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A Non-manifesto For the Worth of Public Anthropology

By Rylan Higgins, Saint Mary’s University

I started writing for a non-academic audience nearly 20 years ago. As a member of a research team looking at the impacts of the oil and gas industry on southern Louisiana, I wrote a report intended for the community and received positive feedback from a handful of town residents, which I appreciated. That was a long time ago. I occasionally wonder what happened to that report, whether it had an impact. Does it still exist out there somewhere? A recent Google search disappoints in this regard.

1 Rylan's screenshotIn mid-April of this year, I wrote an op-ed piece in Halifax’s The Chronicle Herald, as part of my regular and longstanding effort to disseminate anthropological insights through this newspaper. Entitled “Notre-Dame ‘disaster’ reveals compassion bias,” the piece pointed to the disproportionate response to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris. I argued that there were no similar responses to other contemporaneous news stories, including ones wherein indigenous Canadians experienced crises. I suggested this said something not great about the nature of compassion in Canada.

More than once when I have written for a public audience, I have received feedback from people who disagreed with my ideas, sometimes strongly. In fact, people wished ill fate on me when I critiqued charity as an institution in Canada. With the Notre Dame article, I actually received an email from a reader thanking me for offering what he considered an important and insightful perspective. Though not especially common, it feels good when this happens.

The occasional expression of gratitude from a reader notwithstanding, I find it challenging to gauge the success of my efforts in public anthropology. In part, this is because I don’t always know what I’m trying to accomplish. Is the goal simply to inform? Am I trying to persuade? Or is it about providing counterpoints in debates that often tend to be either one-sided or polarized? Is it okay when I make people angry? And when I don’t, aren’t I just preaching to the choir, so to speak?

Writing for a newspaper, moreover, has its challenges. Most op-ed editors expect you to accomplish what you have to say in 850 words or less. That’s no easy task for folks who are often rewarded according to the publish-or-perish model, which basically posits that more is better. Even though I reject this model, it is still often challenging to use complex anthropological concepts to explain contemporary events within these words limits. It’s hard work, and you are typically at the mercy of the news cycle to maintain relevancy.

Then there is the question of whether writing for the public counts as scholarship. I am fortunate to work in a department and at a university where it does, as my tenure and promotion applications demonstrated. In both, I positioned myself squarely as a public scholar and included a set of approximately two dozen public-oriented writing samples as a cornerstone of my applications. I argued that my public writing was a key element of my overall scholarly recorded, and that this should be recognized as such during the various levels of review.

Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, it was. At all levels of tenure review, including my external reviewers, people considered, weighed and commented on the articles I published in The Chronicle Herald (and elsewhere). In short, there was wide agreement that writing for the public matters.

This recognition is, in part, why I continue to do it. Importantly, I also get more satisfaction when I write for news outlets than I do when I produce other academic writing. I’ve published in a few peer-review journals, enjoying and benefitting from these undertakings. Yet questions about purpose and merit apply even more strongly to that kind of scholarship, if you ask me. Estimates on how often such writing sees the light of day, so to speak, are not encouraging.

My sense of the importance of public anthropology was indeed strong enough that, in 2017, I took on the role as General Editor of Anthropology Now. For readers not familiar, Anthropology Now is a peer-reviewed publication written for a general audience. The idea is that scholars can and should produce relevant, timely work, that is academically rigorous, and that could be read by either your garden variety high school student or your gardened variety anthropologist.

Anthropology Now was started a decade ago by Emily Martin, whose commitment to public anthropology is unwavering and impressive. It is in no small part because of Emily and others like her that I continue to believe that there is something about anthropological insights that makes them especially well-suited for dissemination beyond the academy.

With this in mind, part of my motivation for writing this essay is to suggest the need for a Canadian public anthropology manifesto. I know that manifestos are supposed to be full-throttled, which is perhaps why I didn’t go so far as to write one, not yet anyway. The hesitation is also likely the result of me still trying to figure things out regarding my role in championing public anthropology. I feel, furthermore, like such a manifesto would be best written by a group of similarly-minded anthropologists.

This leads to my final two points, which are suggestions, really, or invitations. The first is to encourage readers (who I assume are mostly Canadian anthropologists) to contact me with their thoughts about public anthropology. I would be happy to brainstorm about ideas that could lead to a submission for Anthropology Now. It would also be useful, I think, for Canadian anthropologists already engaged in public scholarship or who think they might be, to gather together—perhaps to mull over ideas for our manifesto. I am more than happy to organize such a gathering at this year’s CASCA/AAA meeting. Both invitations are open to all CASCA members and allied colleagues.

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