Anthropology makes journalism feel a bit like eating a Big Mac

I’ve long believed that social anthropology has a wealth of material to offer journalism. It was partly my supervisor urging me to make my final year undergrad dissertation more like a piece of academia than a piece of journalism that convinced me to pursue the career I now find myself in.  I quite enjoyed dropping the – at times – frustrating theory for the – at times – frustrating soundbites (but, who knows – maybe I’ll return to it one day). 

Social anthropologists spend months, often years in specific cultural settings. Contrary to what many people would have you believe, this is often in urban, or even online settings – it’s not always about immersion in a remote tribe (though many do that, and I’d argue for good reason). It is through reading excellent ethnography I learned about global organ sales and some of the best theory on terrorism and violence I’ve come across. 

Anthropology and journalism have a slightly strained relationship. Imagine being the anthropologist at the end of the phone when a television researcher breathlessly rings up and says: “Can you find me an ‘authentic’ person from your tribe who’ll do x, y and z? On the most significant ritual day in the calendar year? And will come across well on camera?”  I’ve heard many an anthropologist sigh over the shoddy, cringe-inducing research done by journalists in areas they’ve been studying for years. I can appreciate why an anthropologist who has spent years agonising over tiny details before publishing gets frustrated by television programmes like Tribe and Last Man Standing. 

Anyway, this week reminded me of why anthropology has so much significance, and a role to play in journalism. 

  • And this extraordinary tale in Private Eye (issue 1231, 6 March, page 28). The crux of it is this:

Last year BAE won a $40m contract to supply the US army with anthropologists. Private Eye reports:

“As “prime contractor” for the “Human Terrain System”, the idea was to provide people rather than tanks or planes to help the US fight a “clever” and more, er, “culturally aware” war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Then the Eye reports a very alarming incident concerning two of the ‘Human Terrain’ ‘subcontractors,’ as well as other question-raising events. I wish it was online so I could link to it here. It’s an intriguing article and it’s certainly a topic that warrants more reportage. 

The American Anthropological Association voted against joining the scheme. However, there’s little out there about the organisation’s concerns. 

I’d heard some anthropologist friends mention that this had been in discussion in the academic community, but this is the first time I’d spotted it in mainstream media. Private Eye mentions a report in Newsweek (I assume it’s this one: http://www.newsweek.com/id/131752) and these are some of the links I’ve now found (Wired.com seems to have taken a particular interest):

I find it fascinating that this has had such a low profile in mainstream media and that I’m having trouble finding much comprehensive information online at all. 

Lastly, slightly more trivially:

  • Today’s TV review in the Guardian by Sam Wollaston. He mentions an academic thesis which argues that Alexander McCall-Smith’s take on Botswana in the ‘Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency’ is neo-colonial. I’d love to know more: I’ll try locate its author tomorrow. 

We have this strange situation where anthropology and media feel oddly disconnected, occasionally meeting in slightly explosive clashes. As a once-aspiring ethnographer, I’ll cautiously add in the obligatory caveat that of course there must be exceptions where the two have worked well together.

I’m sure this won’t be my last post on this topic. Here’s looking to a journalism of the future which embraces to wonderful resources that anthropology and ethnography have to offer.

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