Skip to content

@Anthropology4Homosapiens: A Reflection on Doing Public Anthropology through Social Media

@Anthropology4Homosapiens: A Reflection on Doing Public Anthropology through Social Media

By Adrianna Wiley, MA, University of Guelph

How do we make anthropology relevant in a world where people can represent themselves and where our subject is not often taught in the public-school classroom? It is a question my cohort has been tasked with answering since we began our undergraduate degrees in 2016, but it is a question that has become inordinately relevant over the last two years as we realize that anthropologists have the tools to promote hope and compassion in an upside-down world searching for an enemy to blame for the pandemic disrupting our lives.

The time afforded by quarantine and access to a sibling with more technological skills than me proved the perfect opportunity to for me to act on my belief that a world with more anthropologists is a better world. Anthropology4Homosapiens is a social media enterprise I began with my sibling in October 2020 on both YouTube and TikTok. On YouTube we endeavour to post bimonthly 15-minute educational videos covering all four subfields of North American anthropology, aimed at high school and introductory undergraduate students, though we hope it is also accessible to interested adults outside of educational contexts. On TikTok I regularly post short videos (the platform allows videos of 3-minutes or less) on a variety of anthropological topics. Our profile on this platform has more than 33 thousand followers, and my content is seen by many more members of the general public around the world. In fact, my most popular video (on Neanderthal extinction) garnered over 1.2 million views.

Practicing public anthropology online over the past year has taught me a great deal both about how to do this work, and about the general public as a group (heterogeneous though it may be).

Lesson 1: The Internet is Full of Amateur Anthropologists (they just don’t know it yet)

On TikTok, and elsewhere —both on social media and offline— individuals frequently engage with anthropological insights and ideas without acknowledging them as such. Perhaps this comes from increasing interdisciplinary orientations causing anthropological theories and methods to leak into other disciplines like history; or perhaps relativism, holism, and empathy just fit well into Generation Z’s orientation towards online social justice efforts. Whatever the reason —despite what we may pessimistically think— while we are debating in journal articles, conference presentations, and seminar rooms about how to engage the public, the public has formed their own ideas about anthropology, and their own anthropological ideas, far beyond Indiana Jones and Temperance Brennan. People are drawing on knowledge generated by anthropologists, and pondering anthropological questions, even if they do not necessarily recognize that this is anthropology. The desire for our knowledge, in other words, is there, but there is not always an anthropologist available to satisfy it.

Lesson 2: In the Face of Misinformation, Knowledge is Power

Without anthropologists to sate this demand for knowledge about humanity and society, misinformation abounds on social media. We have seen this problem increasingly highlighted as issues like election interference and COVID-19 misinformation have propagated on Facebook, but it is prevalent on other platforms as well. People have a tendency to justify problematic social beliefs and practices, such as violence —both interpersonal and structural— or perhaps [more hopefully] to cope with the ugly parts of humanity, by inventing pseudoscientific theories disguised as evolutionary and anthropological fact. There is hope, however, because while this misinformation is pervasive, knowledge and the ability to think anthropologically can be far more powerful. I have found that when knowledgeable anthropologists challenge these views thoughtfully and authentically, many people do change their minds. Meet people at a place of collaboration where we are working together to increase the amount of knowledge in the world and they will learn. Treat them as angry intellectual inferiors and they will dig their heels in further.

Lesson 3: Knowledge Mobilization Must be a Collaboration

This brings us to the third lesson, which is to view public anthropology as a collaboration with the audience. This is especially true on a dynamic platform like TikTok, where bidirectional interaction with the audience allows for instant response on both sides. While this means communication is collaborative in the sense that it is a dialogue rather than a missive, it is also collaborative in the sense that we learn something from the public as they learn from us, provided we remain self-reflexive. For example, people may place emphasis on words we did not intend to highlight, revealing in their responses the implicit biases we have communicated to them and giving us the opportunity to decolonize and/or ‘Queer’ our language

@anthropology4homosapiens

Reply to @halalyyyyyj Thank you to everyone who drew my attention to this! I’m so sorry for the exclusionary use of language @narcisiogagu @marieasia5

♬ original sound – Adrianna | Anthro PhD 💀

Lesson 4: Nuance Remains Important —and possible— on Social Media

Balancing clarity with nuance is important anytime we engage with a public, but it is arguably even more crucial when that communication is only 140 characters or between 15 seconds and a minute long. Further complicating this matter is that people rarely come to a communication with an assumption of nuance. If you make a general statement on social media, it will most often be understood as a universal claim rather than a broad pattern, which can lead to problematic takes and anger. Nuance is difficult, but it is important and worth it. The upside of a multi-media communication like TikTok is that nuance can be added by layering different elements from costumes and background, to text and images added to the screen, to the ‘sound’ or meme format used, to the comment section, and of course the actual content of the video itself.

