On Anthropological Secrets

The mission of Anthropology Now is to make anthropological knowledge accessible to lay readers, and in turn to enrich knowledge and debate in the public sphere. One may wonder why it is that such a mission is necessary, and frankly, I’ve asked myself that same question. The fact is that much of scholarly work is about secrets. Members of nearly all academic disciplines engage in oblique theoretical debates that are so wrapped up in obscure jargon that it is challenging for a layperson to figure out. Why is this so? A few reasons come to mind, and these apply not only to anthropology, but to most academics and scholars across the board. And it will be in these areas that the online education section may be able to help. For the time being, there are two major secrets that come to mind.

First, there is a long history of literature that most people just do not have the time to get to know. There are very real but very fine shades of differences wrapped up in the jargon that point to yet other ideas and persons. Different terms may have almost exactly the same meaning, but each point to a different lineage – and part of any scholar’s work is about laying down claim to portions of that intellectual heritage. Those finer differences (which some of us may be secretly unfamiliar with) are part of how we figure out who we are as scholars. They do make a difference, but as they are not immediately accessible they are a strong part of our training when we go through graduate level education. They are our disciplinary secrets.

Second, scholars are in the work of identity construction, like everyone else: but we do it through our writing. You are what you write. As graduate students we learn to ape the styles of those we admire, and those with convoluted ideas and terminology wear a veneer of intellectual prestige that can seem very shiny. If you want to be a “scholar,” you have to write like one. Secretly however, most of us are terrified that others will see that the emperor wears no clothing: we are not as sophisticated and smart as we pretend to be. According to nearly every graduate student I have ever met (and even a few tenured faculty), that constitutes a major personal secret.

Anthropology Now is here to show that we don’t need to hide behind those secrets. As my colleague Denice Szafran so aptly describes, anthropology is fundamentally about engaging real people in their real lives: ones that are fluid, social and involve even us (we are human beings first and anthropologists second). Participation is what we are all about, and we don’t need to keep secrets.

This online education section will be set up to provide materials, discussions and activities that will give non-anthropologists a better look at some of those secrets. Whether you are an undergraduate college student looking for a major, planning on a career in anthropology or just a curious reader, this education section should help you to (1) get some closer insights into the materials you find in the journal, (2) give you the opportunity to discuss it with others, and (3) point you in a direction for finding out more. Finally, if you happen to be teaching a course in anthropology, we hope that this section can provide you with ideas, resources and activities that you can use with your class. If this is the case, we would also invite you to come back and share your experiences in trying these or your own activities with your classes.

Although Anthropology Now is a space for anthropologists, it is more fundamentally an open space for the general public to engage with anthropology. To better do so, we will maintain the following content in this online education section.

– GO FOR A DIP. Interested in what you read in the current issue? This section will give you some tips on where you can look for more information on this subject: books, films, articles and online resources.
– DIVE IN. Loved what you read? Craving more? This section will point to some more challenging materials that you might want to tangle with – but be ready to get out that highlighter and pocket dictionary.
– WHAT WAS THAT? This glossary will include sets of terms and concepts that are covered in the current issue that could use a little more explanation. We will try to bring lay readers up to speed on some of that long history of the concept, its usage, and point to other resources to help fill in the gaps.
– DISCUSS IT. These forums will provide a setting for the discussion of the content in the current issue. Not only will we try to initiate some interesting discussions, but we will give you the chance to ask questions or bring up whatever is on your mind. Our goal is to bring in the perspective of anthropologists to help clarify the journal and its content.
– TRY IT. With every issue, we will offer suggestions for activities that you (or your class) can try yourselves. Denice’s column describes why it is that anthropology is so concerned with the lived experience, so this section will give you ideas on how you can safely try out some of those techniques. These can range from media analysis to reflecting on participant observation, and that experience can be shared in the DISCUSS IT section described above.

And there it is. I’m excited to see where things will head, and to be a part of it. See you in the forum.

Alex Posecznick is an adjunct lecturer at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College and Metropolitan College of New York, as well as a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.