Anthropology: Blog This!

‘We’ all love anthropology, right? In a recent issue of the online journal (or is it a blog, or both?) Anthropologies Ryan Anderson asks the question: “So what is the purpose of anthropology?” A question he answers in a very personal and sophisticated manner:

anthropologies: Introduction: A sense of purpose

Sidney Mintz once argued that anthropologists might be able to solidify its “sense of purpose” through deeper “studies of the everyday in modern life” (in Sweetness and Power, 1986: 213).  I could not agree more–this is exactly what Chavez accomplished with his studies about migrant populations.  The purpose of anthropology is to interrogate the boundaries that separate the people with history from the People without History.  We have an imperative to ask why these boundaries exist, and to detail the structures that keep them in place.  Even more, the goal is to seek out the cracks and passageways that exist in these self-imposed social walls, and to find ways to break through the social, historical, and geographic divisions that pervade our contemporary lives.  As Mintz and Chavez powerfully demonstrate, such a project can begin the seemingly innocuous details of our own communities and backyards–and extend outward from there.  That, for me, is the  purpose of anthropology, and it is what gives the discipline a relevance for audiences far beyond the halls of academia.

These questions may yield very abstract, maybe even empty slogans but nevertheless these questions are important when we talk about ‘blogging anthropology’. If we don’t have an idea of what we are doing as anthropologists, why the hell blog about it? On the other hand what is the use of that question if the answers are so diverse given the broad range of specializations, political preferences and type of blogs among anthropologists? I would regard that however as too cynical and in the coming weeks I will think a little more on the issue of blogging anthropology. I will start, of course, with my own experiences of more than 10 years of maintaining a website (of which about 5 years as a weblog) and I will use that experience in an attempt to reflect on the issue of public anthropology. Following Calhoun on ‘public social science’ I defined public anthropology in a rather loose manner as being:

Public Anthropology: 10 Years from Researchpages to Closer

There are two main principles of public anthropology (that also distinguishes it from applied anthropology):

  • Public accountability
  • Attempting to understand the structures that frame and restrict solutions to problems

Craig Calhoun in a recent essay poses two important questions for public social science (H/T ZeroAnthropology and Sexuality and Society):
Public Sphere Forum » Blog Archive » Calhoun

First, what is the relationship between effective participation in public discourse and the maintenance of more or less autonomous academic fields with their own standards of judgment and intellectual agendas? Second, what is the relationship between “public intellectual” work, informing broad discussions among citizens, and “policy intellectual” work informing business or government decision makers?

As Calhoun explains it is not only about reaching a broader public. It is not only about spreading your knowledge which would amount to ‘showing off’ with little bearing on public issues. It is about producing ‘better social science’ that addresses public issues, tests particular social science hypothesis and informs both scientific and public debates.

But we can, and should ask some serious questions here. And I’m reminded here at one of our professors in Nijmegen, a linguist, who stated at the Anthropology and/in Publicity seminar (antpub) that anthropologists are masters in questioning everything and once there is only a glimpse of a consensus there will be at least one anthropologist who stands up and will say: ‘With all due respect, but I have to disagree here’. Which he, by the way, saw as good science.

What is anthropology if it is not public? Can there be something as a private anthropology? Is public meaning outside the academic realm? Going to the lay audience with our messages and our valuable contributions? How do we see the people we are working with then? And how do ‘we’ see ourselves? Isn’t teaching true public anthropology as my colleague Annelies Moors stated during the Antpub seminar. In the comments in the above mentioned article Anderson asks, in a rhetorical way, ‘what are we doing with all this anthropology stuff’? (There are some nice examples, read for example Barbara J. King‘s exposé on animal friendships and her appearance on CBS and another, recent, example is Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism. A Four Field Manifesto.) In the same special issue Daniel Lende (of the Neuroanthropology blog) extends this to the field of anthropology online. What most of these questions appear to imply is that anthropology is a homogenuous field (an issue similar to what Mathijs Pelkmans talked about during antpub), or that the anthropological message is more or less the same regardless of the disciplines within anthropology, regardless of the individual anthropologist with his or her own academic, social and cultural background and roots. When for example Greg Downey in a very interesting, well-written contribution on Neuroanthropology (part of the Public Library of Science Network – PLoS) takes up the discussion with Ulf Hannerz (‘Diversity is our business) in talking to anthropology about anthropology as ‘our brand‘. Or when we proudly defend (and rightly so) anthropology against a flawed attack by some politician? Is public anthropology often not more than a nice get together for anthropologists who appear to talk to the larger public: an Anthro-Flop?

