May 7, 2013

Is Blogging Really the Future of Public Anthropology?

In a new short article out in the British Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Martijn de Koning asks what challenges anthropologists face in using blogs as a method of anthropological outreach.  He begins by highlighting some of the motivations for anthropologists to blog: "[M]any anthropologists have suggested that for them the primary reasons for blogging are self-realization, creativity and networking, sharing research experiences and outcomes, and commenting on current affairs" (de Koning 2013:394).

As blogs have been around since the late 1990s, it seems a little strange that academic anthropologists are just now getting around to interrogating the utility of blogs and asking reflexive questions about our employment of the medium. de Koning quotes my 9 February 2012 blog post, "Blogs as Anthropological Outreach," to illustrate why some of us value blogging, although he only excerpts the first of these two paragraphs:

I blog because I find it rewarding - there's excitement in knowing that people who probably wouldn't touch my journal articles are reading about my work and about other developments in bioarchaeology; there's joy when I get emails from up-and-coming researchers, as young as middle schoolers, who want advice on how to make bioarchaeology a career; and there's the interaction with my readers that doesn't come across in the unidirectional, static medium of a publication.

Blogging is an exercise in writing for a different public, an exercise in taking all that jargon you learned in your coursework, distilling it, injecting your own ideas, and making it interesting. Writing a blog has helped me refine my research and my prose, and I think that my public lectures and my successful grant proposals in particular have greatly benefited from the practice. I always wish I had more time to blog. There's just so much cool stuff out there to talk about, and so little time to write...
Logo for PbO
Strangely, towards the end of the article, de Koning concludes that, "we can tentatively say that anthropology blogs appear to reach out mostly to fellow academics" (2013:396).  Considering the brevity of the article and the lack of any sort of concrete assessment of the range of anthropology blogs (see Anthropology Report for a good ecology of the anthro blogosphere), I was surprised by de Koning's conclusion.  After all, he cites my blog, one of whose prominent, recurring features is a critique of the forensic anthropology on the popular FOX TV show Bones each week.  Those posts are aimed at the general public, and I can say with certainty from my analytics, comments, and emails that non-academics are the main consumers of that information. Further, my posts have been picked up by a variety of internet sources such as The Daily Beast, The Browser: Writing Worth Reading, and CounterPunch.  My most popular blog post of all time, "Lead Poisoning in Rome - The Skeletal Evidence" is based on my own research but is written for the public; to date, it has garnered over 28,000 views but the article it's based on (Montgomery et al. 2010) has just one citation according to Google Scholar.  This is quantifiable public outreach.

Logo for AnthInPractice
de Koning also cites Krystal d'Costa's Anthropology in Practice, which is similarly aimed at a non-academic audience in spite of its location at Scientific American, and Krystal's writing has been showcased by such pop culture websites as BoingBoing.  Other blogs by anthropologists enjoy broad readership as well: bioanthropologist Barbara J. King writes at NPR blogs; archaeologist Rosemary Joyce writes at Psychology Today; the American Anthropological Association has a high-profile platform at The Huffington Post, to which dozens of anthropologists have contributed posts.  While many of these sites are directed at an educated audience, that audience is not composed entirely of academics.  Anthropologists are talking to the public.  And all of these anthropologists can tell you that the public is listening and responding in comments, tweets, Facebook shares, and email forwards.  Those stats are also quantifiable public outreach.

