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Why anthropology fails to arouse interest among the public - Engaging Anthropology (2)

As anthropology has grown, its perceived wider relevance has diminished. Why is this so? In his second chapter in the book Engaging Anthropology, Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen gives us several possible explanations. On the one hand, there are external factors f.ex. recent university reforms, inspired by neoliberalist marked theories:

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.

But the main reasons for the diminishing role of anthropology lie within the discipline. Hylland Eriksen lists several "recipes for cocooning":

Recipe Nr 1: Elitism:

Anthropology, unlike some other academic disciplines, has yet to escape fully from the mouldy lounges and pompous hallways of pre-war university life. In spite of the demographic explosion it has gone through since the Second World War, and in spite of the democratization of higher education, anthropology somehow remains an elite subject in the English-speaking world.


The early predominance of minorities and women at the very center of the discipline was significant. Evans-Pritchard's generation did not even want anthropology to be taught as an undergraduate subject. In Britain, the subject remains dominated by the department of the elite universities.


In spite of its considerable growth, anthropology still cultivates its self-identity as a counter-culture, its members belonging to a kind of secret society whose initiates possess exclusive keys for understanding, indispensable for making sense of the world, but alas, largely inaccessible for outsiders.

Recipe 2: Myopic specialisation resulting from "my ethnography"

The malinowskian glorification of the detailed, synchronic single-society study encourages specialization and gives the highest marks to the colleague who remains loyal to her fieldnotes thoughout her career

Recipe 3: Insisting on irreducible complexity

Anthropologists are skilled at exposing oversimplifications. This is one of our disciplines strengths, but complex answers are non marketable commodities with respect to the mass media and the general reader, as we all know. Few monographs or even articles have a simple point to make, most anthropologists are reluctant to simplify their insights. But there are exceptions, f.ex. Levi Strauss - one "of the normally least readable anthropologists"):

Levi-Strauss' Myth and Meaning (1978) and his interview book with Didier Eribon, De Pres et de Loin (1988), convey the main elements in his structuralism and his intellectual vision without losing, presumably, a single potential reader on the way. Many of us have something to learn from Levi-Strauss in this regard.

Recipe 4: The post-colonial critiques and the loss of the native:

After the post-colonial critique of Western representations, the collaps of classic cultural relativism and the damaging postmodernist autocritique of the 1980s, anthropology has become modest in its claims, introverted in its intellectual perspective and even more reluctant than before to raise the big issues in generally intelligible ways

Recipe 5: Anthropology as a subversive kind of activity

There might be totally different explanations for the failure of anthropology to sustain a visible public presence:

One should not rule out the possibiliy that anthropologists are often understood, but disagreed with - its perspectives threaten to subvert values and ideas held dear by its potential non-academic audience. The very idea of anthropology as a cultural (auto)critique (...) presupposes that there is a great demand for cultural self-criticism out there. This, plainly, may not be the case.

Recipe 6: Priviledging analysis over narrative

Anthropologists are bad writers! This is Hylland Eriksens most important argument:

To my mind, the single most important characteristic of anthropological writings is that it tends to be chiefly analytical. This means that it is more difficult to get into and less easy to remember than narratives. Stories are the stuff of life; analysis is for specialists. (...) There is a tendency to combine a penchant for complexity with a lack of engaging, sustained narrative. (...) As a result, it appears that anthropological texts are readable only by other anthropologists, who have learnt - the hard way - to read them.

But there are exceptions. He mentiones Katy Gardner's "Songs from Rivers Edge. Stories from a Bengladeshi River (1997)" and Tristes Tropiques by Claude Livi-Strauss (1978).

The problem:

There are many brilliant narratives in anthropological literature, but they're usually hidden in analysis. (...) History is almost alone among academic subjects to fuse original research and popular writing in the very same texts


The Secret of Good Ethnographies - Engaging Anthropology Part III

More and more anthropologists, but they're absent from public debates - "Engaging Anthropology" (Part I)


Archive: Knowledge Sharing and Open Access Anthropology

1 comment

Comment from: Robert [Visitor]

“Recipe Nr 1: Elitism” Yes.

“Recipe 3: Insisting on irreducible complexity. Anthropologists are skilled at exposing oversimplifications. This is one of our disciplines strengths, but complex answers are non marketable commodities with respect to the mass media and the general reader, as we all know.”

I think that this notion that anthropologist have a more complex and nuanced “holistic” view than other disciplines is a sign of the type of elitism and short-sightedness that is typical of the discipline. Too often comments like these sound like self-congratulation – we have mastered the obvious.

Simplifying assumptions and models are essential in coming to grasps with complex phenomena.

“Recipe 5: Anthropology as a subversive kind of activity”

Really? Maybe in the days of Durkheim and Malinowski, when social researchers were willing to wager their beliefs. In the US contemporary anthropology is constrained to an ideological strait-jacket, a narrow and puritanical upper middle class liberalism. Beyond this, they work in departments that are actively fleecing undergraduates and graduates in the cynical 21st century university.

“Recipe 6: Priviledging analysis over narrative” Not quite. Anthropologists have engaged in veiling the shallowness of their work with the gibberish of the French “intellectuals” of the 1960s and 1970s.

30.12.11 @ 18:25


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