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Popular Anthropology: Buttering Up Humanity

Today’s guest blog post is by Erin B. Taylor (ICS-UL) of PopAnth.

Some years ago, when I was working at The University of Sydney, a colleague of mine stopped me in the corridor to complain. “Nobody listens to anthropologists,” she lamented, “We have so many interesting things to say about the world, but people don’t pay any attention.”

I was puzzled. Not because I disagree on either count: I think she’s right that our voice gets subsumed to that of economists, political commentators, and publicists. I also agree that anthropologists can provide a historically-grounded, cross-culturally informed perspective on contemporary events that is of real social value.

My puzzlement, rather, was because to the best of my knowledge, this particular colleague never made any effort to be heard. She published exclusively in academic journals behind paywalls, didn’t do press releases, didn’t write for newspapers, didn’t even blog. Did she really expect that public servants, the media, and people at large would go to the effort of seeking out her and her opinions?

This encounter triggered a personal quest to find out more about the state of public anthropology. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only one. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, in his book Engaging Anthropology, writes that “Anthropology should have changed the world, yet the subject is almost invisible in the public sphere outside the academy” (2006:1). One of my favorite articles on the subject is by Greg Downey who, on his Neuroanthropology blog, argues that anthropology’s difficulties with engaging the public is at least partially a branding problem. He then presents a series of fascinating ideas on how to fix it.

There are plenty of anthropologists who are doing something about it. Anthropologists globally are publishing their work in news venues such as the BBC, the Financial Times, and the Trinidad Guardian. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of us are blogging our thoughts on personal and collective websites, including The Huffington Post and The Conversation. Others are interviewed on radio shows or run community workshops. The California Series in Public Anthropology provides an incentive for authors to write about their engagements with communities and policies. Our brand is looking better since Eriksen published his book in 2006.

One thing I noticed, however, is a lack of ways for anthropologists who would like to write for the public to get started. This is partially because too few academics are aware of what the possibilities are, as the work of their more public-facing colleagues remains largely invisible. There are also relatively few venues in which people can experiment with this kind of writing. Personal blogs are a beginning, but a chronic lack of feedback means that it’s hard to know whether you’re on the right track. And without having a sense of how you’re doing, it can be daunting to submit an article to a newspaper.

PopAnthThis was a major reason why Gawain Lynch, John McCreery and I began the community website PopAnth: Hot Buttered Humanity. We began building the site in July last year, after an exhaustive search turned up exactly zero generalist anthropology websites that are truly written for a popular audience. There are many brilliant blogs out there, but they either focus on narrow topics, or include academic content such as jargon or calls for papers. We deliberately designed PopAnth to cover all branches of anthropology because we wanted to see what kinds of topics would prove popular.

In just over a year since launch, the site has grown surprisingly fast, and last month we had 90,000 unique visitors (bots largely edited out of our analytics). This is a pretty impressive feat for a non-profit website that relies on a small crew of committed editors. I’m particularly happy that authors have been courageous enough to send us off-beat stories that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. Our articles have covered topics as diverse as the history of Rastafarianism in Jamaica, land use rights among footballers in Trinidad, metal theft in the United Kingdom, drug markets in Colombia, consumer freedom in Germany, and angry tourists in Madagascar.

What makes PopAnth work? In my opinion, it’s the effort we put in to making popular anthropology visible. We don’t just promote ourselves, we use our website and social media to promote popular anthropology wherever it is published: newspapers, blogs, books, TED talks, and so on. This increases our audience base and helps make anthropology a household name.

Crucially, we provide a mentoring service to new public writers, helping them polish their articles for PopAnth and gain confidence to submit their work to other venues. We also act as a hub connecting new popular authors to old hands. Because we publish on merit, not qualifications, our authors are just as likely to be undergraduates as they are to have regular columns in The Huffington Post or Psychology Today. This means that up-and-coming authors who aren’t sure where to publish can gain inspiration from seeing what their colleagues are doing.

What’s the next step in getting public anthropology out there? My feeling is that cross-promotion will help us all build our audiences and contributor bases. To this end, I’ve begun talking with people people from other groups, such as Savage Minds, DANG, Ethnography Matters, the Society for Visual Anthropology, and others about how we can best work together to stay in communication and build collaborations. I’d like to invite everyone to join the conversation in the PopAnth group at the Open Anthropology Cooperative. And, of course, if you want to write for PopAnth, you can check out our Contributions page. The more we write for the public, the more the public will be able to listen.

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