When it comes to practicing the martial arts, gravel changes everything… it really does.

Our martial arts school, Renaissance Martial Arts, recently moved to a new location in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. Though I knew it was coming for a while, aspects of the move have been tough. Our previous space, 34 Elton Street, was our program’s “home,” even if it wasn’t technically our first space.

Renaissance Martial Arts officially started1 in 1999 in the backroom of a Karate school in Henrietta. We moved to Elton in 2002. When we got there the space, which had last been used for some sort of electronics work, was completely run down. Our first three months were spent renovating — removing a drop ceiling, building changing rooms, refinishing the floor after first digging out all of the little pieces of wire and sodder embedded in it. We literally built the school ourselves.

Times change, and accepting hard realities, we change with them. A core tenant of our approach to the martial arts is the concept of “adaptive flow.” And adapting always involves movement — sometimes even literally moving to a new home.

And that gets me to our new home at 46 Sager Drive and gravel.

[An arial view of our new home, and the alley along side of it]

Though the size of the (traditional) training floor is smaller than at Elton Street, 46 Sager Drive offers a staggering range of “supplemental” training spaces. For example, a few weeks ago, Sifu Mark (Sifu being the title for “instructor” in the Chinese martial arts) helped us understand what it means to work our backs “to the wall” by holding a number of classes in the narrow hallway that runs alongside the school. Yesterday he held class for the first time in another of our supplemental spaces — the alley directly to the right of our building (picture courtesy of Google Maps).

Martial Artists often talk about the dangerous environment of “the street” — hard pavement, gravel, broken glass (some, tongue-​firmly-​in-​cheek add “lava” to the list). We all accept that it’s bad news. But I suspect that only a few have had the experience of actually practicing in that environment.

Gravel changes everything. The same can be said for brick walls, chain linked fences, dumpsters, telephone poles, and a ton of other environmental elements.

It changes one’s willingness to “take a fall.” I’m a teaching assistant — in the martial arts that’s a euphemism for punching dummy — and one of my responsibilities is to be the one that things are demonstrated on. In other words, I get thrown around a lot on a lot of different surfaces — mats, grass, indoor tracks, astro-​turf, hardwood floors, and even smooth cement. But in that alley, standing on rough pavement and gravel, when faced with the idea of taking any sort of breakfall my body and mind responded with a resounding “hell no.”2

Gravel changes the way one stands and moves. I can’t count the number of times I slipped and skidded. This usually happened while working a partner drill, meaning that in many cases this was happening at the “worst possible time” — i.e. when I was trying to get out of path of an attack. And as bad as the momentary lose of physical stability was, what was worse was the loss of mental stability. In that “oh crap, I’m slipping on gravel moment” my mind all too often focused on me slipping versus the person trying to punch me in the face.

Brick walls change things too.

One of the exercises we worked dealt with getting backed into a wall. The challenge was to “accept” (for the purposes of the drill) that you are so focused on the person who is threatening you that you unintentionally back yourself into the wall. The goal here is not so much to hit the wall, as to learn what to do when you do “hit”, or at least bump into, the unexpected barrier. Try as I might, I could not make myself unknowingly back into that all too real wall behind me when there was a “threat” in front of me.3 Like the breakfall, this is the type of thing I’d have no problem doing inside the “safe” environment of a traditional classroom.

Gravel changes everything.

But it also changes nothing.

It changes nothing, because, at the end of the day, we were still thinking, working, and practicing the same ideas and techniques we worked in the normal classroom. Despite harder and, at times, slipperier surfaces, punches were still punches, kicks were still kicks, and the human bodies involved still all had one head, two arms, and two legs, all connected by and to a central spine. Because everyone, new and old student alike, used those concepts that have been driven into us through countless repetitions on our usual, traditional, training floor, we all transitioned with relative ease to the uncomfortable brick and gravel of that alley.

We’re all looking forward to going back to train there soon (not to mention bragging to the people who missed class that we — and not them — got the chance to train in the alley. That’s what happens when you miss class).

I’ll always miss our old home, but experiences like last night’s show me how much there is to love about our new one. More importantly, they serve as a reminder that who we are — the fundamentals of our practice and our school, even each of us as students of the martial arts — don’t change just because our environment does. If they had then they wouldn’t be fundamentals.

