Make Anthropology Matter!

Or: “Academia vs the public”? – Part 3 of 3

After reading John Hawk’s article “What’s wrong with anthropology“, that tackles the question of why anthropology as a discipline lost its relevance, I started thinking about my own role as a researcher. In this essay I am going to summarize some of Hawk’s theses, as well as adding my personal experience and thought to the discussion.

In previous parts of this series, I spoke about the barrier between the public and the “ivory tower” of academia. Hundreds, even thousands of publications are released annually. However, it hardly reaches public discourse. Are people too lazy to read scientific publications? Are they to blame for not taking a step outside their ideological bubble? Maybe, to some degree. Intellectual laziness exists. But today, instead of pointing fingers, I want to talk about the responsibility of us researchers.

It seems like anthropologist unlearned how to carry their knowledge to the “outside world” in an effective and formative way. We have to use new communication possibilities. Make ethnological knowledge more freely accessible. We must not ignore the advantages of video platforms, podcasts and blogs. We could implement what John Hawk suggests: daily reports, live from site. We can post more often, and smaller digestible content.

John Hawk suggests to publish our newest findings and daily reports from site as they happen, I think this is a great idea. Keep people up to date on our work in progress but also, why not share our mistakes and worries as well?Engage the audience! Let them be involved in the process, especially if they are part of the community you are doing research on.

“We must change not only for practical reasons but for moral reasons as well. Anthropological research depends on the cooperation, interest and goodwill of many communities, both today and in the past. People do not donate their cooperation lightly.” – Hawk (2011)

Respect the people you are writing about, make it transparent. And I’d like to add, this approach doesn’t necessarily have to be seen in a negative, self disciplinary way. It can be a very positive experience: The readers can give feedback, give further input. And they can come closer to understand your work as well. This approach can dramatically improve your academic writing but also show them the amount of work research actually entails.

Many people don’t have the privilege of higher education. We as academics should be led by responsibility, not just our own personal curiosity. Reach out to the general public. Not as know-it-alls with savior complex. We don’t have to be militant either. I think, especially for those who are more introverted, it goes a long way when we are just present. Engaged. All these terms we are surrounded with: culture, race, identity, … are part of our toolbox and we could enrich public discourse in wonderful ways.

Because, do you know who does it, if we don’t? Pseudo-scientists, conspiracy ideologists, extremists … and as much as I can’t stand them, we must admit they are a symptom. Poor media coverage and a lack of legitimate voices in public discourse, let people look for their own sources and conclusions. Imagine academia being more active in the media landscape, with independent media outlets, PR departments, public events, etc., but without falsifying results, without letting commercial interests contradict ethical principles, and without dumbing down our research for the public. Dont underestimate their intelligence!

“Engagement is the antithesis of condescension. Embracing a model of engagement means changing our mode of communication. Write every article for real people. Some say that means ‘dumbing down’ our research. Don’t dumb it down. Sharpen it. Your scholarship will improve as a result.” – Hawk (2011)

There is this cynical meme i came across on campus: “What we [humanities] do is no real science, because it doesn’t make money (wink wink)”. As much as I appreciate dark humor, I contest this viewpoint.  Let me be provocative: It’s not the Investors fault that we are irrelevant. So, make anthropology matter! We don’t have to pretend that ethnographers are more important than carpenters or doctors, but we have value that we can provide. We can offer new insights, open up new perspectives, bring people together; we can educate, inspire, … even entertain with anecdotes from the field!

No matter how “exotic” our subject seems to be, everybody has thoughts on culture and society. Everybody had experience with some of our “tools in the toolbox”, to use the metaphor from the beginning. Trust me, even your mathematician friend understands the value of art, religion, culture in general. And if you are able to communicate relevance for, say, politics or global phenomena as well, bonus points from me. Either way, you will see: Passion is contagious. If ever people gathered around you because you are speaking about your research or just an interesting theory you read somewhere, you know exactly what I am talking about.

We don’t need to be sensationalist to spark interest. I might call myself the “Bad Scientist” (mostly because I didn’t come up with a better name at the time), but I am all for valid, meaningful, and serious scholarship. But don’t have a scholarship problem, we have a communication problem. We need to expand our horizon and search for new ways to translate our knowledge beyond campus libraries (I love libraries but you get the point).

“Let’s rebuild anthropology as the radical science it once was”
Hawk (2011)

May it be in NGOs, activism, or journalism; as “public intelectuals” or anthropreneurs. If we want to stay relevant, we have to be active, involved, but also adaptive and part of the world instead of just “participating observers”.  John Hawk’s article is now exactly 9 years old and it is still relevant today. Not only for the field of anthropology, but all social sciences and humanities as a whole.

The unexpexted passing of David Graeber earlier this year, made me think about my own purpose as an anthropologist. So, fitting the topic at hand, I decided recently to be more active on this blog and try to be more visible. As an anthropologist, I see it as my responsibility to engage in public discourse and put certain ideas and concepts into a new perspective, at least among the people close to me. I’m talking about small things here: Creating awareness for social issues or challenging problematic ideas. But I believe these small things contribute in making the world a better place, one blog post at a time.

Consider this my mission statement.


This essay is the conclusion of a three part series of small posts I made in the past, titled “Academia vs the public”. Read the whole series here.


  • John Hawks (2011): “What’s wrong with anthropology”. Anthropologies (Link).