Anthropologists should do a better job of promoting their field (Orlando Sentinel)

By Ty Matejowsky and Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster | Guest columnists

April 24, 2013

Anthropology has been in the news quite a bit lately.

The New York Times recently profiled Napoleon Chagnon on the eve of the publication of his memoir, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.”

Last August, Kiplinger named anthropology “the worst major for your career.”

Two months later, Forbes ranked “anthropology and archaeology,” as No. 1 on its list of “worst college majors.”

This newfound public shaming of anthropology only adds insult to injury in light of Florida Gov. Rick Scott‘s dismissive 2011 statements about anthropologists. More than once Scott, whose daughter famously earned an anthropology degree, quipped that Florida does “not need any more anthropologists.”

Overall, 2012 was anthropology’s annus horribilis, as Science magazine recently stated.

Of anthropology’s major subfields, cultural anthropology has probably fared the worst in recent public discussions. Although archaeology and physical anthropology get their fair share of positive media portrayals — think Emily Deschanel’s portrayal of sexy forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan on CBS’s Bones — it seems that journalists only acknowledge cultural anthropology when it is gripped by controversy.

Cultural anthropology suffers a public-image problem as our “brand” is now largely defined by others. Politicians, studies by business media with profit-driven measures of success, and pseudo-anthropological authorities like Jared Diamond have done much to define cultural anthropology in the popular consciousness.

In many ways, cultural anthropology lacks archaeology’s and physical anthropology’s “cool” cachet. While their practices and methodologies easily translate to National Geographic or History Channel programs, they necessarily involve some degree of commodification.

Bones, ruins, and artifacts all become objects for public consumption. Cultural anthropology is much more difficult to “sell” because it resists similarly commodifying living people. The 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with photos of tribal peoples alongside bikini-clad models serves as a prime example of this commodification.

Many cultural anthropologists have remained aloof amid this tumult. This remoteness is surely compounded by today’s academic environment. Public engagement counts little toward promotion and tenure and may even be viewed dismissively by fellow academics.

Many anthropologists, already burdened with increased class sizes, decreased institutional support, and ever-growing pressures to publish and secure research grants simply do not have the time, resources or motivation to publicly voice their opinions.

Cultural anthropology’s branding problem is largely superficial. Anthropologists possess unique knowledge and skill sets that have real-world value. Anthropology helps us understand the world in a way that cannot be reduced to numbers or captured in surveys.

The marketing industry is increasingly recognizing the value of anthropological methodologies. A recent Atlantic article highlights the way in which ethnography and participant-observation are used in market research. Moreover, the World Bank recently elected an anthropologist, Jim Yong Kim, as president.

Anthropologists need to take better ownership of our brand. The complexity of anthropological concepts such as “culture,” “power” and the “global” should not dissuade anthropologists from engaging in meaningful public discourse.

Evidence of such newfound public engagement is emerging within the Web and blogosphere. Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically blog and the “This is Anthropology” initiative, a “jargon-free” website with the purpose of informing the public about anthropology, are well ahead of the curve in this way, providing anthropological perspectives on relevant social issues that are both accessible and engaging.

Revisiting anthropology’s history may be the best way to revitalize the cultural anthropology brand. Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, argued that race is not biologically determined and that no race is genetically superior. His numerous speeches and public writings underscore his commitment to public engagement.

Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict continued Boas’ tradition by writing books read by millions. Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” pushed gender and sex boundaries in the 1920s. Benedict’s book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” transformed many people’s’ understandings of post-war Japan.

The much-loved fictional writing of Zora Neale Hurston was greatly informed by her anthropological training. These anthropologists, perhaps imperfectly, challenged prevailing assumptions by the general public in their times.

Challenging preconceived notions and assumptions is still central to our brand. Anthropology is critically engaged, proactive, holistic and progressive. More than anything, the anthropology brand is concerned with culture, an ever-changing process that both defines our reality and is defined by our individual and societal choices.

Ty Matejowsky and Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster are professors in the department of anthropology at the University of Central Florida.

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