  1. I say officially because prior to that we trained in a traditional “underground” way, having no name, gaining students through word of mouth, and making our home in basements and backyards. []
  2. The response, a physical versus a verbal one, from the Sifu was a simply “yes, you will” was delivered by gently depositing me to the hard pavement at the end of a demonstration. You can’t always get what you want… but you find sometimes you get what you need []
  3. Instead, I’d take a few “natural” steps backward and then shift into a more “tactical” way of backing up while gaging how much space I had. Note that from an application point of view, this is a good thing. But from a training point-​of-​view, my inability to control myself didn’t allow me to practice the drill as intended. That’s a not-​so-​good-​thing.

    That inability to control myself also displayed, well, an inability to control, or rather regulate, myself — to actively be in the moment rather than letting habits drive me. Again, in push-​comes-​to-​shove application, not a bad thing, but to learn and progress you need to be able to put even good habits aside at times. []

tl;dr.: Why we should stop worrying about stereotyped feminism and learn to love (or at least appreciate) what it is really about

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and Women in Open Source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito argued that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist. (Designers and Women in Open Source)

Via Twitter:
Joel Johnson: @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong. 6 days ago

Anil Dash
: @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists. 6 days ago

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture.

Consider this a brief, easy-​to-​read, Primer on Feminism to help folks who are not familiar with it move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.1 Note that this is my version of feminism and its story. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field).

Feminism, like any movement, is an constant state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary” – Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. – pairs of objects and ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions: you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and others who were simultaneously attacking other forms of discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to investigate how that original Male/​Female binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that second wave feminists, in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater.2 In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

  1. This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move often created new discrimination in that it implied one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology).As an extreme simplification: feminism was at risk of becoming trapped by its tools: turning the world into one big nail​.So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, attention refocused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.
  2. Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accept the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably along side each other in “real life.“This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).
  3. Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). And none of this should be taken to suggest that morals or binaries have been completely abandoned.

But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

  • Just pointing out gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.
  • Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

Modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to balance the needs of individual and groups, relativism and absolutism, and objectivity and subjectivity. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

So Vito’s post has started a conversation about the issue of discrimination in Open Source Culture. If all it does is generate moral recriminations or resigned acceptance of the problem as it exists, then it (and the conversation it generated) is no more feminist than the culture it critiqued.

I’ll spill a lot more pixels on this by the middle of next week… In the meantime comments are definitely welcome.

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and women in open source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito pointed out that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist.

joeljohnson Joel Johnson @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong.

anildash Anil Dash @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists.

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture — consider this a brief history and definition of Feminism. Note this is my version of feminism. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field). This is an attempt at a quick-​and-​dirty primer to help folks move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.

The first thing to understand is that Feminism, like any movement is an continuous state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary.” Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. Pairs of objects or ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions — you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and other’s who attacked discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to ask how that original Male/​Female divide/​binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, second wave feminists had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

(1) This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move pretended that there was one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology). As an extreme simplification: feminism was becoming trapped by its tools — a specific strain of feminist ideology was turning the world into one big nail. So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, the attention focused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.

(2) Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accepts the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably in the world. This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).

(3) Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

Screaming gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.

Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

In many ways, modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

  1. And it’s also an argument for why I’m a feminist and you should consider being on too []
  2. I have to admit that I’m in a constant struggle about how to fairly represent Second Wave feminism. It’s clear that it was necessary and it’s clear that in the long term it helped get things to a better place. At the same time, there’s just so much of it that is so far outside of my own pragmatist thinking/​ethos that I just don’t know what to do with it. []

Update (2.10.2011): Thank you so much to the folks who, via email and Twitter! have contributed really helpful comments. Please, keep them coming (if you don’t mind)!

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and “hackers” (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc).1

This, the first of two documents, is a broad outline of the overall goals and direction of my project. The other doc, located here, is an attempt to conceptualize where the research will happen.

BTW, if you’re with a start-​up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-​wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.


