Who Do We Write For?

February 10, 2013

As anthropologists, who do we write for? Scholarly articles are typically written for one’s fellow academics. But what about books? Book-length ethnographies are the cornerstone of anthropology. These include books whose ethnography is theory-driven, books whose primary purpose is to make a contribution to anthropological theorizing. These also include books whose primary purpose is to ethnographically depict a slice of the world; these books too use theory, but the theory is servant to rather than master of the ethnography. Of course many books are in the middle between these two poles, but it is fair to say that anthropology today is defined by these two poles, and underlying that, by the question of who we write for. Theory-driven books are generally written for one’s fellow anthropologists and their graduate students. Ethnography-driven books are generally not just for anthropologists, but also for undergraduates, and the lay public. These are vast generalizations, but if one thinks of prominent ethnographies written over the past two decades, it is not hard to see this divide. Think, in an American context, of Bourgois’s In Search of Respect (ethnography-driven) as opposed to Ong’s Flexible Citizenship (theory-driven), to mention just two of a large number of ethnographies that could be mentioned.

I suspect that this division is true beyond the American anthropological world to an extent. But because the world of academic anthropology in most other societies, and particularly in most non-native-English-speaking societies, is smaller, there may be less possibility of publishing books written for an academic audience alone, simply because the market for them is small. It is the Anglo-American anthropological world that most privileges theoretically-driven books, because the English-speaking market is so big. To put it bluntly, in this large market, anthropologists can afford to talk to themselves alone, whereas in other large markets, they cannot, because anthropological solipsism can’t sell books.

Prominent anthropologists of generations past in the English-speaking world very often spoke to a large audience. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword certainly had their theoretical underpinnings, but were written so that any intelligent layperson could understand them. This is no longer the case with many of the ethnographies of recent decades, some of which cannot be understood by non-specialists because they are primarily theory-driven. There are certainly a number of exceptions to this, but it is fair to say that in general book-length ethnographies have become more difficult to understand in recent decades for those who aren’t trained anthropologists.

This situation is largely a product, I believe, of the tenure system in American anthropology, whereby each new generation of anthropologists must be seen to be doing something very different from its recent forebears in order to gain lifetime employment as professors. Ethnography-driven books are of less value in this pursuit than theory-driven books, since the latter can demonstrate an apparent advance over anthropological forebears, however fictitious this advance may be upon closer examination. This is also why, in a broader arena, music and art have also become progressively less comprehensible to the layperson: they have been increasingly confined to the academy, to departments of music and art in universities, where specialists produce work comprehensible only to fellow specialists. The Anglo-American academic world in the arts and soft social sciences seems, in its emphasis on specialists, to privilege incommunicability with the world beyond the academy.

There is nothing wrong with having anthropological theory in ethnography—its presence is essential. But if ethnography is primarily theory-driven, then its appeal beyond the small world of academic anthropology becomes greatly diminished. In a world that is today plagued all the more by cultural conflict, anthropology needs to have a public presence, as it largely does not in American anthropology. If a computer scientist or heart surgeon writes academic works, their findings will nonetheless help the layperson—I need not understand their academic writings to benefit from their expertise in operations on my computer or on my heart. But if an anthropologist writes academic works incomprehensible to the layperson, these anthropological findings may not be helpful, for they may have no lay use.

This, I sense, is a major problem today with much American anthropology—this is why it is in danger of becoming irrelevant beyond any world larger than itself. But I sense this is far less of a danger outside the Anglo-American world. In Japan, to take just one example, well-known anthropologists regularly write books for popular presses, read by laypeople; and this, I am told, is true in a number of other societies as well. Might world anthropology lead American anthropology back to public relevance? Perhaps, but given ongoing American hegemony, I fear the opposite. As goes America, so follows many other societies—in terms of anthropology, into public oblivion.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg Downey  |  February 10, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Well said, Gordon. I couldn’t agree more:

    There is nothing wrong with having anthropological theory in ethnography—its presence is essential. But if ethnography is primarily theory-driven, then its appeal beyond the small world of academic anthropology becomes greatly diminished. … But if an anthropologist writes academic works incomprehensible to the layperson, these anthropological findings may not be helpful, for they may have no lay use.

    I think one of the issues is that we don’t translate our theoretical concerns, and fail to explain why they matter. Without some kind of explanation of what is at stake, some of our more exciting theoretical discussions can sound extremely obtuse. Maybe I’m naive, but I actually think that, if we did a better job of explaining these theoretical concerns, people would care.

    In addition, I think we have to re-invent popular genres of anthropology that have largely disappeared, including regional studies, cross-cultural work on specific topics (I’m thinking of Barbara Rogoff, for example, on childhood), and other channels to reach the public. But in general, I’m just glad you’ve written this.

  • 2. Gordon Mathews  |  February 14, 2013 at 6:38 am

    Yes, of course you’re right, Greg. We don’t need to jettison theory, but rather make theory explicable to a larger audience than only our fellow anthropologists. But can our theory stand such scrutiny? Would an audience of intelligent laypeople do to current anthropological theory what C. Wright Mills did to Talcott Parsons?
    Depending on the theoretical approach, I think so! But in most theoretical approaches there is a nugget of real value that may indeed be conveyable to a larger audience, I think, if we anthropologists can become better and clearer writers–which is easier said than done! Thanks for your post–

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