How Anthropology Disparages Journalism

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.

With an upcoming Yalta-esque American Anthropology Association conference in December 2009 titled, “The End/s of Anthropology,” academic anthropology continues to worry about its future while imploring its members to get more involved in public life outside of the ivy. Of course that’s something applied anthropologists (in the break-away Society for Applied Anthropology) have been doing for decades. One wonders how the conference will showcase journalism, one of the most consequential forms of public anthropology. Typically the anthropology profession – both academic and applied – looks skeptically at journalism.

A common refrain among academic anthropologists is this: “I never talk to journalists, they always get me wrong. I just can’t trust them.” Whenever I hear this my mind churns, “Then why don’t you become the journalist and write it yourself?” Applied anthropologists are more inclined to write an occasional journalistic piece, but it’s not viewed as a central focus of applied work. Again, why not become the seasoned journalist?

Is there a career danger for an anthropologist in wanting to be a relevant, publicly engaged writer? Maybe. Consider, why is it that some of U.S. culture’s most talented writers, like David Moberg (senior editor for In These Times) and Kurt Vonnegut felt as though they had to drop out of anthropology graduate programs, (University of Chicago) just inches from the dissertation finish line, to become public communicators, public intellectuals, novelists and journalists?

Hermetically Sealed Classroom, Dusty Journals

Too many academic anthropologists are marooned in the coffin-boxes of university classrooms, their pearls of wisdom echoing wistfully off of hermetically sealed-walls. Paradoxically, just outside of campus bounds, local TV and radio programs – which can potentially educate millions – are staffed by their freshly minted (and inexperienced) former students! These are campus graduates of journalism, broadcast communications, speech, and/or theater programs where they were groomed in the practical arts of elocution and head bobbing for the airwaves and/or TV cameras. According to the FCC, these are supposed to be democratic public airwaves. But in practice, under corporate hegemony, they are mostly off limits to Ph.D.s, social scientists and even investigative journalists, i.e. thinkers and social critics. Anthropologists must fight for access to these spaces. Meanwhile they must circulate their voices in a multitude of public fora in local newspapers, the alternative press, the Internet, public television and public radio.

I worked as a development consultant on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross in Philadelphia in 1991. The show now reaches 4.5 million listeners daily and is in Europe on the World Radio Network. Ms. Gross and her colleagues have featured the work of numerous anthropologists such as David Kertzer, Peter Goldsmith, Sam Charters (musical anthropologist) and medical anthropologists Paul Farmer and Terry Graedon. When I left to pursue a Ph.D. I told Ms. Gross and her staff, “you help do the work of a great many anthropologists, getting the message out about their work. Keep it up.” The broadcast could conceivably profile an anthropologist every week to great effect, but does not. We cannot depend on what Anthony Giddens called the double hermeneutic (interpreters of our interpretations) line of gatekeepers like Gross for our public media education. Anthropologists have no choice. They must become media makers and journalists themselves. This will be tough in a field, anthropology, that does not provide systematic education on “how to become a public intellectual” in its curricula, pedagogy, modes of evaluation or reward structure.

Cracking Chaucer

What makes a good journalist? In a telling Slate Magazine article, “Can Journalism School Be Saved?” editor Jack Shafer said that “I’d rather hire somebody who wrote a brilliant senior thesis on Chaucer than a J-school M.A. who’s mastered the art of computer-assisted reporting. If you can crack Chaucer, you’ve got a chance at decoding city hall.” (Zenger 2002)

Anthropologists can crack Chaucer and much more. Anthropologists can debate Foucault, survive in foreign lands with little more than the grit of our teeth and write insightful interpretations of the global/local intersections of capital. Anthropologists would make great journalists, albeit if they learned to write more quickly, urgently, succinctly and in a public voice.

There are models. Barbara Nimri Aziz is host, executive producer and anthropologist for WBAI radio-Pacifica. Cambridge educated Gillian Tett, Ph.D. is a journalist for Britain’s Financial Times. Maria Vesperi was a reporter and an anthropologist.

