ASA April 2010 AN Column

Anthropology News • April 2010 • Volume 51 • Issue 4
Paul L Doughty, Contributing Editor

Anthropologists Crash the Headlines

It is always interesting to find that an anthropological colleague has gained fame by becoming a headliner in the public media. In that domain, the late Margaret Mead had no contemporary peers and she has become an icon outside the discipline as well as in it. I could first identify with this “close to fame” phenomenon in the mid-1950s when as a graduate student I watched my University of Pennsylvania professors Carleton Coon, Alfred Kidder and others match wits on the CBS program “What in the World,” identifying unusual artifacts from the Penn Museum.

The esoteric in anthropology has long fascinated the public and attracted media attention. Thus, through Internet communiqués from our fearless ASA leader, Tony Paredes, this headline from the New York Times (October 22, 1902) was called to my attention: “ANTHROPOLOGISTS IN DISPUTE: Lively Controversy Over Coining the Word ‘Amerind’: The discussion evoked such terms as “hybrid” “mongrel” and “monster”—Toscanelli Letters declared to be forgeries.”

Participants at the International Congress of Amercanists heard the word from JD McGuire, and at once, Franz Boas, Frederick Starr and others opposed its use. The word “Amerind” was introduced by Major John Wesley Powell, founder of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), and according to WJ McGee of the BAE, the term was being used by “one half of ethnology students.” Discussion then wandered to Columbus, and a European participant was quoted by the Times as saying “Columbus, ze bold seaman, he simply say, ‘I show you ze shortest way to India where grow ze spice…” All the news that’s fit to print, ad captandum vulgus, so to speak.

Even as we fast forward to our “era” of high speed communications and Google I wonder if we can ever escape “the exotic” image of anthropology, concerned only with strange “others” or explaining what some take to be “obvious.” Thus, Nancy Banks-Smith, writing in The Guardian (July 21, 1988) noted: “Anthropology is the science which tells us that people are the same the whole world over—except when they are different.” Well sort of, I guess. Back when I was teaching Cultural Anthropology 101, I refused to use textbooks with exotic cover photographs of the “other” with filed teeth or a bone through the nose. I wanted facilitate the students’ being able to apply what I was saying to themselves and not just to illustrate strangeness. All that of course is now moot, what with tattoos and tongue, belly button and genital “jewelry,” as many of our kids may have become “the other!” Occasionally however, “the media” do find us appropriate sources for understanding life and its problems. Thus my colleague Gerald Murray was called upon for some comments about the Haitian disaster by Newsweek. Others also have been tapped for professional information and analysis: Paul Farmer (and his NGO, Partners in Health) is often featured for his past and current efforts in Haiti, and Mark Schuller contributed an important analysis of Haitian conditions in “Uncertain Ground: Haiti’s Earthquake and its Aftermath” (Huffington Post, February 15, 2010). Bill Beeman’s contributions regarding Iran are especially noteworthy through his book The Great Satan vs the Mad Mullahs, and also through his frequent blog posts and press releases dealing with Middle Eastern affairs. I discovered ASA member Bryan Page, as interviewed for Discovery News, on a site called Alltop. That is just one of dozens of such sites that feature anthropologically informed coverage. Other key sites, for those interested, include (with posts in English, German and Norwegian) and the AAA website, blog and Twitter feed.

The initial example indicated that although it is nice and prestigious to be quoted in the New York Times, problems in communication do arise. However, the larger difficulty with contemporary self-generated “new media” output is the sheer amount of it and its dispersal across every “corner” of the Internet, making it a challenge to utilize and, in many cases, evaluate. I find myself bookmarking more interesting sites every day. Where will it end? What happened to that convenient box of 3×5 index cards? The answers to these and other of “life’s persistent questions” for senior anthropologists are explored annually at the AAA meeting. We hope to see you there this November in New Orleans.