PhD Research Proposal:
The Makers/​ing of the Future of News

US news institutions, in particular, newspapers, are in a state of crisis. While debates may be had as to how and when this moment was reached, and to the size and scope of said rupture, the fact remains that there is a sense of general agreement between lay people, academics, politicians, and those within the industry, that the current model is unsustainable. Popular opinion is the news must “change or die.”

At the center of my research project, is the following question: In the face of an existential institutional crisis, how do the individuals at the heart of the crisis work to create a “hopeful” future. Using an anthropological approach, I seek to explore the ways in which different concepts of the “future,” often containing multiple futures themselves, are introduced, negotiated, transformed, and reproduced in both the interactions of journalists and technologists and in the products of they build. I am also concerned with the ways that, at the same time they are developing new “news” futures, these actors reconcile themselves to the giving up of current presents and pasts.

The imperative for change in the “news” was succinctly crystallized in the following excerpt from a 2009 blog posting by NYU Journalism Professor Clay Shirky, widely circulated and commented upon within in news industry:

There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke… Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
[Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, 3.13.2009]

Shirky gives voice to a dominant view held within and outside the US News industry: “the future of the news” will be found through a specific mode of research and development which imports specific high tech ideals and models of “innovation,” including the web 2.0 mindset (an idiosyncratic mixing of neoliberal and techno-​utopian ideologies) and an increasing number of non-​traditional actors, including programmers, database experts, and data visualization designers, into process of making the news. Traditional journalists find themselves working side-​by-​side with these technologists, not as client and service-​provider, but instead as “equal” partners in a project to reinvent the news.

At a high level, my research works to map how, at this socio-​historical moment in the history of the US News industry, a distributed network of actors, many of whom are from outside the traditional news business, are directly and indirectly coming together dream about new models of “news.” I plan to conduct in a historical examination of the recent history of the news industry and an analysis of the circulation of the various conversations and projects that are currently “in-​play.”

Moving from the macro to the micro, the majority of my research will focus on documenting what emerges from specific encounters and collaborations between journalists and technologists taking place in and around a US metropolitan area. Centering myself within a mid-​sized to large American city, I will conduct a multi-​sited ethnography that, through participant observation and interviewing, seeks to trace the various, and often, conflicting values and visions at play in these interactions. This includes following the circulation of ideas and individuals, tracking how both are mediated through lived encounters — acts of embodied communication and negotiation — and ultimately how they code (and are encoded within) the applications and content that these projects produce. Along the way, I also plan to record how my interlocutors also reconcile their work with changes that they see occurring in journalism practices and institutions. This primary field research will be supplemented with research conducted in relevant on-​line spaces, at various trade events, and side trips to external institutions, such as the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which my interlocutors are in dialog with.

Drawing upon my background in semiotic and linguistic anthropology, and previous experience as a professional publisher and web designer, it is my goal to build upon, and contribute to, ongoing discussions in the fields of anthropology, science and technology studies, and communications theorizing how media ideologies come to bound specific interactions and professional, in particular journalistic, practices. Additionally, following the work of Lucy Suchman, Diana Foresythe, Biella Coleman, and Christopher Kelty, I am interested in showing how, as a result of these interactions, specific ideologies become reproduced within software which, intentionally or not, helps shape the ways in which that software can be used to investigate, edit, distribute, amplify, and discuss the news. I also plan to develop my research in such a way that it will be of use to those engaged in the broader project of reinventing the news.

  1. Note that this does not mean my project is centered around the Journalism group that goes by the same name — though I do hope to do work with them. []

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and hackers (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc).

This, the second of two documents, is a broad outline of how I hope to structure my fieldwork. The other document, found here, is my attempt at defining the larger (still too large) scope of my project.

BTW, if you’re with a start-​up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-​wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.


Outline of scope and approach for ethnographic fieldwork

This project is conceived, following the work of George Marcus and others, as a multi-​sited ethnography. While the majority of my fieldwork will be anchored within a US City, the nature of this study requires me to follow my interlocutors as they, and their words and works, circulate within a broader network of individuals and institutions collaborating to “dream” the future of news.