Unfortunately, anthropologists rarely write urgently about the local culture for the general public. It’s even rarer for them to do it in their own hometowns where they live. But journalists – particularly investigative muckraking journalists – do. And at a time when corporate media has fired too many investigative journalists, anthropologists need to pick up the slack. Both professional anthropology and professional journalism are in free fall. End is a keyword in both realms. As in “End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate (2006), by top investigative journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. The two recently published a AAA series “Pulse of the Planet” to good effect. Counterpunch is necessary reading for all my University of Michigan-Dearborn students.

And yet, few citizens know about the powerful ethnographic studies that quietly sit in libraries, on dissertation shelves, or in journals like American Ethnologist or Human Organization. Our material rarely sees print in the local “Metro Times” or “City Paper.” Why not write for both audiences, academic and popular?

But, That’s not anthropology!

Anthropologist James Lett is a former broadcaster and present-day anthropologist. In 1986 he wrote abut his dual life commenting that found it “remarkable that [the] similarities [between the two professions] are not more widely appreciated. As an anthropologist, I have been trained to observe, record, describe, and if possible, to explain human behavior, and that is the essence of what I do every day as a journalist.” (Lett 1986)

I interviewed an anthropologist/journalist for this article who asked to remain anonymous. Now an assistant professor she confided that she kept her graduate student journalism quiet because of how it was talked down. “When someone mentioned Deborah Tannen [a popular linguistic anthropologist] professors’ eyes would roll.” She said that since anthropology and journalism have so much in common “anthropologists struggle “to define their discipline as unique.” “They want to distance the profession from journalism. . .you know, how anthropology is always struggling to legitimate itself.”

Anthropologist Thomas McGuire exemplifies this type of border patrol work in defense of anthropology in a recent article called, “Shell Games on the Water Bottoms of Louisiana: Investigative Journalism and Anthropological Inquiry”(Walters et al 2008). In it he discusses the work of two investigative journalists working for the New Orleans Times-Picayne daily newspaper who exposed political corruption over oysterbeds. He argues that investigative journalists, despite seeking to uncover the truth like anthropologists, fail to be anthropologists because they frame a story “like a picture is framed to separate it from the background to focus attention.” They do not tell us enough about why things happened from a larger perspective, he says. He also submits that investigative journalism is not anthropology because it is limited “by what their readers will bear,” and by a “moral imperative that cuts them short (p 119).”

Excuse me? McGuire has evidently never read anything by Mike Davis, Upton Sinclair or Jeffrey St. Clair whose “Been Brown so Long it Looked like Green to Me,” analyzes perceptively capitalist corruption in Louisiana. I myself have learned more about how the media operates from non-anthropologists like Upton Sinclair (see his The Brass Check) and McChesney than any anthropologist. Incidentally it is noteworthy that the two reporters were able to impact public policy to a far greater degree than McGuire who, as evidenced from his piece, does not do journalism.

Some anthropologists argue that journalism has little or no sophisticated social theory. That’s true for mainstream journalists but not for many of the investigative journalists I know. Moreover a significant amount of anthropology fails to adequately theorize its own imperial context of privilege. According to Laura Nader, “it is often the case that the critical potential of a discipline is obliterated as soon as the disciplines gets institutionalized and transformed into an industry.” (Nader: 100). Nader argues that the thrust of American anthropology has supplied the ideological support for imperialism and colonialism, studying down not up, studying away not in their own backyards. The context of most academic anthropology is the university, and the best critiques of the university have not come from anthropologists but educators, sociologists and historians.

Captive Intellectuals

To better understand McGuire one must read Russell Jacoby. In his “The Last Intellectuals, American Culture in the Age of Academe” (1987) Jacoby talks about how the growing academic culture of the 1950s absorbed a great many of our great public writers (like Tarbell, Stone and Steffens) turning them into academics where they lost a public voice. “For many younger intellectuals the dissertation was the cultural event and contest of their lives. . .the dissertation became part of them. The rhetoric, the style, the idiom, the sense of the ‘discipline’ and ones place in it: these branded their intellectual souls. The prolonged, often humiliating effort to write a thesis, to be judged by ones doctoral advisor and a committee of experts gives rise to a network of dense relations and deference that clung to their lives and future careers. . .earlier intellectuals were almost completely spared this rite.” (Jacoby:18)

Twenty-two years later Jacoby’s analysis still rings true. Anthropology programs remain too aligned with an academic culture that creates socialization experiences that have little to do with engaging the public directly.

