feel this way?

Anthropology helps give voice to people yearning to breathe free, oppressed people, marginalized people, poor people. Anthropology doesn’t accept the present state of things. It says that what other people believe matters. It thinks about alternative ways to organize economies and politics, not just one dominant way. But that thinking is informed by actual economies and forms of political organization, both past and present.

The poor who don’t get their share, the indigenous people pushed off their land, the groups whose languages are being drowned by the state – they want freedom. Anthropologists are right there with them.

The Hard Sell

Ready to adventure around the world, find out where you come from, put science to the test in the real world, and help fight for freedom? Then anthropology may be for you.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves Hollywood-scripted anthropology. But don’t worry, this post won’t self-destruct in five seconds.

Some of you might be thinking that its romanticism, and whatever other -ism you want to throw it, means it should self-destruct.

But I happen to think telling a good story, and having a clear sense of why anthropology matters, are good things. It helps people better grasp what we do, and understand why we’ve dedicated ourselves to this field. I’m hoping that with the ideas that Greg, Rex, myself and others have thrown out, that you can spin your own tale. Looking forward to it in the comments…

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in Culture, Variation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Building the Anthropology Brand

  1. L Moore says:

    I am in the midst of preparing a review of a book that is quite relevant to this topic. The book is The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation by Rebecca Huntley, 2006. It is a qualitative study of Australian young adults that are called Generation Y (aka Millennials) and who were born ca. 1982-2003 (thus they are 7 to 29 years old now; i.e. most of your students). The values and attitudes of the Australian Yers are very similar to those of their cohorts in North America and Northern Europe. They are also the largest generation in history, surpassing the Boomers in size per country. In many a study about them they are often called the New Greatest Generation (all of which is to come) because they are the seasonal return of the heroic GI generation.

    The Y generation has several traits that are characteristic of them, two of which are:
    1. They embrace diversity in most aspects of life. They seek it in their social networks and in their career possibilities.
    2. They are hooked on branding and brand labels. They believe that brands symbolize something important.

    Every company in the world is trying to sell to this generation. Anthropology should also be soft selling itself to this generation–just don’t do it in a crass and unsophisticated way because they don’t like being manipulated. Anthropology can offer a genuine lifestyle that is diverse and good to think.

    Also, remember Holtorf’s Archaeology is a Brand where he already highligted many of the themes noted above.

  2. Constance Cummings says:

    Diversity was a lot of the impetus for the founding of a cultural neuroscience. And I think a very interesting, very generative space is opening up for collaborations between cultural neuroscientists and anthropologists. But in my own inarticulate way I look at cultural neuroscience as the beach, lots of objects lying around in the sun to be examined, etc., whereas anthropology is the ocean, the “why.” Seems so resistant to theory. So I would add “mistery” to above…..

  3. Adam P says:

    I was having a nostalgic scifi moment today, and then realized one of the things I love about ethnographies and anthropology in general is the somewhat surreal scifi nature of it. Stories of people doing things differently, seeing things differently. Getting an altered perspective on the self, the “normal,” through encounter with the other.

    This might be summed up well in one word: “possibilities.” It may not be the focus of anthropology, but the idea of neverending unbounded human possibilities surely comes out in anthropology’s myriad expressions. I think I’ll need to incorporate that into my own explanations and descriptions of anthropology as a field…

  4. Pingback: Soft launch

  5. Pingback: A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow | Neuroanthropology

  6. Pingback: Culture in/and Anthropology » Mu 〮 sing 〮 ing