Public anthropology

In recent weeks Savageminds drew attention to the need for anthropology to be more engaging and public, with posts by Erin Taylor and Alex Golub. Taylor called on anthropologists to do more in spreading the word(s) of fellow anthropologists already working hard to make anthropology more accessible. Little gestures, perhaps a retweet, comment or facebook link gets the word out a little more. She also called on university departments to value interventions beyond the book, book chapter and journal article. Sadly universities largely administer us according to metrics that value income and reputational standing as attested by journals and book presses and not outreach, engagement and community work. But this is where Golub’s suggestions hit home in startling fashion: He recommends Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries. The former ties our expertise to our (rarely significant) commercial value in publishing. We can spread reviews and insights about academic work much faster and to a wider audience. Goodreads is another good review website with a wide readership. Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows academics a space to share their accumulated knowledge, reference and cite as well as create knowledge in a free (well sort of) and shared platform. This is where education makes its mark, for Wikipedia is often the point of departure for many student (and academic) essays, a first stop to discovery and the more we can share on that first step of learning and discovery, perhaps we can entice more people into the depths of further research in libraries, open access repositories etc.

I think that apart from broadening our outreach and sharing each others’ work we must also continue to and become better at inserting ourselves more in general debates and discussions. Too often ‘commentators’, ‘opinion writers’ and ‘experts’ on TV panels, radio shows and news papers are made up of people with little or no expertise in the areas they comment on. Anthropologists with real experiences and expertise can and should intervene, provide comment and discuss matters relating to our expertise – and it is vast!

One major impediment to a more visible public anthropology has been alluded to last week by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker where he dissects the recent commentary by journalist Nicholas Kristof calling for more interventions by academics. Rothman notes that increasingly professors write for small audiences of their peers in order to attain and remain in an academic position. The golden age of being a professor is over with faculties shrinking and competition over remaining jobs and fellowships lead to a skewed arms race where university metrices dictate impact and our standing much more than outreach and public intellectualism. These have become bonuses, something to pursue ‘on the side’ apart from the income generating teaching work and reputation increasing research work. All this points to a need for redress in what we believe an academic to be and what role s/he should play. It’s easy to call for more interventions, as I just did, but with fewer academics around with fewer time to devote to public interventions we must also address the systemic gutting, ‘rationalisation’ and weakening of most tertiary systems at present.

At the next AAS (Australian Anthropological Society) meeting in Melbourne in December we will have a plenary on the role of anthropology in the media, our communities (where we work – both in the field and the university) and towards our public(s).
Confirmed speakers:  Nancy Sheper-Hughes; Tess Lea and Greg Downey