Popularizing Anthro 1996-2011

Update: This 2011 blog-post began with reading Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture, a book that was supposed to be a popularizing anthropology hit but flopped. I then reviewed the other failed attempts from 1996-2011. For the most part, efforts to find public relevance have continued to sputter, see Purpose of Living Anthropologically. For a 2021 attempt to outline the complexities of anthropological relevance, see the lecture on “Anthropology for the Future” based on Anthropology: Why It Matters:


In 2011, I began reading Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture. The book was a result of a Wenner-Gren Foundation conference, edited by Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman, and featured some of anthropology’s heavy-hitters. Although the authors expected a hit, what they got was anthro-flop-ology. From the preface:

Whether the discussions were of human biological variation or sexuality, of genes or transnationalism, participants from one subfield after another spoke of the challenges posed by reductionisms of different kinds. For the most part, these reductionist trends originated from outside anthropology, but all our conferees were alarmed at how firm a hold they had taken in both academic and public life and at how feeble the response had been from anthropologists. (2005, viii)

It’s a message that seems to come up repeatedly. Anthropologists are not being heard; we need to get together, talk to the public, be heard. But why had I never heard of this 2005 book? Had I really been so deep-in-the-trenches-of-teaching I completely missed a prominent edited volume? On the back cover, famous archaeologist and former American Anthropological Association President Elizabeth Brumfiel (who sadly passed away 2012, see In Memoriam: Elizabeth Brumfiel) wrote: “The fascinating case studies will provoke lively public discourse and debate in graduate and undergraduate classrooms across the country.”

I wish that had happened. I fear instead this was a case of Anthro-Flop, when anthropologists try to get together, talk to the public, be heard, but it just does not happen. I analyze several examples below. I like a lot of this material–I’ve found it useful to think about and teach, and find much of value. I am not criticizing these efforts, but trying to learn lessons for public intervention.

Three ideas for why Anthro-Flop happens. The first is obvious: most of these are addressed primarily to the anthropology guild. At best, they tell anthropologists to address the public, but they do not really aim for the public. Often they do not even ask anthropologists to be more public. This leads to the second idea: their recommendations are mostly about fixing the guild. They do not look for the public outside the world of books, journals, conferences, and classrooms. The third idea is more interesting, even if it is only a coincidence–these works have no effective conclusions. Flip to the end to find the very last sentence or thought, and it’s pretty disappointing.

In reverse chronological order:

Anthropologists Unite! (2011)

A co-authored piece, unlike the collaborations below, but has the advantage of summing everything up in the final sentences: “A good start would be for anthropologists to read each other’s papers, to attend each other’s conferences and to debate concrete cases and specific hypotheses. But there is no future in a return to the feuding parties of the 1980s” (2011:168). As Daniel Lende remarks: “Journals, conferences, and debate–it is an old view of academic discourse” (A Vision of Anthropology). John Hawks is less charitable: “Patch the ivory tower and assume the position? Cue Roger Sterling: ‘That’s your pitch?'” (Going Draper). It also seems strange that the very last sentence is simply telling us what we should not do. After all, feuding parties could capture the public imagination.

In April 2011 another “final sentence” was added, as a group of anthropologists publish a letter responding to Kuper and Marks. The responders basically say they are already doing all the right things (see the comments to Anthropological Kerfluffles and the letter to Nature). Will anthropology really insist on playing out the kerfluffle that resulted in Nicholas Wade’s inaccurate and unbalanced coverage in the New York Times? (See also the post on Science in Anthropology.)

Questioning Collapse (2009)

For a critique of Diamond using Questioning Collapse, see section on More than Guns, Germs, and Steel

The Guild: Alex Golub’s review at Savage Minds was indispensable when I taught this book. The review crystallizes the main strengths, as well as the problematic prose:

While several of the authors write clearly and passionately, on the whole Diamond still wins the contest for clear prose. In fact, many of the essays employ all the apparatus of scholarly prevarication: introductory sections reflecting on what it means to write for a popular audience, wider theoretical issues of contextualization, and so forth. You must wade through all this to get to the point where they actually talk about why they think Diamond is wrong.

Rex proceeds to point out that many of the authors do not even seem to directly address Diamond, and asks if the authors will take the fight “to the streets,” or at least to the internet blogosphere. When I asked students if they thought the authors would take it to the streets, one student perceptively commented: “No. They already think they have.” Or, the message is “we’ve patched the guild for you, now back to our research.” Interestingly, the public message and challenge to Diamond is better and more succinct in the 2007 NY Times article A Question of Blame When Societies Fail.

