There are two fields that explore the little known facets of the world and bring them to the light of day that are on the verge of collapse. Journalism is facing the scourge of dwindling profits and a severe cutback in jobs, while anthropology has been struggling with making itself relevant to the modern world for decades. But the problems facing both could also be an opportunity for a path forward.
My own work as a journalist is deeply indebted to my anthropological training. I was one of a very few American journalists in India who spoke Hindi, and the features that I write tend to delve into the analytical ambiguities that are the stock and trade of anthropology. Specifically, my work on the commercialization of human tissue (and my forthcoming book “Red Markets”) parallels the last ten years of Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ career.
But anthropology is in trouble. The problem can be boiled down to simple economics. The supply of anthropology Ph.D.’s vastly outpaces career opportunities. Every year departments mint several hundred new doctorates for only a handful of jobs. Tenure track positions are dwindling with the economic crisis and even top candidates are lucky to find low-paying adjunct positions. Relevant jobs for anthropologists outside the academy almost never require a Ph.D.
I believe that this is in part due to the fact that the supply of anthropological writing far exceeds the demand. While anthropologists produce a huge amount of literature every year, very little of it ever gets read by more than a few interested specialists. Professors get promoted to tenure based on a point system that marks the number of publications, not necessarily their relevance. Most dissertations gather dust in libraries, and journals circulate around a very small audience and conferences. Anthropologists frequently lament how little influence their research has on larger public discourses, and yet steadfastly argue that “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is a sufficient reason for the work that they do.
In effect, there is a mismatch in the sort of products that anthropology produces and its reception in the community. Jobs in anthropology can’t be tied only to the education of new anthropologists. The current model is a ponzi scheme that is perched to topple like the sub-prime mortgage industry once academic budgets begin to contract.
I spent three years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pursuing my Ph.D. in anthropology before switching over to journalism. I left the program disappointed. I felt that there were very few career options other than teaching, and that the courses focused almost exclusively on theory and lacked any methodological training. With few and fewer job opportunities available on graduation, sometimes the degree program is a Faustian bargain. On top of that graduating with a Ph.D. takes anywhere from 5 years (at the absolute fastest) to ten (increasingly common). It is worth it to point out that a medical degree takes only four years, and a law degree three.
The thing that attracted me to anthropology in the first place was its ability to rigorously reexplain the world based on hard observations and theoretical insight. At their best, anthropologists are thorough researchers who can contextualize important social phenomenons across geography, time, space and cultures. Even today, the heart of an anthropology degree rests on years of fieldwork, often in remote locations. They learn the local languages, and seek to get involved in the community as much as possible in order to get a holistic vision of their subjects.
But there is a solution to the problem. The world needs people who are skilled at bridging the gaps between cultures. 80% of the planet doesn’t even have an e-mail address, let alone speak each other’s language. Even more importantly, the long term skill sets of an anthropologist is the perfect background for long-form journalism. As we all know, journalism is having a crisis of its own as profits plummet and cheap online content leeches the marrow out of the backbones of the print industry.
The trend in journalism has been to cut back on costs and quality of writing leaving a gaping hole in our knowledge base. I believe that the hole could be filled by a new mode of anthropology that realigns itself to reach out to a popular audience. Let’s call this new mode “anthrojournalism”. It wouldn’t be too hard to for anthropologists to leverage their positions in the communities into hard-hitting and intelligent feature stories. Anthrojournalists could do more than just write about global inequalities: they could expose them. Ethnographic filmmakers could drop the academic title and become documentary filmmakers.
On the other hand, journalists could realign themselves with anthropology and make a serious long term investment in their stories. While anthrojournalists could never supplant the need for daily reporting, we need investigative journalism more now than we ever have.
This year Nation correspondent Jon Nichols and professor of communications Robert McChesney released The Death and Life of American Journalism, a ground breaking analysis of the current failure of journalism. In it they argue that journalism is more than just a profit factory, but a public trust and valuable organ of democracy. They argue that news-making should be subsidized and protected by the government so that it can continue to exist now that profits have been sucked out of of the business model.
For the last hundred years the entire field of anthropology has only continued to exist because of massive amount of government funding by way of grant programs, publicly backed academic departments and in a few cases, institutional endowments. Maybe it’s time for a few academic departments to invest in training a new generation of anthropologists who write for the public at large. Why not carve out a space for well researched and well written investigative anthropology within the mass media? There are more than enough anthropologists with no outlet for their work. Meanwhile there are fewer and fewer investigative reports being produced in the mainstream media. It seems like there is an opportunity for synergy. Clearly this isn’t a solution to the total problems facing both fields, but there is enough energy and money available to produce some interesting work.
I’d love to see collaboration between the two fields. However it would require some mutual understanding between two entrenched disciplines. Few anthropologists respect the publishing process and don’t realize how rigorous fact checking and editing can be. Meanwhile few journalists think that anthropology has been relevant since the days of Margaret Mead.
I would love to hear from people in both fields. Perhaps there is a way forward? What do you think?