I'm doing some research on anthropology's audiences. It seems to me that most writing with anthropological content is written by anyone but anthropologists (see discussion thread in PopAnth group here on OAC). Why are we so shy about writing for a general public? I don't see how it can relate to our academic career goals or research opportunities because other academics, such as scientists and psychologists, are doing it. Those anthropologists that do write for a mainstream audience tend to be physical anthropologists or archaeologists. Are the rest of us just anxious that no-one will take us seriously if we write popular anthropology?
Johannes, I am glad that you are enjoying the discussion. Let me toss out a few thoughts in response to your questions.
1. There are now many anthropologists, I suspect, writing about economic crisis and alternative economies. A few with anthropological credentials have broken into the limelight: Gillian Tett, Katharine Ho, David Graeber, and our own Keith Hart are only a few whose names quickly come to mind. Where are the rest? Many are simply pursuing other topics, but even those who are now hopping on the economic crisis-alternative economies bandwagon are trapped in something you haven't yet noticed—the academic publishing cycle. From fieldwork to frequently cited article or book is a literally years-long process. Suppose that you have a brilliant idea and write something today. By the time you finish the article, send it to a journal whose editors then send it out for peer review, you make any necessary revisions, it goes in the ready-to-publish stack, and finally makes it into print, you can count on a minimum of two years. Ditto for a book; unless you are already famous and have a good agent, from idea to print can easily take four or five years.
2. What makes a topic hot is an issue I haven't seen much discussed in histories of anthropology but it's clearly been important. Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture gets big play in the mass media of the time it was published because romantic nationalism and how "we" are different from "them" were on lots of peoples minds-think Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Tse-Tung. Margaret Mead's success in writing about Samoan adolescents likely had something to do with the rise of the automobile and mass secondary education in the USA, both of which created new opportunities for teenagers eager to experiment with stuff that their parents and grandparents had repressed or learned to keep quiet about. Malinowski wrote in response to Freud, when Freud was still very hot stuff indeed.
3. Another rarely discussed topic is first-mover effect and lack of competition. If, like Malinowski, you are the first to write about kula and sex in the Trobriand islands, lots of people read what you write. If you are Annette Weiner, doing research on the Trobriands fifty years after Malinowski in a world where people have already read Malinowski, Mead and Fortune, you can win acclaim in professional circles (Weiner even became president of the American Anthropological Association), but your work, as good as it is, is unavoidably me-too and one of numerous options for people interested in the same topics and parts of the world. If you are someone going back to restudy the Trobriands now — a terrific idea by the way from a knowledge-building perspective—how many people are going to be interested in what you discover? Your fellow Oceanists may clap you on the back; the odds are that other anthropologists who specialize in other parts of the world are very unlikely to even be aware that you exist. As we say in the advertising world, you have to "cut through the clutter." Writing in imitation of your teachers is not very likely to do that.
Peter, welcome and thanks for your contribution! Would you be interested in writing short reviews (300-500 words) of these books for PopAnth? That way they may reach a wider audience.
Johannes, the more I look around, the more I suspect that there are a great many outlets that we're not really using. One of the things we're trying to do on PopAnth is link to as many of the places that anthropologists engage with the public as possible so that people can see what's being done and emulate it. Newspapers such as The Guardian, The New York Times and The Financial times publish anthropology. Then there are radio programs and documentaries. Most of the stories in these aren't "hot news" - they're just interesting stories.
"Playing back" readings to informants is a definite possibility, and it doesn't have to wait until after the research is published. I had an idea for getting the Australian public more interested in anthropology via a research project, inspired by Kate Fox's book "Watching the English". I heard that her book got a lot of backlash and wondered why she didn't leverage it by getting the public involved to "edit" a second edition. That gave me an idea for a new project structure, which goes something like this: Say I wanted to write a book about “Australian culture”. I nut out my ideas in a draft form, then appeal to some of the largest radio stations to get involved. I get on the radio and talk about my ideas about what Australian culture might be, and invite feedback. The radio hosts keep the conversation going all week, and the project also has a website where anyone can leave comments and volunteer to take part. As the research goes on, I get on the radio regularly to update everyone on what we’ve found out, and to create debate around specific, contentious points. A draft of the final publication is put on the website, also for people to read and comment on. A tonne of data – the majority, in fact – is collected through these public engagements. In the end, you have a book that might have a couple of lead authors but actually is the work of many people. Could be interesting.