I will reflect upon the relation between blogging and (the lack of) public anthropology in an article I’m going to write the next weeks. Some of the issues I’m thinking about now:

  1. What kind of (anthropological?) knowledge are we producing on our blogs? Or what makes a blog an anthropological one, or one of an anthropologist?
  2. What makes an anthropology blog being an example of public anthropology? Is it enough to be open to the larger audience or should there be more, and if so, what?
  3. Is it necessary to reduce the complexities in anthropological writing?
  4. What actually is ‘good blogging’ for anthropologists? What are the good practices (individual posts as well as blogs)
  5. How can blogs ‘sell’ the purpose of anthropology to a larger audience, and do they? And if not, why? And if not, does it matter?
  6. Are there differences between blogs from, for example, different regions in the world? And what can we learn from that in terms of cross-cultural perspectives on computer-mediated communication and science
  7. To what extent are anthropology blogs contributing to an alternative public sphere that may or may not challenge the dominant public sphere?
  8. What is our public? Do we have a public in Warner‘s sense of the word? And if so, what are the consequences?
  9. How does blogging help us to understand the internet practices of the people we work with?
  10. How does blogging contribute to other activities in every day life, in particular research, teaching and writing books and/or articles for journals and/or newspapers/magazines

No of course not, I cannot deal with all of these issues. I would like to have your thought anyway on (some of) these issues and if possible I will take them up in the article (with proper credits of course).

After I wrote this post, I found the following keynote address by Maximilian C. Forte at the 8th Annual Public Anthropology Conference “(Re)Defining Power: Paradigms of Praxis” which I found very interesting and challenging although he goes beyond what I’m prepared to do, yet. The core of his argument is that:

Public Anthropology […] is too much about institutionalized, professional, and disciplinary Anthropology, and not enough about being immersed in social struggles, collaborating, building new forms of engagement, and tackling issues of power, violence, and inequality that combine to produce increasingly miserable conditions of existence for most people on this planet. Too much concern is devoted to communicating Anthropology to “the public,” and not enough of the reverse.

You can watch his lecture here:

Beyond Public Anthropology: Approaching Zero from Maximilian Forte on Vimeo.

One thought on “Anthropology: Blog This!

  1. Martijn,

    I really like this post, particularly the questions you raise about blogging, anthropology, and the public sphere. I look forward to the article you write on these issues.

    I think the Calhoun distinction between public intellectual and policy intellectual is a useful one. Anthropology needs to develop more in each area. One important thing that doing anthropology online is that it can be both public/open and discipline specific – that is a great advantage, since potentially any number of different people can access the online material, though in practice for the most part, it will be discipline or area specific.

    Returning to Calhoun, I would push back a bit on making too rigid a distinction between the two types, particularly for scholarly efforts online. The one danger of a solely “public” approach is that it falls back on the disciplinary standard of critique and more critique, and often critiques that often make more sense to anthropologists than to anyone else. Having a particular policy issue – an arena where one might be trying to make a specific difference – can actually sharpen the commentary anthropologists make and get us more into the position of proposing ideas (or even hypotheses to test) about what might be effective change. One great thing about doing this type of work online is that you can do both at once, a post that is more public, and another that is more policy/applied. This type of platform allows the effective mixing of both.

    One final thing. The conversies of the past year, and particularly the past two weeks here in Florida and the great response from USF students, has really made me think about how we as anthropologists do need to re-articulate what we do as a field. It is not simply enough to unwrap the sacred bundle, as is spoken here in the US. We are a diverse field, and yet I think there are common purposes and common approaches that bring most of us together. But I’m not sure that they have been articulated well enough for us to be able to say – okay, here are some common bases, particularly for our public face. Obviously I would want such an articulation to be flexible enough to support our diversity, and that’s exactly what I would like to see happen towards the future. I think many anthropologists are circling around this issue, and in particularly innovative ways online, but circling and critiquing in a common language or with the assumption of homogeneity is not the same as a more robust articulation of some common causes and generating ideas.

    Thanks for a provocative post!

    Best, Daniel

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