A Word or Two About Writing Popularly in Anthropology
Gordon Mathews

At the OICD Meeting in Kyoto in October, we discussed how to make anthropology more accessible to a wider public. After all, if anthropology is to have an impact on the world, it must be made comprehensible to people beyond the academy. But this is much easier said than done.

Anthropologists have been trained for years or decades to write in a way that is acceptable to the anthropological profession. This is what the Ph.D. dissertation is all about. For an anthropologist to turn away from this, to write in a broader and more accessible fashion, can be extraordinarily difficult, because it goes against the grain of our professional training, as well as our subsequent efforts to get published in the field. Many anthropologists don’t realize this, and assume that it’s easy to write a popular book. In fact, it is infinitely more difficult to write a good popular book on anthropology than it is to write an anthropological monograph. To write a good popular book, you need to be able to write in a way that is accessible, yet not so simple that it distorts the complexities of culture and society; and you need to be able to write well and persuasively to people who are intelligent but who may not have the slightest idea, before picking up your book, of what anthropology is.

That’s a tall order. I’ve tried to do this in my own writing, and have generally failed–my books seem to be still too abstractly written to be broadly popular, but not sufficiently abstract to fully warm the hearts of anthropological theorists. I’ll keep trying, of course– but this is the enormous challenge. In a world in which anthropology is desperately needed–why, for example, are no anthropologists explicating to a larger public the intricacies of Shiites and Sunni and their background tensions? Why are no anthropologists explicating to an uncomprehending American government the complexities of Iraq or Iran?–anthropology is all too often ignored. This is partly because publics and governments don’t know what anthropology is, and partly because anthropologists themselves often prefer to remain hermetically sealed in the academy, unwilling to take the risk of writing for a larger public. This is a tragedy–anthropologists can help make the world a better place, by clearly explicating the complexities of culture and society in different areas of the world. Even though this is incredibly hard to do, we must keep trying, I believe. Only in this way can our discipline ultimately have any relevance, any meaning to the world beyond the ivory tower.