A Burgeoning Movement of Anthropological Journalists?

It is interesting that the push for anthropology and journalism often comes from students. That is true for the California State University-Fullerton where students organized a “Society of Anthropology in Journalism” recently. That’s also true at the University of Arizona where Hecky Villanueva told me, “A number of us here at the University of Arizona have long debated the relationship between anthropology and popular writing.” They insist that anthropologists must write in accessible styles for diverse audiences. In their 2007 paper “Lessons from New New Journalism” Villanueva and four student colleagues reviewed “the work of five popular nonfiction writers to determine the extent to which their approachable writing styles are compatible with anthropological rigor and nuance.”

Internationally there are some important developments. As Jeremy MacClancy, Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University in the UK said, “If anthropologists have something to contribute directly to journalism, then the doors open for those who know how to write. Personally, my colleagues (e.g. Professor Joy Hendry, a Japanologist, and Simon Underdown, a paleobioanthropologist in my department) and I have found it relatively easy to get on national BBC radio programs and sometimes into the national press, but only when we are able to illuminate clearly a current affair. In France, Marc Abeles used to write frequently for the French quality press. In Spain, anthropologists, like many intellectuals there, can have a significant presence, e.g. Joseba Zulaika in the Basque Country, even though he is based in the Centre for Basque Studies, Nevada.”

McCalancy mentions obstacles: “Many anthropologists, especially younger ones, do not know how open the UK national press and media are to approach by anthropologists.” Then there are “pressures to publish and other increasing demands on our time; a very understandable fear of being made into ‘Dr Rent-a-quote’; little (albeit increasing) recognition for public anthropology by Heads of Faculty; and lack of successful models to emulate.”

In short, anthropology programs need to bridge with communications departments and create courses and programs in “Anthropology & Journalism” to help create the critical public intellectuals of the 21st century. Such programs will not only attract journalism majors to anthropology but will help equip students with skills to popularize critical knowledge.

One thing is certain. We need a new wave of writers and journalists, unafraid to do the most radical thing imaginable: simply describe reality. Their ranks will largely come from freethinkers, dissenting academics and bored mainstream journalists who rediscover what got them interested in anthropology in the first place, telling the truth.

A version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Newsletter, February 2009 edition, Tim Wallace, Editor


Azia, Bartbara Nimri. For more information see:

Brian Burke, Phil Leckman, Andrea Sturzen, Kathleen Van Vlack, and Hecky Villanueva 2007 Lessons from New New Journalism. Arizona Anthropologist #17.

Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. 2006 End Times The Death of the Fourth Estate. Oakland:AK Press.

Hoffman, Daniel 2004 Anthropological Quarterly.

Jacoby, Russell. 1987 The Last Intellectuals, American Culture in the Age of Academe. New York:Basic.

Lett, James 1986 Communicator (Journal of the Radio-Television News Directors Association) May XL(5):33-35.

MacClancy & McDonaugh (eds.) 1997 Popularizing Anthropology. London: Routledge.

MacClancy (ed.) 2002 Exotic No More. Anthropology on the front-lines. Chicago: U Chicago Press.

McGuire, Thomas R. 2008 Shell Games on the Water Bottoms of Louisiana: Investigative Journalism and Anthropological Inquiry. In Against the Grain: The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology. Bradley B. Walters et al eds. Pp. 117-134. Maryland:Alta Mira.

Nader, Laura and Ugo Mattei. 2008 Plunder, When the Rule of Law is Illegal. Mass.:Blackwell.

Sinclair, Upton. 1919 The Brass Check. A Study of American Journalism, with an introduction by Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

St. Clair, Jeffrey. 2004 Been Brown so Long it Looked Like Green to Me. Monroe:Common Courage.

Zenger, Alex Peter. 2002 Getting Real in Local TV. The City Pulse. Feb. 16. P. 4 (Zenger is a pen name for BRIAN McKENNA)

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at