Anthropologists everywhere are reaching out to engage the public. Blogs. Podcasts. What we have to say matters, and we want to be heard. And I don’t think it’s working.
Why not? Is it the jargon? The interdisciplinary turf wars? Could it be the ontological turn?
While all of those things certainly contribute to anthropology’s general failure to move the public, I’m going to talk about another problem: delay.
Delay, Distance: Too Late
Anthropologists don’t work quickly. This is bad for public engagement.
One of the first lessons of my Master’s degree was about the need for “distance.” Objectivity was an impossible dream, of course, but distance was something we could actually achieve, just by letting time pass, or by traveling a certain number of miles away from our field sites. With distance, we could achieve a wider view, reflect broadly on our experiences, convert our personal stories into more rigorous data, and situate that data amongst global counterexamples. This was distance. Distance was the foundation of our study. Achieving it often took years.
But if we want to engage the public, we don’t have years. We don’t have months. We don’t even have weeks. When an event takes place–a murder, say, or a buyout, a court decision, or an executive order–the public turns to Google immediately, looking for explanations. Searches spike. Writers who are quick to the draw get read, and affect the discourse in real time. Everyone else is too late.
What is it going to take? What do anthropologists have to do?
Maybe we can try something new. Maybe we can try “anthropological hot takes.”
Hot Takes Are Not Ideal
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the hot take is a brilliant form on its own merits. As hot takes developed, over the last ten years or so, they garnered a terrible, and well-deserved, reputation for shallow contrariness. The appeal arose from trolling, not from solid research, reasoned argument, or any of the good things anthropologists like to associate themselves with. The form’s emergence from sportswriting connects it to some bro-type cultures that I’m sure we don’t want to be drawing from. The term itself has become a shorthand, which writers use to discredit each other’s work: “nice hot take, genius.”
But besides eye-rolling and indignation, a hot take should inspire the reader to action; a response, either to resist, support, or add to the original message. That’s the meaning of public engagement. We need to write in a way, and in a forum, that allows us to demand a response. And by informing readers with an anthropological viewpoint, we can inform their action as well.
What can a “hot take” do?
Here are a few guidelines for the form, and some suggestions of what hot takes can and cannot do.
In an anthropological hot take, we can:
- Talk fast, directly into the current moment.
- Call out discourses and hidden currents in public speech.
- Disaggregate institutions, when they might appear to want or to act.
- Do the opposite; when individuals act, name the structures that compel them.
- Speak honestly and explicitly about our positions, our convictions, and our emotions.
- Speak to historical context. In fact, by writing in the moment, we can be part of the historical context, by recording the way events look and feel as they unfold.
- Get our work circulating on social media. Maybe you find it distasteful, but that’s where the people are.
In an anthropological hot take, we probably shouldn’t:
- Advance new theories. Anth 101 theories–imagined communities, kinship as a system, surveillance and power–regularly blow the minds of the regular public. They’re good enough for this purpose.
- Name the theories we are using, or the thinkers who proposed them. For the general public, that information is irrelevant.
- Even give a name to the practice. The word “anthropology” is a distraction from the issues we need to address.
An anthropological hot take should not be confused with:
- Serious ethnography. Though by all means, drive your readers to read some.
- A replacement for serious scholarship. The discipline still needs the insights we can gain only with distance.
- Another site for feuding with other anthropologists. This is a chance to reach beyond the field.
- Anthropology. It just uses the tools of anthropological analysis.
Some of this is already out there
To name just a couple of examples: Dr. Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) earned her doctorate studying authoritarian states, following field work in Uzbekistan. Today, she writes biting assessments of America’s political disintegration, bringing the tools and lessons of anthropology to a wide audience, including to over 288,000 followers on Twitter. Zoe Samudzi (@ztsamudzi) writes powerfully about race, gender, and protest, and draws the attention of over 37,000 Twitter followers to the discourses and structures that shape popular perceptions and practices. (LinkedIn says she’s a medical sociologist, not an anthropologist, but that’s a moot point – I love what she’s doing).
I’m not trying to denigrate these women’s writing by calling it “hot takes.” Far from it! I only mean that they write fast, and get their critical viewpoints into the public sphere before the public has moved on.
Raw to Ready
None of this is easy to do. On August 14, 2017, I tried to write about the events in Charlottesville, VA that had taken place over the previous two days. Heather Heyer’s death was a fresh wound, and images of the savage beating of Deandre Harris were circulating on social media. Donald Trump had yet to make his comments about the violence of the “alt-left.” I threw down five hundred quick visceral words: that a public anthropology already exists, a theory of social formation that demands responses from the public, the press, and politicians, and it belongs to the white supremacists. When I showed the piece, my first “anthropological hot take,” to my editors here at the Familiar Strange, they told me to sit on it. The emotion was raw, they said, and the argument poorly fleshed out. Surely if I let a little time pass—gained some distance—I could write something more persuasive. Now time has passed. I’m afraid the moment for impactful public engagement may have passed along with it.
But the need is still there. Next time, I’ll do better.
Or maybe you can show me how it’s done.
This is a call for your “anthropological hot takes”.
[Image by Ian Pollock]