THIS IS SO FLIPPING IMPORTANT AND SUMS UP EVERYTHING I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT ANTHROPOLOGY.
Excerpts from Savage Minds Interview: Sarah Kendzior
Read the full interview -> here
RA: Earlier you mentioned an adviser who sees anthropology as something that should not be removed from public life–as something that can benefit the public. Do you share a similar vision of the discipline? What’s your take on the role of anthropology in public life?
SK: Anthropology benefits the public. Unfortunately, it is blocked from the public, and anthropologists who engage with the public – people like David Graeber – tend to be shunned by other anthropologists, to the point where they lose their jobs. This makes younger anthropologists afraid of public engagement, even though they have valuable insights to share.
Anthropologists complain about politics and the media, but they rarely engage with either. Then they wonder why their voices are not being heard. The most obvious way anthropologists can increase their influence is by writing online. I don’t mean writing in places like Anthropology News — where you have to pay an exorbitant membership fee to leave a comment – but on real blogs, on Twitter, on mainstream media sites, and in open access journals. Publishing reprints of paywalled articles is also a good idea, and is usually legal after a period of time. I did an interview about the benefits of reprinting journal articles online with Academia.edu, which you can read here.
Anthropologists tend to forget that tenets basic to our discipline – for example, that race is a social construct and not a biological determinant of behavior – come as revelations to a lot of people. Issues of racial and religious discrimination are among the many areas where anthropologists can have a powerful voice.
I recently wrote an article for Al Jazeera, “The Wrong Kind of Caucasian”, that had a complicated premise but a simple conclusion: do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnic background or country of origin. It was read by half a million people and shared on Facebook 57,000 times. I got letters from people saying I had changed their preconceptions and that they were going to keep an open mind about race, ethnicity and immigration. It felt good to make a difference at a politically heated time.
Academics justify the paywall system by saying the public is not interested in academic research. I argue that the public has had no opportunity to decide for themselves, since access to research has always been blocked. But I have faith in the ability of non-academics to understand and appreciate academic work. Given our current political and economic situation, anthropology may be of particular interest. More than any other discipline, it tackles issues of power and corruption, paying attention not only to the powerful, but to the struggling and marginalized.
Except, of course, when it comes to the struggling and marginalized anthropologists. Rarely have I seen a group more oblivious to their own hypocrisy than the “enlightened” anthropologists ignoring the adjunct crisis. You would think such incredible structural inequality would be interesting, at least, to the anthropological mind. I know it is interesting to me.
RA: Above, you highlighted the fact that many anthropologists complain about their voices not being heard, yet ironically they often don’t engage much with politics or the media. To me, this persistent disengagement paves the way for attacks on social science by the likes of Tom Coburn and Florida Governor Rick Scott. We’ve essentially dug our own grave when it comes to public engagement–it’s easy to discount a highly insular, often silent discipline that few people have ever heard anything about. So, in order to wrap up this interview I am going to ask you two simple questions that I hear all the time from non-anthropologists: 1) Anthropology? What the hell is anthropology?; and 2) What are you going to do with that?
SK: You are right that academics’ lack of public engagement opens the door to political attacks. I wrote an article about this for Al Jazeera called Academic funding and the public interest.
I’m not going to answer “What is anthropology?” No one cares about our ontological debates. But here is how I would explain cultural anthropology to a layperson:
All of the social sciences – history, political science, economics, etc – study how people behave, form groups, and build a society. Each social science has its own way of figuring this out. Anthropologists believe the best way to find out what someone is thinking is to ask them. We respect that people in another community understand their own way of life better than outsiders do. We observe a community for a long period of time so that we don’t come away with hasty generalizations. We are careful when we write about others to put their words and their views before our own.
When you study anthropology, you learn about people and places that you might not otherwise. Anthropologists write about everyone – powerful and powerless, rich and poor, all races and nationalities. They explore how political decisions affect ordinary people, and how ordinary people influence politics. They look at how public perception is shaped, how social trends emerge, and how movements are formed. They ask what people expect from life, and what happens when they don’t get it.
Anthropology has a reputation for being exotic. But the point of anthropology is that exoticism fades when you get to know someone. Bigotry and prejudice fade too, which is why anthropologists used to be influential in reshaping ideas about race and ethnicity.
Anthropologists are interested in why people believe lies. For example, a large percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya. For an anthropologist, it would not be enough to note that this is factually incorrect. They want to know why so many people believe it is true.
Anthropologists understand that the world often doesn’t run on facts, but on dreams and delusions, hopes and fears, imagination and ambition. They don’t dismiss anything as unimportant.
Now onto your second question — what are you going to do with that? First of all, higher education and the economy are both such disasters that you cannot assume any major or degree will guarantee you a good, secure life. STEM, liberal arts, law – no profession is safe. Industries are disappearing or being restructured out of existence. Practical training you get in college will likely be useless ten years from now. There are no safe bets.
So what is the point of an education? The point is to think critically, become an informed citizen, gain some specialized knowledge, gain broader insight into the world, and communicate well. Some people will say they don’t need to go to college to do this. I actually agree with that. But since college is a prerequisite for most jobs, you might as well get a solid education.
The best education is a broad education with an emphasis on primary sources, debate, and writing skills. I recommend that people study anthropology, but they should also study history, literature, religion, art, science, economics, sociology, political science, and other subjects. The constant assertion of disciplinary superiority is self-defeating. If the social sciences want to win the battle against people who want to defund us, we need to band together. We also would benefit intellectually if we read work outside our discipline and showed tolerance for alternate approaches.
I study Central Asia, a region of the world that is so understudied that there is a very small body of anthropological literature. As a result, most anthropologists draw not only from anthropological studies, but from the work of sociologists, historians, geographers and others. We also tend to read and cite non-academic work, since data on Central Asia is so limited. We have a supportive research community and no one’s knowledge is dismissed out of hand because of their background.
I also study the internet, and so I read broadly in communication, sociology, humanities and other fields. Yet when I write an article for an anthropology journal, I am expected to cite only other anthropologists. When I co-wrote a mixed-methodsarticle with a quantitative communications scholar, and we got it published in the top communications journal, I was told by some anthropologists to leave it off my CV, because it showed I was interested in something other than anthropology. This is ridiculous. There is no need for this insecurity masked as insularity.
Anthropology is struggling as a discipline because anthropologists bank on a lofty reputation that they don’t really have while simultaneously shielding their work from the public. The public is not going to believe you have something worthy to say when you refuse to let them in on the conversation. Don’t be so afraid, anthropologists. You of all people should know the world is not what it seems.