The choice of city is based on weighing four primary factors. First, the ability to conduct research within and around existing, “legacy” news institutions engaged in news R&D. The second factor is the presence of start-​up news enterprises. These range from community media outlets to start-​up organizations specifically working to develop new “news” applications. The third factor is the presence and activity level of industry networking groups such as “Hacks/​Hackers,” which work to foster conversation and collaborations between journalists and technologists. Finally, I am also looking for cities in which there are academic centers which are actively involved in the study of the future of the news.

As part of this research involves mapping the terrain of this collaborative space of dreaming, in addition to local research, I also plan to conduct supplemental research at a number of extra-​local sites, in particular, trade meetings and conferences. Because the size, scope, format, and influence of these events can vary greatly, the choice of which ones to attend will be largely shaped by the priorities of my interlocutors. In addition to these sites, it’s my hope to conduct brief in-​person research sessions at one or two of the non-​profit institutions, like the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which are helping set and shape these discussions at a national level.

Additionally, I also plan to follow my interlocutors on-​line, as social networking tools have become a critical part of the day-​to-​day productions efforts that I hope to track. In addition to staying abreast of discussions carried out via blogging platforms, I plan to conduct participant observation around various news related “tweet-​ups”, regularly scheduled chat sessions in which groups of journalists hold guided open, public discussions about a specific “news topic.” My research methodology for this aspect of the project will draw upon the tools of linguistic and media anthropology to consider the interaction of individuals, culture, and mediating software, while, at the same time maintaining attention to the embodied grounding of all interactions.

This post is part of the revived Carnival of Journalism, a monthly event, organized by David Cohn, in which journalists and academics will blog on a given topic. I fit into the later group of participants, as I’m not a journalist, but an Anthropologist who is studying the transformation of journalism within the US. That said, I have a particular ongoing interest in this month’s CoJ prompt: Reflect on the Knight Commission‘s recommendation that universities should “Increase the[ir] role…As hubs of journalistic activity” and “integrate digital and media literacy….”

In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Applied Anthropology, sometimes also referred to as Public Anthropology. What specifically is the role of Anthropology in public discourse? Or rather, what could it be? What follows is a brief meditation on what Anthropologists, who lets face it, largely reside in Universities, can do to increase journalistic activities.

Roughly a year ago, anthropologist Chris Kelty wrote an insightful analysis of the situation in a post Savage Minds1 entitled Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? In the article Kelty proposed three big barriers to the integration of Anthropology into journalism:

  1. “Because there isn’t as much Anthropology as there is science [or humanities] to report on” — in other words, when looking at the wealth of research being conducted across the various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and humanities), the amount of actual anthropological work is relatively minuscule.
  2. “Because journalists already do what Anthropologists do, only better” — We are sister disciplines/​professions/​crafts, so there is crossover. But one thing that differentiates us is time scale. Journalism works to report immediate facts. Anthropology then takes years to build theories of what was happening behind those facts (or why a certain set of facts, as opposed to others, were taken as “the facts”). Journalism works at the speed of hours and days. Anthropology typically works at the pace of years.
  3. “Because Anthropologists [and Anthropology journals] do not report on their research” — Anthropologists (and many academics) have a tendency to talk mainly among ourselves, typically in big and scary words, and rarely, if ever, condense our research down to publicly consumable “elevator talks.” Instead, that the focus to publish in (pay-​walled) institutional journals and respond, in long form, to ongoing Anthropological conversations renders our work inaccessible to the general public.

There’s a lot in Kelty’s analysis that’s worth addressing. For this post, I’d like to side-​step points one and two. Let’s assume that regardless of quantity of output, anthropologists have something valuable to say, and that this knowledge can be applied to events as they unfold, as opposed to focusing on retrospective events.

Instead, I’d like to concentrate on point three (lack of reporting) and think about it in terms of another recent anthro post. Almost a year after Kelty’s article, Miami University’s Mark Allen Peterson made the following pronouncement in a post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s blog:

One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic Anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established.

Peterson goes on to suggest a number of ways for individual anthropologists to build “public expertise,” including constructing homepages and maintaining blogs, editing Wikipedia pages, adding content to YouTube, and using social media. All of these are steps that make sense, and can help raise one’s “Google index,” making it more likely for a journalist to find you when they are researching a story. But it does little, at least in the short term, to increasing engagement.

