Public Anthropology: Some notes, hopes and wishes
Guest Author: Lorenz Khazaleh
How can anthropologists better contribute to the public debate? Questions about how to make anthropology more public have been debated over and over again.
I’m not sure if anthropological knowledge really is underexposed and that there is no willingness to share knowledge.
First, we are not alone in this world. Lots of people with different backgrounds have something to say. So if you for example send an op-ed to a national newspaper here in Norway, the most likely scenario is that it will be refused. “When your article will be refused it’s not because of the quality of your writing but because of the quantity of contributions we receive”, is the message of the auto-reply everybody receives who is sending an article to Aftenposten. I was one of them. A few days after the rejection of my text, I met several people (anthropologists included) who shared their frustrations about articles they’ve spent much blood sweat and tears on, but ended up in the editor’s dustbin.
Second, lots has changed in the online world. Blogging has become a mainstream activity. Not only (mostly younger) anthropologists are sharing knowledge and take part in public debates online, but also institutions like the American Anthropological Association (AAA). More and more free open access journals are launched. There are hundreds, probably thousands anthropology videos on youtube and vimeo. Anthropological knowledge has never been so accessible as it is today. You might get more anthro-knowledge by browsing the net then by attending university classes. Even the University of Oslo has started showcasing their research on their new website. The amount of articles – many of them written by professional journalists – is overwhelming and I’ve started wondering if it is becoming too much dissemination.
Nevertheless, based on my experience as science journalist and blogger, here is a short and incomplete list of wishes and hopes for the future:
1) Web instead of paper: Every time a new paper book is published and a new paper journal is launched, I start wondering: Who is going to read this? The possible amount of paper copies that can be bought or subscribed to by a single person is limited. In some regard paper publications lock in knowledge. The copies have to be ordered and paid for – an often lengthy and expensive process. These publications will most likely be read by specialists only. Web publications are more democratic: They can be downloaded within seconds from every location in the world with internet access. It seems that especially people from lesser wealthy parts of the world are propagating the move from paper to the web.
It is much easier to reach new audiences online than offline. Most websites get most of their traffic via search engines. If you contribute to the public commons of knowledge online, people who google “most primitive people” won’t only find stereotype newspaper articles about indigenous peoples but will be challenged by your article that questions the whole idea that there are primitive people. Why not try to improve Wikipedia articles? Or when will we find anthropology apps on iphones? Uppsala University showed what is possible with putting their World Conflict Database into an iphone app.
2) Open instead of closed: Today, one of my friends posted a link on Facebook and commented happily “My first published article!” The link lead me to one of those conventional anthropology journals that are closed to the public. Those who are interested to learn about her research are asked to pay 30 Dollar for her 20 pages article. I wish, more academics would prefer publishing their works in open access journals. And even better: Publish a shorter version, that people without PhDs are able to understand, at the same time.
A more open language is another wish. Sentences like “Assuming that space is multiple and continuosly constituted through social interrelations between different subjects and through material practices in which distinct objects are relevant, I have attempted to show the co-extistence of differently constituted spatialities or spaces in Amazonia.” are torture not only for people outside of the ivory tower.
3) Pub instead of seminar room: The Anthropology Department at the University in Oslo is regularly inviting anthropologists from all over the world to hold lectures in their seminar room. Most of the lectures would also be of interest for the general public. Why not arrange open debates in public libraries, in pubs or other places? And instead of monotonously reading a paper, why not choose more engaging ways of presenting and discussing research? The closing conference of the research project Culcom (Cultural Complexity in the New Norway) that I’ve been working for, was organized like a TV talk show. It was a huge success.
People are interested in science. Just a week ago or so I read for the first time about Science Slams that have become extremly popular in Germany. Or what about Pecha Kucha inspired presentations (20 slides per 20 seconds). And what about opening up conferences? When more than thousand anthropologists come together at EASA conferences, they are hardly even noticed by media. With such a large group of anthropologists present at one place, one could arrange exciting public meetings!
4) A culture of critical thinking: But before starting all those presentations, anthropologists have to take a step back and reflect about their own work, put it into a larger context and ask themselves questions like: What can other people learn from my research? What are its wider implications? For too often after lectures I ask myself: So what? Yes, it was interesting to hear about your research on women issues in this small village in Mexico. But what do your findings tell us more about being a human? Where are the connections to global structures and challenges?
A culture of critical thinking is the prerequisite for public anthropology. This culture is threatened by the current commercialisation of universities as Thomas Hylland Eriksen already pointed out four years ago in his book Engaging Anthropology:
Universities are being turned into factories. Academics have, as a consequence, lost much of the time they could formerly devote to engagement in greater society. (…) The ongoing formalisation of the recognition of skills through never-ending evaluations of research, auditing and other forms of “professionalisation” threatens to take the creativity out of academic life, and also contributes to isolating it further from society. (…) Students are no longer encouraged to be intellectuals, but to specialize and become professionals.
Nearly 70% of all Americans believe the university should, as its primary function, provide job training rather than cultivate critical thinking. Maybe that’s the point we have to start from.
Lorenz Khazaleh studied anthropology at the University of Basel, Switzerland and wrote his thesis on Sami ethnopolitics and Norwegian minority policy. He also conducted research on Hiphop in Basel. He is the editor of Antropologi.info that has a Norwegian, English, and German section, as well as an overview of anthropology blogs and journals. He has been working as a freelance journalist for several years, among others for the Culcom research program at the University of Oslo 2004-2010.