In the end, TikTok, and other forms of social media, are both wonderful and awful simultaneously. Social media has the awe-inspiring power to connect people around the world in new ways and to provide access to knowledge that has been kept privileged and small in the recent past. Nonetheless it can also be a cesspool of hate and distorted realities with no bearing on fact and which lack compassion. Anthropologists are trained in empathy; we aim to understand the emic view but are still able to take a step back and analyze a situation from an etic perspective. With these skills, who could be better than anthropologists to ‘do good’, through the circulation of reliable, ethnographically-grounded knowledge on social media?

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge that without my sibling, Deanna Wiley and their technological skills there would be no Anthropology4Homosapiens. The ideas in this article are also deeply influenced by Drs. Andrew Walsh and Thomas McIlwraith and their courses on Collaboration and Public Issues Anthropology at Western University and the University of Guelph respectively. I credit my introduction to public anthropology and the values behind it to Dr. Lisa Hodgetts and the Inuvialuit Living History Project.

References

Borofsky, Robert. 2019. An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms? Kailua, HI: Center for a Public Anthropology.

Fassin, Didier. 2017. Introduction: When Ethnography Goes Public. In If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography. Didier Fassin, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pp. 1-18.

Killgrove, K. (2012, October 29). Blogs as Anthropological Outreach. Retrieved from http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2012/02/blogs-as-anthropological-outreach.html.

Killgrove, K. (2013, May 7). Is Blogging Really the Future of Public Anthropology? Retrieved from http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2013/05/is-blogging-really-future-of-public.html.

More from this Volume
Bonjour/hello : de la présidente/from the president

J’ai eu l’honneur d’assumer la présidence de la CASCA dans une année mouvementée … and…

Mot de l’équipe / Editors’ Note

Bienvenue dans le numéro d'automne de Culture, le bulletin d'information semestriel de la CASCA! C’est…

Invisibilité et discrétion ? Conflits énergétiques et destructions socio-environnementales en Alt Empordà (Catalogne, Espagne)

Par Sabrina Bougie, étudiante au doctorat en anthropologie, Université Laval, Québec   La multiplication des…

Les Défis de l’Adaptation Culturelle(s) : Réflexions sur la Communication et la Sécurité en Temps de Crise

Emilie El Khoury, Ph.D, Post-Doctorante, Centre for International and Defense Policy (CIDP), Queen's University  …

Our members in the News/ Suivez nos membres dans les médias

At the University of Toronto, Associate Professor Girish Daswani appeared as a guest on a…

Des membres de la CASCA se distinguent/CASCA members stand out

University of Toronto Scarborough Anthropology Associate Professor Christopher Krupa has been awarded the 2023 Society…

In Memoriam: Megha Sharma Sehdev (1981-2023)

Dr. Megha Sharma Sehdev was a brilliant and creative scholar of law, violence, and care…

Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains

As one of North America’s most unique ecologies, the Great Plains have fostered symbiotic relationships…

Conjuring the State: Public Health Encounters in Highland Ecuador, 1908-1945

The Ecuadorian Public Health Service was founded in 1908 in response to the arrival of…

Savoirs, utopies et production des communs

Savoirs, utopies et production des communs Martin Hébert, Francine Saillant et Sarah Bourdages Duclot (dir.).…

L’Europe et l’histoire des sans-histoire

L’Europe et l’histoire des sans-histoire Traduit de l’anglais (États-Unis) et présenté par André C. Drainville…

Autochtonie et question éducative dans les Outre-mer : Une enquête comparative en Guyane et en Polynésie française

Autochtonie et question éducative dans les Outre-mer. Une enquête comparative en Guyane et en Polynésie…

Éloge du raisonnable : Pour un réenchantement raisonné du monde

Éloge du raisonnable : Pour un réenchantement raisonné du monde Raymond Massé Presses de l’Université…

Petite

Petite Francine Saillant Academia, Louvain-la-Neuve, 212 pages, ISBN: 978-2-8061-3596-4 Petite, une enfant exploratrice, se frotte…

Recent Articles
Past Volumes

Contact

Membership

Our members are first to receive information about jobs, awards and conferences.

Back To Top