Thursday, March 12, 2009

Anthropology and Journalism

Here's an interesting counterpunch article I came across today. Basically, it argues that anthropologists should be more like journalists. Or perhaps collaborate with journalists. Or something. Well, it's a bit vague exactly what anthropologists should do. But it better have journalism in mind! I'm sympathetic to that. Though I found the first few sentences a bit amusing:

Where is anthropology's Ida Tarbell? Its I.F. Stone? Its Lincoln Steffens? All were outstanding journalists, chroniclers of the culture, resources and power of their times.

And where is anthropology's Juan Cole? Its Stanley Aronowitz? Its Noam Chomsky? A historian, sociologist and linguist respectively. All are academicians. All are well known public writers.
Perhaps I am revealing my contemptible ignorance, but I have no idea who any of those people are except Noam Chomsky. Well, it is great to have wikipedia for these things at least. But I reckon this literary trick tragically fails when you don't know of the people he lists.

Anyway, the essence of this argument I am favourable towards (public intellectuals, get your voice out, and so on). A few details made me wince a bit, but then again I think that is more the "counterpunch rhetorical style" than this article in particular (a rant about counterpunch, for another time?). But that's not the important point anyway.

In our cohort a few of the people have actually written journalism articles. So my shout out, you know who you are, keep up the good work! They are much better than me. As it happens, the two that I am thinking of also have a background in media, so probably that explains it a bit. Because I really have no idea how to go about actually writing journalism? Like institutionally, what do I actually do? And feel a bit like I wouldn't have that much to add anyway.

On the other hand, it does remind me of a few things. The first is that I was told by my supervisor, when we were going over one proposal or essay or so forth, that I had to make sure I get in there the serious core anthropologist work. The theory if you will. Otherwise, my project could end up being "just journalistic." This was clearly implied to be derogatory because it means that your work is a bit superficial, not deep-thinking academic work. I'm not necessarily disparaging the comment, I think it was valid in the way it was intended--as pragmatic advice on how to make sure my proposal is passed, as institutional advice that it seems worthwhile to connect the project to mainstream anthropology concerns since I am, after all, attempting to study for a degree in anthropology. But when McKenna says that anthropologists tend to look down on journalism, that rings quite true. Even the other day I think when I posted a news link about Japan and blood type, I felt a bit embarassed, like, I can't really use a journalistic account can I? Except, like, ironically? References in my proposal to journalists or mainstream media were also looked down upon, with suggestions that they should be removed as anything not-academic is at essence unreliable and superficial. On the other hand, I think this uneasiness exists because quite clearly anthropology and journalism overlap, like the article says. In fact, one person here told me "ah your main interest is in the humans... you're like a journalist!" Yeah, like them, but lets keep it between us two, okay?

The other thing it really reminded me of is blogging. Of course nobody reads my blog, I think, so I don't pretend that I am doing journalism. But on the other hand, I think this attitude towards journalism has also been transplanted onto blogs. Obviously there are many anthropology blogs, and this would give you the impression that there is uninform gung-ho-ness. But that is clearly sample bias; of course those who are blogging are enthusiastic about blogging! My "real life" experience is a bit different.

A couple years ago, during my MSc, I worked as a research assistant where I was doing a kind of literature review/brain-storming project on how to use social software in the teaching of anthropology. The problematic: there was the feeling that anthropology undergraduate students never get to have a real "fieldwork" experience and, yet, their teachers tend to see this fieldwork experience as the central core of the discipline. In particular, by reading simple monographs, undergraduates were getting the impression that fieldwork was much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. The book has 7 chapters into clear analytic categories, it sounds like everything went fine, the ethnographer went in there, learned the rituals or the gendered practices or whatever, and wrote it all up. So teachers felt the ambiguity was lost, as students tended to take the narrative at face value rather than realize it was constructed out of random notes about random things. What to do? One idea that I had, which I suggested to my supervisor, would be to have the PhD core write fieldwork blogs. The undergraduates could then read these blogs, make comments, and so on. This way the undergraduates would get in contact with the more "raw notes" of real experience, since the blog is a much more informal and direct representation. It has not gone through a few years of massaging to fit into a Marxian or Foucauldian or Strathernian framework (save the continuum fallacy dressed up in pomo mumble-jumble, just save it). As I conceived it, this would actually be useful for the PhD students as well, since they could air their ideas, get new opinions, and in general it would foster a research community approach to the Department. Openness, rather than the Malinowskian cult of the individual ethnographer, would be the name of the day. Perhaps my enthusiasm was partly political, in this sense.

Whether or not this idea is feasible, my main point here is the response to this suggestion. Basically, I was told, oh yes, blogs, yeah one PhD student had a blog before, when she was doing her research in India, but the department didn't like it, thought she should be focusing on her research, not spending her time blogging, and eventually she stopped (for this reason, I have tried not to inform the department of my blog). The feeling of hostility I took from this was also reinforced in our fieldwork notes seminar. When I asked about blogs, the instructor basically said that personally he thinks blogs are a bad idea because they take you out of the fieldwork environment. That is, when you are writing your blog, you are writing for an audience "outside." I forget whether the exact logic was spelled out, but basically the idea was that you should stay inside your field and that leaving your field is bad and you can't do real ethnography if you leave your field like that. My response, at least in my head, was that in my specific case it is actually quite likely that my field "consultants" are blogging (Japanese is the most highly blogged language in the world, as it is) and so it is actually getting "into" my field, real participant-observation, to blog! This is a bit of a flippant response I guess, but I still like it. I also don't think the outside/inside argument holds up that much, since it applies equally to handwritten notes (by humidity-proof pen, of course) in your (hard-backed moleskine) book as it does to blogs.

Such responses (from the department), though, are perfectly reasonable in an historic and institutional sense. Blogs didn't exist when any of our teachers were doing their fieldwork, and probably even the most tech-savvy don't really understand it. But it does make me wonder on exactly how anthropology could be, or maybe is, very different than it was even 10-15 years ago. This sounds like hyperbole, but then journalism is facing its own crisis lately. I'm done writing for now, but read about how professors could rescue newspapers and thoughts on investigative journalism in the 21st century.


SITNA said...

I am for more journalistic style in anthropological writing and more anthropological thinking in Journalism.

Julie said...

As a side note, I only know who Noam Chomsky is out of that list as well...