The big issue2 that Anthropology faces is that we’ve, for the most part, bought into a “field of dreams” sort of mindset: if we produce good scholarship, they will come and interview us. This tends to ignore the barriers that prevent journalists from “getting at” that scholarship (firewalls, arcane language, expectation that you’re at least familiar with the texts/​arguments that one is engaging). It also ignores the reality of the practice of journalism, especially how fast stories have to come together. As I keep re-​learning through interviews with journalists, the average journalist doesn’t have the luxury of reflection when facing a daily (or even weekly) deadline.

Here’s the immediate problem: the values that shape “good Anthropological scholarship” render that scholarship useless to journalists. The impasse that needs to be acknowledged and resolved is that, up to this point, the expectation is that the journalists are supposed to bridge the gap.

Peterson’s posting is a nod towards changing this. And in general I agree with what he’s saying. But outreach on social media is fundamentally different than direct outreach to journalists (and journalistic institutions).

So, what can be done on the institutional, university level? Beyond the usual “change tenure requirements“3 , here are a couple tactical ideas based on my discussions with journalists and my past experiences as a visiting professor:

  1. Accept that journalists are not undergraduates. Regardless of how interested they are in a topic, they typically don’t have time to read and absorb the paper, the chapter, or the book. The responsibility of boiling it down is on you (and note that I said boiling it down, versus dumbing it down). Which leads to…
  2. When it comes to publicizing your work, take TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) to heart. Love the 140 character limit — if you can’t make me at least curious in 140 characters, there’s little chance of convincing a journalists to pay attention. Likewise, in interviews, start simple and let the journalist guide the conversation.
  3. Embrace existing institutional solutions. The majority of universities are already engaged in press outreach, go talk to these people. Get registered as a subject matter “expert.” They can help with access to various media outlets, because the more an individual scholar is seen as an expert, the more the institution is seen as the home of experts.
  4. Begin to cultivate individual relationships with reporters and editors who work in topic areas of interest. One method of getting at them is via the letters to the editor page. Other options include direct email engagement and …
  5. Building off Peterson’s point, start to follow journalists working within your field, especially on twitter, and be ready to respond. This isn’t about them following you, though that’s a hopeful outcome, it’s about you following them.
  6. Pitch stories. Seriously. There are a number of amazing academic journalist engagements going on right now — see The Atlantic’s ongoing publication of Syllabus-​as-​Essay feature as one example of this sort of collaboration.
  7. Write content for public consumption [thanks to Josh Braun for reminding me that this should explicitly be stated]. Anthropology, especially in the first half of the century, had a history of doing this (See Mead, Benedict, and Powdermaker as examples). Like it or not, the chances that most journalism outlets are going to add a social sciences beat are slim-​to-​none. Again, that doesn’t mean that content needs to be “dumbed-​down” through the removal of any nuanced analysis. And, btw, learning to write this was is a challenge unto itself (for one of my attempts at finding the “sweet spot” check out this post on the inescapable politicization of the Tucson shooting which tries to work with Sahlins and Evans-​Pritchard without getting too “academic-​ie”)

Much like Smokey Bear reminds us that “only you can prevent Forest Fires,” at this point, only Anthropologists can make Anthropology relevant again. Doing that will requires an active engagement with the press. And said engagement means that we (Anthropologists) need to come more than half-​way in order to reestablish a relationships that was largely lost quite some time ago.

  1. an academic blog specifically focused on the practice and culture of Anthropology []
  2. The second issue is that, by and large, Anthropologists, especially since WWII, have allowed our focus on where we are studying (field site) to overshadow what we are studying when we get there. So when someone is reporting on a medical crisis in Haiti, for example, its easy for a reporter to think about how they can integrate Anthropology into a story. Unfortunately, if it’s a story about medical crisis in general, reporters, and most of the general public, are not trained to think that a Medical Anthropologist has much to say on that topic. This operationalization is our own fault, as, in many ways we operationalized ourselves years ago when, post WWII, the field tied it’s overall program to area studies, ceding the majority of direct engagement with modern, western culture to sociologists. []
  3. a topic over which so much blood, sweat, ink, and pixels have been spilled that there’s little I can add, and given my state in the overall process, any attempt at addition would be the height of presumption []