Flyer for T. Harrenstein's Foursquare
anthro outreach project in Pensacola FL
I will agree with de Koning, however, that the majority of anthropology blogs are likely focused on talking to academics in the language of academia, although I have not surveyed the blogosphere to test this hypothesis.  If true, it is unfortunate, since a whole world of audiences exists if we are only willing to learn how to write for and engage them in our discussions.  We definitely, in de Koning's words, need to "realize the full potential for public anthropology by blogging," (2013:397), and it was to this end that I required each of the graduate students in my Presenting Anthropology seminar this semester to create and maintain a social media presence.  What I found interesting from reading the students' reports this past weekend was that the majority of them felt most comfortable with Tumblr, a short-format blogging platform, and were wary of the often lengthy, academic-style posts that show up on such sites as Savage Minds.  My students by and large reported more engagement, in quantity and quality, through their Tumblr posts than through more traditional blog posts, even when those posts were the same content.  So one of the questions we need to reflect on as anthropologists interested in engaging the public is: Who is our audience, and how can we best reach them?  Is blogging the key?  If so, what platform, what format, what language do we use?  Or should other social media avenues be explored?  Rhetorical question, of course; the answer is a resounding YES!  Web 2.0 is founded on dynamism, and if we want to talk to the public, we need to be similarly flexible in our approach to reaching out.  For example, my grad student Tristan Harrenstein devised a Foursquare outreach program over the course of the Presenting Anthropology seminar, and we're excited to see what happens now that it's been deployed by the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

Finally, de Koning notes that it's somewhat ironic that anthropology blogs largely focus on a Western audience and topics related to Western ideologies, when we're the primary field that prides itself on a cross-cultural and often non-Western focus.  I endorse his call to create "a more global and plural anthropological community" (2013:397).  We need more anthropologists writing in a variety of languages about a variety of cultures and topics, specifically engaging the public in our attempts to explain the fascinating biocultural nature of humans around the world.

Until that happens, though, I think it is important to take stock of anthropologists' attempts at outreach, as people like Jeremy Sabloff (1998, 2011) have been advocating for over a decade, but to more specifically focus on the breadth of outreach we are already doing.  Although I maintain that blogging is important, and I continue to enjoy doing it, engaging in some much-needed self-reflection within the discipline on the methods of outreach that are currently ongoing and that can be deployed in the future would result in a much more thorough state-of-the-discipline article.

M. de Koning (2013). Hello World! Challenges for blogging as anthropological outreach. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19 (2), 394-397. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12040.

J. Montgomery, J. Evans, S. Chenery, V. Pashley, K. Killgrove (2010). 'Gleaming, white, and deadly': using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology, S78.

J. Sabloff (1998). Distinguished Lecture in Archeology: Communication and the Future of American Archaeology. American Anthropologist, 100 (4), 869-875. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.4.869.

J. Sabloff (2011). Where have you gone, Margaret Mead? Anthropology and public intellectuals. American Anthropologist, 113 (3), 408-416.


Geoff Carter said...

While Osteoarchaeologists seek to apply any medical or analytical technique that they can beg borrow or steal, necessitating a scientific approach, you are then feeding good data into a narrative which is highly subjective.
In archaeology there is a peer reviewed narrative, which is quite district from the evidence base, and it is the study of this narrative, rather than the evidence itself that dominates the intellectual culture at the top of the archaeological food chain.
Take a skeleton near Stonehenge;
You can objectively determine it has had a broken leg; conclusion the individual perceived Stonehenge as place of healing.
Through isotope analysis you can determine the individual grew up in Central Europe; conclusion he perceived Stonehenge as place of pilgrimage.
Even the finest Osteoarchaeologist cannot extract “Perceptions” from human remains, but in Post-Processual archaeology, peer reviewed and taught to students, how prehistoric people perceived objects, materials, landscapes and themselves has become central to our “understanding” and “knowledge” of the past.
My own research on reverse engineering timber structures, based on the application of maths, geometry, and simple mechanics to the evidence, unfortunately, Newcastle University have an expert on “Iron Age Building Cosmology” and so my graphs and spatial analysis was trashed and deemed irrelevant by the testimony of the dead.
Archaeology at Newcastle University was faith based, and yet peer-reviewed, tenure being regarded as sufficient evidence to support knowledge of the perceptions of people who at best exist only as skeletal remains.
As an archaeologist, I am trying to foster understanding, not belief, so I blog.

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