The End: The final sentences of the book are telling:

Our ways are radically unsustainable. Diamond is right to be concerned by that. He is right to prefer hope to despair, and admirable in that he has used his fame to draw attention to issues of sustainability. But he is, as often as not, wrong in his judgments about successes and failures among societies of the past. (McNeill 2009:365)

As I read it–Jared Diamond’s a great guy and his politics are right on, but he got some stuff wrong about things that happened a long time ago. Not exactly a call to action. It also encapsulates a hidden weakness in the book, how so few authors are willing to question or challenge Diamond with regard to his policy and political prescriptions. Most go out of their way to praise him for drawing attention to global climate change. A notable exception is Tim Murray’s chapter on Australia, “The Power of the Past,” which takes Diamond to task for his extreme recommendations:

Diamond’s zeal to rid Australia of agriculture, and to conserve remaining forests, water, and fishing grounds, leads him to excess. . . . It is interesting that Diamond does not advocate the cessation of intensive irrigation and fertilization practices in the Imperial Valley of California, his home state. . . . Indeed, it would be an act of the grossest folly if Australians were to choose such a course of action when much less radical, but no less effective, means of improving sustainability are already available. (2009:319-320)

Murray’s chapter is also one of the strongest, arguing that the Aboriginals are not an example of failure but “that Diamond fails to grasp the significance of the roles Aboriginal people have come to play in contemporary Australia” (2009:299). One lesson: it is always dangerous to let a scholarly project go unchallenged because you like the person’s political commitments. I’m thinking about how Chomsky’s Universal Grammar was allowed to fester until it congealed into Steven Pinker.

Race Reconciled: How Biological Anthropologists View Human Variation (2009)

For a much longer review of the importance of this collection, see Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race.

The Guild: This is an important collection, but the reading can get extremely dense, to the point where it is hardly “reading” in the usual sense of the word. To be fair, these are research articles, aimed at fellow researchers, and the primary message is to review and revise anthropological understandings. It should be required reading for anyone teaching a 4-fields Introduction to Anthropology class.

Still, a bit more awareness of public debates would be nice. Only one of the articles mentions the 2005 debacle of Armand Marie Leroi’s A Family Tree in Every Gene. The editors main sense of public outreach is teaching students: “Biological anthropologists teach thousands of students every year and have a real opportunity to influence public views of human variation” (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2-3). Teaching is important, but with 10 million undergraduates in the U.S., teaching thousands of them may not do much to influence public views. More disturbingly, an article in Biology and Philosophy (supposedly peer-reviewed),  brazenly misinterprets and misrepresents the forensic anthropology articles in the AJPA volume to support traditional race thinking.

The End: The final article in the collection is Milford Wolpoff’s “How Neandertals Inform Human Variation.” Interesting stuff, perhaps even prescient given the 2010-2012 genetic findings (see Denisovans, Neandertals, Archaics as Human Races). Nevertheless, ending with Wolpoff is confusing as to what exactly this is telling us about contemporary race classifications. The last sentence: “Neandertals, it would appear, are the best established demonstration that humans in the past, like many other mammals, formed distinct races” (2009:99). This sentence could throw the race question open again. How far in the past? Could it happen in the present or future?

Anthropology Now (2009-)

The Guild: I confess to not being a reader of Anthropology Now, after initial excitement. For an update, I rely on Jeff Howe’s review, Crossing Over:

If only Anthropology Now consistently cleared the high bar set by these few articles. Other features found in a review of the magazine’s first four issues suffer from a range of deficiencies, including scars from what must have been a difficult edit from academic into popular prose. In fact, one strongly suspects reading certain articles that they were first intended for an academic journal but, alas, were accepted by this one instead. Halfhearted attempts were then made at an act of translation, with predictable results. . . .

This, then, is the problem with too many of the features published so far in Anthropology Now: they don’t read as rigorous, or specialized enough, to be published in an academic journal (perhaps because they are diluted versions of academic articles?). And unfortunately, they don’t trade that rigor for that slightly—let’s be honest here—sensational quality possessed by even the most intellectual pieces in, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly. Which is another way of saying the articles just aren’t that interesting. (2011:146)

The End: My wife reports some anthropologists gushed “Wow, look, a magazine!” about Anthropology Now. Which just shows how far they are from real magazines (see blog-post Cosmo and Cosmopolitanism).

Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture (2005)

The Guild: The articles in this book have mostly guild-level prose, but they do use that prose to address more popular works, like Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature or the notion that non-human primates are the source for male aggression instincts (see blog-post Darwin in Mind–The End of Evolutionary Psychology for Anthropology).

The main recommendation from this book seems to be “the need to incorporate complexity into our accounts and the struggle to find ways of problematizing, analyzing, and writing about complexity” (2005:viii). What? That anthropologists need to incorporate more complexity? I’m pretty sure that is not the problem. As Alex Golub noted in the review of Questioning Collapse:

Above all, a central argument of QC is that the world is “complex” and it would be better if popular audiences did not need to have it “simplified”. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen reminds us, however, this simply will not fly. Public anthropology is, I’ve argued, the bar at the conference–when people tell you straight up and without hedging what they think is really going on in their papers. It is in the nature of the game to “dare to be reductive”. I think QC would have done better to explore how to reduce effectively, rather than lament the fact that such a move was necessary–or attempt to avoid making it at all.

