Saturday, October 1, 2011

Anthropology and making a difference

Anthropologists are uniquely concerned about engaging a broader public.  Some disciplines seem to naturally attract attention, while others seem oblivious to even the existence of a public, and could care less about being relevant as long as they get their funding.  Anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to worry about it constantly – continually asking if we're doing enough or should be doing more or maybe should be trying a different approach.  To be frank, whether or not anthropologists are engaging a wider audience is no longer my primary concern.  This will sound like heresy to some, I'm sure, and it definitely marks a change in my own position, but I don't think we can move forward until we give up this preoccupation with engaging the public.  

What does concern me is whether or not anthropologists are making a difference.  By that I mean, are they creating a distance between the way things are and the way things will be.  As Bruno Latour said:
The distance between research is not that between observer and observed (subject and object) but between the context of the world before and after the inquiry.  The question we have to ask ourselves is not whether we have accurately represented some pre-existing phenomenon or entity, but whether there is now a distance between the new repertoire of actions and the repertoire with which we started (Bruno Latour via Sarah Whatmore).
In other words, anthropology, generally speaking, could be used to replicate and reinforce existing social conditions.  It often has done so in the past, and often unintentionally.  However, anthropology can also be used to alter existing social conditions – one hopes for the better.  That difference may be small, but complexity theory has taught us that any difference, amplified through time, may result in a very large difference.   

Engaging the public can certainly be part of making a difference, but it is not an end in itself.  We can engage the public for a variety of reasons, and often the reasons people give sound vain or self-conscious.  We want people to know what we do – to not talk about dinosaurs when we tell them we're anthropologists.  But why should they care what we do?  Furthermore, why should we care whether or not they know what we do?  Isn't it possible to make a difference in spite of the fact that the general public believes that we work with dinosaurs?  I believe so.  

Instead, we should see engaging a wider audience as a means to an end – as a way of making a difference.  With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves what kind of difference do we want to make, and is engaging a wider audience an important aspect of that difference?  I can imagine a project where informing the general public is not terribly important.  I can also imagine a project where informing the general public is key.  This all depends on the circumstances, and the interests of the anthropologist and the community she is working with.  I believe that many anthropologists have made a great deal of difference – especially in recent years – and most of them have done so without seeking the attention of the general public.  

On the whole, however, could we say that making the general public more aware of what we do is an important difference to make?  I think so.  Anthropology has a unique set of tools for understanding the world within which we are embedded, and sharing those tools more broadly could be beneficial – could make a significant difference in how people think and act in their daily lives.  It's not certain, of course, but no difference ever really is.

So how do we accomplish that?  I think there are any number of ways: we could promote the teaching of anthropology in high schools, we could write more books for popular audiences, we could write more editorials, or appear on TV and radio as correspondents.  The point of all of this would be to introduce people to the ideas and methods of anthropology, and encourage them to “think anthropologically” as a famous gorilla once said.  

But, again, this is only one way of making a difference, and we ought to be careful not to reduce ourselves to the public view of our discipline.  We ought not compromise our ability to make a difference in order to pursue some vain goal of making sure that everyone knows what it is we do.  Rather, let us make our differences in whatever way we can with whatever tools we have available.

Jeremy Trombley blogs at Eidetic Illuminations

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