• 2016 AA Editor Search
  • Get Ready for the Annual Meeting

    From t-shirts to journals, 2014 Annual Meeting Gear Shop Now
  • Open Anthropology
  • Latest AAA Podcast

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 17,411 other followers

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.

Faster athletes, slower spectators and the Olympic marathon

Photo by Dave Catchpole

In the lead-up to the Olympics, AAA member Greg Downey wrote a piece on the Huffington Post, asking whether the Olympic movement has really succeeded in promoting “sport for all,” or has instead become an increasingly professional offering for a passive spectatorship. The marathon, in particular, is a telling case study, as it was run for the first time in the 1896 Olympics in Greece, the inaugural games of the modern Olymiad. He writes about the winner of that first marathon, Greek water carrier, Spyridon Louis:

And yet, at the same time that the margins between Olympic finishers may be a hair’s breadth, the gap between the athletes and the spectator public is growing. Spyridon Louis was a true amateur. His first ‘marathon’ was his qualifying race, about two weeks prior to his Olympic performance. Today’s Olympic contenders are dedicated professionals, physiologically worlds’ apart from most of the spectators, who are growing increasingly sedentary.
Sure, the number of amateur participants at marathons is swelling, but on average, marathon runners are going slower. It’s very hard to imagine today, especially in the Western world, that someone could run a sub-three-hour marathon in their second attempt, two weeks after their first marathon.

Read the entire piece on the Huffington Post. Downey also expands on his blog post over on his blog, Neuroanthropology.

Anthropological Love Letters for Savage Minds

 It all started with a Valentine’s Day love letter proposal by Rex, blogger for Savage Minds. He challenged his readers to write a love letter to the discipline of Anthropology during the week of Valentine’s Day.

During this week, Rex suggested that the guys at the blog Neuroanthropology round up the collection of love letters. Maybe during their Wednesday round-up?

One particular love letter caught my attention due to the spirited adventure that begins this anthropologist’s journey to field work. Barbara King accepted Rex’s challenge by posting her love letter on her blog, Friday Animal Blog. Barbara’s adventure begins:
Twenty-six years ago, I arrived in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and as green as green could be. Oh, I knew my way around a testable hypothesis, and I had NSF funds banked towards my research. But I’d never been much of an outdoorsy type—had never even camped out—and there I was, tracking baboons day after day, through the bush, to record the behaviors of infants in two groups as they learned what items to eat from a smorgasbord of choices and how to process them skillfully. 

At the outset, I had to concentrate fiercely to distinguish one monkey from another, one type of grass species from another, one flowering plant from another. Because of this, some non-baboon events happening around me never made it past peripheral vision into the brain’s proper notice. 

I wondered one day why the Baboon Project’s Kenyan assistant, Raphael Mututua, was waving at me from across a wide open area, where he too was collecting data. I waved back, only to learn later that he’d been trying to alert me to the fact that a rhinoceros was lumbering right towards me. The poorly-sighted rhino veered out of my path by random luck, but I soon enough suffered other blunders involving near-misses with lions and mamba snakes.

Barbara continues her love letter with recollection of the people she interacted with in Kenya and the types of experiences that lead down the path of a crude metaphor for doing anthropology. For when Barbara practices anthropology, it always starts with agitated questions. No matter how modest my contribution, as I work, I feel connected to anthropologists past and present, people who, in Papua New Guinea or Paris, in Berlin or Boston, trained themselves to see the rhino lumbering in their path. To capture from our peripheral vision something strange and exciting about human meaning-making or its evolution, to move it front and center into our minds and join those minds up with others, is a challenge and a joy.

For Barbara’s complete love letter, visit Friday Animal Blog. But before you head over there, drop us a comment about why you love Anthropology or if you’ve accepted Rex’s challenge add the link.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,411 other followers