Same with Complexities–we need to talk about complexity in simple terms, not incorporate more complexity into what are already torturedly-complex anthropological accounts.

The End: The last essay is “Blood and Belonging” by Nina Glick Schiller. It’s about how we need to consider why people–not just the powerful–may have an interest in speaking in reductive terms about biological belonging to a nation or ethnic group. The final sentences:

Rather than despair about the reduction of identity to biology or dismiss all ideologies that define belonging in biological terms, we need to understand and contest the conditions in the world that promote forms of identification through metaphors of blood and nation–among the oppressed as well as the oppressors. (2005:306)

This seems an important message, if I understand it correctly–let’s not get so worked up about misrepresentations of biology and identity and instead challenge the political and economic inequalities that make these identity-as-biology appeals necessary. However, this is a quite different project from incorporating complexities into anthropological accounts.

Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines (2002)

The Guild: This book is pink, and tries to aim at students who might not take more anthropology courses. The articles do not have footnotes and references, although some of the writing is still dense. I taught this book just after it came out in 2002, and found it strangely already dated. The book came out shortly after the September 2001 attacks, but of course could make no reference to them. Certainly, anthropology was “exotic no more,” but it was also a time when politicians revved up the rhetoric of civilization-versus-savagery yet again, and it seemed to catch this collection off-guard. Also in retrospect, the subtitle “anthropology on the front lines” seems strange, as it would not be long before the controversies over anthropology and the Human Terrain System (see The Human Terrain System and Anthropology). Finally, Ulf Hannerz’s assessment of the title rings true:

When the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland commissions a volume to present a more current understanding of the discipline, it gives it the title Exotic No More–once again providing above all a negative statement, which might at worst be taken to mean that anthropology has given up its attempt to understand human lives across boundaries and is now all “anthropology at home.” The wide-ranging contents of the book in question show that this is not the case, but I would have preferred a more positive formulation up-front. (Anthropology’s World

The End: The last piece is a write-up of the work of Survival International, “the only worldwide organization supporting tribal peoples through public campaigns” (2002:430). This is important work. However, in a collection on how anthropology is exotic-no-more, ending with an emphasis on “tribal peoples” is strange. One of my colleagues who teaches this book reported that at the end of class, when he asked students what they got from the book, one student answered it was about how there were no exotic peoples anymore for anthropologists to study. Yes, this is a silly answer, but the end of the book might foster such impressions.

Popularizing Anthropology (1996)

The Guild: I include this to provide some time-depth and because one of the co-editors, Jeremy MacClancy, is the editor of Exotic No More. My paperback version of the book has a lot of pink-and-red. Little boxes on the back cover ask great questions like “How do anthropologists address the public?” and “What makes an anthropology book popular?” However, the chapters are mostly at guild-level, analyzing popular anthropology instead of providing guidance for these questions. Some of this has become quite dated, as one of the selling points is that they tackle material the postmodernists disregarded: “Ironically, postmodernists, in bypassing popular works of anthropology, have reinforced some of the very attitudes which they take such pains to question” (MacClancy 1996:3).

Still, MacClancy delivers a prophetic call-to-action, even more relevant in 2011: “At a time when professional expertise is greeted with increased scepticism, and new forms of disseminating knowledge are constantly invented, anthropologists should not cower behind the university walls, but dare to lower the drawbridge” (1996:46). That would have been a better final sentence than what Kuper and Marks give us in “Anthropologists Unite!”

The End: MacClancy writes the last chapter, “Fieldwork Styles,”  analyzing Laura Bohannan’s Return to Laughter, Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, and Katy Gardner’s Songs at the River’s Edge. MacClancy sums them up “as pilgrim, as peacock, as woman of her time–a successful trio of roles chosen by three different anthropologists of different generations. This triad of literary guises does not, however, exhaust the potential of the genre” (1996:242).

The very last sentence: “Which role or roles will prove popular in the future is not something to be predicted by a commentator, but to be decided by the public” (1996:243). Here I find myself scratching my head. What happened to the call to “dare to lower the drawbridge”? Don’t we want to guess what will work best across the bridge? Are we to leave this all to the public without attempting to also shape roles and perceptions?

Beyond Anthro-Flop

Hopefully anthropologists are moving beyond Anthro-Flop. The web-blog-twitter sphere may be a place where anthropologists collaborate and speak. It may also be a space to recapture some of the good material from the Anthro-Flops. We may not need to reinvent the wheel, just get it rolling in a different direction, or hitch it to a different cart. And dare to lower the drawbridge.

For a 2021 attempt to outline the complexities of anthropological relevance, see the lecture on “Anthropology for the Future” based on Anthropology: Why It Matters:

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Complexities & Anthro-flop-ology: Lessons from Popularizing Anthropology 1996-2011.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthro-flop-ology/. First posted 21 March 2011. Revised 4 June 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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