“Sorry, I don’t speak anthropologist”

Guest Author: Daan Beekers

As unquestionable specialists in the making (and breaking) of culture, anthropologists are in a position to provide invaluable insights on such burning issues as the perceived crisis of multiculturalism in Europe, the public presence of religion and persistent ethnic and religious violence around the world. Why, then, do these insights so often seem to fail to get the attention they deserve?

The problem of disseminating anthropological knowledge, I would suggest, is for a large part a problem of translation. When I lived in an international college during my Master’s in England a couple of years ago, I made friends with graduate students working in fields as diverse as literature studies, medicine and theoretical physics. Time and again I was struggling to explain what on earth it was that anthropologists were doing. It is surprising how difficult it can be for a graduate student in quantum mechanics to understand what is meant by the cultural construction of personhood or by the socially produced meaning of “marriage”. When I was once talking about the role of flags in crafting a national imagination to a befriended student in Ottoman studies, she simply gazed at me with an ironical look in her eyes, and declared: “Sorry, I don’t speak anthropologist.”

The question of translation, I think, is two-fold. It is a question of translating our anthropological jargon in easy-to-understand language and one of translating our particular methodological language of cultural deconstruction in plain prose that is both understandable and meaningful to those not familiar to our field. Both of these issues have been very central to our experiment of running a department-based anthropological weblog at VU University Amsterdam, which we started around one and a half years ago. Our objective was to create a platform to engage with public debates as anthropologists and to disseminate our research findings to a broad public in an accessible way. The name of the weblog, “Standplaats Wereld” (loosely translated: “reporting from the world”) is meant to convey that anthropologists both work in places all over the world and tend to analyze local topics through a (globally) comparative lens.

Our overall experiences have been very positive. The initiative has been enthusiastically embraced by members of our department and we frequently publish posts by staff, graduate students and undergraduates. The posts are short and written in simple, accessible language. The weblog is generally well received and attracts quite a large readership. It provides a platform for VU-based anthropologists to quickly react on topical issues, but also to set our own agendas. We regularly publish posts in English, which have the advantage of a larger potential readership, but are less accessible to a Dutch audience (when people write in English, moreover, it seems harder for them to avoid using anthropological jargon).

So far, the two most popular posts, with close to 1000 views are (as translated from the Dutch) “Moroccan women demand jobs and men” and “I feel like a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. The first is written by Edien Bartels, a lecturer in anthropology with a long experience in studying gender issues in Morocco, together with Oka Storms. The second is by Lilly Witte, who wrote her Master’s thesis on experiences of discrimination and exclusion among Chinese Dutch youth. Both use simple language and present a clear argument. I would suggest that the popularity of these posts results from the way they subvert taken-for-granted ideas about our world. Bartels and Storms disrupt commonplace notions of North-African, Muslim women as being locked up at home and oppressed by men. Witte confronts the reader with her observation that Chinese Dutch youth, while being widely perceived in the Netherlands as a minority that is “well integrated” and “doesn’t cause trouble”, are still experiencing exclusion in many domains of their lives. Witte’s findings even made the front-page of the Spits, a widely distributed free daily in the Netherlands, which further contributed to the popularity of the post.

Many of the other widely read posts are those dealing with Dutch multicultural society in one way or another. The most popular English posts, with close to 500 views, are Marleen de Witte’s “Sakawa Money in Ghana”, which we presented as part of a series on the “financial crisis worldwide”, and Pál Nyiri’s thoughtful piece on anthropological engagement with human rights activism, “Rebiya Kadeer at the VU”. Most of our other posts, around two hundred by now, have also drawn a fair amount of interest and have often found their ways to the particular audiences interested in the topic at hand.

Going from these experiences, it seems justified to say that we are succeeding reasonably well in tackling the first challenge of translation, that of offering academic insights using simple non-jargonized language. Yet, the issue of translating our methodological language of cultural deconstruction and nuance is considerably harder. In recent years we have seen a heated debate in the Netherlands (as in many other countries) that revolves around very essentialist understandings of culture and religion. Particularly with regard to Islam, the discussion tends to take place between those that attack the religion and its adherents and those that defend them. There seems little room for an anthropological perspective that questions the very notion of a unified and homogeneous religion and that emphasizes the diversity in everyday choices and strategies of people with Muslim backgrounds.

While many of our readers appear to welcome a more nuanced voice in this debate, to many others within a broader public our analyses may simply not resonate adequately with the categories by which they apprehend social reality. And then there are also those that do engage with our contributions, but accuse these of exhibiting a naive cultural relativism (anthropologists, of course, are almost by definition “cultural relativists”, be it in a different way from the “naive” relativism that is implied in such criticisms). Anthropologists should not shy away from reflecting self-critically about such charges and providing them with answers, even if this latter type of audience might be hard to please. But how can we try to bridge the perceived gap with those broader sections of the public that are not so much hostile to what anthropologists have to say but that simply don’t really understand their “language”?

Our two “top posts” that I mentioned above may provide an answer. To bring our points across we should not merely resort to the anthropological truism that “things are always more complicated”, to follow up on Daniel Lende’s remarks on this weblog, but show how these complexities challenge our taken-for-granted ideas about the world we live in. Talking about Moroccan women in terms of their demands for jobs and men stirs up the comfortable categories by which these women tend to be understood, categories of passivity, submission and tradition.

Consider, by way of comparison, what is probably the most popular recent Dutch book written by an anthropologist, Joris Luyendijk’s People Like Us (Het zijn net mensen). Writing in attractive language, Luyendijk problematizes many of the ideas by which the Middle East is commonly perceived and painfully exposes the impossibility of objective media reporting about that region (he worked as a journalist in the Middle East himself). He thereby challenges much of what we thought we knew. This book has been immensely popular among a broad audience in the Netherlands, not in the least because of its anthropological approach and insights. If we really have something to say and especially if what we have to say surprises and puzzles people, then our audiences will soon enough learn to “speak anthropologist”.

Daan Beekers is a PhD candidate at VU University Amsterdam. He is one of the editors of the Standplaats Wereld weblog. In his PhD project he analyzes how young Dutch Muslims and Christians practice and experience their religion in the context of a society that can be characterized by moral liberalism, consumerism and religious pluralism.

2 Responses to ““Sorry, I don’t speak anthropologist””
  1. Amund Sieger says:

    Good to see awareness around this subject, it’s a definitive lack of knowledge around anthropology and easy to read explanations is hard to come by. I had an incredible vague impression of the field before i started my undergraduate, even after spending one year studying it at the local college.

    I will however point out, as I’m sure you are aware of, that it’s a fine balance between surprise and puzzle people and becoming “tabloid fodder”. Once we start making that a goal in itself we are headed into doom by popularism 🙂 Still a good and entertaining read, thank you!

  2. Daan Beekers says:

    Hi Amund Sieger,

    Thanks for your reaction. Of course I agree that causing puzzlement should never become a goal in itself. My point was that anthropologists have to show why their research is interesting to a broader public. In many cases getting our research findings across to people will more often than not cause some surprise, since anthropological work quite typically challenges taken-for-granted ideas about the world we live in…

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